Vincent Buckley, Colonialism and the Problem of Irish-Australian Identity


Perhaps no Australian writer or thinker has probed the condition of Irishness in Australia more extensively than the poet-critic Vincent Buckley (1925-88). His first memoir Cutting Green Hay (1983) considers how his own family negotiated their Irish heritage, often through modes of strategic amnesia in which Irish cultural modes mutate into Australian identity. This, for him, results in a cultural deprivation that he seeks to remedy in himself, not least through many extended visits to Ireland, his ‘source country’ or ‘imagination’s home’. Yet in Memory Ireland (1985) and other essays, he offers a scarifying analysis of contemporary Irish society also marked by a loss of memory, which he ascribes in this case to the post-colonial torpor and imaginative enervation of independent Ireland. So Buckley seeks to reveal the scotomisation, or mental blind spots, that characterise both Irish-Australia and modern Ireland. Drawing mainly on prose works, including archives and unpublished sources, this essay seeks to bring to the fore the question of colonialism in Buckley’s reflections on Irishness, attentive to some of his own blind spots. It considers his deep debt to Yeats, but also the impossibility for Buckley, as he saw it, to follow Yeats’s example in creating a national imaginary that unified settler and native. This impacts Buckley’s sense of how an artist achieves success in the international literary field, but also maps back onto the question of setter-colonialism in Australia. I argue that Indigenous Australia shadows his thinking about Irish colonialism, sometimes explicitly, as in the poem ‘Gaeltacht’ from The Pattern (1979), but in a more fraught and culpable way than simply through assertions of shared victimhood. If the conquest and dispossession of Gaelic Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries mirrors that of Indigenous Australia in the nineteenth and twentieth, it also deflects, redirects and sublimates it for an Australian poet.The Irish have certainly been historical victims of British colonialism, but they have also been beneficiaries of settler-colonialism in Australia, as his poem ‘Dick Donnelly’, the Irish-named Aboriginal man, ‘the last songman of his people’, poignantly attests.

An Irish Sort of Place

Is there an Australian writer who has reflected on Irishness and on his Irish-Australian identity more than Vincent Buckley (1925–88)?1 The poet, professor, critic, memoirist, and public intellectual uses his own Irish ancestry, the Irish influence in Australia and, later, Ireland itself, as some of his major subjects. He freely owns the hyphenated handle ‘Irish-Australian’, piquantly described by the Jesuit Peter Steele in a review of Buckley’s memoir Cutting Green Hay (1983) as ‘a designation which announces roundly the enigma it offers to explain’.2 Through an examination of Buckley’s memoirs and essays, including unpublished notes and manuscripts, and some of his poetry, this essay seeks to complement existing scholarship in assessing some of the stakes of Irishness as Buckley grapples with them.3 In particular, I want to reflect on how ideas of Irishness work with and against Australian settler-colonial identity and the establishment of a national imaginary, using Buckley as a test case.

W. B. Yeats is a cardinal figure for Buckley, for his poetic achievement of course, but also for his cultural nationalism and capacity for self-invention and myth-making. However, the identification has a rueful aspect because, while Yeats deploys the local folklore of the West of Ireland and the heroes and legends of the Irish sagas for his poetic subjects, Buckley feels locked out of Australian Indigenous culture and mythology. For him, there is no possibility of that imaginative unity between gentry and peasant, settler and native, that Yeats recalls as ‘the dream of the noble and the beggar man’ (Yeats 604). The regular eruptions of postcolonial unrest in twentieth-century Ireland attest that this ‘dream’ may have been beyond Yeats too, at least outside the consoling sphere of his own myth-making, but it nonetheless offered a compelling source for a national literature led by Anglo-Irish Revivalists such as himself, John Millington Synge and Augusta Gregory. Not so for Buckley, who rather than traditional sanctity and loveliness must choose for theme what he regards as the sparse cultural soil of settler Australia (Yeats 491). The Yeats dimension also complicates Buckley’s identification with a solely Catholic Irish ethnicity, the colonised majority. Buckley certainly recognises affinities between the victims of oppression across geography and history, but to his credit does not exempt himself and his forebears from complicity with colonialism and dispossession. One moment in his poetry when this becomes poignantly explicit is in his imaginary recreation of Edmund Spenser, a witness to the Tudor conquest of Munster, in his poem ‘Gaeltacht’, with which I conclude this essay.

Despite the strength of his identification, Buckley’s ancestral connections to Ireland were far from immediate. According to his biographer, on an early visit to Ireland he was unable to identify his precise family origins (McLaren, Journey 95). That, presumably, is why he begins Cutting Green Hay (1983) by finding random Buckleys and Condons from migrant ship records bringing the post-Famine Irish migrants to Australia in the 1840s and imagining those ancestral journeys to Australia as proxies for his own relatives (4). Yet Ireland, often as something omnipresent but strangely unreachable, becomes a dominant intellectual and cultural concern and ‘Irishness’ a key part of his self-fashioning in his two volumes of memoir and much of his later poetry. He made several trips to Ireland, beginning in 1956 and, increasingly, spent extended periods there. He became intensely involved and interested in the politics of the North following the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969. With others, he formed the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in Melbourne and agitated for awareness of the suffering of the nationalist population. His 1981 visit, vividly recalled in Memory Ireland (1985), coincided with the hunger strikes, the subject of a series of poems published in The Bulletin, which profoundly moved and upset him. He lambasted what he saw as the moral and imaginative failure to respond to the starvation to death of ten republican prisoners in Northern Ireland in both Thatcher’s Britain and in middle-class, ‘respectable’ Ireland.

So Buckley first imagines a certain image of Ireland in Australia and then later visits and gets involved in Irish social life. In the latter, he is a forerunner of more recent Australian writers such as John Kinsella and Tim Winton, who have returned to Ireland in their different ways and who have written about that experience. There are both mythopoeic and political aspects to Buckley’s Ireland, which is not to say that those two categories are ever truly separate. But the idea of Ireland in his writing, and what Irishness might mean in Australia, can be considered distinctly from Buckley’s own experience and sharp diagnoses of Irish social and political affairs, diagnoses which – though often hard-hitting – were received with gratitude by Irish writers and intellectuals at the time, especially those who would feature in postcolonial Irish studies.4 There are overlaps between Buckley’s Ireland and his Irish-Australia. One cannot help noticing that the atrophied identity and loss of a ‘source country’ he finds in the white Australia of his youth bears some comparison with his diagnoses of contemporary Ireland, also suffering from fissures in memory and identity (Buckley, ‘Imagination’s Home’ 24). In both the Romsey of his childhood and in Ireland of the 1980s, he confronts a curtailed and stifled Ireland which falls far short of its emotional and creative possibilities. Settler Australia and postcolonial Ireland shadow and reflect each other’s torpor in anomalous ways, as we can see perhaps most notably in his volume The Pattern (1979). By the 1980s, though, Ireland moves in Buckley’s imagination from myth to history. The late Seamus Deane began a famous essay ‘Yeats and the Idea of Revolution’ declaring that ‘Yeats began his career by inventing an Ireland amenable to his imagination. He ended by finding an Ireland recalcitrant to it’ (38). One can find a similar trajectory or contrast in Buckley, though over a far shorter period. Ireland is, for him, ‘Imagination’s Home’, as he puts it in an essay of that name, a nurturing source from which his family have been exiled and uprooted, to traumatic effect. Yet Memory Ireland for all its romantic political nationalism, and disdain for revisionist historians, presents quite an unflattering and critical image of a sclerotic and dysfunctional modern state, on the edge of Europe (98). ‘It is a sea-change’, as Frances Devlin-Glass puts it, ‘rich and strange, from Irish-Australian to Australian-Irish’ (1).

In both books memory, or perhaps more accurately forgetting, is a dominant theme. In Cutting Green Hay, the Irish community from which Buckley hails maintains its group identity through Catholic religion and inter-marriage but also by ‘losing what memories were strong enough to haunt them’ (7). In Buckley’s telling, the Irish in Australia (or at least his own people around Romsey, north of Melbourne) used amnesia as a form of survival, turning their back on the pain of exile in order to identify with their adopted country:

But what of memory, the famous fabled long memory of the Celt? It was lost, for the most part, at least in overt, utterable form. In some cases, there was not much of a personal or family past worth remembering; in others there was little sense of connected history or of mythopoeic depths; in others what could be remembered was too painful to contemplate. In any case, the aim was to become Australian, while sticking together as much as was feasible. So contrary to general belief, there was little keeping of a lifeline to Ireland by direct tapping of an historical or mythopoeic memory. (10)

The idea that forgetting is not just a negative, the absence of memory, but also a tactical element of identity formation is commonplace in trauma theory and a central concern in recent work on memory in Irish studies (for example, Beiner). A community’s sense of itself and how it coheres and belongs emerges from acts of narrative omission. In Buckley’s reflections on Irish Australia, forgetting the ‘source country’ amounts to a tactic for survival and assimilation. Yet the costly disconnection from ‘mythopoeic depths’ delivers not just assimilation into a depthless Australian identity (Buckley, ‘Imagination’s Home’ 24). It also forms a community that is both Australian and other, internal but distinct, amenable to the new nation in formation but contributing an alternative to hegemonic Britishness. Irish Australians, then, do not transplant Irishness into Australia but rather offer a different sort of Australianness.

Buckley elaborates on the dynamics of this process more fully in autobiographical material some of which is quoted in McLaren’s biography (5–7), but much of which remains unpublished and unexamined by critics. It describes a process that is neither assimilation nor separatism, but a more fluid and inchoate process, which alternates between self-conscious elaborations of group identity – in for example Catholicism – and reflexive and residual practices from the lost culture. They recite the rosary every evening, in the Irish custom, and sing songs though without much sense of their political or social meaning. Though Vincent’s father, Patrick, had been born in Australia, the poet remembers an Irish-inflected habitus that performed a troubled, mechanical sort of hybridity, evacuated of cultural resource:

Day after day, he repeated certain Irish familial and individual patterns not only under but inside a conscious ideology of Australianness. He wanted to be Australian, even if it meant ceasing to be perceived as Irish or to feel Irish. He wanted to be as completely as possible immersed in a world of Australian-ness. He never made it. (quoted in McLaren 5)

Buckley’s rendition of the Irish-Australia of his upbringing, then, is a sort of spectral or self-alienated culture. Of course, these observations are Buckley’s own, with all the distortions of memoir and memory. We cannot know what his father or the Catholic community around Romsey might have felt about his diagnostics. There are a plenitude of diverse Irish-Australian autobiographies and many would not at all regard the experience of being ‘Irish-Australian’ – if it’s a category they recognise at all – as negotiating a cultural deficit in the way Buckley’s exilic model implies.5 His are the views of a restless, religious, intelligent, sensitive witness, hunting for myth and meanings, not an anthropologist, and his verdicts stem from his own disposition and cultural and creative agendas.

Elsewhere in Buckley’s papers, we find Irishness being put to work not just to distinguish Irish-Australians from English or British Australians, but more specifically from imperialism itself. Here is a hand-written, undated note:

Aust an aggressive outpost of British imperial feeling. Politically it enforced Brits’ claims on world agal [against?] Dutch, German, etc.

Culturally, it supported Brit instit. & achievements. It was racist.

We (Irish Australians) tended to support Austr. nat. identity against imperialism.

If the big question was: What race are you, & where do you come from, we had to answer: We are not the ruling race. & we come from that place.

Who, then, were we?

I needed to find out.

To understand, not to assent.

We Not to be bound to Britishness or to narrow Irishness.

To have access to whole world, not as imperial predators, but as sympathisers. (Buckley, Vincent Buckley Private Archive)

So Buckley likes to think of Irishness within Australia as an anti-imperialist tendency. Again, Buckley’s assertions are tactical rather than empirical. Roger Brubaker’s approach to diasporic identity, ‘not as bounded entity but as an idiom, stance and claim’, informs how we might consider Buckley’s self-positioning here (1). Yet to recognise a deliberative and projective factor to his anti-imperialist identity claims is not thereby to endorse those who might dismiss Buckley or others who invest in their Irish-Australian heritage as romantic nostalgists, or, worse, proxy feeders on Irish historical victimhood. Buckley’s reading of Irish-Australia emerges from actual conditions, including the various exclusions and discriminations faced by Irish Catholics in British-dominated Australia, and the difficulty of the settler colonial community in Australia in articulating cultural cohesion or depth. Yet even as it emerges from those conditions, Buckley’s Irish-Australian identity is deployed for relational and discursive effect. Consider his recollections of his father, who resisted all talk of Irishness or any explicit evocation of ancestral memory, but whose story-telling and emotional attitudes remain, at least for Buckley, marked by ‘an Irish mode adopted so naturally you’d have thought he brooded on nothing else’ (Buckley, ‘Imagination’s Home’ 25). Patrick Buckley identified robustly as an Australian, abandoning any overt Irish republicanism or anti-Britishness, even in song and story. Yet a residual anti-imperialism endured, according to his son, in a tellingly transnational application of this forgotten Irishness. It manifested, for instance, in his father’s resistance to the blithely racist journalism he encountered in reportage of Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia: ‘My father did not give the desired reaction; he was immediately, entirely and unequivocally for the Abyssinians, “poor devils” who had to fight naked with only a few spears’ (Buckley, Cutting 25). A glimpse of his father’s attitude to a native population resisting imperial invasion pleases the son, who discerns therein a flicker of latent Irish rebelliousness.

The resonance between Irish and other victims of historical wrongs is a theme that will re-emerge for Buckley, at different levels of explicitness. In the light of such an aside, and its implicit link between colonialism in Ireland and Abyssinia, a contemporary reader might be forgiven for wondering about Buckley’s response to the more geographically immediate plight of Australian Indigenous peoples, and their dispossession. Where might this question figure, even as a shadow or a tactical erasure, in Buckley’s intellectual and imaginative investments in, variously, Irish-Australia, settler-colonial cultural enervation, and the construction of an Australian literary tradition? It is a question that begs to be answered through Buckley’s own method of tracing an absence or an amnesia. Near the conclusion of his Dictionary of National Biography entry on Buckley, Chris Wallace-Crabbe reflects on whether his subject ‘had found questions about the relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians too hard to contemplate in his limited lifetime; perhaps Ireland occluded them, with its many centuries of colonial subjugation’ (Wallace-Crabbe, ‘Buckley’). The notion that Irish affiliation might occlude the shared experience of British colonialism is a variation on a common enough (if too reassuring) notion of subaltern solidarity between Irish and Aboriginal Australians.6 Its troubling inverse is that those embracing an Irish-Australian identity could deploy the Irish identification in order to avoid colonial guilt, to identify for psychological or political reasons as the victim of British imperialism rather than its beneficiary. Jennifer Rutherford argues in relation to Tim Winton that the ‘new nationalism’ of the 1980s allows an idealised Ireland to deflect into mythic safety the historical reality of Indigenous dispossession. One of the procedures of settler-colonial identity formation is to stage a separation from the mother country, even by performing symbolic gestures of affiliation with indigenous culture (Wolfe, ‘Settler Colonialism’).7

One could readily construct a critique of sentimental Irish-Australian identitarianism as a tool of settler colonial ideology, functioning to uphold the myth of rugged and rebellious white Australia, differentiated from effete Britain, and less open to the charge of Indigenous exploitation and dispossession because exploited and dispossessed itself. Buckley is not immune to the cultural capital and auto-exoticism of being Irish in Australia, or to the idea that certain sorts of Irishness feed into Australian identity. Yet at the same time he is seldom settled or complacent in any of his identifications and, typically, grapples not just with exile but with a sense of settled Australia as troubled, out-of-place and anomalous. While we should be mindful of Tim Rowse’s warning about ‘presentism’ in discerning anxiety or psychological disturbance in settler-colonial attitudes, there are many traces in Buckley’s work of disquiet and strain in his attempt to reconcile Australian identity with its European roots.8 In an unpublished essay, entitled, ‘It’s become an Irish sort of place’ or ‘Being at Home’, Buckley postulates that because the Irish often came to Australia fleeing poverty and domination, they take to Australian identity with enthusiasm. He notes that the Irish-Australians were never in the habit of calling Ireland home like English-Australians used to speak of England. ‘They did not transpose Ireland to Australia, but adopted Australia to Irish ways of seeing. All around them, other peoples were doing the same . . . Their world was, in an important sense, Australian.’ But the Irish, he feels, thereby have a duty to welcome the latest migrants, fleeing war and persecution:

[t]he other groups who constitute Australian society, who have a past as squalid as our own. Chief of these are the Aboriginal people, the Koories, who have been treated worse than any of us, and who, moreover, are radically dispossessed in the land our people have so happily learned to call home. (Buckley, Vincent Buckley Private Archive)

Buckley knows well that the place the Irish-Australians call ‘home’ was somebody else’s land. His disquiet comes from a feeling of disconnection from the culture of those people. Buckley was later to remark on the ABC that ‘I think at a certain psychic level Australia belongs to the Aboriginal people’ (quoted in Wallace-Crabbe, ‘Vincent Buckley’ 87). Yet, crucially, he feels he cannot access this culture, even as in some of his later work he registers a resonance between the dispossession of the Gaelic Irish and that of Aboriginal Australians, the victim of the same colonialism though in different eras. It feels to him easier to connect to the former than the latter, because of his own Irish ancestry and because the tools of imagining Ireland as a unified nation already exist.

There are a few occasions when his feeling of being locked out of Indigenous Australia is acknowledged, with regret. There is a striking instance in Cutting Green Hay where he registers, with some anguish, the inaccessibility of local Indigenous culture and feels even more debarred from its meaning making than from the fragmented residues of his ancestral home. The young Buckley, at nine or ten, has found surrogate grandparents or mentors in Romsey, ‘a Presbyterian widow, who ran the local library’ and an ‘arthritic Irish bootmaker’. They become in his memory a mockery of a mythopoeic source, a sort of parody of local Elders which only serve to highlight the absence of the real thing:

They were for a time my wise ones, and to them I attached myself with wondering reverence. They had nothing to tell me about the spirits or powers of the land itself, or of its history or pre-history, or of its founding heroes. The land was full of ‘myth’, but it was as inaccessible to them as to me. Is the whole land mythical for the Aboriginal tribes? We are used to thinking of myth and history as interpenetrating systems or orders of psychic power. The interpenetration did not take place in Australia. Even Mt William, sacred, volcanic, where I picked up my first flint and knives, was no more than a circle for curiosity to move in. Mrs Hemphill and Paddy Moore gave anecdote, maxim and example; they were not myth bearers. So my experience was a mirror-opposite of Yeats on both counts. Yet how fragmented was his childhood really? Does the sense of his being mythically informed come only from the unifying force of his narrative in long retrospect? (37)

The answer to the final question is, of course, yes. Yeats was a master at myth-making, including in his own autobiographical writings, which Buckley’s papers demonstrate interested him greatly. In the previous chapter in Cutting Green Hay there is a much lengthier reflection on Yeats, who fares well in Buckley’s reckoning compared to his own alienation from his geographical and cultural surroundings. Buckley imagines Yeats’s upbringing in the nurturing environs of Sligo, rooted in his own family history and the richness of local folklore and peasant oral culture. He depicts, ambivalently and a mite enviously, Yeats’s image of himself as an infantile inheritor of an organic tradition that in his adulthood he would deploy in the formation of national culture.

Doubtless, Buckley is taking Yeats too much at his self-mythologising word in this instance, but nonetheless he allows himself to look covetously at the cultural resources available to the great poet, compared to what he regards as the thin soil and rough ground of his own imaginative hinterland. ‘My people were far more “Irish” than Yeats’s’, he complains, ‘but they had none of these stories because they had been removed from the places which the stories filled and defined; and often they wanted to forget those places’ (12). The remark betrays Buckley’s diasporic perspective, where Catholicism and Irishness were reinforcing categories for much longer than they were in Ireland, at least explicitly. Indeed, in Irish intellectual life in 1983, though doubtless sectarian attitudes to Irishness persisted, it would have been almost unimaginable in literary circles to claim that a Protestant was ‘less Irish’ than a Catholic, especially one as invested in cultural politics as Yeats. Yet Buckley pulls ethnic rank here, presumably because of his frustration that the aesthetic and cultural strategy ostensibly available to Yeats and the Irish Revival seems denied to him. Buckley, unlike Yeats and his friends, does not have the option of inventing an ancient and ideal ‘Australia’, which resolves social tensions and divisions across class, caste and religious difference.

Pascale Casanova argues in her influential account of national success in the international literary marketplace that the Irish Revival was the necessary beginning of what she calls the ‘Irish miracle’ (304). The Revivalists, according to her account, pursue the ‘Herder effect’ (after the German Romanticist Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803)), an established strategy to gain attention and dominance in the international literary field (77). According to the Herderian aesthetic, literary value resides in its expression of a unique ethno-populist soul, incommensurate with any other. In Casanova’s account, various national literatures in Europe from the Romantic period, beginning with the German, sought to counter the massive prestige of French classicism by deploying this aesthetic ideology, a literary economy which asserts national difference and uniqueness rather than uniform and universal aesthetic standards. Though Yeats himself was from Protestant ancestry, and came from a settler people, if at a remove of several centuries, his Anglo-Irish culture was sufficiently integrated to perform an imaginative suture between native and settler and thereby offer a unified national imaginary in these terms. Such a manoeuvre was not open to Buckley because the bridge between settler and native in Australia was too recent and too gaping, and more complicated by racial and cultural alterity. Attempts to bridge it have been far less successful in the international literary field. Buckley could have pursued anthropological accounts of Indigenous culture through Ted Strehlow or Ronald and Catherine Berndt, but the literary consecrations of Indigenous writing were not yet available. He treats the Jindyworobaks quite dismissively in his 1957 Essays in Poetry: Mainly Australian, a work greatly influenced by his mid-century Cambridge training in literary criticism with its stringent notions of literary hierarchy (17–19). Had Buckley lived longer he may well have engaged creatively and politically with the surge of Indigenous work that became available from the 1990s, literary material lacking when he was doing his work of canon-formation. He could not yet find in Australia poets like his Irish peers Thomas Kinsella and John Montague, who looked to precolonial Gaelic culture with reverence and esteem. Nor did Australia at any point offer the equivalent cultural energy of political separatism of which Yeats could avail in driving the agenda of cultural nationalism during the Irish Revival. For Buckley, then, the lure of Ireland emerges not only from his family heredity and the search for home, nor even from the search for a model in devising an appropriate tradition of Australian literature, a quest which would dominate his critical thinking and well as his poetic output. It is also about how he can offer compelling poetry in the international literary field, for which innovation is most convincing when wedded to deep tradition.

Worm in the Apple

In one of his most elaborate treatments of Irishness, his 1979 Quadrant essay ‘Imagination’s Home’, Buckley makes an instructive comparison between Australia and America. America, according to Buckley, was faced with similar contradictions as it sought to imagine a national literature, while still looking to Europe for a cultural lead, but marshalled its size, success and authority in various attempts to overcome its marginal status, to become a ‘source country’ itself. These tactics included assertions of the cultural superiority of the United States over Britain and attempting to replace the Old World with the New as the originator of its own mythopoeic meaning. For Buckley, Australia was too late, and presumably too small demographically, to follow these solutions and Australian writers from the settler-colonial tradition could never properly establish Australia as the source of a unified national mythology. This means that the Irish are, paradoxically, both more at odds with a country that is officially and culturally British, but also eager to associate themselves with an Australianness that emerges as a counter-culture or alternative identity.

‘Imagination’s Home’ also offers an intriguing way of considering the diasporic condition. For Buckley, an Australian writer who experiences Ireland as a source country, whether or not he was born there, will gravitate towards those ‘aspects of his birthplace (not necessarily of the country as a whole) which have most fascination for the depths of the psyche which provide the strongest analogue for Ireland’ (24). For this model of acculturation, none of the usual models – assimilation, separatism, hybridity, concealment – is appropriate. Rather this is a condition of resonance, in which the Irish-orientated Australian writer connects with those aspects of Australia – including its images of earth and sea – which link to the source-country experience in what Buckley calls an ‘eco-system of the imagination’ (24). That eco-system is not confined to geographical or even historical limits. Even as he considers national identity emerging from a source, it extends not like a ripple which is always strongest nearer the centre, but rather like a rhizome, where likeness and unlikeness do not simply depend on proximity in space or time. His poetry volume The Pattern, published the same year as ‘Imagination’s Home’, manifests these notions of diaspora.

In this essay and, from around the same time, in another piece entitled ‘Looking at Ireland’, there is a view of Irishness that is less deterministic and more sceptical.9 If he sees a dynamic Irish counter-culture in Australia (not just a forlorn exilic one), similarly his sense of Ireland is less mythopoeic and more fissured by the scars and gaps of displacement and dispossession when he looks at it directly. Having lived in Ireland now, Buckley tends not to see it through romantic eyes, but is much more cognisant of its discontinuity, gaps and rupture. He sees that Ireland, like Australia, has been a site of colonisation:

The reasons are obvious: the waves of migration and killing, the destruction of the Gaelic order, the plantation of tribal lands with interlopers who at the best did not understand what the lands were, what they meant in the cosmic order, the loss and spurning of language, the institutionalising of the mentality of land speculators and gombeen men. (5–6)

If Ireland sound more like Australia, in terms of its history of dispossession, its contemporary condition also seems riven with amnesia and modes of enervation. The move towards the critical and sceptical stance he will display most fully in Memory Ireland is emerging. He is scornful of Ireland’s attempt to market itself as a literary nation – ‘Irish writing is part of the Irish tourist industry’ – and the many visitors and tourists who flock to Ireland (6). He is also, perhaps, a touch envious of the prestige and fame that Irish writers bring to their impoverished country. ‘Altogether, writers are important in Ireland in a way they could never be in Australia’ (6). So minor Irish poetry is, for him, self-absorbed, provincial, tending away from experimentation, but nonetheless flushed with the limelight that has been guaranteed by the international dominance of the Irish diaspora and the immense success of the earlier Irish poets. To be fair, that there is no writer in 1970s Ireland of the stature of Yeats and Joyce is hardly so egregious a shortcoming. There may have been none anywhere else either. Buckley’s friendship with and regard for poets such as Heaney and Kinsella illustrates that Ireland did boast world-class writers, even if at the same time it could get seduced by the flashy lights of international attention. Irish writing is, for him, often ‘outward-directed for the sake of some additional or final validation which it cannot provide itself; it turns its self-absorption to the scrutiny and approval of New York or London. It is arguable that if it were more enterprising in form, the international referees would not respond so readily’ (7). Literary Ireland, he holds, had forsaken literary value for celebrity and showiness. He seems to have ambivalent feelings about what Casanova will later dub as the ‘authority of the great literary capitals’, surmising (surely correctly) that literary success and recognition derive not just from talent and experiment, but also from fashion, vogueishness and other more superficial elements of the cultural economy (154). Yet the ease of traffic of Irish writers around New York and London, touted by the Irish diaspora in those cities and benefitting from the image of ‘literary’ Ireland, might also contrast somewhat wistfully with their Australian counterparts.

Concluding ‘Looking at Ireland’, Buckley asserts emphatically that he does not want to live in the Ireland of journalists and tawdry self-promotion, but in a more authentic country, an impulse which inevitably drives him westwards, as so many writers before him, to the wild, mountainous countryside of his Munster forebears. Here is the Ireland where the Irish language is still spoken, known as the ‘Gaeltacht’. He says of these areas, in an idiom which evokes the primitivism of John Millington Synge, including the countervailing modernity of the playwright, ‘They seem to me to have strains of hostility and degeneracy, and to be seriously unbalanced as societies, human habitats’ (13). Unlike his literary forebears, his imaginative arrival in the West is accompanied by a solicitous impulse to withdraw, because ‘to live there in a way which would accord with their dignity and that of one’s poetry one would have to be Irish’ (13). The anti-essentialism with which the essay starts inverts in the end into the reinstalment of a mythic sense of Irishness, but one which is unstable, fissured, shot through with trauma. There is no mobility of the diaspora here, but rather a brokenness and incommensurability, a community scarred by centuries of conquest, famine and emigration. This descendant of emigrants returns in search of his source, but also with diffidence, discomfort and even shame, the shame of the survivor but also a sort of complicity in the process of intrusion and conquest. As his poem ‘Rousings of Munster’ concludes, ‘Perhaps if you came back / heavy with shame, you’d find it / a hag’s country’ (229).

The theme of troubled return, and this sense of victimhood shot through with guilt, is helpful in reading some of Buckley’s poetry of this time. Significantly, ‘Gaeltacht’ is the name given to the second poem of The Pattern (1979), Buckley’s volume widely accepted as his most Irish in theme (Devlin-Glass, 4). The connections between the colonialism of Ireland and Australia are a motif throughout the volume, braided and blurred as the two countries often are in these poems. For Devlin-Glass The Pattern is full of ‘victim narratives’ (4), signalling the adoption by Buckley of a more robust political position, in contrast to the distaste for didacticism that characterised his earlier aesthetics. Yet at the same time, as she rightly points out, there is a ‘systematic cultural bifocalism’ in the volume, in which a reader is sometimes unsure whether a poem is set in Australia or Ireland (6). Does the collapse of geographical and temporal distance create a pastiche or expressionist effect that licences a more avowed politics? Or does it rather trouble the victim/victor relationship altogether, in which the poet disallows himself any complete identification with the oppressed Irish? There is certainly moral affront at the dispossession and dehumanisation of the Tudor Conquest of Munster, but given the bifocalism involved, this narrative implicitly echoes in the more recent colonisation of Australia too.

If so, much more troublingly, then the poet may not only be identified with the wretched and defeated denizens of rural Ireland but also implicitly with Edmund Spenser, the poet-observer, trapped in the ordered routines and frames of understanding of his culture. Spenser, from Buckley’s point of view, fails imaginatively as well as morally, unable to access those he could but vaguely perceive, those dispossessed and massacred by the colonial power he both served and aestheticised:

Spenser at Kilcolman worked with passionate neatness; wrote by rushlight; walked his bounds; kept watch on the small ambiguous rivers whose names he had not entirely misheard; meditated amorous sacra; but languished too, upright and latinate, full of the pale fire of his calling. O’Mahony’s, Condons. God! He could see their faces by the pollarded willows. Ignoring them, almost acclimatized, he wrought for his bride. (224–25)

It is that inability to understand a culture that makes Buckley hesitant about living in the ‘Gaeltacht’ at the end of ‘Looking at Ireland’, that I have just discussed. It is also why, I think, ‘Gaeltacht’ slides for the most part into a sort of prose poem, abandoning conventional prosody. The disavowal of versification, or of metre and rhythm, is a recognition of the alterity of colonial contact. It is a tactful refusal to impose an English poetic and aesthetic form, even or especially when writing about the English conquest and settlement of Munster. It is also, and this comes from the opposite impulse, a tacit recognition of the familiar and prosaic modes of understanding of Spenser who, unable to register or perceive the native Irish, confines his metric cadences for his beloved.

Kilcolman was a Norman Castle confiscated by the Crown and given to the poet Philip Sidney, who in turn gifted it to Spenser, allowing the great poet to stay there for some ten years. There he wrote The Faerie Queen (1590–96) and his notorious View of the Present State of Ireland (1596), with its images of the barbaric native Irish and apologetics for the extermination of their culture. It is hard to imagine that this tower did not also evoke in Buckley’s mind Yeats’s Thoor Ballylee, and perhaps Joyce’s Martello Tower: totems of power, empire, and surveillance, but also anti-imperial literary creativity. The image of the poet as the embodiment of a blithe and blind civility, animated mainly by his amorous letter writing, implicates the artist in political evasiveness, a trope familiar in Seamus Heaney’s poetry too. It suggests, by extension, that Buckley’s identification with the colonial victims (through the Condons, his ancestors) is counterpointed with a painful backward awareness of his role both as voyeuristic tourist and a settler in his own right:

Your mistake

was to look for something wronged

and perfect; you found

wry-necked memory (225)

This latter is made all the more pungent by the doubling with Australia, home and away, I and You. Near the end of ‘Gaeltacht’, the poet addresses the connection of his own ancestors, who came from Munster, but would not talk about it, the stripping of Irish identification he detailed in Cutting Green Hay:

‘No, we’re Australians now.’ Really, a separate kind of Irish. From them came no cries of ‘Up Tipp.’ or ‘Rebel Cork.’ They kept their heads low, ploughing the snake-like roots out of the thin-grassed Australian soil. Yet they talked occasionally in tongues, in a world-defying wife-hating babble, drank Paddy, allowed a few books to insert themselves into the dour rooms, and leave a silver snail-trace everywhere over my childhood. Their silence was not only lock but key, to be turned sometime in the future, their sullenness a burden to be carried secretly and placed back whence it came. (226)

‘Gaeltacht’, notably and explicitly, stands not just for Irish dispossession but for that of other ‘permanently subject peoples (Armenians, pygmies, foetuses) doomed never to be refugees’ (227). Buckley’s ancestors do gain the status of ‘refugees’ but the refuge they obtain in Australia implicates them in another colonial conquest, the dispossession of the Indigenous people of that country. The Buckleys then pivot between being victims and agents of colonialism, a doubleness that is replicated in the dynamic of geographical movement. The Munster Gaeltacht, a place of depletion, emigration and departure, is also the place where Buckley himself can return, ‘shouldering the common burden’, to ‘suffer that past’, both one who departs and who arrives.

Australia and Ireland blur, alongside space and time, sea and land, but so do victor and victim, oppressor and oppressed. This is more troubling than ‘adroitly avoiding the necessity to choose between Ireland and Australia’, that Frances Devlin-Glass discerns (8). This is a poem heavy with Edenic consciousness and multiple displacements:

Many Gaeltachts:

spiral inside spiral

worm in the apple. (222)

It is alert both to the atrocities of past and present and the implication of civilisation in the barbarism of its origins. In that respect any identification between the dispossession of Tudor Ireland and that of Indigenous people in Australia is troubled by the implication of Irish migrants in the settlement of that country. The figure of ‘Dick Donnelly’, who appears in a later poem in The Pattern, reinforces an identification between the two situations. This Irish-named Aboriginal man is ‘the last songman of his people’, entertaining passengers on a platform with his song-sticks in a language and a mode they do not understand, ‘his eyes closed forever on the drawn-out, loving, uncomprehending applause’ (238).10 It would be too easy and reassuring to say that Dick Donnelly simply marks the resonance between Irish and indigenous dispossession, signalling a subaltern solidarity between both Irish and Aboriginal victims of British oppression. The name, like the poem as a whole, asserts the uniqueness and incommensurability of a language, and the tragic loss and degradation which results from its colonial erasure.

The uncomprehending applause in ‘Dick Donnelly’, also like ‘Gaeltacht’ written in prose, shorn of any metrical or lyrical embellishment, reinforces the indescribable tragedy, in Buckley’s imagination, of a ‘man whose language no-one in the whole world shared’ (238). This powerfully counterpoints the idea of colonial cultural erasure as being something transnational across space and time. The total loss of this man’s language community, and his pitiable performance on the platform, is a singular catastrophe, incommensurable with any other. Any attempt to render it into a ‘pattern’ is a sort of profanity, a serious co-option or mis-translation of a language from which the poet knows he is excluded. It is another instance, much more poignantly rendered, of being locked out of Indigenous Australia that Buckley writes about in Cutting Green Hay. He knows, abstractly, that the process of extinction and loss has replayed through many cultures. But he does not want to trespass on this instance by dragging it into a language of equivalence or wielding the flattening instruments of translation. Translation can mark both communication and erasure. In that respect, a strategy of indirection, the sideways glance and supremely respectful tact may be the only ways to approach the issue. If so, it may be that the moments of amnesia, the obliquities of cultural expression, that so dominate Buckley’s analysis of the Irish in Australia and, later, the Irish in Ireland, are aspects of his own sensibility.


  1. I would like to thank Penelope Buckley for granting me access to her private collection of Vincent Buckley’s papers and for allowing me to quote from them. These papers are uncatalogued and unnumbered. The archive is listed as Vincent Buckley Private Archive under author Buckley, Vincent, in my Works Cited.

  2. Peter Steele, Review of Cutting Green Hay, Series 4, Folder 8, Papers of Vincent Buckley.

  3. By Frances Devlin-Glass, Philip Harvey, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Michael Crennan.

  4. Frances Devlin-Glass describes Memory Ireland as an ‘edgy, uncomfortable, ungenerous and patronising work, despite its will to love’ (3). It was, nonetheless, admired intensely by many intellectuals in Ireland. As a student in University College Dublin in the early 1990s I noticed that Memory Ireland was still widely circulated and esteemed as a much-needed critique of Ireland’s social malaise. The Vincent Buckley Papers at UNSW Canberra contain several letters of appreciation from Irish academics including Patrick Sheeran and Declan Kiberd to Buckley about Memory Ireland, often as a prelude to speaking invitations (Series 1.2, Folder 8, Papers of Vincent Buckley).

  5. See Patrick Buckridge’s article in this special issue for the range of Irish autobiographical perspectives in Australia.

  6. Elsewhere in this volume Frances Devlin-Glass and Maggie Nolan have interrogated this tenacious idea.

  7. Wolfe and Veracini are Australian pioneers in settler-colonial theory. See Rowse for a critique of what he regards as their overly teleological orientation that underestimates the heterogeneity of indigenous-settler encounters.

  8. ‘It would be easy to exaggerate the idea that settler colonial ambivalence can be narrated as “anxiety”. While I have no doubt that there have been anxious agents, the characterisation of particular settler colonial agents as “anxious” is not easy to support empirically, and as a reader I have often had the feeling that the writer depicting “anxiety” is “presentist”: “From the standpoint of my values, what you did and said back then should have made you anxious”’ (Rowse 301).

  9. Vincent Buckley, Vincent Buckley Private Archive.

  10. David Malouf’s story ‘The Last Speaker of his Tongue’ also treats the last speaker of an Aboriginal language.

Published 30 September 2021 in Special Issue: The Uses of Irish-Australian Literature . Subjects: Aboriginal Australians, Cultural & national identity, Folklore, History, Memory, Mythology, Poetry, Settler colonialism, Vincent Buckley, Irish-Australian Literature, Irish-Australian Identity, Life-Writing.

Cite as: McDonald, Ronan. ‘Vincent Buckley, Colonialism and the Problem of Irish-Australian Identity.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.838c294c71.