Writing the Irish-Australian Self: Life-Writers and Irish Stereotypes, 1870-2000


This article surveys the history of Irish-Australian autobiography and memoir as a form of writing particularly well adapted to exploring the tensions and compromises of Irish-Australian identity. It draws on selected works published from the early colonial period to the end of the twentieth century written by men and women across a wide social spectrum, from archbishops, politicians and academics to bushrangers, barmaids and poets. It focuses on the process of self-construction at work in the writing, with particular attention to the ways in which contemporaneous Irish stereotypes are invoked, often rejected, and sometimes embraced as part of this process. The tentative suggestion is made that a balanced appreciation of this form of writing may have been hindered by a bias evident in much recent Irish-Australian historiography towards interpreting the historical relationship between the Irish diaspora and the dominant Australian culture in conflictual terms, and that the strong impulse towards friendly assimilation, an equally important part of the historical record, deserves equal recognition.

The story of Irish-Australia has been told, at least since the 1970s mainly by historians. This benign ‘capture’ of the field by a particular discipline has been fruitful in many ways: the value of the ground-breaking work of scholars such as Patrick O’Farrell, Oliver MacDonagh, Chris McConville and Elizabeth Malcolm has been inestimable But their dominance of the field might nonetheless have helped to maintain a certain orthodoxy about the Irish diaspora in Australia, namely that, for better and worse, their story has been of a prolonged struggle against prejudice, suspicion, exclusion, even a kind of racism, together with the various demeaning and ‘othering’ stereotypes that usually accompany such attitudes (Malcolm and Hall 24–43). This view is particularly strong in the work of O’Farrell who saw their struggle as empowering the Irish in Australia, making them ‘the galvanising force at the centre of the evolution of our national character’ (O’Farrell…

The full text of this essay is available to ALS subscribers

Please sign in to access this article and the rest of our archive.

Published 30 September 2021 in Special Issue: The Uses of Irish-Australian Literature . Subjects: Autobiographical writing, Bushrangers, Convict literature, Historiography, Memoirs, Vincent Buckley, Catholicism, Irish-Australian Literature, Thomas Keneally, Irish-Australian Identity, Ned Kelly, Life-Writing.

Cite as: Buckridge, Patrick. ‘Writing the Irish-Australian Self: Life-Writers and Irish Stereotypes, 1870-2000.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.bd014235a6.