When Irish Australians were seen as outsiders, not founders

Book review: A New History of the Irish in Australia

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A new book looks examines how far the Irish have come in the face of discrimination.


ST PATRICK’S Day parades are lively and fun affairs, drawing Irish and non-Irish alike to celebrate all things Hibernian.

But as Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall point out in their recent book, A New History of the Irish in Australia, it wasn’t always that way, with the parades attracting controversy and violence right up to the 1920s.

Rather than being seen as useful, productive citizens with a valuable role to play in an emerging nation, Irish Catholics were disparaged in many quarters  as “alien and menacing” hordes whose only loyalty was to the Vatican.

The book examines how far the Irish have come in public opinion, standing proudly alongside the Scottish, English and Welsh as true founders of modern Australia.

At the same time it doesn’t dodge the downside: the chapters on Irish treatment of Indigenous Australians and Chinese strikingly demonstrate again how often the oppressed can become the oppressors.

Other topics covered include gender relations, intermarriage, eugenics,   immigration,  popular culture, employment, military conscription, crime and politics.

There are many facts that may surprise: for example, that the first piece of legislation passed in newly federated Australia, the 1901  Immigration Exclusion Act,  was not solely directed at Asians in general and Chinese in particular. The Irish, too, were in disfavour.

The epilogue looks at Irish identity in 21st-century Australia, arguing that the old divisions have largely been obfuscated under the term “Anglo-Celtic”, even as the stereotypes remain, especially those concealed as “harmless fun”.

This is a marvellous work, thoroughly researched and filled with previously unused sources, reflected in its use of colourful characters and examples to add weight to the story.

It is clearly intended for the general reader and scholar alike. And it succeeds. With a narrative that glides from page to page, it is that rarest of things – a non-fiction page-turner.

A New History of the Irish in Australia, Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall (NewSouth Publishing), RRP $39.99.