Writing ‘A New History of the Irish in Australia’.

Dr Dianne Hall brings us an insight into the process of writing ‘A New History of the Irish in Australia’ with Professor Elizabeth Malcolm. This book is a brilliant resource for those researching not only the Irish in Australia, but also ideas of race, religion, and the changing influences on history writing.


Today throughout Australian towns and cities there is a celebratory atmosphere around St Patrick’s Day parades,  presenting Irishness as a happy and positive aspect of Australia’s modern culture. Not only do large numbers of Irish Australians—and many non-Irish Australians as well—enjoy the festivities held on 17 March each year, in recent decades Irish immigrants’ achievements have been rewarded with some of the country’s highest official accolades. The 2010 Australian of the Year was Irish-born Melbourne-based psychiatrist, Professor Patrick McGorry, a leading campaigner for improved mental health services for young people. Twenty years earlier, Sr Angela Mary Doyle RSM, a hospital administrator and outspoken advocate for people with HIV/AIDS, was named the 1989 Queenslander of the Year.

Listing influential Irish-born Australians could fill many pages, while a similar listing of notable Australians of Irish ancestry would be far longer and would include thousands of women and men representing all aspects of Australian life. 170 years ago the prospect of the arrival of Irish immigrants like McGorry and Doyle had provoked the Melbourne Argus to warn of the threat of an influx of ‘lawless savages’ who would overwhelm and destroy the Anglo-Saxon racial character of the colony. The transformation of Irish Catholics from ‘lawless savages’ into honoured citizens highlights the distance the Irish have travelled along an imagined racial continuum. From being widely perceived as serious threats to British racial purity and dominance, today, under the label ‘Anglo-Celts’, they are linked together with the British as the founders of modern Australia.

Since 1986 anyone interested in the history of the Irish in Australia has turned to the monumental History of the Irish in Australia  by New Zealand-born Patrick O’Farrell. The book won a number of prizes and went through two subsequent editions with the latest in 2000. O’Farrell’s book gives readers both the broad sweep of the history of the arrival of Irish convicts and free settlers, as well as a narrative about how these women and men navigated their way through the new country. The Irish who made it to Australian shores and their children made up a huge 25% of the non-indigenous population in 1901. This makes the history of the Irish in Australia crucial to understanding Australian history and identity. What Elizabeth Malcolm and I have done in our 2018 book, A New History of the Irish in Australia is not to rewrite the narrative of Irish arrival and settlement but to ask different questions about how ideologies of race and gender and associated stereotypes affected Irish Australians in politics, employment and the trials of daily life.

O’Farrell’s book, successful and widely read as it was, has not made a lasting impact on Australian historians who still often either omit the Irish, relegate them to a handful of references to religion, violence or political dissent, or more generally absorb them into a nebulous monolithic category of Anglo-Celtic. The term Anglo-Celtic, first used in an Australian context in the early years of the 20thcentury, has been taken up in the past few decades as a way of contrasting the settler population of the first 150 years of settlement and colonisation with the large and diverse arrivals since then. Yet even historians who embrace the term find it awkward to both argue for a homogenous white settler culture and acknowledge the deep and enduring divisions between Irish and English; Catholic and Protestant in Australian society.

In using the term ‘Anglo-Celtic’ to describe the settler population pre-1945 Australia, there has been an erasure of the hard reality of those divisions that were in face a fundamental aspect of the foundation of Australian white settler society. The traces of these divisions lie not in the dancing shamrocks of modern St Patrick Day celebrations but in the enduring features of anti-Irish jokes and jibes by political commentators that bubble just below the surface in 21stcentury Australia. There are many examples to choose from to illustrate this, so I will give just one. In 2015 when Ireland recognised the right of gay and lesbians to marriage equality, Grahame Morris, a senior Liberal party advisor, said Australia should not follow suit because ‘these are people who can’t grow potatoes, they’ve got a mutant lawn weed as their national symbol and they can’t verbalise the difference between a tree and the number three’. (Daily Mail, 3 June 2015). For Morris and many other Australians, the Irish remain lovable but stupid, perhaps even threatening to ordered societies,  the key message behind anti-Irish jokes now and in the past.

Such ‘jokes’ are not harmless. Tracing the stereotypes behind these jokes back to the nineteenth century shows the Irish faced discrimination from their mostly Protestant neighbours and employers based on the perceived ‘racial’ differences inherent in many of these ‘jokes’. In one chapter of the book, we explore the use of the well known ‘No Irish Need Apply’ tag added to employed ads in newspapers. The use of this wording was well known throughout the English-speaking world, although in the Australian colonies, just as in the United States and the United Kingdom, it was not as widespread as sometimes thought. The use of this term was also gendered, in that the most common use of it, and the much more common terms, “Protestants preferred” and “English only”, were overwhelmingly used in ads for female domestic servants.

Looking for the ‘racial’ differences between the Irish and the English, Catholics and Protestants in Australia is not enough to explore the nuances of Irish Australian identity and experience though. In A New History of the Irish in Australia we have looked at how Irish Catholics, viewed by English and many Scottish settlers as demonstrably inferior, interacted with racialized minorities who faced widespread persecution and violence, notably Aboriginal Australians and the Chinese. These are a complex topics that show Irish Australians to be sometimes advocates for and friends of Aboriginal people and also actively involved in the dispossession and massacres of the past. Irish Australians were also advocates for restrictions on immigration of Asian peoples that are collectively known as the White Australia policies.

One thing that became clear to Elizabeth and myself while we were researching and writing the book, is that there are still many things to say about the Irish in Australia.

Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall, A New History of the Irish in Australia New South Books, 2018.

To be published in UK and Ireland in 2019 by Cork University Press.


Dr Dianne Hall is a senior lecturer at Victoria University in Melbourne. Her research interests are in histories of violence, gender, religion and memory with a particular focus on the Irish both in medieval and early modern Ireland and in the modern Irish diaspora. She is also interested in the connections between 19thcentury ideas about race and Irishness. Dianne’s current research projects are Scalded Memory: Gender, violence and the Irish 1200-1900, and The Irish, race and colonialism in Australia 1788-1918 both with Elizabeth Malcolm, University of Melbourne. Dianne is a [editor’s note: extremely essential and key] member of the Committee of the Irish Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand.

One thought on “Writing ‘A New History of the Irish in Australia’.

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

Create your website at WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: