Review of The Irish in Australia

A New History of the Irish in Australia by Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall

Cork University Press


Reviewed by Sonja Tiernan

This large volume opens with a description of a St Patrick’s Day festival, a not uncommon image across the globe in the twenty first century; ‘a pipe band, enthusiastic Irish dancers and an agile child on a unicycle wearing a large leprechaun-style hat – all cheered on by laughing crowds waving shamrock shaped balloons.’ The picture of the 2018 festival in Brisbane is completed by a description of people drinking obligatory green colored beer. While such activities are often ridiculed by Irish people living in their native country, the Irish emigrant appreciates the positive value of such celebrations. Indeed, the authors of this book contrast this image with St Patrick Day festivals from earlier times in Australia which often descended into violence because Irish Catholic immigrants were seen as a threat to Protestant British identity in the new world.

The title of this book, A New History of the Irish in Australia, points to the fact that this is by no means the first publication to document this topic. In their introduction Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall pay homage to Patrick O’Farrell who wrote the quintessential history of The Irish in Australiafirst published in 1986. O’Farrell’s work was then an unparalleled examination on the history of Irish people, whether convicts or fortune hunters, who relocated to Australia in the years after 1788. It was a book not without controversy, as O’Farrell laid ground for large claims that the Irish had a significant impact on the development of modern-day Australia. O’Farrell later came to realise that the relationship between Irish immigrants and the Australian population began to shift after the government began introducing legislation to respond to the needs of immigrants and inspire the development of a diverse multicultural society. To this end O’Farrell republished his work with a new chapter examining this changing relationship.

While paying homage to O’Farrell’s work, Malcolm and Hall are not entirely encouraged by its impact on the history of Australia. In an article published on the online magazine Tinteán, Malcolm examines an array of books published over the last four decades on the Irish in Australia. Through her research on such works, Malcolm observes that the Irish have ‘disappeared from Australian history’ in three ways. ‘1) subsumed; or they are 2) ignored; or they are 3) disparaged and sometimes mocked.’ Malcolm applies the term subsumed to explain how Irish people disappear as they get categorised under other labels most often British, Catholic or Anglo-Celt. Indeed, this is the main concern when attempting to document the Irish in other countries such as New Zealand. This basis alone provides clear justification for publishing A New History of the Irish in Australia.

 This volume is written in an engaging manner, yet it is imbedded with meticulous research. The book is impressive in its range of focus. Running to over 400 pages, it is divided into three sections covering race; stereotypes and politics. Within this, individual chapters are dedicated to absorbing topics such as the relationship between the Irish and Indigenous Australians as well as Irish relations with the Chinese community. While pertinent but often overlooked themes such as eugenics pre-world war two are examined. Challenging topics such as mental health and violence are dealt with in a confident and highly informed manner displaying the two authors individual research strengths.

Of particular interest to this reviewer is the section relating to ‘crime and the Irish: from vagrancy to the gallows.’ The approach, like that in other chapters of this book, is to provide a background of how the Irish have been presented in the area under examination or in this instance ‘overpresented’ among the criminal class. Before providing their own assessment, Malcolm and Hall cite the secondary writings on the topic at hand and then examine the historiography. In this way they clearly and accurately unpack the conclusions made by historians previously. Such is the case with the primary source data on executions and arrests. Data employed by many historians of the Irish in Australia, including O’Farrell, was compiled by government statistician, HH Hayter. This material was also used by the English born businessman, AM Topp, who published articles in the Melbourne Reviewciting this data as proof that the Irish-born and Catholics ‘formed the largest ethnic and religious cohorts amongst those executed.’ Thus, concluding that aggression and violence were a natural racial characteristic of Irish people. Such detailed examination of both the data related to arrests and executions compiled by Hayter and how this data was distorted by writers such as Topp to prove his anti-Irish thesis, provide a clear account of how Irish people continued to be stereotyped as violent criminals throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries in Australia.

Malcolm and Hall conclude this paragraph with case studies that shed new light on the topic of crime and the Irish in Australia. The account of Irish-born William Armstrong who was executed in 1859 for shooting with intent to murder during the robbery of gold is a prime example here. During the course of the robbery, Armstrong and his accomplice George Chamberlain, fired shots which killed a gold buyer, Cornelius Green and injured a police Constable, William Henry Greene. The tendency has been for commentators to focus on Armstrong as a violent robber. Such focus has resulted in a bias account, especially when it is shown that the law makers and law enforcers involved in this case were also Irish born. This is most evident from Armstrong’s criminal trial in which the prosecution barrister, Richard Ireland, was Irish born as was the main witnesses called by the crown prosecution a miner named James McMahon. The court was in fact overseen by an Irish born judge, Robert Molesworth, who sentenced Armstrong to death not for the murder of Green but for the shooting of Constable Greene, who indeed was also born in Ireland. Even the medical doctor called as an expert to give evidence on the wounds suffered by Greene was Robert James Fisher, himself Irish born. Such an account highlights how so many Irish people were highly respected, well-educated and upstanding members of the community in Australia at this time. Such accounts abound in this volume and add greatly to a re-evaluation towards a New History of the Irish in Australia.

Works cited:

Patrick O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia: 1788 to present, University of Notre Dame Press, 2001.

Elizabeth Malcom, ‘After O’Farrell: Writing a new history of the Irish in Australia, Tinteán, August 2017, 23 August 2019.

Sonja Tiernan is the Eamon Cleary Chair of Irish Studies and co-director of the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Sonja has served as secretary of the WHAI and has published widely on the history of gender and sexuality in Ireland.