Red plague

Reinventing Ireland from afar

You taught me language, and my profit on’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!

Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 1, Scene 2

IRELAND IS A bookshelf in my mother’s place house. A book of Australian folk songs, from the eighteenth century to the First World War. Frank the Poet’s ‘Moreton Bay’. Ned Kelly knew this ballad and quotes from it, consciously or otherwise, in the Jerilderie Letter: ‘Port McQuarie, Toweringabbie and Norfolk Island and Emu Plain.’ A book of Australian folklore, of the same period. Convict Paddy tries to walk to China from old Sydney town; men win ‘lazy contests’ when they fail to see the point of taking part; Larry Foley makes his stand on George’s River ground, the verse narrative written to scan to the tune of ‘The Wearing of the Green’. (Arthur Schlesinger assured us President Kennedy could roar this song.)

Foley’s stand was a seventy-one-round prize fight against the Orangeman Sandy Ross in 1871. It was ended by the arrival of the police. (Brendan Behan once wrote, ‘I can think of no state of human misery that would not be made instantly worse by the arrival on the scene of a policeman.’ This may be apocryphal, of course.) Foley was born in Ben Chifley’s hometown of Bathurst. It was over the range from Sydney, and he was finally baptised when he was two. They schooled him, and thought he might have had a priestly vocation, but he fought Jem Mace and ran pubs. He played in As You Like It. He was probably the ‘Captain’ of Henry Lawson’s ‘Push’.

But Ireland is also our Father O’Connor from the next parish over, St Jude’s, next to our St John Vianney’s in Canberra’s Weston Creek, who could have been nicknamed Blue, and it’s Blue Colquhoun from our parish, who was. And that means Ireland is fundraising, art unions and money tables where you threw a coin to see where it landed and what you won, and fetes where they sold beer; and masses where there were sermons for the family, and sermons against materialism. And Ireland is also the confusion of finding out there were other fetes, with no beer, where they had Morris dancing, like on a Jon Pertwee Doctor Who episode; but that was at a girls’ grammar school, and that came later, in the 1980s, not in Weston Creek in the 1970s, and where did all those blonde girls come from, and who gave them teeth like that?

Ireland is no one’s dad working in foreign affairs and a lot of dads working in tax; and it’s even your cousins and uncles who don’t live in Canberra being soldiers and nurses and teachers and nuns, and the tradies working in telecom or for state rail, and pubs obviously. And even the cousins with nice houses were professionals. Ireland was, did anyone even know anyone who owned something? Ireland was big public instrumentalities where we had a toehold and where it was harder to keep us out.

So Ireland was a bookshelf and a memory and a myth and of course it wasn’t Ireland; and of course, it wasn’t even romantic Ireland; it was romantic Irish Australia, and it was romantic Irish-Catholic Australia, and even though I still lived in it in the 1970s, that was because I lived in a bookshelf and a memory and a myth. It was already with Larry Foley and the old mass, it was already in the grave.

Ireland; okay actual Ireland, Ireland is Dave Allen, above all, before all, in the beginning, Dave Allen. Ireland is his left forefinger, with its top missing, and his pulling it out of a whiskey glass and raising it up before his eyes in horror; Ireland is his nuns asking him is he a good boy, and his child’s eye beholding a man nailed to the wall behind them, and stammering that he certainly is; it’s his altar boys; his easy chair; his Book of Micah. May your God go with you.

Ireland is the Troubles, paras and bombings on the news, and the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, and that joke about the Renault Seven; and Bobby Sands dying, deliberately, when I was nine. Ireland is learning what you call things, Ireland is learning you say Derry and you say, ‘the north of’ not ‘Northern’, Ireland is being taught to say these things right. (Irish Australia is teaching yourself.)

Oh, how I wish Ireland was the skyjacking of Aer Lingus 164 in 1981 by a deranged Australian ex-Trappist, and the excitement of the Irish to be in the modern age (BBC journalist: ‘We’ve been told he might be an Iranian?’ Answer: ‘I don’t think so’) and then the hideous, excruciating embarrassment of learning he didn’t only want the plane flown to Tehran, he wanted the Pope to release the Third Secret of Fatima. Oh my God, did it have to be that? And the same BBC journalist, drawling at the Irish Minister for Transport, ‘What on earth is that?’ And Albert Reynolds’s pause, and then his eventual reply: ‘It’s a religious secret, it’s not for me to say what it is’ and God, how embarrassing.

And also God, the mutual incomprehension, about God. It is devastating.

But actually that was an SBS documentary decades later, not television news when I was nine, and now it is YouTube ‘Albert Reynolds and The Third Secret of Fatima’ after just the right kind of skinful, so it wasn’t Ireland then, though now it’s Ireland; but watching it, that’s Irish Australia.

I don’t know if the Famine was Ireland or if it was Irish Australia, I think it was Irish Australia. I think the Famine was leaving, and being here, and not forgetting, I don’t think the Famine was actually being hungry. The Famine was certainly knowing what the Queen of England didn’t do, and knowing what the Choctaw did; the Famine was coming home with a skinful and telling your kids about the Trail of Tears and crying a bit, so I suppose I do know; that makes the Famine Irish Australia, and not Ireland. But the man who waved the five-pound note, in the face of the statue of Victoria when they removed it from the front of the Dáil in 1948, that was Ireland.

That statue ended up in Sydney and no I don’t know why.

And Sinead O’Connor was Ireland, not Irish Australia; so that’s another little bit of the Famine as Ireland, her song (‘I want to talk about the “famine”/About the fact that there never really was one’), about all the food that left Ireland, during the blackest of Black ’47; it left for trade. And then I remember those Irish-Australian parish talks in Lent about giving to Project Compassion to stop cash-cropping in Africa, and I wonder if they knew, or just felt it.

Ireland was European. Ireland was in travel brochures with other European countries in them. Ireland was highlights of Five Nations rugby matches against Wales and France, and those wonderful commentators.

And Ireland was sometimes ‘the other’ on BBC TV showing in Australia, just a little prejudice popping out, or a big one: a dim builder on Fawlty Towers, or a joke on Minder about the EC and Scotch whisky being labelled whiskey; or that appalling nurse character on The Catherine Tate Show, and that debuted in this century, not the last, and I do not forgive.

Irish Australia was not European.

Irish Australia could retreat into itself to hide from Anglo Australia – but it couldn’t fly to France. No geese; no earls; there wasn’t even as much Jansenism as they say. Irish Australia had a past, and yes it was a different kind of white past, but still a white past, and sure there were two white pasts, ours and theirs, but the way out was just to have a new white future where we all forget; there wasn’t some other way. And to be fair, yes we forgot, but they forgot first. And we remembered that we’d forgotten – we even had a word for it, ‘lapsed’ – they just kind of actually forgot, which is weird, and I don’t know how. It’s a kind of privilege, I guess.

People still write memoirs about their Catholic childhoods, but even back then, did anyone write memoirs of growing up Protestant in Australia? Weren’t those just memoirs? Maybe Manning Clark sort of did, and Donald Horne sort of did, I suppose. Henry Handel Richardson remembered a devastating crush on a minister, but I don’t think she thought that a possibility distinctive to her sect. And even Horne really writes about being non-Catholic. Now there’s a weird category.

Ireland was complicated. Ireland had other traditions, and real problems you shouldn’t presume upon, and reasons for real compromise, it wasn’t a stance or a T-shirt or a poster in a pub.

And Irish Australia was a myth and it didn’t matter, even then.

And Ireland was real. Is real. Still matters.

So Ireland is the end of Derry Girls’ first season, where they have strung you out for six episodes of schtick and screaming laughter and then give you the Omagh bombing as the credits roll, and you are so angry at Westminster, at all of them. Ireland is where it matters. Irish Australia isn’t even a where; it’s barely an is.

And Ireland is The Irish Border twitter account, angry and funny and still there to read, and it’s European.


AND THEN DOCTOR Who came back as a television series in 2005 and the Time Lord was played by Christopher Eccleston, hugely well-known in the UK, including for his role in the 1996 mini-series Our Friends in the North, about characters from Newcastle upon Tyne between 1964 and 1995. There’s a marvellous early moment in which his Who is asked by a sceptical earthling from London: ‘If you are an alien, how come you sound like you’re from the north?’

He replies: ‘Lots of planets have a north.’

I quite like this. A north is kind of historically necessary.

An Ireland is not.

An Ireland is an accident; a wee late one; tribute to its parents’ mistakes and love. There’s no great reason to think that other planets have an Ireland. Or at least not this Ireland; maybe there’s a planet whose Ireland isn’t next to its England, or whose Pope Adrian IV isn’t English, or whose sole English Pope doesn’t write the bull Laudabiliter. Or even a planet on which that happens, but on which England is good, or has English elites who are not bad. But then I don’t think that would be an Ireland.

Or maybe it would. I suppose even if that planet didn’t have its English-speaking Irish melancholics, it would have its Irish-speaking sanguines, hunters and herders and scholars and abbesses, and while if that planet didn’t have English colonialism it wouldn’t have any good male novelists in English before its 1950s (and it wouldn’t), it would still have some very fine poets in Irish; and I suppose that’s an Ireland, but an Ireland where no one knew that history will break your heart eventually? With Celts whose Tiger might end in lasting shared prosperity, not corruption and financial collapse? What kind of Ireland is that?

And of course and in turn, Irish Australia was a double accident. The second son of a second son.

And we like a sad song, and we earned it, but the real victims and survivors of the historical contingencies that led the Irish to Australia are not Irish, or even white, and I’ll listen to their story about Europe and Ireland and England, not write a word about it. That is for another’s voice and pen.

Anyway, the thing is, Ireland exists, and it’s European; Irish Australia doesn’t, and isn’t.

Those are two quite important facts for Australia in 2020. Here’s why.

If Australia is split apart this decade, it’ll be split apart by one or more of three horrors: climate breakdown, racial division and economic inequality. 

(A new disease is killing some of us and locking in the rest of us, but it seems very likely now that together Australians will prevent the worst outcomes from happening here. It would only be if habitual contrarians, the racists and the rich determine our state and society response that we will have a disaster of the kind China endured and southern Europe now grieves. If we can beat them, we can beat this.)

Now even at nine o’clock at night on St Patrick’s Day I probably wouldn’t seriously maintain that triangulating Ireland, Europe and Australia can tell us much about what to do about global heating, though as I say this, a little more sceptical co-operation with our Atlantic partners and a little more friendly attention to Germany and Scandinavia and France certainly couldn’t hurt. (Apart from anything else, northern Germany now needs bushfire fighters. Talk about the past being a nightmare, they’ve got bushfires blowing up World War II and Cold War munitions dumps. Fair dinkum.)

But racism. Crikey. What are we going to do?

So, my grandmother’s grandmother’s mother, Eliza Thompson, was among the girls orphaned by the Famine who began arriving in Australia on 11 September 1848. Four thousand came, seventeen hundred of them to Melbourne. The Argus newspaper called the girls ‘worthless characters’ and ‘degraded beings’ and blamed them for ‘lewdness and vice’.

What you need to read is A New History of the Irish in Australia by Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall (NewSouth, 2018). It’s an absolute triumph and stands as a companion and successor to Patrick O’Farrell’s landmark The Irish in Australia (New South Wales University Press, 1987). You’d buy it for a really nice cover, and buy it again for one chapter title alone (Chapter 6: Employment: Bridget need not apply), but what you need to read is the hundred-page first section, on race.

You read it, so I don’t butcher it summarising it. What you’ll find is a story about how racial language expressed religious, political and perceived racial differences; about race science and labour competition; about the Irish as colonised, and as coloniser; and behind it all this most curious question of when, how and why the Irish ‘became white’. And you’ll read, and if you read quietly you might hear, a domestic servant, Biddy (short-for-Bridget) Burke, tell her brother John in Galway about Brisbane in 1882. Her Brisbane, where

there is all sortes black & white misted & married together & Living in pretty Cotages Just the same as the white people… There are verry rich fancy John white girls marrid to a black man & Irish girls to [too] & to Yellow Chinaman with their Hair platted down there [their] black back.

Wouldn’t you love to live there? Maybe we can one day.


LARRY FOLEY KEPT fighting and training fighters for decades – and forty-seven years after the police stopped him from prize fighting a seventy-second round against the Orange for the Green, he sparred with Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson in the lead-up to their titanic match under the Queensberry Rules in Sydney on Boxing Day 1908. When the first bell rang, Burns, a white man, was still the heavyweight champion of the world. The African-American Johnson had chased him around the world and across the colour line for two years before finally getting him into a ring at Rushcutters Bay.

Police stopped the fight this time too, after fourteen rounds, believing Burns had a broken jaw, and perhaps fearing the white world had a broken heart. (Jack London certainly nursed his human misery from that day forward.)

Jean-Michel Basquiat painted Jack Johnson in the 1980s, not long after he painted Irony of a Negro Policeman. (You could see these works in Melbourne, last summer, before the galleries closed.) Larry Foley and Ned Kelly would have liked them.

What would people say if they saw a strapping big lump of an Irishman shepherding sheep for fifteen bob a week or tailing turkeys in Tallarook ranges for a smile from Julia or even begging his tucker, they would say he ought to be ashamed of himself and tar-and-feather him But he would be a king to a policeman who for a lazy loafing cowardly bilit left the ash corner deserted the shamrock, the emblem of true wit and beauty to serve under a flag and nation that has destroyed massacred and murdered their fore-fathers…

But within a long lifetime of the Jerilderie Letter, the Empire fights a war against dictatorship and racial hatred (in which the Republic of Ireland is neutral) and the war is won. And one way or another, by 1950, the Irish are definitely white.

They keep leaving Ireland.

And so Mick arrives in London, or Chicago, or Sydney. He walks on to a site and says ‘Can I get a start’, and the foreman looks at him sceptically and says ‘I don’t know Mick, I don’t reckon you know a girder from a joist’, and Mick, most offended, insists, ‘I most certainly do, Goethe wrote Faust and Joyce wrote Ulysses,’ and that’s the best Irish joke of them all.

Because it’s about voice and migration and education and culture and fairness and work.

And it’s worth talking about too, because even if Australians can help cool the planet with our European friends and stick together regardless of what shade our skin is or whether and when and where we go to church by fishing the good bits out of our past and flushing the worst, are we going to be able to work?

I don’t know.

But I know that when we couldn’t eat in 1847, it wasn’t because there wasn’t enough food.

And I know if we all can’t work in 2047, or can’t get paid and treated fairly at work, I know this: it won’t be because ordinary people use too much of the technology in our hands, it will be because we don’t use enough of the power.

And I know Uber is a corporation, not an app. And it’s not alone.

And that’s why some of us can’t work in 2020, and can’t get paid and treated fairly at work right now. And why a million of us couldn’t get the same wage subsidy as their mates when COVID-19 closures stopped work across the land.

Not because of what we can’t fix about the future – because of what we haven’t fixed about the past.

What did St Thomas say?

‘Business, considered in itself, has a certain baseness (turpitudinem) inasmuch as it does not of itself involve any honourable or necessary end.’

President Kennedy’s Irish-American father knew a son of a bitch when he saw one.

Businessmen. Let them trade. Let them divide their coin among them.

But let them not be our heroes. And don’t let them divide us. At least let us not be fooled.

The Irish certainly aren’t; on their good days, neither are the Europeans.

I know what Frank the Poet, and Kelly, and Foley, and Behan, and Johnson and Basquiat – and Bridget Burke, and Eliza Thompson, and the women of Eureka and, you know, maybe even Sandy Ross – would say about the arrival of policemen at the door of a trade union office during a dispute, or at the headquarters of a political party during a national campaign, or at a site checking stickers on Mick’s helmet.


And I know what they’d have us do.

14 April 2020

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