Monday musings on Australian literature: Irish-Australian writers

With yesterday being Bloomsday – at which Lisa (ANZLitLovers) took part in a reading marathon – I thought it might be interesting to talk about writers in Australia who have an Irish background. But, how to define this? Wikipedia lists hundreds of Irish-Australians, although not all are writers of course!

The Irish were among the first of colonial Australia’s immigrants. As Wikipedia describes it they came from the late eighteenth century on, as criminals, as prisoners of war, such as from the 1798 Irish Rebellion, and as settlers fleeing the Irish famine and the harsh years that followed. By the late 19th century Irish-Australians constituted up to a third of the country’s population – though definitions, here, are tricky. Certainly Wikipedia’s definition is pretty broad, so I’ve decided to narrow it to writers whose “Irishness” goes no further back than grandparents.

In popular imagination – and perpetrated by the Ned Kelly story – they were seen as the underdogs in colonial Australia, often oppressed and discriminated against. And there was some truth to that, related in particular to the persecution of Catholics in Australia, versus the “approved” Protestantism of the English. However, many Irish also thrived in the colony, and reached senior positions in the society. It’s a complex story, and is nicely summarised in an essay by National Museum of Australia curator Richard Reid.

Meanwhile, onto some writers, listed in chronological order of their birth.

Joseph Furphy (1843-1912)

Book coverFurphy, who used the pen-name Tom Collins, is often described as the father of the Australian novel. He was the son of Irish-born Samuel, a tenant farmer who migrated to Australia in 1840. Furphy’s most famous book, Such is life, published in 1903, is a fictional account of, says Wikipedia, “the life of rural dwellers, including bullock drivers, squatters and itinerant travellers, in southern New South Wales and Victoria, during the 1880s”. Its title comes from what are believed to be last words of our most famous Aussie Irishman, Ned Kelly.

I must say that I assumed that our slang term, “furphy” (meaning “tall story”) came from him. Seems likely doesn’t it? However, apparently, scholars believe it probably originated with water carts, produced by J. Furphy & Sons, which was owned by Furphy’s brother John. Interestingly, though, Such is life probably contains the first written usage of the Australian and New Zealand idiom “ropeable”.

Christopher Brennan (1870-1932)

Australian poet and literary critic, Brennan, was born to Christopher and Mary Ann, both of whom had migrated from Ireland. Brennan has appeared a couple of times on my blog, most recently as a poet admired by that American professor, Bruce Sutherland, who championed the study of Australian literature in the USA.

Brennan lived a colourful life, marrying a German woman he’d met while living in Berlin on a scholarship, then later divorcing her and living with Violet Stringer who died in an accident a few years later, in 1925. That year he had also been removed from his associate professorship at the University of Sydney University, due to his divorce (shocking, of course, in those days) and to his increasing drunkenness.

Brennan is regarded as one of Australia’s top poets, with his contribution being recognised in the Christopher Brennan Award.

Mary Durack (1913-1994)

Book coverAuthor Mary Durack is best known for her Australian history classic, Kings in grass castles, about her family’s pioneering role in the Kimberley pastoral industry. The family’s story, as told in her book, starts with her grandfather, Patrick Durack (born 1834), who emigrated to Australia from Ireland in 1853 with his struggling tenant-farmer family.

I have reviewed Brenda Niall’s biography of Mary and her controversial sister, Elizabeth, True north: The story of Mary and Elizabeth Durack.

Jessica Anderson (1916-2010)

Jessica Anderson, The commandant Book coverAnd now we come to someone whom I’ve actually reviewed here, Jessica Anderson. Her father was the youngest of a large Irish family, and the only one born in Australia after the family emigrated here. Wikipedia says that Anderson’s mother, Alice, came from a staunch Anglican family, and disapproved of her marriage to the Irish Catholic Charles. Alice’s mother, for the rest of her life, refused to see Charles or any of her grandchildren. (Such is the power of prejudice, eh!)

The two novels of hers that I’ve reviewed here are her third (and her only historical fiction), The commandant, and her final one, One of the wattle birds. I read her best known novel, Tirra Lirra by the river, long before blogging. The commandant is about the real Scottish-born penal settlement commandant Patrick Logan (who was reputed to be strict-to-the-point-of-cruelty), his Irish-born wife, Letitia O’Beirne of Sligo, and her sister Frances. (Letitia did have a sister who lived with them, Hannah, but Anderson’s Frances, is, I believe, fictional.)

Thomas Keneally (b. 1935)

And finally, to round up this little list, is the well-known writer with a very Irish name, Thomas (or Tom) Keneally). Wikipedia says that both Keneally’s parents were born to Irish fathers. Apparently Keneally was known by that very Irish name “Mick” until he started publishing, at which point his publisher advised him to use his “real” first name.

Keneally is a prolific writer, and has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award, twice, as well as the Booker Prize for Schindler’s ark.

Wikipedia quotes Australian academic Peter Pierce as saying of Keneally, that

Keneally can sometimes seem the nearest that we have to a Balzac of our literature; he is in his own rich and idiosyncratic ways the author of an Australian ‘human comedy’.

Unfortunately, while I’ve read some of his work, and have mentioned him here before, I have not read any since blogging.

You’ll have noticed that, despite the title for this post, I haven’t tried to draw any conclusions about the impact of these writers’ Irishness on their work. I’ve simply taken the opportunity of Bloomsday to highlight what is a very long-standing tradition of Irish contribution to Australian literary culture. Oh, and to say, that it’s not all about Ned Kelly!

I’d love you to share any of your favourite Irish-background authors, in the comments.

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Irish-Australian writers

  1. I ‘always’ knew about the water cart origin of ‘furphy’, but I discovered when I was reviewing Miles Franklin’s biography of him that ‘Tom Collins’ (his psuedonym) also had the meaning of rumour or rumour monger.

    It’s difficult to discuss prejudice against the Irish in Australia because we rarely distinguish between Protestants and Catholics and between the Anglo-Irish gentry and the peasantry. But there’s no doubt prejudice against poor Catholics was real right up to the 1950s.

    • Yes, I read about the “Tom Collins” slang too, in Wikipedia. Fascinating eh, Bill?

      Yes, you’re right of course about the Irish/Anglo Peasantry/Gentry issue. And I think the Italians of course got caught up in the anti-Catholic prejudice too, didn’t they? It’s weird how we always have to find someone to “other”. Our kids know nothing about this Catholic-Protestant thing that was a part of my school days. They had others to “other” by then!!

  2. This is a very educational post. You have provided summaries on a bunch of authors who are new to me but who seem very appealing.

    I also learned a little about Irish immigrants to Australia.

    Happy belated Bloomsday!

  3. Hi Sue, there is Dervla McTiernan, Irish born and now living in Perth. I don’t usually read crime novels but I did enjoy her debut novel, The Ruin. Her second novel The Scholar was okay. She is one author of crime that I will look forward to reading.

  4. I can add a contemporary writer here: Marcella Polain, who’s of Armenian/Irish origin: her books are The Edge of the World (on my TBR) and Driving Into the Sun, which I read a little while ago and liked very much.

    • That’s an interesting thought: Keneally as an Australian Balzac. I haven’t read enough of him to really say but its an idea that makes some sort of sense because of so many novels that have a background of Australian history.

  5. Does Monica McInerney count, do you think? Not read any of her books but I know she lives in Dublin… And what about crime writer Adrian McKinty?

    • Yes, kimbofo, I considered McInerney. But Adrian McKinty I completely overlooked. I guess we could count him. I’m glad you’ve mentioned them. Andrew McGahan has an Irish background too I believe but I think further back.

  6. So many Australians have Irish heritage. Sometimes it shows up in their names. My own heritage is as far as I know completely Irish on both sides – my surname is in fact Power which is a common Irish name. Murnane is an obvious one. It’s too early in the morning and too cold for me to think of some more. But I think Irishness is deep in the heart of much Australian writing.

    • Thanks Carmel… Of course Murnane. Wikipedia doesn’t give his parentage. I ender how far back? And Power… There was a much loved Catholic bishop in Canberra named Pat Power, but I hadn’t clicked it was an Irish name. There’s something romantic about the Irish so I’m not surprised about its depth in our writing! I’m mostly English, Welsh and Scottish, with a bit of Danish. I don’t know of any Irish in the last few generations of my families.

  7. LOL Sue, you have discovered the Heritage Hurdle! When I set up my Diversity Page I very quickly made the decision that I was going to limit my list to authors born in Australia of immigrant parents, or migrated here or came as refugees. It is just too hard (and potentially not ok with the author) to trace beyond first generations to, for example, Irish forebears who came to Australia in colonial times.
    (After all, I occasionally feel irritated when I get tagged as English: it happened the other day at Mazda in the context of chat when I was booking the car in, and I thought, sheesh, I’ve been here since the 1960s, when do I get to be Australian?!) (But it wasn’t her fault, really, I just cannot get rid of those vowels!!)

    • Haha Lisa… Yes I was prepared for the Heritage Hurdle, and I think for your purposes leaving it at immigrant parents is a good approach.

      I appreciated that even just two generations back is not necessarily going to drive a writer’s thinking. After all back to grandparents means there could be four different family backgrounds. However, these sorts of posts of mine are meant more as reminders rather than something that would stand up to intense scrutiny!!

      As for being OK with the author, as I’m sure you do, the rule of thumb is to go with what’s public in a reputable place. Some authors were described as having an Irish background but I could find no description of what that was.

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