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.