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“Sharing the Tasks of Ethical Remembering – Ireland and Australia”

University of New South Wales, Sydney, 19 October 2017



Our words matter and in our present circumstances when anger is the temper of our times, we need to use our words for healing rather than wounding.

A Leas-Sheansailéir, a mhic léinn agus a chairde Gael,

Vice Chancellor, students, friends,

I would first like to acknowledge that we meet today on the traditional lands of the Bedegal people, and to pay my respect to their Elders both past and present.

Ar an gcéad dul síos, is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leatsa, a Leas-Sheansailéir, as d’fhocail deasa réamhráiteacha.

[May I thank you, Vice Chancellor, for your kind introduction to me this evening.]

It is a great honour for me to be here to address you in this University, whose foundation in 1949 represented such an important egalitarian moment in the expansion of university education in Australia and New South Wales. Your on-going success is a tribute to the enduring wisdom of that decision.

This University has contributed so much to writing the history of the Irish experience in Australia, from the seminal scholarship of the late Professor Patrick O’Farrell to the establishment of the Australian Ireland Fund Chair in Modern Irish Studies and the John Hume Institute in Global Irish Studies.

Through its partnership with its namesake, the John Hume Institute in University College Dublin, the Institute is an expression of the closeness of the relationship between Ireland and Australia, and provides an example of the kind of scholarly co-operation across national borders that is to the benefit of all mankind.

The distinguished history of Irish studies makes this University such an appropriate place for me, as President of Ireland, to make a reflection on the depth of the connection of Ireland and Australia, including the heterogeneity the complexity of the Irish contribution in the making and shaping of this country, and it gives me the opportunity of engaging with the challenge of what might be the appropriate remembering and reconstructing of that history.

I am conscious that to mention a phrase such as ‘the Irish contribution’ brings to mind a certain historiographical tradition. This is a trope evident early in the decades before Federation in particular, which Professor Robert Reece has termed ‘contribution history’, that celebrates the accomplishment of political and economic success as the apotheosis of the Irish achievement in Australia.

This tradition has had its moments.  It played an important polemical role in its time and with various intent -: James Francis Hogan’s The Irish in Australia, published in 1887, emphasised the facility with which the Irish in Australia had adopted themselves to legislative affairs in the self-governing colonies of the Antipodes, and thus offered a shrewd rebuke to those who wished to deny Home Rule to Ireland.

Cardinal Patrick Moran’s History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (1895) recast the Irish convicts as martyrs for religious freedom, virtuous forbearers of a Catholic civilisation being constructed between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

P.S. Cleary’s Australia’s Debt to Irish Nation-Builders, published a decade and a half after the bruising conscription referenda of 1916 and 1917, called up the names of no less than twenty-three Irish-Australian State premiers for the purpose of exemplifying the patriotic bone fides of the Irish and to emphasise their contribution in Australia.

This ‘historiography of the contribution’, which articulates the historical experience of a particular cultural or ethnic group, however narrowly or widely defined, as a succession of individual contributions to a singular, but shared, series of national achievements, was aimed at integrating what had been perceived at times as what might be called a specifically Irish-Catholic ‘Other’ into colonial Australian society.

It would not be possible for me today, even if I desired, to simply recapitulate this approach.

It always was, I feel, insufficient as historiographical method and, in that insufficiency, tendentious.  It requires the regret of too much of that which has passed – for example the nature of the arrival experience from the perspective of those arriving, and the response to it from the perspective of the first occupants.

Then too it does not deal with the operation of ‘the System’, that immense apparatus of imperial crime and punishment - and it ignores too, the differing nuanced forms and consequences of settler capitalism, a venture which displaced so many.

It is thus a relatively recent historiography that attempts to deal with the collision of those projects of ‘discovery’, ‘place of banishment’, ‘settlement’, ‘domination’ and above all the subject of the treatment of the first occupants, for, let us never forget, Australia was never, except in the ideological hubris of imperialism, a terra nullius (nobody’s land), ‘an empty land’.

The problem of historiography is a moral one as well as one of adequacy of scholarship. This should not surprise us, as any historiography and particularly one dealing with such a convention as this is likely to be influenced by the dominant popular historical narrative of the time, a narrative which was often, in the times under consideration, narrowly national in its scope, limited in its inclusivity, and increasingly, being used to provide material for the tracts of polemicists rather than historians, whether professional or dedicated amateurs. 

We have moved on and we are very fortunate that much new historical work has been carried out on the experience of the Irish in Australia, particularly the writing since the 1980s, by Irish and Australian historians, many of course with Irish ancestry. Many of these writers have been working too from the Centres for Irish Studies established in the past twenty years, here at the University of New South Wales, at Murdoch University in Perth and at the University of Melbourne.

We are all surely indebted to this recent generation of scholars who have given us such carefully researched and well-presented volumes as Thomas Kenneally’s The Great Shame, The Playmaker, and The Commonwealth of Thieves; Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore; Stuart Macintyre’s Concise History of Australia, which has a relatively recent edition, and a number of specialist studies such as Mark Tedeschi’s Murder at Myall Creek and Claire Dunne’s People Under the Skin.

This scholarship provides a richer and ever more inclusive basis on which to reflect on the Irish experience in Australia.

As I address the challenge of interpreting history as it affected the Irish who came to Australia, I have an impulse, and it is an advantage,  reflecting on the experience of my own ancestor, my grandfather’s brother, Patrick Higgins, born only a few years before the Great Famine – An Gorta Mór – which would leave a million dead and two million fleeing Ireland between 1845 and 1852.

Patrick Higgins and his sister, Mary Ann, arrived in Moreton Bay in 1862 aboard the Montmorency, one of the first ships chartered by the land and emigration commission of the government of Queensland. They ultimately established themselves in Warwick, one hundred and sixty kilometres south-west of Brisbane.

Patrick was a ploughman, atypical in that he had undertaken a year of study in the Royal Agricultural Society in Dublin. In Queensland, he would become a ploughman, manager of a farm, and a landholder. Both he and Mary Ann, who was a laundress, would go on to find spouses and both made a living from the land.

Only months before their arrival, the ‘Erin-go-bragh’ and ‘Chatsworth’ had dropped anchor off Moreton Bay, carrying with them the first Irish colonists recruited by the Queensland Immigration Society, established by Dr. James Quinn, Bishop of Brisbane for the purpose of carrying and supporting immigrants directly from Ireland.

I do not know whether these ancestors of mine were aware of

Father Patrick Dunne’s promise of a ‘tropical, Hibernian paradise’,

or his boast that ‘our people are to be the founders of a great nation’, but I imagine that they and many others saw this land as a new world, free of the oppressions, poverty and suffering of the old, in which they might build a new life. Their accounts of their experience was in terms of engaging with a frontier. This immediately provokes questions.

When I think of my ancestors’ arrival, I cannot help thinking also of those who were there before them on this land and who had a culture that scholars put as old as 65,000 years. The words of that great poet and champion of the rights of her people, Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), and her description of the desolation and loss engendered by expanding European influence over what would become the colony of Queensland come to mind. Her words on what was an ancient but now broken symmetry with nature are deeply moving:-

                       ‘The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.

                       The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from                       

                      this place.

                     The bora ring is gone.

                    The corroboree is gone.

                     And we are going.’

 

What was the character of the Ireland my ancestors’ left?

Those fleeing from conditions of Famine, lucky to survive, survivors of evictions, involuntary exiles anxious to escape, who had been offered a new life were nevertheless entering the lands of people who could foresee their own dispossession.

That was the nature of the land to which they journeyed. It was not a terra nullius.  What was to be made of such an arrival?

These are profound, complex and troubling questions, captured by Judith Wright’s description of walking the beach at Lake Cooloolah:

‘And walking on clean sand among the prints

of bird and animal, I am challenged by a driftwood spear

thrust from the water; and, like my grandfather,

must quiet a heart accused of its own fear’.

Affecting an amnesia towards this period of history, avoiding contradictions upon which I must reflect is not an option. It would be insufficient for me to simply re-iterate a historiography of the Irish contribution to Australia. Instead, I wish to advance here, in this university, the case for what I dare to call an ethic of remembrance.

The construction and contribution of a strategy for an ethic of remembrance has been a project I have been attempting in my Presidency, as a response, partly,  to the commemoration of the formative events that took place in Ireland between 1912 and 1922 - which include foundational acts such as the Ulster Covenant, the establishment of the Irish Volunteers, the 1913 Strike and Lock-Out, the 1916 Easter Rising, the First World War, the Suffrage Movement, the Irish War of Independence and our Civil War.

Remembering, commemorating these foundational acts of 100 years ago in Ireland, might perhaps be viewed as challenges and compared with similar challenges facing Australians reflecting on the first occupants of Australia sixty-five thousand years ago, or the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, or the declaration of terra nullius (nobody’s land), or the long conflict between the Europeans and the Indigenous peoples of this land, or the Eureka Rebellion, or the achievement of Federation, or the Maritime and Shearer’s strikes of the 1890s, or the first landing at Gallipoli on the 25th of April 1915, in that these are all important events in the national consciousness and collective memory of Australia, bearing in mind the rigours that are demanded by the very concept of ‘collective memory’.

The exercise of scrutinising what comprises collective memory is a worthwhile one. It has the capacity to unleash that healing that may come from the journey of remembering, through understanding to what may in time, make possible forgiving.

The challenge of being open to revisiting anew some formative events of the past that we had, as it were, put on a shelf in our mind, is one that could best be expressed as a challenge we all face in all cultures and that includes both Ireland and Australia. 

The purpose of forgiving, for example, as Hannah Arendt saw it was to rob an event of the past of its capacity to deprive one of the realistic possibilities of the present or the imaginative possibilities of the future. There is nothing truly to be gained from amnesia, as comforting as it may be, and everything to be lost, for it is only by acknowledging, questioning, sometimes revising, but always remembering, in an ever more inclusive way, the events of our collective past that we can begin to build a collective future.

That is why, for example, in Ireland, during what we have termed the

Decade of Centenaries, we sought, for example, to restore to our national memory those men and women from the South of Ireland, two hundred and fifty thousand in number, who served in British Forces in the First World War, of whom thirty-five thousand may never have come home.

They shared the terrible experience of war in Europe, at Gallipoli, and in the Middle East, but the Irish returnees were remembered and treated quite differently when they returned to the south of Ireland than the Irish men who fought in the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps when they returned to their new homes.

In remembering them in our narrative so, we seek not to minimise what remain as important, legitimate and crucial debates regarding the causes and consequences of what was, after all, a collision of competing empires that lost a generation in war. What we seek is to recognise the lives of those Irish soldiers lost, and those whose potential and promise were extinguished.

The same instinct of seeking a more comprehensive memory of our past led to a focus on the central role of women in that revolutionary generation of a century ago. A role that had been underemphasised in previous commemorations.

Yet as the most difficult commemorations for us in Ireland still lie before us, for over the next six years we enter the centenary of the crucible of Irish history, our Irish Revolution, our independence struggle, our Civil War and the foundation of the new Independent State. 

The 1918 General Election, in which the plurality of Irish people, newly enfranchised through the introduction of universal suffrage, following the culmination of a long struggle by women and

working-class people in Ireland, voted for a nationalist movement committed to achieving a separate and independent Irish republic which was to be achieved by withdrawing from the British Parliament and

 ‘establishing a constituent assembly comprising persons chosen by the Irish constituencies as the supreme national authority to speak and act in the name of the Irish people’.

At the inaugural meeting of that constituent assembly, the First Dáil Éireann, the newly elected representatives of the people ratified the establishment of the Irish Republic proclaimed in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916. They did this through a Declaration of Independence, and approved a Democratic Programme which outlined economic and social principles, including a declaration of the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation’s labour.

The refusal of the British Government to recognise the very existence of this First Dáil Éireann, which was after all the outcome of national consultation, led inexorably to our War of Independence.

The war was brought formally to a close by the Anglo-Irish Treaty – one of the Irish negotiators was George Gavan Duffy, son of Charles Gavan Duffy, a former premier of the State of Victoria.

Many of those elected to the Second Dáil refused to abide by the terms of a Treaty they claimed was signed under duress. They claimed that they were being asked to accept the status of Ireland as a dominion of the British Empire, which maintained the King as Head of State of the new 26 county jurisdiction.

The election which took place in 1922 was fought on the subject of the Treaty, and the pro-Treaty participants in the election prevailed, securing the majority of votes. Divisions that would be destructive for generations then emerged.

These divisions led to a Civil War, more terrible and devastating in its consequences than the War of Independence, as former comrades and friends found themselves on opposite sides, divided by their ideals, ambitions, and in some cases in their evaluation of the feasibility of a continuing struggle against the British Empire.

We must acknowledge the brutality of that struggle, the viciousness that was unleashed and the brutal tactics that were employed by both sides:

Fifty-three thousand men, many of whom had experienced the War of Independence or the First World War, joined the National Army of the Free State, which supported the Treaty.  My uncle was among them.

Thirteen thousand of those who opposed the Treaty were interned by the Free State. They included my father.

Thus, families and communities were cleaved apart in a bitter war that was to cast a shadow for generations and hamper our efforts to meet the republican ideals set out in 1916.

It is important too to note that in the years leading up to independence, the nationalist movement represented a plurality of opinion, for many nationalists voted for the Irish Parliamentary Party and the policy of Home Rule for Ireland within the Union.

Those from the Unionist tradition, predominantly but not wholly located within the North-East of Ireland, voted for the Irish Unionist Party, which sought to maintain the island of Ireland within a unitary State of Britain and Ireland. For many southern Unionists the partition of Ireland was a bitter disappointment and betrayal.

The Democratic Programme of that First Dáil to which I have referred, whose egalitarian promise represented the emancipatory tradition of Irish labour, was viewed by conservative nationalists with apprehension. Tom Johnson, the drafter of the Programme, sought to follow in the tradition of Wolfe Tone and Michael Davitt – which had sought independence not simply to replace flags or substitute personnel, as important as that may be, but to ensure a more equal and more just distribution of wealth, power and opportunity in Ireland.

These are some of the grave and difficult matters which we in Ireland will be confronting in the coming years. They concern not only personal memories of consequences of the War of Independence and the Civil War, but also profound questions regarding the economic and social trajectory of the new Irish state.

Conscious of my role as President of Ireland during this time of intense public remembering, I argued that the activity should be placed in an ethical framework. In doing so, I was influenced by the works of Paul Ricoeur, Richard Kearney and Hannah Arendt. I believe their work has a relevance for Australian historiographers as much as it has for ours.

There are some principles to such an approach.

First, an imperative to include and recognise those voices in the past marginalised or disenfranchised, whether through the distorted lens of that historiography which E.P. Thompson termed the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’, or by the simple exclusion of certain groups as subjects of history on the grounds of class, race or gender or indeed as indigenous people with an ancient culture.

I think we have succeeded somewhat in fulfilling this principal to some degree in the case of more fully recognising and remembering the vital role of women in the revolutionary movement that culminated in an independent Irish State

Second, against historical amnesia Paul Ricoeur advocated a disposition of ‘narrative hospitality’, which involves being open to the perspectives, stories, memories, and pains of the stranger, the other, the enemy of yesterday, however dissonant they may be.

The process of ethical remembering invites us all to critically evaluate our often-competing foundational myths and beliefs which define and shape our national consciousness and our image of the nation, and to draw our attention from the national to the global, from high politics to the social and economic.

When I was at the University of Melbourne a week ago, I suggested that serious intellectual work must address questions of morality, and of ethics. In this light, I suggested that our publics would gain if economics were to be grounded again in both an ethical and cultural framework: ethical to take account of moral questions, and cultural, to take account of difference and diversity.

Eschewing amnesia then and with some trepidation as to meeting the standards of ethical remembering, I attempt to reflect on the Irish experience of migration – forced, impelled and voluntary in the century following the arrival of the first fleet.

The story of those who were displaced, dislocated, and relocated, sometimes directly by the state, sometimes due to the development of a precocious industrial capitalism, and sometimes of their own volition, that is perhaps most salient to a discussion of the Irish arrivals in Australia in the late eighteenth and through the nineteenth centuries.

The first European permanent arrival to this land occurred 65,000 years after humans first set foot in Australia. This was largely the consequence of a policy of transportation whose origins arose in late sixteenth-century England, at time of acute social crisis, harvest failures and widespread starvation when the English countryside was being slowly transformed by the enclosure of common land, as the public purpose yielded to private power.

Thomas More vividly described, in his Utopia, that sheep would

‘eat up and swallow down the very men themselves’ as tillage gave way to pasture leading in some places to rural depopulation. So-called ‘vagabonds’ and ‘sturdy beggars’ dislodged by this development roamed the land, frightening a governing class always fearful of social unrest. In response, the English Parliament declared, through legislation, that such

 ‘rogues… should be banished from out of this Realm… and shall be conveyed to such parts beyond the seas as shall be… assigned by the Privy Council’.[1]

Initially confined to England in the early seventeenth century, the use of convict transportation was extended to Ireland by the

English Commonwealth during the Cromwellian invasions, when prisoners of war, priests, and vagrants were sent to labour in Virginia and the Caribbean.

This represented both a tool of conquest, and an expression of the brutal political economy of primitive accumulation: the most turbulent opponents of Cromwellian rule were removed, and upon arrival were disposed of as unfree labourers, to serve sentences of seven or fourteen years, in the plantations of the New World.

The transportation system represented a quite different logic in eighteenth-century England, reflecting its origins as a mechanism for social control and, but for some, an instrument for reform and an alternative to the death penalty.

In England, it was driven not by the imperatives of conquest but by the remorseless expansion of the market economy, a process given a new life and new impetus by the Revolution of 1688, and the transformation of the relationship between the people and the land in which they lived and worked, as complex customary rights to the commons, established over many centuries, were extinguished by Parliamentary fiat.

To protect the newly acquired rights to this new private property, the statute book – for this was a Parliamentary process – was marked by a great expansion of criminal offences to which capital punishment applied. The great legal scholar Blackstone complained in the 1760s that there were 160 of such in force, as parliamentarians sought to maintain their faith in the deterrent effect of the hangman even as perceptions of criminality continued to rise.

Recourse to a system of transportation was not a peculiarly English or British phenomenon, but rather a universal expression of the fears and ambitions of empire, a way of disposing of, disciplining, and reforming troublesome, surplus peoples. It was seen as a strategy for dealing with overcrowded cities filled with vagrants considered to be subversive of good order.

In addition to its early period, transportation was used as a means of opening up new frontiers to cultivation and exploitation: Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese convicts were used as indentured agents of imperial expansion, circulating the Indian and Pacific Oceans, to the Americas, Cuba, the Philippines, Java, the Cape of Good Hope, Goa, São Tomé, Brazil, Mozambique and Angola; Russian convicts were shipped to Siberia and Sakhalin Island; and Qing China used convict labour to open up its western frontier after conquest.[2]

We must, then, situate the system of convict transportation within this broader context, and recognise that there is no monopoly on suffering or victimhood.

The Transportation Acts of the eighteenth-century British Parliament were faithfully followed by the Irish Parliament, but adapted for

Irish circumstances, so that by 1735, the judges and magistrates of Dublin were authorised to order transportation as a punishment for vagrancy, a measure which was used far more frequently than in England.   More than 13,000 Irish men and women were transported to North America in this way in the fifty years before the American Revolution of 1776.

We must recall that Ireland in the 1780s and 1790s was in state of intellectual, economic and social ferment. A Patriot party in the Irish parliament, inspired by the American Revolution and reinforced by an armed militia, the Irish Volunteers, agitated for an expansion of the suffrage, an enlargement of the powers of the Irish Parliament, and, though here there was some disagreement, the repeal of the Penal Laws which locked Catholics and Dissenters out of politics and the professions.

Inspired by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, and disillusioned by the failure of the Patriot party, the Society of the United Irishmen was founded to create an independent Ireland based on, and ultimately with the assistance of, the French example.

Meanwhile in rural areas, secret oathbound societies such as the Whiteboys protested the payment of the tithe to establishment Anglican church, and sought, often violently, to defend the rights of tenant farmers. It was in these years that the term ‘Protestant Ascendancy’ came into common use to describe the precarious social, political and economic dominance of a landed, Anglican establishment, whose greatest threat came, as they saw it, not from any sectarian conflict of the structural contradictions of the society they occupied but from the ideas of the French Revolution.

In such an environment, the British-appointed executive in Dublin was eager to re-commence transportation. It was particularly needed, as they saw it, as nothing like the Hulks - those ageing, decrepit warships which held prisoners previously condemned to transportation off the coasts of England - could be, or were likely to be procured in Ireland. This placed increasing pressure on already overcrowded prisons. Despite this readiness, and several abortive attempts to transport Irish convicts to Newfoundland, the Caribbean, and North America, no vessels from Ireland joined the First Fleet.

The first convicts sentenced to transportation in Ireland departed Cork City on 21 April 1791 aboard the Queen, an overcrowded American-built three-masted, square-sailed West Indiaman, and smallest vessel to participate in the Third Fleet. The contractors,

the slaving firm Camden, Calvert & King, to whom the Irish administration agreed to pay £17 for each convict on board, had been responsible for the infamous Second Fleet, which lost over a quarter of its passengers to disease and insufficient victualling, made all the worse by the use of slave shackles to restrain the prisoners.

The 133 male and 22 female convicts, four of whom travelled with young children, aboard the Queen were still treated cruelly. The second mate, whose duties including the dispensing of the convict rations, reportedly used short weights to serve out 60 pounds of beef in each sitting instead of the 132 pounds agreed as part of the terms of the contract.

The convicts who arrived on the Queen were the first of 36,000 Irish people sentenced to transportation to be sent to New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia between 1791 and 1868.

The transportation of non-political Irish convicts followed the general pattern outlined by Robert Hughes: i.e. a period of ‘primitive transportation’ from 1787 to 1810; the second period was from the terminus of the Napoleonic War and the fifteen years after its conclusion, as rapid demographic and economic transformations and an expansion of the capacity of the state drove an increase in transportations; the third phase, from 1831 to 1840, the height of the System; and the final phase, from 1840, when the introduction of the penitential system and the New Poor Law in England in the previous decade provided a carceral solution to social problems hitherto dealt with by transportation.[4]

A minority of those transported were political prisoners - this consisted of veterans of the 1798 Rebellion and the risings of 1803, 1848 and 1867, who were to be exiled from Ireland.

The arrival of four hundred United Irishmen and three hundred members of their allies the Defenders, including some experienced fighters, caused considerable alarm to the colonial authorities in Sydney, who pleaded with London ‘not to send any more of the Irish Republicans’ who ‘keep us in a constant state of suspicion’.[5] These fears were augmented by the presence of some of the leadership of the

United Irishmen, including ‘General’ Joseph Holt, and later, one his most able lieutenants, Michael Dwyer, whose grave now lies in Waverley Cemetery.

These fears were given substance and form in the Castle Hill Rebellion, as Irish political prisoners, led by Philip Cunningham, fired by news of Robert Emmet’s rebellion of 1803, uttered the familiar cry of ‘Death or Liberty’ and, it is said, the more unfamiliar ‘and a ship to take us home’, and planted the Tree of Liberty at Government House.

Following the death of Cunningham, the remaining ring-leaders were court-martialled and hung in chains at Paramatta, Castle Hill and Sydney.

Joseph Holt, despite his protestations that he was not involved, was sent to Norfolk Island, where he chronicled an experience that, in his words, ‘exceeds in cruelty anything that can be credited’.[6]

Dr. Anne-Maree Whitaker has traced the fates of many of the other United Irishman and found that some prospered under the rule of Governor Macquarie, which is unsurprising. The leadership of the United Irishmen tended to reflect the same social composition as did their French revolutionary comrades, as skilled tradesmen, professionals and merchants.[7] Schooled in radical democratic politics, a number became leaders of the emancipist faction - the eldest son of Richard Dry, a prominent anti-transportation advocate, became the first Australian-born Premier of Tasmania.

Integration into the new colonial society did not dissolve bonds of solidarity between political prisoners.  For example, James Meehan, the deputy surveyor general of New South Wales and most influential 1798 man during Macquerie’s term as Governor, befriended Edward Ryan, who was transported to Australia in 1816 for his participation in the Whiteboys, a secret agrarian society dedicated to defending tenant rights. Ryan, emancipated in 1830, established a pastoral empire at Boorowo, three hundred miles west of here.[8]

Thomas Kenneally, in his wonderful book The Great Shame, has recounted the sometimes tragic stories of the gentlemen revolutionaries and intellectuals of the Young Irelander Movement of 1848 – William Smith O’Brien, John Mitchel, Thomas Francis Meagher, Patrick O’Donoghue, Terrence Bellew McManus, Kevin Izod O’Doherty and John Martin.

Let us not ignore, however, that despite their romantic and generous vision of the Irish nation, profound ethical differences later, emerged between them: after escape to America John Mitchel supported the slave-owning Confederate States while Meagher served as the General of the Irish Brigade in the Union army.

The forces which influenced the free migration of a third of a million Irish people to Australia, like my ancestor, were more complex, for it was the rhythms of the new global capitalist economy of the long nineteenth century which structured their experience.

The Irish economy after the Famine was a small, poor, agricultural one and as such, extremely open to world markets. Fluctuations in agricultural prices and poor harvests could have devastating effects, against a general background of a long transition from arable to pastoral farming, enforced, at times, through evictions, leaving some with no option but to emigrate.  How free or voluntary was such a choice?

As David Fitzpatrick reminds us, Irish emigration to Australia was influenced more by the availability of assisted migration, the fortunes of the Australian economy, and phenomena of chain migration than conditions in Ireland, though they surely were important as to the decision to emigrate rather than the destination.My own ancestors made the journey in 1862, during a period of poor harvests in Ireland and at a time when the American Civil War was raging.

The number of Irish born living in Australia peaked in 1891 with 228,000. Since then numbers have reduced in overall terms and as has the proportion of Irish-born residents relative to the overall population.

One can discern a combination of push and full factors affecting rates of migration, with the relative health of both economies, and the ease of entry to alternative migration destinations having a clear influence on the numbers of Irish choosing to come to Australia.

When one thinks of a Diaspora it is inevitable that one engages with the circumstances of a scattering, the structure of a departure, the strangeness of arrival.  For the migrant, it involves a multitude of sensations that are called forth, the challenge of holding on to what had formed one’s mind and one’s life. 

Then too, what maybe near-overwhelming is the challenge and the magnitude of risks not anticipated, and the urgency that is attached to retaining, recovering, the fabric of friendships, too important as sustenance for the future, to be lost. 

If there is a suggestion that emerges from such an experience, one that is repeated again and again in conditions of migration, it is built around the importance of the construction one takes on of the first crucial encounters between those arriving and those who are receiving strangers.  These early assumptions are crucial, built as they are on pre-conceived ideas.  Is the Other a curiosity? Is the Other a threat? Is the Other a resource? How one interprets the behaviour that is offered by way of answer to such questions is inherently moral choice.

As to an ethical approach to commemoration they, as to making the act of remembering ethical be in in Ireland or Australia.  If we are to learn for the future, surely it seems that what is required is a necessary, radical hospitality of the Other which must be paralleled in the new circumstances by hospitality of discourse that is radical in its inclusiveness – a hospitality of narratives, courageous in restoring that which was elided, courageous in its offering of respect for complexity, above all courageous in defending the right of new futures impelled by the pursuit of moral worth, validated by good scholarly work, never dismissed by obsession with the tools of the inadequate present, or trammelled by a closed historiography.   

Re-engaging with the past in such a fashion releases us from the trap of being moulded by past errors, their justification, or our fear of revisiting circumstances.  Re-visiting our circumstances with an ethical regard for the importance of placing ourselves in the shoes of the Other enables us to be free to interpret our present circumstances and above all imagine alternative emancipatory futures that reach beyond ourselves, any narrow individualism, and that might offer hope to future generations of a symmetry recovered and a planet characterised by the pursuit of peace rather than the preparation of that aggression of thought that is always the preliminary of war. 

Our words matter and in our present circumstances, when anger is the temper of our times, we need to use our words for healing rather than wounding.  In doing so with ethical empathetic intent will I believe, be something that can enormously help our understanding of both our possibilities and our dangers.

Go raibh maith agaibh as ucht éisteacht liom agus guím gach rath agus beannacht oraibh don todhchaí.

Thank you all for your attention. 

 

 

[1] Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787 – 1868, Vintage Books: London, p.40.

[2]Clare Anderson, ‘All the world's a Prison’, History Today, April 2016, Vol. 66, Issue 4.

[3] Bob Reece, The Origins of Irish Convict Transportation to New South Wales, Basingstoke, Hampshire, and New York: Palgrave, 2001.

[4] Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: A History of the Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, Vintage Books: London.

[5] H. McQueen, ‘Convicts and Rebels’, Labour History, No. 15 (Nov., 1968, pp. 3 – 30).

[6] Joseph Holt, Memoirs of Joseph Holt: General of the Irish Rebels, in 1798, Volume 2, Harry Colburn: London, 1838, p228

[7] Anne-Maree Whitaker, ‘Swords to Ploughshares? The 1798 Irish Rebels in New South Wales’, Labour History, No. 75 (Nov., 1998), pp. 9-21.

[8] Malcolm Campbell, Kingdom of the Ryans: The Irish in Southwest New South Wales 1816-1890, University of New South Wales Press: Sydney, 1997.

[9] David Fitzpatrick, Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia, Cork University Press: Cork, 1994.