(C) Copyright John Peter Luke Saunders, 2000

 

 

 In the course of talking to other university students (and others) while researching this thesis over several years, I was taken aback at the knee-jerk prejudice the vast majority of people displayed against the Irish and those of Irish descent. It was not true premeditated racism, but an ingrained (encultured) reaction. People spontaneously broke into the most appalling “Irish jokes” despite the fact that I am of Irish descent myself.
 Only two groups did not share this bigotry: one group was comprised of those who were conscious of their own Irish or Scottish ancestry, the others were humanities students.

  As one person said to me (a lawyer) - “I would never think of telling a racist joke about anyone with a different hue to my own, but when it comes to the Irish it somehow seems OK”

 The kind of bias I observed continually over the course of several years was at odds to my expectations: as a city Perth, Western Australia, has one of the highest per capita ratios of people of Irish extraction anywhere outside of Ireland (Miller, 2000)

 This bias led me to re evaluate the history of Irish Otherness both here in Australia, and it’s forerunner in Ireland itself.

 A large number of convicts sent to Australia were from Ireland or were of Irish extraction.

“The fear that the tiny garrison of the prison colony might be overwhelmed by an Irish uprising appears very early in the history of New South Wales, certainly before 1798. The rebellion of that year, and those transported because of it, heightened such fears to the level of near hysteria. They were confirmed by the reputation Irish convicts speedily acquired within the settlement for being insolent, turbulent, unco-operative, and for ever conspiring and trying to escape. The image of the Irish as fools, ‘China travellers’, was not so much supplanted as massively supplemented and overlaid by the belief that they were all dangerous rebels: the idiot and the simpleton took on a terrifying aspect.” (O’Farrell, 1987, p. 37).

 Ned Kelly is remembered as both bush ranger and folk hero, but in the light of the previous two chapters it is fascinating to read his own words and see what the popular representations have edited out:
 “What would England do if America declared war and hoisted a green flag as it is all Irishman that has got command of her armies forts and batteries even her very life guards and beef tasters are Irish would they not slew around and fight her with their own arms for the sake of the colour they dare not wear for years and to reinstate it and rise old Erins isle once more from the pressure and tryannism of the English yoke which has kept it in poverty and starvation and caused them to wear the enemy’s coat. What else can England expect” (Brown, Page 218-2)

 Ned Kelly’s attitudes towards police brutality and harassment is still uncannily relevant today. But it is the way he links this to his sense of Irish nationalism, so absent in the modern popular representations, that give the best insight of what it like to be Irish – on either side of the colonial fence - in his era.

 In early Australia  “the Irish were The Enemy. In their various forms – convicts, Catholics, rebels, workers, Fenians, Sinn Feiners – they were the despised and rejected, the outcast, the feared, the hated.” (O’Farrell, 1987, p. 7-8)
 The Irish in Australia thus had the worst of reputations even from the first. It is also interesting to note that in “Ireland itself, by the end of the eighteenth century, Gaelic had become a clear liability for getting on in the world, and the sensible modern Irishman or woman increasingly used English – Gaelic was the badge of poverty and failure. In Australia the same was applied, with the additional danger that its use might be construed as covering crime....Whatever may be thought of it now, since the Gaelic revival, the Australian Irish of the early nineteenth century saw the Gaelic language as another means by which they were isolated and subdued. It was a bar to the world of power, dominated by the English, a double imprisonment for the Irish convicts of New South Wales. And it was seen, at best, as a joke: the influence of Gaelic idioms  and linguistic structures when carried over into English were generally seen as funny, laughable.” (O’Farrell, 1987, p. 27).

 Go back two hundred years further to Tudor England, and attitudes towards the Irish become clearer still. Here the Irish must be made to conform and “the onely means to bring the people soonest to conformitie, and the country to quietnesse, is without compassion to punishe the offenders, and without either grace or mercie to execute the rebelles, and such as be malefactours” (Rich, 1578).
 These Irish are a people of “beastly and brutish manners” (Rich, 1578) who are “more uncivill, more uncleanly, more barbarous, and more brutish in their customes and demeanurs, then any other part of the world that is knowne” (Rich, A Short survey of Ireland, 1609), even “more Heathen than those, that never heard of God” (Rich, New Description)

 Worse still, despite the better examples around them “the Irish had rather stil retaine themselves in their sluttishness, in their uncleaninesse, in their rudenesse, and in their inhuman loathsomnes, then they would take any example from the English, either of civility, humanity, or any manner of Decencie” (Rich, New Description, Pg 16)

 Thus the prevalent picture painted is thus  “the image of the Irish as children or beasts” (Harrington, p. 103)

 Worst of all is this notion of Irish as “inhuman” – as animal, or worse. Once this connection is made, as it has been made countless times since against many ethnic minorities, any atrocity becomes justifiable in the eyes of the perpetrator.

 This, of course, is anti-Irish prejudice at it’s worst. It was not just in England and Australia that such prejudice was held: in the United States as well, the Catholic Irish were once feared for their numbers and their vote. Again, the worst of stereotypes applied.
 “In the last quarter of the 19th century, a single figure dominates much of American humour. Whether on stage, in cartoon or in song. “Paddy,” the Irish-American labourer, delighted millions. A scruffy, lower-class workingman, Paddy could be distinguished by his primitive, ape-like face, unkempt whiskers, and large, clumsy hands and feet. Equally popular was his female counterpart, “Bridget” – the ill-mannered and altogether unmanageable Irish domestic.” (Donovan, p. 6).

  Typically “a Celt is notoriously a passionate, impulsive, kindly, unreflecting, brave, nimble-witted man; but he lacks the solidity, the balance, the judgement, the moral staying power of the Anglo-Saxon” (Merwin, 1896).

 By the end of the 19th century anti Irish sentiment had waned considerably. “The increasing conformity and respectability of America’s growing Irish middle classes was probably the most important factor promoting the decline in anti-Irish sentiment”  (Donovan, p. 14) and it was agreed by consensus that “assimilation....was the best way to handle the Irish “problem.” In the years that followed, this was the course most Irish took to become respectable Americans.” (Donovan, p. 14).

 The issues at stake in this chapter are issues of Otherness, alterity and difference within a (post) colonial society. There has always been an ambivalence to “fitting in” – how does one retain one’s culture while retaining one’s dignity? Yet does the Dominant need an Other to in order to construct a notion of it’s own superiority? Certainly, according to The Location of Culture - “Hegemony requires iteration and alterity to be effective” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 29).

 There are two sides to this fitting in. One is the aspect of the dominant culture wishing to integrate minorities enough to ensure that they are not a threat but to retain some small token of difference to ensure it’s own air of superiority.
 The other aspect is that of the Irish wanting to fit in – of gaining the respect of the society around them and a respite from ridicule and persecution.

 

Therefore, it is worth asking the question  “For whose benefit is St Patricks day?” Is it the same in New York as it is in Australia?  Is this carnivalesque merely another tool of social control?

 “Lately, some have started asking why the heirs to a culture as rich and complex as Ireland’s feel a need to reduce their heritage to fecklessness, and on St Patrick’s day!... No other group demeans itself this way.” (Dezell, 1998, p. 62).

  Does St Patrick’s Day exist in Australia as a continued means of constructing the Irish as Other, and was the early construction not needed by the Irish themselves but allowed/exploited by those who benefited from a certain negative conceptualisation of the Irish?

“The concept of cultural difference focuses on the problem of the ambivalence of cultural superiority: the attempt to dominate in the name of a cultural supremacy which is itself produced only in the moment of differentiation” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 34)

 The whole St Patrick’s Day issue highlights the misuse of historical representation, or the representation of certain symbols and traditions as being other than what they historically and politically were/are. Just because something has become traditional does not automatically make it benevolent: the archaeology of such rituals must always be critically evaluated.

“The enunciation of cultural difference problematises the binary division of past and present, tradition and modernity, at the level of cultural representation and it’s authoritative address. It is the problem of how, in signifying the present, something comes to be repeated, relocated and translated in the name of tradition, in the guise of a pastness that is not necessarily a faithful sign of historical memory but a strategy of representing authority in terms of the artifice of the archaic.” (Bhabha, 1994, p. 35).

 It is strongly recognised that old=good/modern=bad is a dangerous binary trap to fall into. Just because something is old does not make it good. Not everything that is inherited (prejudices, bias, feuds) should be kept: everything needs to be evaluated on it’s own merits. Moreover, such a viewpoint tends to falsely represent the past in terms of a peasant/pastoral ideal which never existed. Such a standpoint also ignores the ongoing, dynamic nature of cultural evolution which continually appropriates and adapts. The nature of the past need not determine the nature of the future.

 St Patrick’s Day also serves as a good example to be wary of any justification based on tradition or supposed age where such a justification involves an element of representational/political power. Such a strategy attempts to naturalise the way things are, when the way things are is anything but natural.

 In the 20th century, Australian-Irish, like many other ethnic groups, were been cast into a difficult position: whether (and how) to maintain the positive aspects of their parent culture while existing in a society which simultaneously attempts to assimilate them culturally while ridiculing them.
  There have been varying responses in varying levels, but at a non commercial level it is argued that the dominant – and really only possible response – has been to assimilate in the public sphere while keeping the cultural markers in the private.

In the next chapter, we shall examine those memories preserved in the private sphere.

Footnotes:

(3)    “my brothers and sisters and my mother not to be pitied also who has no alternative only to put up with the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splay-footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or english landlords which is better known as officers of Justice or Victorian police who some calls honest gentlemen but I would like to know what business an honest man would have in the Police as it is an old saying it takes a rogue to catch a rogue and a man that knows nothing about roguery would never enter the force and take an oath to arrest brother sister father or mother if required and to have a case and conviction if it is possible any man knows it is possible to swear a lie and if a policeman looses a conviction for the sake of swearing a lie he has broken his oath therefore he is a perjuror either ways, a Policeman is a disgrace to his country not alone to the mother that suckled him, in the first place he is a rogue to his heart but too cowardly to follow it up without having the force to disguise it. Next he is a traitor to his country ancestors and religion as they were all catholics before the Saxons and Cranmore yoke held sway since they were persecuted massacred thrown into martyrdom and tortured beyond the ideas of the present generation. What would people say if they saw a strapping big Irishman shepherding sheep for fifteen bob a week or tailing turkeys in Tallrook 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 massacreed and murdered their fore-fathers by the greatest of torture as rolling them down hill in spiked barrels pulling their toe and finger nails on the wheel and every torture imaginable more was transported to Van Diemand’s Land to pine their young lives away in starvation and misery among tyrants  worse than the promised hell itself...in those places of tyranny...many a blooming Irishman rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains but true to the shamrock and a credit to Paddys land...The Queen must surely be proud of such heroic men as the Police and the Irish soldiers as It takes eight or eleven of the biggest mud crushers in Melbourne to take one poor little half starved larrakin to a watchhouse.” (Brown, Pg 280-281).