EJANZH: Dickey review of Mclaughlin

Trevor McLaughlin (ed), Irish Women in Colonial Australia, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1998, pp xvi + 229, illus. $24.95 pb.

Reviewed By Brian Dickey.

We used to say after a hard day in the bowels of the NSW State Library’s Archives section that we could only stand so many case records of disaster and defeat. There was also the dirt accumulated on the files unopened for a hundred years. Now a new generation of researchers has returned with greater energy and new tools, notably powerful computers (and sometimes hardworking research assistants). In this volume they have turned their attention to the Irish women of Australia’s colonial past. By mythic inheritance a powerful and attractive lot, celebrated in ‘Around the Boree Log’, the little mothers of song and tale.

However, the original cohort, mainly convict or pauper migrant fleeing famine-struck Ireland were depicted in the 1970s as a hopeless lot of oppressed women, labelled, managed, directed, voiceless victims. The claims were largely by way of assertion, based often on some dodgy theoretical claims. It taken far too long for that dissonance to be re-examined, for the theory to be tested.

This collection undertakes the task with vigour. Overall, the recreation here of the lives of that first generation has been done with great imagination and respect. Consonant with so much current scholarship about Australia’s female forbears, these Irish female migrants emerge as agents much involved in the creation and management of their colonial destiny.

Few were mere victims. The hypotheses developed by Anne Summers and Miriam Dixson, in particular, are not standing up to close investigation. These are positive tales of women who for the most part moved from disaster to a better life with some degree of purpose.

Nonetheless, the collection contains some variations. Portia Robinson and Robin Haines both have an optimistic view of the range of outcomes they examine. Richard Davis and Trevor McLaughlin are willing to emphasise the darker side of their experiences and the negative outcomes.

Robinson and Haines and some of the others are obsessively empirical. McLaughlin is more respectful of a range of theoretical propositions, mainly deriving from the corpus of feminist scholarship. In addition, to some extent the differences between the optimists and the pessimists in the collection also depends on the type of systematic record each has interrogated.

Robinson relies on the many petitions submitted by convicts in early New South Wales to the local authorities. She also maps the crimes of the Irish women convicts committed in the colony. The petitions are mainly about the struggle for a better future. The criminal records suggest few were involved. Haines meanwhile looks at the immigration records of assisted migrants from Ireland. Like Robinson she is observing the passage of women from disaster to prosperity, to settled lives, to civilised experiences, to substantial family formation. Here are the foundations for the future of the little Irish mother.

By contrast. Davis and McLaughlin use criminal records to expound the lives of those particular Irish women. It makes grimmer reading, as murderers and the like are paraded before us. Even then , my impression is of women more likely to appear in court for breaching the peace than putting a knife into somebody. There seem to be a lot of Irish women having a good time with their friends. These two authors seem intent on a blacker picture, but perhaps the record will not sustain it.

The other essays sit between these extremes, exploring similar themes in the various colonial locations. Richard Reid does for the NSW assisted women migrants what Haines has done for those to South Australia. Again it is a picture of a deliberate search for a better life, mostly successful. The tale is essentially repeated by Libby Connors and Bernadette Turner for Moreton Bay, and Pauline Rule for Victoria. There are some dark moments when the records of the insane asylums are examined. Even then, Haines, in an interesting footnote reminds us of the importance of cohort disaggregation. She also wonders about differentials in ages of death between men and women, between Irish born and English born, that especially left Irish women out on their own at the end of their lives to end up in one sort of asylum or another. It is not simple.

Eric Richards and Ann Herraman give us a micro-located study. They investigate how the mid-1850s surge of Irish girls to South Australia was managed in one locality, Mount Barker to the east of Adelaide. They investigate crime records, but better, they use the baptism, marriage and burial records of the Catholic priest of the district. The early concerns that these girls were fractious, incompetent, non-English speaking disasters were soon swamped by their ready acceptance into the farming community. As Haines shows, they were beginning their employment careers, eager to learn, eager to better themselves. Most did, moving fairly promptly from service to marriage and motherhood, becoming part of the scenery, no longer special problems for the colonial bureaucrats to manage.

The final offering is an analysis by David Fitzpatrick of some of the letters he used for his great work, Oceans of Compassion. Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia (1995). Isabella Wyly and Biddy Burke are once more given to us, warm, loving people, dwelling on their Irish past, maintaining their family links. But importantly, Fitzpatrick proposes that there was nothing especially female about the letters or the experience. It was the search to interpret the process of separation, migration, settlement that led both men and women to exploit emotional language, to draw on family ties, to grapple with the new public environment, to record successes and failures. What Fitzpatrick is suggesting is that some scholarship has for too long been obsessed with gender, mainly female gender, as the principal variable for research and interpretation. He is refocussing our attention on the experience of transition, on the process of making a new and hopeful living. These were matters that transcended gender.

The next challenge will be to move beyond national identity, or at least to replicate the questions asked so lovingly about the Irish, and focus on the English. These are the people least considered, whether female or male. The labelling we have inherited from the nineteenth century has limited our vision too much. Can we move on in our research projects past these Irish women? Of course, the work is already in hand, as these scholars make plain from the endnotes. Publishers must cooperate too: is this book just a tad oriented to the sentimental exploitation of the mythic Irish image? Will a similar book on English men sell as well?

As the character and history of personal relations are explored further, scholars will do well to engage, as some of these authors have done, with the research of family historians. The dockets of bureaucrats about migrants, criminals or brides only takes us so far.

The pattern of family lives need even further detailed attention. My eponymous Belfast forbear from the famine years disappeared into the colonial community. My Greek forbear likewise was soon embedded there too. The Welshman who came in the 1850s married a locally born girl less than half his age. One of their daughters married an English migrant of the 1870s. These are transitions that need to be explored alongside this obsessive attention given to a putatively durable ethnicity. I am convinced that the intermarrying, mobile population of nineteenth century Australia was creating its own complex and varied civilisation, drawing no doubt on cultural, ethnic and religious heritages.

But the interactions were producing new outcomes. Our ethnic, migration and gender-focussed scholars need to engage with the larger enterprise of characterising the outcomes in colonial Australian society. But I do recognise that they can only read so many hard case files a day if they are to retain their compassion and humanity and humility.

Brian Dickey, Flinders University, Adelaide