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Paul Collins illuminates sectarian divide in Australian history

  • 19 December 2014

A Very Contrary Irishman – The Life and Journeys of Jeremiah O’Flynn by Paul Collins. Morning Star Publishing, November 2014.


I was a child at the feet of my late maternal grandfather, a complex, wizened little man brought up in the bosom of the Salvos. They are a quirky branch cut from Methodism, in turn grafted from Anglicanism, duly divorced from Catholicism. I used to hear early 20th century stories of the wide political and religious-cultural chasm that existed between Australian Catholics and Protestants. 

It was a sectarian divide of suspicion and prejudice that is thankfully unknown to my children. It was a gap that was bridged sporadically by acts of kindness and fellow travail. A Very Contrary Irishman – The Life and Journeys of Jeremiah O’Flynn is a labour of love that was researched, written and honed over several decades. Paul Collins presents a very human, driven man whose actions – and attributed actions – changed numerous lives and in some small ways helped to shape our culture. 

Collins is a History PhD with a flair for journalism and background in theology and philosophy. He uses A Very Contrary Irishman as a vehicle to transport us back to the temporal and spiritual rifts present in the colony of New South Wales. Many Catholics endured life under officially sanctioned neglect and sometimes oppression, and the story is well set against a wider world of sharp political and religious disputations.

It turns on this truth: before monk-turned-priest O’Flynn arrived in the Antipodes’ penal possessions with the Pope’s blessing – yet without British permission or knowledge – the mass of Catholic transportees and emancipists and a considerable percentage of the colony’s military personnel were without spiritual solace or representation from a priest in Sydney town and Van Diemen’s Land. O'Flynn got the ball rolling for those sheep without a shepherd, against the wishes and judgement of the colony's masters (to whom Collins is not unsympathetic , in many respects).

Macquarie’s deportation of O’Flynn for other climes marks a wobbly moment in Australian religious tolerance. O’Flynn presents as quite the rebel with a cassock, doesn’t he? With the author’s warts and all examination of his subject (who may or may not have had punch-ups with other clergy in other locales, and may or may not have knowingly attempted to deceive the ornery Governor Lachlan Macquarie), and authorial discussion of the nexus between history and myth, Collins looks to