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Pride of Erin

Pride of Erin

'Without doubt or question, colonial Ireland dies with me and with my like—the transitionals. Transitional to what? To a land of cultural chaos and the walking dead? To fragments and ghettoes of materialist minds? Or, are we to break the spell that immobilises the past, liberate its pioneering greatness from the shackles of its sins and negligences, and return it to life with us?’

So Patrick O’Farrell—the renowned philosopher-historian who died last Christmas Day aged only 70—concluded Vanished Kingdoms, his extraordinary amalgam of personal, family and social history. His great double achievement —to revitalise our Catholic past, transforming our understanding of it, and to create the field of Irish-Australian history—was only part of his story. He was also a stylist who could be elegant, lucid, wry and idiosyncratic by turns, one of our finest writers who wanted, for himself and his readers, to see both the big picture and what lay beneath it.

In her profound obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, Professor Elizabeth Malcolm of Melbourne University referred to his The Irish in Australia and wrote, ‘It is not merely a history of Irish settlement in Australia; it is an examination of the development of an Australian identity and an assessment of the role that the Irish played in this process. I think it not an exaggeration to say that what Manning Clark attempted to do in six volumes, O’Farrell did in one and with more panache’.

And, as Australia metamorphosed, he was alert to the fact that it is open—as our future unfolds to other cultures and religions to exert their own influence on the new Australia. He was an historian alive not simply to the past—and certainly not the mere passé—but to the pressing need for ceaseless examination of our individual lives: the personal, the ethical, the spiritual.

John Carmody

Across the fence
Rural Australians for Refugees

In Albury it is 41 degrees. The man at the microphone is wearing a jacket, tie and a badge in his lapel—RSL or Rotary.

‘My Name is Ian Skiller and I’m a horticulturalist from Tooleybuc.’ He says to an audience of over 300 at the second annual Rural Australians for Refugees Conference.

A while back, he says, someone contacted him to see if he’d provide accommodation for a few Afghan blokes. Asylum seekers on TPVs (temporary protection visas). He said yes. Then he figured he might give the men some work. It all panned out well. Someone told him about Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR). He found a local branch in Kerang, joined, and got going. The men working for him needed services and language classes. He went to Canberra ‘to get it sorted’.

He looks a little wry about how much was sorted in Canberra, but he now has very good relations with the National’s MP for Mallee, John Forrest. They talk refugee politics on the car phone when Forrest is travelling.
Ian Skiller, having met the men and lived with them, is now a spokesman for refugees. And he looks as  surprised about it all as the city people in the crowd. The folk from Albury, Wangaratta and
Braidwood are not surprised. They have done similar things themselves. They understand both the problems of rural life and the local strengths. Country people have to depend on one another, hence the gradual acceptance of refugee employees in rural towns, rural industries.

Eighteen months ago, with Melbourne lawyer and refugee advocate David Manne, I went to Wangaratta for a RAR church hall meeting. Both of us were unprepared for the size of the crowd, and the preparation that had gone into the gathering—school displays, publicity etc. I remember best the gent in tweed jacket and hat who said as he walked though the door, ‘No, don’t give me any pamphlets. I want to listen and decide for myself.’ Fair enough.

David was in Albury this time too, and as we sat in Charles Sturt University campus, we both remarked on the distance RAR has travelled in two years. Dozens of branches, thousands of members, and much work behind them—visiting detention centres, organising support networks, making friends, lobbying government. With its overflow crowd, workshops back to back, and intense discussion this conference was a social movement. The people who’d come already understood refugee issues and were there to learn how to work effectively, not to decide whether or not they would. Many  had read the literature available—there is now a formidable Australian list, from Peter Mares’ Borderline through Marian Wilkinson and David Marr’s Dark Victory to Frank Brennan’s recent Tampering with Asylum—and if they hadn’t, some of the authors were there in Albury to be quizzed. There were also asylum seekers present, able and eager to speak for themselves.

Proceedings began with a welcome from Charles Sturt’s head of campus, Professor Gail Whiteford. ‘This is what universities should be doing’, she declared. The traditional role of the academy was ‘to be the critic and conscience of society’. Sir Humphrey would call her brave.

Keynote speaker Frank Brennan followed Wiradjuri elder, Nancy Rooke, who in the course of her formal welcome and call for every one to ‘go in peace and unity together’ remarked, ‘These people who have come to our land have made a big difference’. Sometimes Aboriginal generosity is breathtaking. Frank Brennan said that if Albury were ever to be excluded from the Australia’s immigration zone, it would still be Wiradjuri land. That set the tone of the conference which was often heated and enthusiastic, wry and informative.

Marilyn Webster, a local RAR member, was a salutary critic. She wanted better communication within RAR and she wanted it now. Barrister and refugee advocate Julian Burnside was legal-encyclopaedic as he walked the audience through the maze of claim and appeal that asylum seekers face. His opening gambit was to remark that, like Zsa Zsa Gabor’s seventh husband, he knew what to do but wasn’t sure how to make it interesting. He managed.

But there was no levity later when he questioned Sussan Ley, Liberal Member for Farrer, representing Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, as to why she continued to refer to asylum seekers as  ‘illegal’ or ‘unlawful’. Ley had joined the conference as part of a hypothetical panel (‘It’s 2010 and you are Prime Minister elect in a shared government of reconciliation’) with Senators Andrew Bartlett, Kerry Nettle and Labor’s Member for Chifley, Roger Price. Sir Humphrey would have called her very brave.

Even more brave—or lazy—was the Border Mail, which didn’t wait for the conference to get into swing before it ran the banner headline ‘REFUGEE SHOWDOWN’ on its Saturday morning front page. Crystal ball journalism.

But the metro dailies and the electronic media picked up some of the issues. Jill Singer who attended, spoke the next day on Jon Faine’s local ABC conversation hour. Manus Island became a talking point and the Catch 22 nature of our immigration sieve (‘the asylum seeker didn’t ask for exactly the right form by name so we couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t process him’ etc.) got the exposure it deserves.

‘A small group of committed citizens can change the world’, said Albury’s Dr Penny Egan-Vine. She was quoting Margaret Mead, and her words could have been a self-congratulatory rallying cry. But on this occasion they weren’t. More of a challenge, that if small groups of committed citizens fail to act, then we entrench a system that is manifestly unjust.

Morag Fraser

Descending gloom
Twilight harness racing

Racing officials were pleased when 3000 people went to a twilight meeting at Flemington early in January. Metropolitan night racing has been with us since the 1990s, but judging by the turnout at Moonee Valley before Australia Day, these might as well be phantom meetings.

The Moonee Valley Racing Club had done its best to attract patrons, but scarcely reached beyond the hard core. The entertainment provided hardly touched them: a Bush Show for kids, the Frankie J. Holden Band, and the national anthem, sung by a well-coached 16-year-old. Most dire was where teams of men ran up the straight while eating a pie, hopped back in sacks and completed the course by pushing a beer barrel—the ‘Aussie games.’

The Club is recovering from the unthinkable: stuffing up the Cox Plate last October. The weather may have been chancy and the field below par, but it was the $50 admission fee that reduced the crowd by 10,000. Add to this the refusal to include subsequent Derby winner Elvstroem in the field: although he was beaten narrowly in the Vase on Cox Plate day, he might have stretched his seniors.

On this night, Prancelot, in the colours of Dulcify which won a Cox Plate, led all the way in the first. The second was a 3000 metre race for ordinary horses. The start is at the 1200m mark. Round they go to the post and round again. We backed Tarlan, a jumps as well as a flat winner. He was wide early, but once the jockey got him to the rails in the straight he led thereafter.  Freedman and Oliver combined to win the next on Dane Tryst and it was time for the feature race.

Last year’s winner Yell, who went on to win three Group One sprints on the trot, was in again. In the spring his form tailed off after a first-up win at the Valley. The three-year-old, highly regarded Delzao was resuming. The rest looked consistent rather than exciting, save for the lightly-raced four-year-old mare Vocabulary. The race was run at a muddling pace. Yell was wide and finished fourth. Super Elegant had the race won but the jockey might have taken it easy, for Vocabulary swooped and scored. In the next race Mardi Gras looked so good coming on to the track that I felt sick for not having backed her. She won. Three quinellas and Tarlan bailed us out. We caught the 59 tram back, wondering what the Club can do to draw a crowd. There is even talk of the night trots going back to the Showgrounds, let alone the furphy of the Cox Plate going to Flemington. Do we really need a second Mackinnon Stakes?

Skite-time: this column wrapped Falbrav last October. He won the biggest race at the Hong Kong International meeting, his fifth Group One for the year. Two-year-old Bago rounded off his season with a six length victory in the Group One Criterium. He topped the European Free Handicap
for two-year-olds. Watch for him in this year’s classics.

Peter Pierce

This month’s contributors: John Carmody is a Sydney medical scientist and opera and music critic; Morag Fraser is an adjunct professor in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at La Trobe University. She was an invited speaker at the RAR conference. Peter Pierce is Professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University, Cairns.



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