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The constant remaking of a nation

  • 17 August 2022
September 22 marks the centenary of the killing of Michael Collins, the leader of the Irish Free State. After it, the civil war between the Irish groups pressing for an immediate Republic and those led by Collins, who accepted self-government as a British dominion, descended into killings and reprisals by both sides. The desire for freedom that had brought Irishmen together in the successful war for independence from Britain turned into grim and divisive resentment within a repressive cultural environment.

The event may seem to have little to do with Australia. Directly, it didn’t, any more than did the establishment of the State of Israel or the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, but indirectly these events were significant in the lives of many immigrants to Australia, and helped shape the Australia in which we live. They form part of the interlocking sets of relationships between people and communities that shape Australian identity. Although these relationships are intangible their influence can be seen in the everyday lives of Australians and the way in which they interpret their history and institutions.

The experience of Australians of Irish descent, among whom I belong, illustrates this influence. The struggle for independence from Great Britain inclined immigrants to Australia to be suspicious of the Australian Establishment of English descent. Discrimination against immigrants was easily interpreted as hostility to the Irish and their faith. It was intensified by the withdrawal of support for church schools accompanying the establishment of a non-denominational educational system. The mixed resentment and pride that accompanied the building of Catholic schools flowed later into the debates about conscription. These occurred during crucial stages of the Irish struggle for independence from Great Britain. Both causes found an eloquent advocate in Archbishop Mannix whose influence on the Irish Australian vote gave politicians cause for thought.

At a deeper level the Irish experience encouraged among Catholics a view of the world that upheld freedom, was prepared to pay for it in the case of Catholic education, and was suspicious of Government. It was reflected in a commitment to social justice that persists in Catholic schools. It was embodied in the memory of Daniel O’Çonnell, and included such figures as Thomas Meagher whose death sentence for participation in the Young Ireland uprising was commuted to transportation to Australia. A gifted writer and speaker, he escaped from Van Diemen’s Land to the United States, fought in the Civil War, was