We're all boat people after all


Pixellated people in a paper boatThe tide of talk of refugees and boats and immigration and politicians holding refugees hostage for political capital having overwhelmed me recently, I went back to the old annals of my family, kept meticulously by my oldest brother, who recently digitised and webbed them, so that the family can access not only fact but photographs and film snippets of the Old Ones reminiscing, and I am reminded that I am the great-grandchild of immigrants, and so are you. We forget this, and it seems to me that we ought not to forget this.

On the one side my people came to America from County Clare, where they lived by the sea and eked out livings until my great-grandmother rose so high as to run a ferry between Ireland and England; a ferry used most often, I suspect, to escort exiles from Ireland to England, rather than the other way round.

On the other side my people came to America from County Wicklow, where they lived in the mountains and eked out livings which included, as my father has often noted with a smile, many years, perhaps centuries, as village seanachies, the storycatchers of old Ireland, charged with remembering and sharing stories — a crucial job, with hints and intimations of moral responsibility, although my dad, grinning, prefers to say that we have always been paid liars; as he says we have a natural gift for it and if we had only been more venal we could have sunk to being a powerful political dynasty in America, like the Bushes and the Kennedys.

A scientist friend of mine here is involved in a recent discovery that there appear to have been at least three major influxes of immigrants to North America, ten or more thousand years ago. His particular expertise is what he calls maritime strays, the evidence of additional immigrants landing along the Pacific shore thousands of years ago. Not even the First Peoples here were not immigrants, as he says — an interesting phrase to remember when the shrill arguments about who should be allowed to live here and who should not grow bitter and violent.

The same principle is true of Australia, of course, though on a far more remarkable timeline; the First Australians were also visitors to a red wonderland no man or woman had ever seen, before they stepped ashore in the north, and began to dream the oldest culture in the history of human beings.

Boat people, wetbacks, job thieves, welfare cheats; I've heard every nasty and sneering label and insult there is, bandied about freely in raves and waves, and I hear the greed and fear and incipient blood behind those words.

But lately rather than snarl myself at the crude selfishness behind our national fear of immigrants, I stare at my family annals, and read about the lanky children who came here from Ireland, utterly poor, desperately hungry, ferociously eager not so much for money but for decent work, and decent shelter, and a chance to love and protect their spouses and children in a country without imperial police, a country where they could speak freely and worship whatever gods they pleased.

We forget this, and it seems to me that we ought not to forget this.


Brian Doyle headshotBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the essay collection Grace Notes.

Boat people image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, asylum seekers, boat people



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Existing comments

Back when the "Tampa crisis" was engineered by the Howard government in order to steal a previously unlikely election win, an acquaintance of mine discussed the issue with his neighbour, Vaughany, an indigenous bloke. "Vaughany, what do you reckon about all these boat people?", asked Paul. Vaughany thought about it for a moment. "I dunno why youse are carrying on so much about it", he said. "Y'know youse are all boat people, bro."
David Arthur | 31 July 2013

The archetype of Australians as boat people is rightly honoured, especially by those with an historical memory. However there are two areas of this discussion where we need to be cautious. The first is with the Indigenous Australians, who as we understand walked into Australia in a time frame impossible to imagine if you are simply a human. There has been a tendency in boat talk recently to define all Australians as boat people, as though it were a generic definition of being Australian. It isn’t an accurate definition. The second area has to do with the problem that the descendants of the British settlers think of themselves as the right kind of boat people, as distinct from the wrong kind of boat people, of the kind we see seeking asylum via Indonesia today. We are the right kind of boat people because we have the right kind of thinking, which is that the European claim to sovereignty over Australia is beyond dispute. This attitude of rightful possession, which has its roots in the British law and the thinking of 18th and 19th century British boat people, is at the heart of the current problems besetting our politics and our national mood. It is an attitude we are finding it very hard to overcome.
TOAD OF TOAD HALL | 31 July 2013

If we cast our minds back to the first batch of boat people our history records - bloke called Arthur Philip was in charge - and look at the affect these and subsequent inflxes have had on this country, perhaps the extreme measures now being proposed to control the New Fleet are justified. It is just a shame that the Legal Custodians of the country back in 1788 didn't have a navy to turn back the boats. It is doubtful if the Custodians could have found a complaisant neighbour to take on those ancient refugees, as they were in fact being banished by a harsh, ruthless, unjust regime, often for being of the wrong class or ethnicity. I'm sure there are links to be made here, if only I was smart enough to work it all out.
vincenzo vittorio | 31 July 2013

The same could be said for the Moriori and the Maori could be regarded as "boat people."
Noelene | 31 July 2013

Yes, Brian I totally agree with your sentiments that we are all boat people. I'm 5th generation AUstralian and not one of my ancestors above me in my family tree arrived in Australia by plane and most arrived either through farm labor migration schemes in the 1800s, and some with falsified documents making Irish surnames appear English because of the quota on Irish immigration. But 2013 is another world which is more and more coming to resemble the fictional scenario in hollywood armageddon movies - looming environmental, political and economic mayhem and upheaval no longer seems far-fetched, and governments policies are no longer based on morality and ethics, but survival of the fittest in an environment of scarcity and fear.
AURELIUS | 31 July 2013

with all due respect to the author Brian Doyle, and in complete agreement with his article, I must comment that we have heard it all before. all the arguments as to why both Parties' polocies are inhumane. Words! words! words! What about some action ? How can we organise an enoumous peaceful rally demonstrating our complete and utter opposotion to these atrocious polocies.. Let us put our money where our mouth is and demand justice
bernie introna | 31 July 2013

' if we had only been more venal we could have sunk to being a powerful political dynasty in America' . . . I LOVE IT!!
glen avard | 04 September 2013


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