Through Irish Eyes Patrick O’Farrell (Gill and Macmillan £12.99)

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 1996), Reviews, Volume 4

Through Irish Eyes is distinct from O’Farrell’s earlier works in that it is not a conventional academic type history in the written sense, rather it is a collection of photographs, posters and cartoons whose intention it is to both at once celebrate and give some insight into an earlier culture of ‘Irishness’ in an adopted land. It is concerned with the Irish consciousness, and how it was reshaped and developed in the distant and remote worlds of Australia and New Zealand. Conceptually this is an elusive pursuit. The questions beg eternal: Who are we? How pertinent is our Irish baggage? How have our surroundings altered us?

Through Irish Eyes offers the reader a rich, layered and suggestive set of visions, ideas, and propositions. The material used is impressive: it does not operate on closed interpretation, rather, as the author states in his introduction, it is a personal meditation by means of imagery. It is a way of telling rather than an attempt to explain. It is inferential, even conjectural, but never definitive. Photographs and the like do not lend themselves to an imperative of historical objectivity—a camera, or an artist’s easel can be as subjective as the spoken word or the pen. However to say that O’Farrell’s collection itself is subjective is to miss the point, his work is above all else suggestive, and suggestion provokes research, debate and dialogue. There never will be a completely objective or definitive text on the Irish experience in Australia or New Zealand. But that in itself provides no reason not to publish a work such as this, nor does it give licence to dismiss such a work.

The Irish were a ‘travelling people’. As a race they were archetypal emigrants. But beyond the physical movement away from Ireland itself the Irish often moved up the social order within their host countries: from bowyang and corduroy to suit, from slab hut to lace curtains, from ‘Paddy’ to ‘Mister’. O’Farrell’s collection chronicles this movement, but more interestingly it chronicles the complex interwoven tapestry of the emigrants encounter with their Antipodean reality—the visions and memories of Ireland imposed and projected on to Australian and New Zealand landscapes. All at once the images offer a window onto a people that can appear to be confused, isolated, desolate, hopeful, proud, satisfied, happy, contented.

Variety is canvassed in this collection. Although those that are depicted are predominantly from the Catholic and Gaelic tradition O’Farrell also addresses the Anglo-Irish and those of Protestant-Ulster stock. His selection illustrates an intimate understanding of the fact that ‘Irishness’ is not one dimensional, but rather a dynamic concept which is fraught with tribal tensions and divisions. Hence we are afforded visions of Orange Lodge demonstrations in Melbourne, derisive and racist Punch cartoons from the last century, alongside images of St Patrick’s Day, the Hibernian Society and celebrations of Celtic culture.

Continuing with the tribal theme O’Farrell also advances the importance of the Irish relationship with the Catholic church. For him the church has always been central to the Irish experience in Australia and New Zealand. It gave definition to a flotsam people and offered a communal reference point in Godless and empty lands. The Catholic Church gave spiritual guidance whilst providing group affirmation for an Irish people in a colonial environment whose sentiment, disposition, laws and culture were predominantly English: in this environment celebrations of Catholicism came to be more than religious occasions, they were measures of Irish advancement. Thus we are treated to visions splendid of Mannix, Moran, and the attendant privileges afforded to local parish priests whilst observing the development of a Catholic establishment whose cornerstone was the edifice of institutionalised places of worship and education.

Through Irish Eyes offers the reader a window on to a life, a time, and a culture that was. In O’Farrell’s own estimation it is a celebration of a culture that had real worth, meaning, dignity and depth. To this end the book is a satisfying collection of images; a guided journey through a colonial reality breaching the period from 1788 to 1948. One is left hankering for a similar book, or narrative, canvassing the Irish experience in Australia and New Zealand up to the present day.

A.P. Quinn

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