Misleading assertions about ethnic identity

About a decade after ethnicity came into fashion, a fourth generation Aussie criticised the policy of redefining Australia by ethnicity. He said that Australia had, from its beginning, been ethnic. Asked to explain, he said that the Irish had always been here. When I asked what language they spoke and what cultural practices they had brought with them which were different from that of the British or English, he became a little cross; he still ignores me.

Being a little sceptical about ethnicity in the nation’s formative years, but willing to learn, I asked others who said they were ethnic Irish. Most, naturally, knew little about the ancestor who came to Australia. So I asked today’s generations whether they spoke their ancestral language at home, whether they read any books or saw any films in that language. I asked about their beliefs and religious practices; whether they supported any dances or arts representing their ancestral culture; the community or communities they related to; the schools they had attended; the schools attended by their children; the clothes they wore; the food they ate; whether, since the first ancestors’ arrival in Australia, there had been any marriage to non-Irish or to those of another faith; how many such marriages had there been; whether they had been to Ireland to visit relatives; how close they were to relatives in Ireland; whether they felt any ideational or other link with Ireland.

I also asked whether they and their antecedents had been denied equality of opportunity to acquire skills and jobs. At the end of my questioning, I asked about those aspects of behaviour which set them apart from those of fellow Australians. They were also invited to talk about others of similar ancestry. … …

The only conclusion that I could reach was that most of the Irish were separated from most of the British (whether English, Scottish or Welsh) only by their religion and the religio-politics separating these people over the centuries. There was little difference behaviourally and in terms of ambitions, hopes and preferred lifestyles between the four tribes or national groups, apart from their forms and location of worship. There was an Australian way of life to which all subscribed. … …

The most interesting comment about this religio-political divide was made to me only recently (in the mid-Nineties). A professional man of my vintage, a self-titled Irish Catholic, said to me that, for me to understand the subterranean current between the Irish and the British, I had to accept that the Irish in Australia had felt, over two centuries, that the British had kept them down. Yet, in the case of his family, there had been no denial of equal opportunity or justice. … …

He accepted that the priests had tried rigorously to keep their flock away from the others, while all conformed to British politico-cultural institutions, and accepted English as both the language of the nation and their own. Since they had felt deprived and depressed, he said, they took great solace in their own leaders, the priesthood, living in the same manner as the rulers of the other people, i.e. with the same degree of style and comfort. The rulers of the Irish could then deal with the rulers of the British on equal terms.

I am not sure whether he was pulling my leg, but he seemed to be genuinely serious and an educated man. His explanation was the best defence I have ever heard for a priesthood playing at princes.

(There is nothing more divisive in a nation than religion. I believe that the above extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ indicate that, especially when a priesthood controls and contains its flock. I have had personal experience of such control, including the occasion when neighbouring women in a new suburb withdrew from having coffee with my wife at our home after a visit (in a vw) from their priest. In my view, he was un-Australian!

When national boundaries originally reflected ethnic tribal boundaries – the tribe being bound by consanguinity, language, religion and cultural practices – any minority peoples may not have been treated as equals. However, in a modern Western nation such as Australia, created by invasion and immigration, the objective, in time, would have been the assimilation (later integration) of all residents, to a shared national ethos. Integration is now the national objective, with no false memories about discrimination.

The undeniable separation of a priest-led flock from the mainstream population has now, in spite of an apparent social unity, led to the adherents of the Roman Catholic Church achieving political control, thus influencing Australia’s social policies.

Since our politicians discovered divisive ethnicity, and subsequently offered multiculturalism policy for about a quarter of a century, ethnic pride was encouraged. This did lead to some empowerment of ethnic community leaders. But control of the nation remained in safe hands.)