BRISBANE — St. Patrick’s Day is a day much given to political blarney Down Under, but it also is a reminder of a past in which Irish enmities played a big part in daily life.
Former labour prime minister Kevin Rudd, for example, used a speech at Brisbane’s Irish Club to proclaim his Irish roots.
“It’s time to announce that I will challenge,” Rudd told his delighted audience of Guinness-sippers. “I’ll challenge any of the Liberal (opposition) politicians to demonstrate that they have any more Irish blood than me!”
Much laughter, much applause, and rightly so. A boast of Irish antecedents is perfectly in tune with the Australian Labour Party.
The ALP has nurtured, and been nurtured, by the Irish since its unlikely conception under an Outback tree more than a century ago.
But St. Pat’s Day now ignites claims to Irish heritage by ambitious politicians who, a few decades ago, would have hidden it away as a curse.
In the two centuries of European settlement, thousands of “Os” preceding “Neills” have been banished, like a pauper booted out of a posh hotel.
Right up until the 1970s, an extraordinary yet invisible divide ran across this country between Protestant and Catholic. That strange cold war existed in many western countries but was perhaps more intense here in a British outpost that in its early years frequently played host to Irish criminals.
It silently marked out its territory in public service and police departments and even bewildered kids were subject to its pernicious influence.
As a child in 1973 playing at a Protestant friend’s house, I overheard a robust discussion upstairs among a group of adults urging my host’s father to send me home because I was Irish Catholic.
A generation removed from County Clare, and more intrigued than traumatized by the incident, I soon learned this largely whispered world of warring tribes extended all the way to tractor parts.
When requiring repairs to farm machinery, my dad felt obligated to drive to the Catholic-run spare-parts joint rather than the Protestant, as if a Massey Ferguson fan belt carried a stamp of tribal allegiance.
Catholic parents often refused to attend their own child’s wedding if the marriage crossed “the divide” and Catholic clergy were the most enthusiastic participants in the absurdity.
When told by a Sister of Mercy that Protestants were “different,” I timidly questioned exactly how. It wasn’t insolence — my childish imagination was aroused by the possibility of fascinating markings or odious tumours beneath their clothing.
A cuff around the ear settled my first theological debate, but looking back, it’s clear I was pursuing a reasonable line of questioning.
Now 40 years on, there’s barely a trace of a cultural oddity that ruthlessly defined entire lives, barred close friendships and prohibited what could have been beautiful romances.
In a handful of decades, 100 years of bigotry have melted away like a morning mist, and all without the resolution of the core tenet fuelling it — the Irish conflict.
The Troubles were in full flight in the 1970s, with the Belfast bombings lighting up our newly acquired television screens nightly, making the Irish Rebellion of 1803 resemble a good-natured sporting event.
The Irish republic exists, the Catholic church thrives. Yet even Australia’s conservative Liberal Party, which didn’t allow a Catholic into a position of authority until 1972, looks forward to installing its first Catholic prime minister this September in the form of Tony Abbott.
His deputy could well be a Catholic with the deep green name of Joyce.
If nothing else, it has been a fascinating case study in the nature of bigotry and a salutary lesson in the fear and ignorance that underpins it.
Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2013