Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 19, 2012

The Irishman (1960), by Elizabeth O’Conner

Elizabeth O’Conner (1913-2000) was the fourth winner of the fledgling Miles Franklin literary award, and the first woman to win the prize.  The Irishman’s win in 1960 would have pleased Miles Franklin; it is a quintessentially Australian story set in the Gulf country.  It celebrates what we might call ‘bush character’: stoicism, courage, self-discipline and determination.

O’Conner won the prize in 1960, in the years of postwar prosperity and well before the Swinging Sixties challenged long-established mores across the globe.  Cities in Australia were being transformed by post-war immigration from Europe and by the growth in manufacturing which was driven by the sudden availability of cheap labour.  The Irishman, however, explores a different period of transition.  O’Conner was writing about what was already a vanished era – the inter-war years when bush life was being transformed by the arrival of the motor-vehicle in the early 1920s.  While at one level it’s an engaging coming-of-age story, it is also the story of a remote community confronting decline.

The novel opens to the tune of the stampers at the battery beating down on the gold ore that is the life-blood of the town’s economy – but the boy Michael is alert to the shout that rings out across the town: ‘The teams are coming!’  He races away with the other boys to greet the arrival of his father, a teamster, ‘to where the red gravelly road curved away from the river and the town.  The boys could hear the creak of the loaded wagon, the rumble of the wheels and the rich singing voice of a teamster calling to his leader.’

It is not entirely a romanticised scene: Paddy Doolan is a drunk who terrorises his family, and he’s more interested in going to the pub than he is in seeing his wife after weeks away.  Michael knows this means trouble when Paddy eventually lurches home, but his fears are tempered by his admiration for his father’s skill in managing the horses.  Will, his brother, hates Paddy but is powerless to intervene – so he abandons his demoralised mother to work as a stockman on a cattle station.  But Michael hero-worships his father, and runs to meet the team, recognising Paddy’s approach by the sound of his horses’ hooves and the jangle of their harnesses.  He knows each one of these horses by name, a far cry from the impersonal motor vehicles that are beginning to make their presence felt in these back-blocks.  For there is not only talk of motor vehicles replacing the mail run, there is also the prospect of them replacing the teams which have ferried goods in and out of these backblocks since the days of first settlement.   This talk is met mostly with suspicion, derision and outright hostility, and the pioneers of the industry get a rough time when they first set up shop.  Will’s eventual decision to cast his lot with a local firm of carriers only cements the hostility between father and son.

The old hands may doubt whether any vehicle can cope with the roads in the wet season, but that’s not the only rumour afoot.  The word is that the gold is running out, and that the mine that has been the mainstay of the town’s economy may close.  There is also talk about the new-fangled ‘airyplanes’  – a ‘dangerous invention’ because ‘the human race was never meant to fly’.  Will thinks ‘it will all be planes in the next war’ but this idea is cursorily dismissed because ‘there ain’t goin’ to be another war’.  Will has been taught to respect his elders so he doesn’t demur but this is not the only instance where the wisdom of the young eventually triumphs over conservative resistance to change …

The social strata of the community is clearly delineated.  Bush life in The Irishman is no egalitarian paradise.  Poor Irish families like the Doolans do it tough, exacerbated by Paddy’s drinking, and they’re not expected to achieve much.  Even so, Michael is discouraged from contact with Chad Logan, the ex-convict whose own father let him take the rap for a murder he didn’t commit – despite the man’s innocence it’s thought that the years in gaol don’t do anything for a man’s character.  At the other end of the scale,  Will is keenly conscious of the material comforts his mother lacks compared to the cossetted lifestyle of his employer’s wife Eleanor Clark, but he knows that he can never aspire to own a station himself.  Indeed, he mocks Michael’s ambition to be a station-manager, and nobody imagines that these boys might finish their education or use their obvious intelligence in a white-collar job or one of the professions.  But near the bottom of the social scale himself, Will still considers himself too good for ‘Bo-Bo’, Eleanor’s Aboriginal house-girl, and there’s no apparent authorial irony in that…

With the distance of time, O’Conner’s treatment of Aboriginals in this novel is disconcerting.  She seems to have some pity for them, but little respect.  When the remaining demoralised Aborigines are transferred out of their country to a mission, Will observes their distress, but the  Aborigines who work on these stations are mostly nameless and faceless, compared to the author’s otherwise rich characterisations.  The named exceptions are ‘Split-Nose’, for whom Will has pity but is reluctant to admit it, and the women – who are uniformly wanton.   Michael is warned to stay away from them because they are ‘bad’ and they ’cause trouble’.  And so they do, in this novel: Bo-Bo the house-girl seduces young Will who then has to leave the homestead when she gets pregnant, and at the Dalgleish station, sexy Paula is a cruelly flagrant usurper, exercising power that Michael bitterly resents because she is Robert Dalgliesh’s lover.   There seems to be no authorial irony in both these women coming to a bad end, it’s as if they deserve what comes to them.

But Black or White, there are few women of character in this novel.   Jenny Doolan is too weak to stand up to her husband and only moves away when he abandons the family to get new work.  Mrs Dalgleish is mad, unhinged by the death of her child.  Mrs Swan lets the station manager Metcalfe let the property decline because her sick husband must not be worried.  In this respect as in its treatment of Aboriginal characters, the novel is a period piece: I can’t imagine a contemporary author diminishing the role of bush women in this way.  But of course O’Conner was writing before feminism and before the importance of women to rural life was properly acknowledged.  It was a ‘man’s world’ then, and O’Conner was interpreting that world through the attitudes of her time.   Her interest lies in Michael’s search for a father-figure to respect, and the contrast between the taciturn self-disciplined Dagleish and the reckless good humour of Paddy, a man who can’t adapt to change.

My copy of The Irishman was reissued in 1977 as one of the Angus & Robertson Australian Classics series, but it hasn’t been included in the new Text Classics series.  Probably just as well…

Author: Elizabeth O’Conner
Title: The Irishman
Publisher: Angus and Robertson, Australian Classics Series, 1977 (first published 1960)
ISBN: 0207136114
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Diversity Books, $8.00.

Availability: Out-of-print.  Try AbeBooks or Brotherhood Books.


  1. Nice to know that Elizabeth O’Conner is still being read. A very popular favourite was her first person book, Steak for Breakfast.


    • Hello Miss E, and welcome to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers. I’m enjoying reading these Miles Franklin winners from the early years of the prize. My next one will be Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White, and after that Thea Astley’s The Well-Dressed Explorer.


  2. “In this respect as in its treatment of Aboriginal characters, the novel is a period piece: I can’t imagine a contemporary author diminishing the role of bush women in this way. But of course O’Conner was writing before feminism and before the importance of women to rural life was properly acknowledged. It was a ‘man’s world’ then, and O’Conner was interpreting that world through the attitudes of her time.”

    This made me think of Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife. A writer writing at an earlier time than O’Conner, and a male one at that, who yet seemed to acknowledge and value “the importance of women to rural life”. He did have the early advantage of Louisa Lawson, but I can’t help but think that O’Conner should have overtaken him by 1960.


    • Good point, Evie. I guess I’d need to read more of O’Conner’s writing and of Australian writing of the postwar period to know if this is a pattern of hers, or whether it reflects that era when, after entering the workforce during the war, women got sent back into the kitchen when ‘the boys came home’? Or maybe it goes with that genre of writing, (strong men/weak women) rather similar to the strange way romance authors often portray women in their books? Or perhaps it just shows how special Lawson was? *chuckle* There’s probably a PhD in this topic!
      I’d love to know what else was on the shortlist but there seems to be no record of that on Wikipedia. It’s is a rather ordinary novel, compared to Voss and To the Islands, though it’s better than Vance Palmer’s The Big Fellow…


  3. I have just began this. I have not read your review and will not until I have finished and posted my own review on Goodreads. I do have a question for you and your readers though. Are you uncomfortable with the use of derogatory terms in books like this? I am. I do realise that they are written in a different age etc and such terms are still sadly common in this day and age but I still find my “comfort” level tested. Do others feel the same way?


    • Oh yes, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I certainly find myself cringing sometimes when I read books of another era that disparage people with stereotypes. As you can tell from my review, I certainly wasn’t comfortable with the portrayal of indigenous people in this book.


  4. Excellent review Lisa. I wish I could have articulated my thoughts as well as you have. I finished this book last night and have reviewed on Goodreads.

    I may rate the book a touch higher than you based on its place in our literatures history. I also may not have read enough of this style of book to compare were you may have. I found this and am very tempted to subscribe to this journal just to read that item alone.


    • Ah, perhaps it is not the book, perhaps I am meaner with my ratings than you. I reserve 5 stars for books of genius like James Joyce’s Ulysses, and rate most everything else I read either 3 which means it’s a terrific book, well worth reading, or 4 which means it’s a cut above, an excellent book. But you raise a most interesting point which I had never thought of, that of a book’s place in history…
      I can see why you’re tempted by the ALS article, what a shame they don’t have a pay-by-article option!


      • My aim is to read all the MF winners (and if able the nominees.) I suppose that winning that award gives books a place in our literary history though I would not rate them generally just on that. I am still a bit dazed about Voss for example but if I had rated it historically it deserves full marks on it place in our history I suppose.

        If I link on my goodreads reviews to any reviews you have on here are you OK with that? I think this terrific blog is a service to all of us that read and admire our own native literature.


        • I’m aiming to do that one day too, though I don’t have all of them yet, and I have to say that a couple of recent choices didn’t appeal to me at all before they won – and so I probably won’t read those…
          Yes, I’m ok with putting a link to the blog and thank you for your kind words:)
          … it’s the people at Goodreads who copy my entire review as if it’s their own that make me cross!


          • “it’s the people at Goodreads who copy my entire review as if it’s their own that make me cross!” Really? I try not to read anyone else’s reviews so as to not influence my own thoughts. What is the point in copying others!


            • I don’t know why they do it… maybe they are students and they want to ‘keep’ the ideas for an essay, but whatever the reason it’s jolly rude of them!


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