Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 29, 2016

Out of Ireland (1999), by Christopher Koch

out of irelandOut of Ireland was the sixth novel of Christopher Koch (1932-2013), one of our most treasured Australian writers.  The book was first published in 1999, and won the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction in Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for (2000), and also the Colin Roderick Award (1999).

At 702 pages it’s a long book, but it’s a great story when you have long idle hours to spend, lost in a book.  Any temptation I had to stop loafing in bed after a chest infection and do some long-neglected housework was quickly quashed by Out of Ireland.  I did not want to put aside the book at all…

It’s the story of a  Irish rebel called Devereaux, but – like all the other Koch novels – its focus is on issues of trust and betrayal.  Based loosely on the fate of rebels transported to Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) after the failed 1848 uprising, the novel purports to be the diaries of its main character Devereaux and is narrated in his voice.  This fictional Devereaux aligned himself with the Young Ireland movement but was from the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy so although he considers himself Irish, he does not speak Gaelic and has had very little contact with what he calls the peasant class.   He is torn between frustration about their limitations in terms of the rebellion, and romanticising them as noble equivalents of the French revolutionaries.

Devereaux’s English ancestors had taken up estates in Ireland after its conquest by England but by the time the story takes place they have lost their estates and although he’s had an education at Trinity College, he considers himself middle-class.  As far as the Irish convicts he meets are concerned, he is gentry, but amongst those transported to Van Dieman’s Land in the same crackdown as he has been, there is the aspirational Liam Kinane who reveres Devereaux’s rebellion but despises his ancestry.

This ambivalence in Devereaux’s character plays out in his love for the convict girl Kathleen O’Rahilly.  He meets her at the home of his friend Doctor Howard where she is his bonded servant and unwilling artist’s model, and she moves with Devereaux to his farm, but he will not marry her.  He tells himself that this is because he will not apply for permission from the hated Governor Denison, whose authority he rejects, but there is more to it than that.  His Irish fiancé refused to follow him to Van Dieman’s Land, though the terms of his ticket-of-leave meant she could, but he remains conscious of the intellectual gulf between himself and Kathleen.  He is a man who’s had a classical education: he likens the prison system in Van Dieman’s Land to Dante’s Purgatorio; he quotes Plato, Virgil and Aeschylus; and he likens the virgin bush to classical landscapes.  He likes the company of educated men like himself and he knows that Kathleen would never fit into Hobart society, even though he has some entrée to it himself because he is a political prisoner, not a common criminal.

This complexity makes Devereaux a very interesting character indeed, not least because he never gives up on the idea of continuing his political struggle.  Around him there are various characters who are fired by the same dreams, but whose loyalty must be treated with caution.  Kinane has left behind a wife and children and he misses them greatly so he drinks to excess.  He’s not gentry, and he must support them so he starts up an intemperate newspaper called The Irish Exile which attracts the attention of Governor Denison who is eagerly anticipating any opportunity to withdraw the ticket-of-leave and incarcerate him with the work gangs at the infamous Port Arthur.  Doctor Howard can’t be trusted for different reasons: he is employed by the authorities and his friendship for Devereaux is tempered by his moral obligation to serve British interests.  And there is Matthew Casey, a man on the make, from the margins of Devereaux’s company.

Fellow rebels Paul Barry, Martin Fitzgibbon and Thomas O’Neill also struggle with Devereaux’s dilemma.  Van Dieman’s Land offers the opportunity to build a new life.  The terms of their ticket of leave mean that they can take employment, buy land, and take advantage of the emerging new society where successful former convicts can have entrée to respectable society, if not its upper echelons.  They can serve out their sentence in comfort and pleasure, while retaining hope of a pardon.  But doing so is a kind of betrayal of the rebellion, and while all eventually give their parole that they will not try to escape, for some, offers of help from sympathetic Irishmen in America become a temptation too great to ignore.

Koch weaves into this rich tapestry a vivid picture of life in Hobart during the convict period, and some of the villains take to bushranging and worse.  Devereaux’s love for Kathleen makes him a rival of a brute called O’Donnell and there are exciting scenes in the bush which keep the narrative tension taut.

The novel is Book 2 of the series Beware of the Past (the other being Highways to a War, which won the Miles Franklin award) but it’s more of a companion than a series since Highways is set later in chronological time during the Indochinese War. According to Koch in the Author’s Note, it forms part of a pattern exploring how the enigmas of the present can be understood by understanding the past.  It’s not at all necessary to have read Highways first, but I would recommend reading anything by Koch in any order you like!

©Lisa Hill

Author: Christopher Koch
Title: Out of Ireland
Publisher: Vintage, (Random House) 2000, first published 1999.
ISBN: 9781740510059
Source: personal library bought long ago for only $21.90

My Vintage edition isn’t available any more but Fishpond has some secondhand copies and a new Harper Collins edition Out of Ireland


  1. Oh, it sounds fab, Lisa. I’ve yet to read anything by Koch; his books don’t seem to be readily available here, but I will make a note of it for my next Readings splurge.


    • I stand corrected: I just checked Amazon and it is available in paperback here!


      • That’s excellent! I predict that you will love it because it combines your love of all things Irish with your love of all things Oz! And it’s a cracking good story:)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. out of a miserable experience (the infection) you managed to get a more pleasant one with this book. every cloud has a silver lining etc etc


  3. I put this book on my library wishlist earlier this year after reading Highways to a War which I loved. Now that I know it is not a sequel, I might leave it for another time and read the Koch I have on my shelves first.


    • Highways is fantastic, I just replaced my paperback edition with a hardback first edition for my Miles Franklin collection, and when it was time to put it on my shelves, I was tempted to drop everything and read it again.


      • Ha! My bookclub is getting sick of hearing about it 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds like an interesting book, not just for the bed-ridden. But what enigma of the present do you think we understand better by realising that Britain was the colonial power in Ireland as elsewhere throughout the empire?


    • In the prologue it alludes to Tasmanians being so evasive about their history, hiding things that might reveal a convict stain (presumably still the case in the late C20th when this was written) .


  5. I saw the title and thought this was written by an Irish novelist. I hadn’t heard of the author before.


    • Then there are treats in store for you. He is also the author of The Year of Living Dangerously, a film you’ve probably seen…


      • I didn’t know that. It’s been a few years since I saw it but I liked it a lot.


  6. I think I need to get my reading group to read this or Highways. I don’t think we’ve ever done Koch in all our 28 yeas of existence. Wicked of us. At 702 pages though I’d have to convince them and make it our summer read!

    Like Bill, I’m interested in the idea of “it forms part of a pattern exploring how the enigmas of the present can be understood by understanding the past”. From my understanding of historical fiction, I would expect that Koch means that it throws light on HOW Tasmanians have come to be who they are by exploring what happened to them, how they behaved/how they reacted in the past. Colonialism is the fact, but what did “we” (specifically) Tasmanians do with that condition is the issue?


    • Yes, and I think in the case of Tasmanians in particular, their convict history was in the period that Koch as mostly writing, airbrushed away out of existence. Today, it’s more about their indigenous history, but back then, people apparently did not admit to the ‘convict stain’ at all.


      • Yes, I was going to mention indigenous history in my response, but realised that he was dealing with a slightly different story and time.


        • He does refer to them a couple of times, and I was pleased to see that rather than perpetuating the myth of the Last Tasmanian his C19th character talk about them nearly but not quite being driven to extinction.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. […] themes which feature strongly in the novels of the late, great Christopher Koch whose novels Out of Ireland (1991) and Lost Voices (2012) are for me, quintessentially […]


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