The Luck of the Irish, by Babette Smith: a good story, but the author is naive on Irish history
Tale of convicts in Australia, written in a sometimes frustratingly accessible style
The Luck of the Irish: How a Shipload of Convicts Survived the Wreck of the Hive to Make a New Life in Australia
Allen & Unwin
Babette Smith’s publisher is not the first to notice the market potential of her title. The Luck of the Irish is also a romance by Harold McGrath (1917), a movie about a New York newsman falling for a leprechaun (1948), a television show starring a leprechaun mother (2001), bodice-rippers by Melissa F Hart and Liz Gavin, and a couple of American children’s books. In ironic variations in books of substance, it recurs in Roy Foster’s Luck and the Irish (2007) and David J Lynch’s When the Luck of the Irish Ran Out (2010). As the rambling subtitle suggests, Babette Smith is no ironist.
The book works outwards from a list of 250 Irish convicts whose transport ship, Hive, ran aground south of Sydney in 1835, as a result of careless navigation. All were saved, thanks to the quick thinking and heroism of the Hive’s chief officer, Edward Canney, the commander of the guard, Lieut Edward Lugard, and his younger brother Henry. The splendidly documented first chapter on this dramatic episode, which led to an official inquiry highly critical of the captain, is perhaps the best.
The luck of the Irish survivors was almost entirely attributable to Englishmen, whose subsequent careers shape much of the book. (Canney died trying to save his ship, Henry Lugard worked as a military surveyor in various districts, Edward Lugard became undersecretary of state for war.) Oddly, little attention is paid to their other saviour, the surgeon Anthony Donoghoe, whose presumably Irish background is not discussed.
The fact that Australia’s early settlers arrived in well-documented shiploads has generated at least a dozen collective profiles of both free and convicted immigrant parties, mostly unmentioned by Smith. This genre is particularly congenial to genealogists and family historians, who relish the digital accessibility of many official records and local newspapers.
Most shipload studies include lists and brief biographies of the travellers with some statistical analysis of the group, following through their later careers as methodically as the sources allow.
Unfortunately, Smith provides no list and only scattered but striking statistics: 94 per cent of the 250 convicts were Catholics; 15 had been convicted of homicide and many others of assault or rape; more than 60 were dispatched to the Hunter River district, where sectarian tensions were unusually strong.
records Only a hazy impression emerges of the Hive convicts as a group, and no systematic attempt is made to follow their careers after emancipation through registers of marriages, deaths
or electors. This may partly be explained by the patchiness of surviving nominal records, even when quarried by an experienced and industrious researcher such as Smith.
Faced with rich evidence about certain individual convicts, the simplest design would have been to follow through a dozen or so personal trajectories in detail, introducing minor characters at points of intersection. Instead Smith roams from place to place and theme to theme, assembling a pastiche of loosely related snippets and anecdotes relating only in part to Hive convicts.
There are vivid stories of menacingly insubordinate convict servants and bushranging absconders. These are interwoven with the broader history of the convict system and the long-running campaigns for its amelioration and termination. Smith seems besotted with the reformist regime of Governor Richard Bourke and his Catholic attorney-general, John Hubert Plunkett, both Irish gentlemen who had supported Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for Catholic emancipation. Smith, though well versed in Australian local histories, ignores many seminal studies of transportation (Portia Robinson, Bob Reece, Deborah Oxley) and never mentions the inimitable Manning Clark.
In dealing with the Irish background, Smith sets out to “look at the Irish on their own terms”, an approach that through “an oversight” she neglected to adopt in her previous books, A Cargo of Women and Australia’s Birthstain.
Unencumbered by familiarity with Irish history, her interpretation of extensive newspaper evidence on offences and trials in Ireland is refreshingly naive. Almost her only academic guide is the late ATQ Stewart, “who seems to stand in relation to Irish history as AGL Shaw does to Australian”. Apart from each having three initials, it would be hard to imagine a less apposite conjunction. Stewart was a brilliant maverick, Shaw a patrician perfectionist.
‘Spawn violence’Her conception of Irish history has more in common with John Mitchel than with Stewart. We are told that “the British occupation did directly spawn violence”, that “the most blatant symbol of the Protestant crusade was the Orange Order” and that “England forcibly absorbed Ireland into Great Britain” through “the hated Act of Union”.
The most useful Irish finding is the extent to which Hive inmates were involved in violent and brutal crimes, belying the (long obsolete) stereotype of Irish convicts as innocent victims of poverty and discrimination transported for trivial offences.
The Luck of the Irish is written in an accessible style that is sometimes excruciating: “As the first beams of the sun rose out of the ocean, the Hive’s passengers could see they were in a wide bay with the headland, mistaken for cloud, rising steeply to the north”; “On the far side of the world, the sun was climbing to the sky to make the water dance with diamonds . . . As the sun rose and the haze increased, his image dissolved beneath the overwhelming light. And the convict bushman rode into legend.”
Smith is happy to bridge evidential gaps with imaginative filler: “The Europeans would have been equally shocked when they first saw Aborigines”; “Bourke must have been struck by the egalitarian culture of the colony.”
At her best, however, Smith can tell a good story soundly grounded in unfamiliar facts, unearthed through wide-ranging research.
Smith’s general summation of the Irish contribution draws heavily on the late Patrick O’Farrell, historian of the Irish and the Catholic Church in Australia: “Perhaps more than any other legacy, Australia is indebted to the Irish for religious equality.” Even apart from the Irish, Australia’s convict origins had confuted “British expectations of hierarchy, control and orderliness . . . The community the Hive men saw before them lacked the traditional barriers of class and privilege.”
Masters often lived in fear of their convict servants, the social challenge being intensified in the Irish case (so Smith infers) by a background of subaltern resistance to “British” authority and Protestant privilege. These are tendentious assumptions that revisionist historians have spent decades trying to uproot. But this wrecked shipload of stereotypes has evidently survived to find “a new life in Australia”.
David Fitzpatrick is professor of modern history at Trinity College Dublin. His books include Oceans of Consolation: Personal Testimony of Irish Migration to Australia and Descendancy: Irish Protestant Histories since 1795