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Friday, October 15, 2010

Review: A critical eye on Tom Keneally’s ‘Our Republic’

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This essay examines the chapter ‘The Golden Lands of Australia’ from Tom Keneally’s book Our Republic. The review critically explores the factors that may have influenced Keneally’s presentation of information in the text, with a particular focus on his Irish heritage.

A properly formatted printable version of the essay with a full bibliography can be downloaded by clicking here.


In the chapter ‘The Golden Lands of Australia’ from his text Our Republic, former Chair of the Australian Republic Movement and author Thomas Keneally presents a moderately convincing case that there has always been a strong current of republicanism in Australia. Keneally explores the background of significant developments in Australian republican history in great detail; however his own republican beliefs are prevalent. The chapter only shows the republican side of the debate, which is further restricted to a focus on Irish political rebels from early in the chapter. Keneally briefly shows how political satisfaction produced a decline in republicanism after federation.

Throughout the chapter, Keneally uses examples of the intuition and motivation of Australian republicans to uphold his stance that there was always a strong republican minority in Australia. These people, who held what Keneally describes as “the other Australian sentiment”, are depicted in this chapter as a prevalent political force in 1800s Australia. He depicts the Irish in particular as respectable, “gentlemen and peasant” rebels with a dream of establishing their own republic. Keneally argues that, although their passions were for another country, their republican sentiment was implanted in the Australian psyche from the start of colonisation. Keneally compares the Irish rebels in Australia to the revolutionary forces of the American and French civil wars. Keneally also shows the influence of the fundamentally British class system on the republican debate. He does this through showing William Charles Wentworth’s move away from his own form of republican-based independence, dubbed ‘Bunyip aristocracy’, as it emphasised Australia’s convict origins. Wentworth was the illegitimate son of a convict,[1] a part of his past that he was keen to forget and which is shown by Keneally as the motivation for his changed stance. This is a simplification of Wentworth’s change, as factors such as land ownership and political success also played a part.[2] Keneally’s incorporation of the class system in his argument is backed by historian Professor Geoffrey Bolton, who adds that republicanism gained a working-class foothold amongst unionists, disillusioned by the collapse of wool prices.[3] Keneally further supports this class argument through the thoughts of republicans John Dunmore Lang and Daniel Deniehy, which he suggests were “influenced not by dreams of Imperial pomp”. He also comments on Lang presenting lectures opposing the “British caste system”. The republican sentiments outlined also include potential transportation of more criminals to Australia, the dependency of the Australian colonies on a “far-off country,” Lang’s claim that the only way Australia will be forced into war “for a century to come, lies in our connection with Great Britain”, the “new Australian identity”, which arose in the 1850s[4], the need for an “Australian court” to replace the British Privy Council, and a fundamental desire for freedom.

Keneally shows the post-federation decline in republican sentiment to be the result of a ‘primitive voice’ and a ‘satisfied… nationalist feeling’. Keneally describes a change in ‘virtually all Australian thinking’ after federation, where ‘even the most radical thinking, favoured the Monarchy.’ Keneally however fails to highlight the concerns of supporters of republicanism in the 1880s, when the debate became more prevalent in Australian society. Professor Bolton argues that market instability, poor wool prices, and the demands of the Australian Workers Union,[5] drove support for unification of the colonies – a key goal of both the federation and republican drives of the late 1800s. The federation of the colonies ultimately provided this political security, equality and a central court. Keneally does mention that labour leader George Black said he had been ‘side tracked temporarily’ by republicanism, after its cause did not provide for greater socialism in Australia, which is only a fragment of Black’s argument. Keneally discusses the idea that ‘loyalism was dogma’ in the new federation, with republicans being punished for expressing their views in the new parliament, including several members of federal and state parliaments who were expelled for criticising the Empire. Keneally claims that republicanism has been ‘corrupted’ from history, citing the posthumous editing of the writings of Deniehy ‘to do away with Republican references.’

Keneally’s Irish background[6] is clear throughout his text. His views on a republic are made exceedingly clear through his position as Chair of the Australian Republic Movement. Keneally presents a considerably narrow argument, with much of the evidence and quotes in the chapter coming from the Irish republican side of the debate. There is no discussion of significant loyalists or loyalist actions in the chapter, beyond the description of a meeting overrun by republicans. In the opening paragraphs of the chapter, Keneally speaks of “gentlemen and peasant Irish rebels” as a predominant force in Australian republicanism. Although many Irish were involved in the republican movement, their numbers may have been exaggerated by Keneally and other Irish historians.[7] Professor Geoffrey Bolton directly opposes Keneally, claiming that the Irish influence has been exaggerated by him and suggesting that the Irish were actually seeking to be “included” by the 1880s.[8] Bolton instead suggests that the gold rushes may have given strength to the republican movement. Keneally comments little on post-federation Irish sentiments. In the section of the chapter on post-federation sentiment, Keneally only touches briefly on Irish Republicanism; a changed angle from his arguments regarding pre-federation republicanism. Keneally’s Irish-centric history may find its roots in his education. In an interview Keneally spoke of his education at an Irish Catholic school, where he recalls being given “a particularly Irish version of Australian history”.[9] When interviewed, Keneally has described early Australian convicts as “my Irish prisoners”. Keneally writes extensively about, and with particular affection for, Irishman John Dunmore Lang, occasionally dropping to a more informal tone when speaking of him and expressing his personal opinion of him. Keneally states that he felt “a lot of fraternity with John Dunmore Lang”. Keneally’s view of Lang is clearly biased. Where he shows Lang to have created the government model used since federation, other authors have described Lang as a “veteran trouble-maker”.[10] A further effect of his Irish bias is that Keneally did not acknowledge other groups that became known for republicanism, such as atheists[11] and other “radicals”.[12] Keneally’s strong republicanism is also clear. He does not detail why Henry Parkes became a monarchist, despite Parkes being a significant enough figure to become known as the ‘Grand Old Man of New South Wales’,[13] and this exclusion denies the reader a chance to see Parkes’ view. Keneally quotes the words of Deniehy regarding Parkes’ defection – ‘There is too much Englishman-ism about him’ yet does not present any reasons for Parkes’ change. This quotation is actually incorrect; Deniehy’s actual words were ‘too much, not of the Englishman in him, but of “Englishmanism” about him’.[14] This alteration changes the meaning, leading the reader of Keneally’s text to associate Parkes with the Monarchists, when Parkes was seeking to promote democracy,[15] be it republican or not. Bias for the republican side is also shown through soft words used whilst describing key points of the republican cause, such as the “birth” of The Republican, whilst loyalists are described as having words “falling from [their] mouths”.

Throughout the chapter, Keneally clearly displays the significant actions of the republican movement in Australia. Through thoroughly conveying the reasons for an Australian republic and looking in detail at some republican leaders the author gives a strong case for there always being a strong current of republicanism in Australia. Keneally’s argument is however weakened considerably as he does not mention the nationalists’ viewpoints and shows a significant favouritism for the republican movement. Keneally does not present a strong reason for the decline in republican sentiment after federation. The emphasis on Irish republicanism in the text as a result of his education somewhat discredits his case. Keneally does provide a useful insight into Irish republicanism; however his text does not represent republicanism as a whole or the wider republic debate.


[1] The People who made Australia Great, 1st ed. (Sydney: Collins Publishers Australia, 1988), page 277. [2] ibid, page 279 [3] P. Spearritt, D. Walker and G. Bolton, AUS1020: ‘Democracy and Nation’ Semester Two 2010, (Melbourne: National Centre for Australian Studies, 2010), 6. [4] Radio National, ‘The Republican Idea, Democracy and Nation, Program 1’ [5] P. Spearritt, D. Walker and G. Bolton, AUS1020: ‘Democracy and Nation’ Semester Two 2010, (Melbourne: National Centre for Australian Studies, 2010), 6. [6] Robin Hughes, ‘Thomas Keneally – Interview Transcript’, Australian Biography, created 9 September 2002, accessed 7 August 2010, [7] Bob Birrell, Federation: The Secret Story, Duffy and Snellgrove, Sydney, 2001, 136 [8] Radio National, ‘The Republican Idea, Democracy and Nation, Program 1’ [9] Hughes, [10] P. Spearritt, D. Walker and G. Bolton, AUS1020: ‘Democracy and Nation’ Semester Two 2010, (Melbourne: National Centre for Australian Studies, 2010), 2. [11] Ibid, page 5. [12] Bruce Mansfield, ‘The Background to Radical Republicism in New South Wales in the Eighteen Eighties’, Historical Studies, vol 5, no 20, May 1953, 338-348 [13] The People who made Australia Great, Page 273 [14] Australian Dictionary of Biography Online Edition, “Parkes, Sir Henry (1815 - 1896),” Australian National University, Canberra,, (accessed August 11, 2010). [15] The People who made Australia Great, Page 174

For a full bibliography and a printable version of this essay please click here.

This essay is copyright © William Kulich 2010.


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