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‘We’ll take the pale one — just make sure she keeps her mouth shut’

Lonán Ó Lorgnáin

Between 1848 and 1850, over 4000 young orphaned Irish girls were transported to Australia under the Earl Grey Scheme (Molinari, 2018). The tendency of the orphaned girls, like many of the British Empire’s Irish subjects, to have fair skin suited England’s imperialist desire to gradually replace Australian peoples with persons who reflected their own physical attributes. A similar ideology was formalised under the White Australia policy laws, and reiterated by rhetoric such as ‘Australia must [...] populate or perish’ (Jupp, 2002, p. 11). In recent decades, the racial prejudices that supported England’s subjugation of Australia have been challenged if we consider the increasing ethnic diversity of the country’s demographics. However, the figures demand a closer look. Fifty-three per cent of first generation immigrants to Australia reported speaking a language other than English at home—yet this fell to 20 per cent by the second generation and to 1.6 per cent by the third generation (Culture Bridge Policy Institute, 2017). These figures suggests that although we may now be comfortable to look diverse, our education, broadcast media and employment institutions do not support the more diverse ways of thinking associated with multilingualism.

The Anglo-Celtic Australian: An imperialist myth

This paper investigates the history of Irish migration to Australia, with a particular focus on the ways Irish language, culture, ethnicity and identity were ‘managed’ for the benefit of the British colonial ‘masters’. The term ‘Anglo-Celtic Australian’ is often bandied about, particularly when discussing the colonial era. However, conflating the English and the Celtic peoples as one ethno-cultural identity distorts the inherent differences between the pair—and feeds into the common misconception that the Celtic peoples are little more than a demographic subset of the English.

Nevertheless, the misconception portrayed by the term ‘Anglo-Celtic’ did offer a degree of mutual convenience. Celtic-Australians were historically considered inferior to their more measured ‘Anglo-Teutonic’ counterparts (McMahon 2009, p. 587). The label ‘Anglo-Celtic’ offered Celtic peoples a chance to join the highest social strata within post-1788 Australia, while simultaneously consolidating two imperialist aims. First, that to be Australian meant being white. Second, that the Irish and Celtic descendants abandon their defiance against English expansionism in their former and newfound homelands and instead join their ranks to support the Empire’s endeavours to colonise the Australian continent.

However, ‘joining the ranks’ of the British involved having a shared language—a need for ‘Englishness’ that still persists today.

English language hegemony Down Under

In 2018, Australian Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge stated that having shared means of communication is important in maintaining social cohesion in ethno-culturally diverse societies like Australia (Benson 2018). Tudge stated that: ‘English capability […] underpins integration and therefore social cohesion. If you cannot communicate, it is difficult to integrate. How do you have a conversation with your neighbor, join a local community group, or participate fully in our democracy without a shared language?’ (Tudge 2018).

However, pervasive monolingual and ideological Anglicisation is used to target those who wish to be accepted as ‘Australian’. For example, Northern Territory MP Kezia Purick’s accusation that Local Government Minister Bess Nungarrayi Price had engaged in disorderly conduct by speaking Warlpiri in parliament in 2016, rather than English (Robinson 2016). Or Tudge’s proposed revised English proficiency immigration test, which will be ‘upgraded’ to include new questions about Australian values (Acharya 2020).

Such incidents reinforce the message that Englishness underpins ‘Australianness’—which is reflected linguistically, as well as in institutional, literary, curriculum and ethnic terms. Meanwhile, rather than acknowledging the folly of measuring a person’s adherence to an Australian identity by referring to phenomena originating from English and Anglophonic society, the linguistic, perceptual and cultural features that are truly unique to this part of the world continue to be subjugated—and are vanishing.

Gaelic vs Irish ... and the Scots red herring

One of the best ways to persuade a people of their shared destiny is to create a shared past, even if is a confection. For the British to construct an overarching Anglo-Celtic ‘ethnic identity’ they needed also to establish the narrative of a ‘shared language’.

The Irish tongue in English is sometimes referred to as Gaelic. This fails to reflect the socio-linguistic evolution experienced by its community of speakers more recently—having first arrived in Ireland approximately 2500 years ago, and represented the country’s predominant language tradition until the 1800s. The decline of the Irish tongue since the 1800s resulted from two main issues. First, an Irish-speaking elite was continually replaced by English-descended successors appointed to administer English law and order across Ireland (often joined by Irish people who were willing to adopt English ways—usually to escape poverty). Second, the introduction of compulsory English-medium National Schools during the 1830s, reinforced by the decimation of the remaining Irish speakers in remote, impoverished communities in the 1840s during Gorta Mór na hÉireann (the Irish Famine), under English governance (Ó hIfearnáin, 2012).

Of particular relevance from an Irish historical perspective on the language’s nomenclature is that it diverged from its Scottish counterpart in socio-political and orthographic terms in recent centuries. This followed events such as the 1607 Imeacht na nIarlaí (‘Fleeing of the [indigenous] Earls’) and, as a consequence, the disappearance of widely accepted literary forms of the language (Ó Murchadha 2012, pp. 32–34, 39). These events were compounded by two events in the twentieth century: the 1919–21 Cogadh na Saoirse (‘War of Freedom/Independence’) and Caighdeánú na Gaeilge (‘the Standardisation of Irish’).

However, it is questionable that the older of the two enduring indigenous tongues of the Scottish population is referred to as ‘Scottish Gaelic’, rather than simply ‘Scottish’. Yet the other tongue enjoys the name ‘Scots’ rather than ‘Scottish Middle English’, despite having a less ancient existence among the same demographic. Indeed, the Irish online dictionary database Teanglann translates ‘Scots’ as ‘Béarla na hAlban’ or Scottish English (de Bhaldraithe, 1959). Perhaps a universally satisfying compromise for both of these linguistic communities would be to redirect public resources away from continuing to promote English as lingua franca of contemporary Scotland and instead standardise and embrace once more Scottish [Gaelic] and Scots as part of a united, bilingual state policy approach among all of its citizens. However, this would require England’s civil servants to re-engage in multilingual diplomacy.

Athbheochan na Pamaniúngáinise—a challenge to the current linguistic order

In the late nineteenth century, a social movement called Athbheochan na Gaeilge (‘the Irish language Revival’) challenged the marginalisation of the Irish language and communities in their homeland, especially in public spaces and institutions—such as street signs, school and university classrooms, name registries and legal proceedings (Mac Giolla Chríost, 2012). This movement led to the creation of Conradh na Gaeilge (‘the Irish Language League’).

A common precursor to these movements to protect language is the increased understanding among language communities of the vital link between ensuring their ongoing visibility across public spaces in their homeland and enjoying an equitable influence upon matters of social, educational and economic significance in their lives. In turn, linguistic scholarship often foregrounds an understanding of this link.

Concluding thoughts

We only need to look around the streets of Australia’s major cities to attest to our increased ethnic diversity and collective successes in dismantling earlier racially prejudiced policies. However, progress in acknowledging and representing our equally diverse linguistic identities and associated perspectives has been less promising. There is no doubt that the diversity of the languages we speak shapes the extent of our collective diversity in perceiving reality (Boroditsky, 2011) and in forming decisions. Unfortunately, unlike the many linguistic traditions immigrant communities brought to Australia over the past 250 years, speakers of Australian languages do not enjoy similar diasporic support. It is time that Australian languages and their communities were centrally represented in Australian schools, broadcast media, parliaments and other public spaces.

On a related note, indigenous Celtic language communities of the British Isles—especially when you consider that the word ‘British’ is derived from the term ‘Pritanī’ of one of the region’s earlier Celtic languages (Koch 2003)—ought to be proportionately represented in Australia’s multicultural broadcast media, interpreting and translation services, and as elective subjects in our educational institutions, as is already done for dozens of other language communities originating from abroad. These dozens of other languages communities are not associated with the still sensitive historical relationship that arose between the speakers of the Celtic languages and imperialist England. Yet the assimilationist practice in Australia of referring to minoritised yet sovereign peoples from that region, such as the Irish, as ‘Anglo-Celtic’, is a constant reminder of that historical relationship.

More broadly, a national, democratic dialogue extending beyond the federal government’s immigration policymakers is overdue. As our understanding of Australians’ diverse backgrounds becomes more sophisticated, it is timely to consider how we wish our collective linguistic identity to look—and how this could be reflected in our Constitution.

About the author

Is i Leithinis Ṁornington na hAstráile a gineadh 7 a fuineadh Lonán Fiach Ó Lorgnáin, mac de chuid thuismitheoirí arb as Éirinn ó dhúchas. Bhain sé Céim an tSáreolais um Mhúinteoireacht (Bunscoile 7 Iarbhunscoile) de chuid na hOllscoile Deakin amach i n2017. Is ball de Ċumann Gaeilge na hAstáile é agus bíonn sé ag múineadh na hIndinéisise 7 na Fraincise araon i Lilydale High School faoi láthair. Bíonn an t-ilteangachas sa bhaile á chur chun cinn aige—i gcuideachta a dhuine céile arb as an Téabháin é—as dul i mbun theangacha oidhreachta na beirte go laethúil lena chéile.

Lonán Fiach Ó Lorgnáin was born and raised on the Mornington Peninsula, Australia, the son of parents originally from Ireland. He completed Deakin University's Master of Teaching (Primary & Secondary) in 2017. He is a member of Cumann Gaeilge na hAstráile (Irish Language Association of Australia), and currently teaches Indonesian and French at Lilydale High School. He seeks to promote multilingualism at home—along with his partner from Taiwan—through conversing with one another in their heritage languages on a daily basis.


The author thanks Dr Michiko Weinmann (Deakin University, Melbourne) and Philip Bryan AE (Fynatext, Melbourne) for their feedback, encouragement and advice.


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