Out of Ireland; getting to know Robert Devereux

Out of Ireland is a novel by Christopher Koch; it is a diary of an Irish political prisoner, Robert Devereux, and the story of his exile in 1849 to Van Diemen’s Land penal colony for the incitement of violent revolution in Ireland.

I chose to read this book purely for the reason that it was on my bookshelf, and am deeply glad I did. It felt like a cultural education in the history of my family. While not revolutionaries, 1849 is the year that at least a few of the Cooneys’ fled the famine to come to Australia, and the novel was an excellent study in the deep upheaval of migration to this part of the world.

Devereux is a weird man. I do not identify with him deeply, but I enjoyed getting to know him. He is a very interesting choice for a subject by Koch, being a Protestant of the ascendancy educated at Trinity, he wrote a newspaper called New Nation, and in it called for violent revolution by the peasantry in the French tradition. He and his comrades are arrested, and sent to Van Diemen’s Land. I spent a week with him this mid-year break, and learned a lot about the struggle of exile and migration.

There is always a struggle in the heart of an immigrant about which part of them is from the Old Country and which part the new. In Korea’s Place in the Sun, a book I also finished recently, Bruce Cumings recounts a poem written by a Korean American girl in one of his classes that I found captivating, in the second stanza she writes:

We left Korea before I finished the first grade.
I grew up in Chicago, watching
Scooby-doo and eating ham and cheese sandwiches
With all-American ease

Korea grew up too
And left my memories behind
They lay in my brain like dusty pictures
Losing their colours with age 

As generations have passed, my family’s memories of Ireland have faded. When we return, we don’t see the Ireland we’d been told about by our grandparents. At least we don’t find it in the streets of Dublin or the fields back out in our family’s home county, Tipperary. It is there, our Ireland, but it is in museums and cemeteries.

We can find our Ireland painted in galleries, and in history books, but not out there in the country, things have become different. We can visit churches with our ancestors’ names on the bricks, or the graves of the Cooneys and O’Neills who stayed at home, we can see our cousins’ faces in museum displays from the birth of the Republic, but if we go to the pub, wander the streets of Belfast, and meet the people, we won’t meet our Ireland, we will meet Ireland. Ultimately, as our Korean-American poet so astutely observed about her own story, in the time since we’d left her, Ireland has grown up too.

It was interesting then, to read the story of an Irish man who was exiled to our new home, Australia. Over time, Koch writes of how our revolutionary friend grew content, how he and his farming partner James Langford could form a future here, at this settlement at the end of the world. Some of these parts are the ones that stuck with me the most. He recalls sitting under the southern constellations, among gum trees and Kangaroos, and feeling peace, against his will. In Van Diemen’s Land, he was forced to face the strange of our new home, and he certainly found things he liked.

Out of Ireland is about neither Ireland nor Australia, it is about Irish Australia. It’s a novel about the kind of people that formed our nation, who braved our little settlement at the end of the world, wo many of whom were Irish. Devereux repeatedly refers to the colony as an island at the end of the world; he calls it the Antipodes.

He talks of a settlement that lies outside of time and civilisation, and longs to return to the northern hemisphere, where “history goes on without us”. But for those of us who made our lives here, who became used to these “Antipodes”, I think we reject his thesis about why we’ve done so. We can form our own history, and we have.

My favourite moment in the book is when Thomas O’Neill, one of Devereux’s comrades, tells his friends, who are planning escape to America and eventually Ireland, that he is choosing to stay. He will see out his sentence, and make a life in Van Diemen’s Land. It is of course a happy coincidence that his name is O’Neill, as my grandfather’s was, it adds to the moment for me. O’Neill says,

“What has the ‘right side of the world’ ever given us? The endless bitter feuds of the great, and the oppression of the small: the old, repeated tragedies of Europe. I am tired of all that. I want to experience the world unsullied.

Out here is a world only half inside reality. That interests me deeply, you see. This landscape is still waiting for something. It will have its poets, some day.”

This theme of upheaval, and finding peace in our new life in Australia, for me only two generations old on one side, and four on the other, appealed to me greatly. I enjoyed Devereux’s contemplations on my home, it was as if I got to spend time with an ancestor in their first few years here, when they still yearned of home, but could do nothing but painstakingly build a life in this country, many of them never to see Europe again.

I was not only captivated by this theme though. There was a great deal in the novel concerning politics, the politics of revolution. Devereux is a romantic revolutionary, who dreams of an Irish republic like that of France or Prussia, where ‘the people bring down the tyrannies of autocratic Empire and rule with the rights of man in their sights.’ He argues restlessly with his comrades and acquaintances, they disagree over when, how, and if they should use violence, about how their cause can be put at risk if one opts to become a martyr, rather than stay and help it go on.

There is lengthy discussion of reputation, honour, and gallantry. The characters are very male. Devereux’s ‘love’ for Kathleen is weird and creepy in many ways when re-read in a modern context, and despite a few promising female characters, Bess Langford and Kathleen both among them, the 700 page book fails the Bechdel test and I expect lines from male characters appear at a rate of 100 to 1 compared with lines from female characters.

There is even a sequence where one of the comrades, Fitzgibbon, is accused of molesting a young girl who he is tutoring, and every male character believes him, holding his word as sacrosanct. While the girl herself is not the complainant, and of course this response realistic, both in 1850, and even now, it makes you think about how much or how little has changed when it comes to these things. There were many smaller themes like this throughout the novel that kept things interesting; Koch covers diverse ground.

Out of Ireland gave me an unexpected perspective on what it means to be an Irish Australian, exiled from Europe generations ago by circumstance, and making our new life in these “Antipodes”. It led me to appreciate in a new way the upheaval my family must have faced in those years, and the years of struggle and pain I wasn’t there to see, countless hard decisions and painful memories, many lost even to my well-kept family history.

It also led me to reflect on violence, and on the pursuit of political causes. I have said before, and this was true at the time and remains true, that I hate violence. The discussion of its legitimate use in this drew me to reflect on the way that all the power in the world is held by those people who are most willing to sin. The winners in our anarchical world are those most willing to kill, to lie, and to come out on top, and that scares me. I found myself sympathising with O’Neill. He cared deeply about the cause, but you only get one life, and a humble new life in Australia, farming and reading and walking the dog, loving his friends and writing down his thoughts appealed to him much more than the violence of Europe.

Teddy Roosevelt famously wrote about “the man in the arena”, and spoke with contempt of those “who will never know victory nor defeat”. My reading of this novel has perhaps edged me slightly closer to disagreement with him. A simple life is a life of dignity, and is worth every second. The life of a child turned adult who lives to experience ‘neither victory nor defeat’ but the simple joys of playing with their siblings, the love of their parents, and their fear of a haircut or the pain of a first heartbreak, on to a happy marriage, an honest living, a humble education, and a quiet death, is to me every bit as glorious and memorable and dignified as the life of Napoleon or Alexander the Great, or Teddy Roosevelt for that matter. Robert Devereux struggled with this throughout the novel, chastising himself for wanting to stay. It evolved into a story of his cognitive dissonance on the subject. By the end, I thought he would choose to stay, I thought the moral of the story would be that his life on a hop farm with Langford in Van Diemen’s Land was worth every bit as much as his life as a revolutionary in Ireland, but it seems on this crucial question me and Koch, or perhaps more accurately me and Devereux, disagree.

What I love about fiction is the way it makes me think. I draw comparisons, connections, agree or disagree with concepts, and I feel as if by the end of this novel, and by the end of my week-long acquaintance with the Protestant Revolutionary and Irish exile Robert Devereux, I felt I became a more open-minded person. I felt the way I do when I have an excellent discussion of disagreement at the pub with an intelligent friend. Not all people who came to Australia chose, as my family did, to stay. Not all those of our friends and family back in Ireland chose as we did, to leave Europe forever, to come and make these Antipodes our home. Getting to know a man who didn’t, a man who chose the North over the South and a revolution over a safe and happy life, a man who chose to re-enter the arena, taught me about my own perspective. It led me to reflect on how much I love the home we’ve built at the edge of the world.

At the end of the novel, I felt glad my family came here, and grateful for their struggle to do so. I am now and always have been more Australian than Irish, and Out of Ireland was a wonderful journey back to the start of it all, of our transition to membership of this young nation, never to return to the Europe of our forefathers.

As O’Neill said, “This landscape is waiting for something.” He was damn right, it was waiting for us, Australians, and our national project. With all its successes, failures, and continuous struggles, it was waiting for Australia, a country that is mine, that is ours. A country where we can shape our future, and build a simple and happy life. Unlike Devereux, the Cooneys and the O’Neills chose Australia, they chose to come and help live in this brave young nation at the edge of the world, away from the old tragedies of Europe. By doing so, they have given me the chance to be a born part of that nation. I intend to make it better, and thanks to them, I have the opportunity to take part in so much progress, so much uniquely Australian progress, yet to come.

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