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Writer Tom Keneally reflects on his Irish background

May 14, 2010 • Irish Australia,

Writer Tom Keneally, pictured with his niece-in-law, NSW Premier Kristina Keneally at the Lansdowne Club St Patrick's Day Lunch in Sydney in March, discusses his Irish heritage in the latest edition of the Hibernian Squint column.

TOM KENEALLY; novelist, playwright, academic and historian; chats about his Irish background and what it means to him…

What is your Irish background?

My grandparents came from the townland of Glenlara in Newmarket in north Cork – dairy country! They arrived in Australia in the late 19th century and settled in the Kempsey area. In the typical manner of emigrants, having married my grandmother Kate Kenna, he came first, established himself, got a job as a wagon driver, acquired a hotel licence at Jerseyville, sent for my grandmother, and ultimately owned and ran a general store which still stands in East Kempsey. His uncle, John Keneally, was a Fenian prisoner sentenced to 10 years for sedition, who had arrived in WA on the last convict ship, the Hougoumont, in 1868. In Newmarket, Australia, and in the convict records, the name is spelt variously as O’Kinealy, Kennelly, Kenneally, Keneally etc. Sometimes members of the same family buried in Clonfert cemetery near Newmarket have their names spelt differently.

What have you inherited from your Irish background?

An interest in social justice. At least, I hope I have that, and that above all. Together with a capacity to talk to the limits of verbosity, a facility with language, and a tendency to tease and stir, all of which I’m very grateful for.

Much is said about the strong connection between Ireland and Australia but what do you think the Irish legacy has been to Australia?

We have to face the fact that many Irish are, and always were, extremely conservative – a strange mixture of conservatism and rebelliousness in the one flesh. I believe we have both sides of that in our character here in Australia. One of the most blessed gifts is the capacity to laugh at ourselves (but God help an outsider who laughs at us first!) and to see the hilarious side of our own fallibility. Story telling too, and, above all, politics. When O’Connell engaged the ordinary Irish through their penny contributions to the Repeal political process, he lit a political fuse in them that burned on furiously in many countries, and notably in Australia too.

Which character from Irish or Irish Australian history would you most like to have met? Why?

I think I’d like to meet Thomas Francis Meagher, Meagher of the sword, rebel of 1848, political prisoner in Tasmania, escapee to the US, lawyer, union general, Governor of Montana. He was a brilliant talker and a fascinating and flawed man, with a notable political capacity and eloquence. His life really was a long adventure.

How often do you visit Ireland?

I’ve visited Ireland often. I have a doctorate from the National University of Ireland and have been invited onto the panel of advisers the Foreign Minister has put together. I researched in the Irish archives and the National Library for a book called The Great Shame which concerned Irish prisoners of conscience sent to Australia. I’ve travelled extensively north and south and find the antiquities fascinating – the great towers, the hill forts, the barrow tombs.

Do you have a favourite place in Ireland?

And that brings me to my favourite places. The great cliffs on Achill Island in Mayo, the great cliffs on the Donegal coast and then Newgrange, the most fascinating place, built by ancient peoples in Meath with stone from Wicklow somehow transported north before the wheel was invented and constructed for the purpose of admitting light into the inner chamber on the solstice. A magical place.

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