Exile: Songs & Tales of Irish Australia is a musical history of one of this country’s most important immigrant stories. Creative Director, acclaimed musician and newly minted Member of the Order of Australia, Shane Howard, talks to The Adelaide Review about the past, present and future of Australia’s immigrant history.
The show itself is a multimedia representation of the Irish Australian story, with music driving the performance, complemented by images and spoken word stories. Starting off in Ireland, the show runs along a narrative journey to living life in Australia, and occasionally beyond. In 2016, a century on from the Ireland’s proclamation of independence from the United Kingdom, this is a show sure to resonate with the community. “It’s a big project, and it’s daunting,” Howard says. “Essentially, we’re trying to bring together the Great Australian-Irish Songbook. “Australia is the most Irish country outside of Ireland. The global Irish diaspora is huge, but proportionately, even compared to countries like the USA, Australia is very Irish.” As a result of the 1840s famine and subsequent troubles, the Irish population at once withered in its homeland and exploded around the world. The population is “globally pervasive,” says Howard. “What other people have done that without an army?” Australia’s Irish history is already well-known, and indeed the thing of legend. Stories like the outbreak of the Kelly Gang and the Eureka Stockade are mythological in the Australian canon, and form a large part of this country’s cultural basis, for better or worse. The Irish “contributed enormously to Australia’s idea of the ‘fair go’ and its egalitarianism,” Howard says. He believes these events were the Irish saying “we want a seat at the table in this new land” and helped to get it. Howard notes that the politicians with Irish background came to prominence early in the federation, citing Jospeh Lyons, Ben Chifley and Paul Keating as examples. However, Exile isn’t simply about those large historical figures, as “there are lots of smaller stories that are just as powerful and important” even if they are unknown. There are plenty of “unsung heroes” to be counted in this shared history, he says. He raises the story of two catholic nuns from Wexford, who ended up in Broome advocating for the rights and education of Indigenous people, who were being exploited by the whims of pearling and pastoral industries. They fought hard in the face of racial and religious discrimination at a time when the Irish were seen as one rung higher than Australia’s first peoples on the ladder of civilisation. The Australian-Irish connection pervades Exile’s ensemble, with musicians from both countries making up the numbers. The line is blurred on closer inspection as well, when one notes the Irish heritage of many of the musicians, like Paul Kelly, who is descended from Irish immigrants to Clare, SA, Declan O’Rourke who was born in Ireland, but moved to Victoria as a child, and now splits his time between both, and the father/daughter duo of Sean and Aine Tyrrell. Sean is a renowned Irish folk singer in his homeland, while Aine spends more of her time on Australian shores. “In many ways she is the conduit between the two worlds,” Howard says. On the subject of recently being made a Member of the Order of Australia, Howard is humble yet conflicted in his regard for the honour. “It was an unusual occurrence,” he says. “I still don’t know who nominated me, but I’m really grateful to be acknowledged by the country.” He notes though that “there are thousands of unsung heroes out there” equally deserving of the honour. “Australia Day is a confusing day, and it can be a painful day. In the end, though, it gives you a chance to hold the microphone for a while. “We have to reconcile meaningfully with our first nation peoples, and we need to become a republic to do so. “People ask you, you know, ‘Why do you have the English flag on your own flag?’ It’s just the obvious next step in the growth of the nation.” And on Australia’s present-day immigration, Howard advocates for some compassion and perspective. “If you look at a place like Syria, it has elements of what happened 150 years ago in Ireland.” Exile: Songs & Tales of Irish Australia Festival Theatre Sunday, February 21 adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au/shows/exile/