Yesterday we spent the entire day in the city centre, to celebrate Australia day with Sydneysiders. On the trip back to the apartment, we overheard - well everybody in the bus couldn't help but overhear - three self-appointed cultural attache's from Ireland having a beer-fuelled debate with some of their equally inebriated Sydneysider counterparts on the nature of a Republic. The Irish lads were probably in their early 20s, but that didn't stop them from banging on about the Union Jack on the Australian flag and '800 years of oppression' etc etc. These lads weren't brought up listening to nightly news reports of atrocities in the name of Republicanism, or Unionism, so I suppose they had the advantage of considering the whole matter from the comfort of an unsullied, theoretical perspective. Whatever their motives (which I'm assuming were at least in part getting into the pants of their female opponents) I found their attitude irritating, and surprisingly arrogant. Is his tthe New Irish abroad?
The Republican debate in Australia is complex, and I don't pretend to understand it. It defies party lines, and motives for either supporting or opposing a break with the UK throne can often sound similar to each other. Even defining what it means to be Australian is famously difficult. The recently removed Prime Minister Howard spoke of 'matesmanship'. The voice-over to the Darling Harbour festivities talked about a place where discrimination had no place. There is definitely a sense of nationalism here, but it is understated. Lots of folks were wearing or waving the flag around the city yesterday, but when the hosts for the evening tried to create a chant of 'Australia' around the harbour they failed repeatedly and embarrassingly. Embarrassing for them: it takes more than a TV and a microphone to distract the locals from their conversations with their mates. The crowd seemed immune to jingoistic manipulation. I loved it. The moment that inspired the most applause, and it was spontaneous, was when a boat carrying 4 new Australians (there were citizenship ceremonies all over the country on the day) did a lap of the harbour.
At the edge of Darling Harbour lies the Maritime Museum. There is a wall on the outside where the names of Australia's official immigrants are being added. When all names go up there, there will be 6 million of them. A third of the population. Inside the museum there is an exhibition about those immigrants, in the form of the personal stories of a number of families. Mostly, they were people fleeing poverty or political upheaval and oppression in their own countries, or indeed people who didn't have a country anymore. This museum is the mirror image of the museum in Cobh, in County Cork - about 20 minutes drive from our house. The Cobh museum records the heartbreaking departure of hundreds of thousands of impoverished Irish, both before and after the foundation of the Free State and later the Republic. The Darling Harbour museum records their arrival to the other side of a months-long voyage.
The three mugs on the bus would have done well to remember that it was places like Australia that provided a home for thousands of Irish with no hope and no future in their own native Republic, instead of trying to rub the locals' noses in it, about symbols and figureheads that have less and less meaning either here or back in Ireland.