What goes around always seems to come around again.
In February 1862 a familiar advertisement appeared in the employment columns of the London Times newspaper. It read simply “WANTED: A smart, active girl to do the general housework of a large family, one who can cook, clean plates, and get up fine linen, preferred. No Irish need apply.”
Throughout much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries displaced and impoverished Irish Catholics in Britain and the US were marginalised and discriminated against by so-called polite, predominantly-Protestant, civilised society, who stereotyped them as drunken, violent thugs. Times changed. Within a hundred years, America had a Catholic Irish-American president in the White House, and the descendants of Irish immigrants were amongst the industrial and political leaders of the Western world.
When I was about seven years old I heard an angry man call my father a “new-Australian bastard.” I asked him how the man knew he wasn’t born in Australia, and he told me it was because he had a foreign accent. That was total news to me. But, although I eventually came to realise it was true, I never heard my father ever refer to himself as anything but a proud Australian. To him this was the best country in the world. He gave it his heart and soul, worked hard all his life here, ran successful businesses, became a lawyer, raised a family, made a life and, like so many other post-war immigrants, did his bit to make Australia a better place.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, only decades after the “No Irish need apply” advertisements had faded from the job columns, many Anglo-Irish Australians slated continental Europeans, with their thick accents and foreign foods, as nothing but frogs, wogs and greasers. But they persevered, worked hard, and ultimately prevailed to see their sons and daughters become good Australians, an essential element of the nation’s DNA. In the 1970’s Vietnamese war refugees followed, and history repeated itself. Yesterday’s poor and desperate boat people became many of today’s most solid citizens. And on it goes.
It was disappointing to read about abusive and threatening complaints being made recently about a billboard at Cranbourne, in Melbourne’s south-east, showing two beautiful young Muslim girls wearing hijabs, happily celebrating Australia Day last year. Victoria’s Minister for Multicultural Affairs Robin Scott last week confirmed the billboard had been taken down for safety reasons, but now advertising agency Campaign Edge has launched a crowd funding campaign to resurrect it. The campaign reportedly reached its stated goal of $50,000 in donations just hours after kicking off. It’s nice to see the Australian “fair go” spirit still prevails.
Change can be difficult, but it’s a constant, necessary part of life. Today our population includes Protestants, Hindus, Catholics, Agnostics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, and lots of other kinds of Australians, all contributing to the welfare of this nation in their own way. They should be judged, not on where they’ve come from, how they got here, or what or whom they worship, but on the contribution that they make.
Happy Australia Day.
Chris Nyst, Gold Coast Lawyer, Novelist and Film Maker