MARRYING OUT: 11 and 18 October 2009 Hindsight, ABC Radio National Part 1, 11 October 2009
A woman is denied a deathbed visit to her father. A couple’s honeymoon vehicle runs off the road, sabotaged. Children practise their faith in secret. A quarter of the population is barred from applying for jobs.
The cause: religion. The place: Australia. The time: until the 1960s.
Just two generations ago, before the term multiculturalism became the norm, Australian society was polarised between two main groups: Protestants and Catholics. Religion was code for identity, with tensions fuelled by historical grievances that dated back long before the First Fleet. ‘Catholic’ meant Irish, and to an English Protestant Establishment, that meant trouble.
From the 1890s to the 1960s, one in five Australian marriages were ‘mixed’ – often a cause of lasting family estrangement and conflict. After the death of her mother, a Methodist who had married ‘out’ over forty years before, Gay Wilson received a sympathy card from her uncle. It read: ‘I remember one thing about your mother. She married a Catholic.’
Until the 1960s, job vacancy advertisements might include the stipulation that ‘Catholics Need Not Apply’. Battling Protestant perceptions that they were seditious, superstitious, and inferior, Catholics adopted a tribal, defensive position. Bigotry was rife on both sides.
Children reared in a hybrid world of a mixed marriage often had divided loyalties, and resented being trapped between entrenched and irreconcilable family on either side.
Is this an experience of a bygone age, irrelevant in Australia today? Far from it. There will always be a demonised minority at odds with the majority ethos. It began with Irish Catholics, but today, it might be Lebanese Muslims.
The commonly used term ‘Anglo-Celtic Australia’ is also grossly misleading. It implies a core Australian stock of cosily amalgamated British and Irish, whereas at times, a virtual social apartheid applied between these groups, as these powerful personal stories of mixed marriage show.
MARRYING OUT Part 1, 'Not in Front of the Altar', establishes the historical context for the sectarian tensions around mixed marriage in Australia and features 25 edited personal narratives - spouses in a mixed marriage, plus two Irish Catholic priests.