David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland


Sydney, the emerald city towards which all politicians, businessmen and other spivs naturally gravitate is little more than a fringe of high rises and multi million dollar mansions with Harbour or Ocean views. The rest, from inner suburban Glebe to the Blue Mountains, 4 million plus of Sydney’s official 5 million population, is the West, its heart Parramatta, these days a CBD in its own right, 20 km up river (map). And it is the West which is David Ireland’s home.

Reportedly born on a table in Lakemba (south-west Sydney) in 1927, Ireland grew up around Parramatta and was employed for a number of years at the Siverwater oil refinery, on the river downstream of Parramatta, and the setting for his most famous novel, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner. In another novel, The Glass Canoe, the protagonist discusses being good at school work but chucking it in to be with his mates. Interestingly, although it occupied most of his teen years, he does not seem to write about the War (WWII).

Over the last couple of years looking at early Australian women writers we have been building up an idea of the characteristics of each “generation” (see Gen 1, Gen 2). We’ll see later in the year that my Gen 3, which encompasses the 1920s through 1950s, is marked both by social realism and the last decades of white monoculturalism, although plenty of guys in particular stuck with the tropes of Gen 2 – nationalism, the Bush, mateship (and that is still true today), extending them into writing about the two World Wars.

It is often said that ‘the sixties’ didn’t arrive in Australia until the 1970s, but realistically they arrived and Gen 4 dates from, around 1966 or 67, with anti-Vietnam War protests, second wave feminism and the advent of multiculturalism following post war migration from southern Europe, dates in fact from the late teenage years of us Baby Boomers.

The relevance of this to Ireland is that he, like Thomas Keneally for instance, is too old to be a baby boomer but his writing mostly fits within Gen 4, though he does look back in his early work to a male, Anglo working class that by the time he began writing was coming to an end. Still it is very easy, reading his novels to think of Ireland as 20 years younger than he actually is. His novels are –

The Chantic Bird (1968)
The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971) – Miles Franklin winner
The Flesheaters (1972)
Burn (1974)
The Glass Canoe (1976) – Miles Franklin winner
A Woman of the Future (1979) – Miles Franklin winner
City of Women (1981)
Archimedes and the Seagle (1984)
Bloodfather (1987)
The Chosen (1997)
The World Repair Video Game (2015)

Over the course of 2019 I hope to write and/or collect reviews (from you!) for all Ireland’s novels, and of course to set up a page so that they are all accessible. Ireland is undoubtedly an important Australian writer and The Unknown Industrial Prisoner especially is one of our great books. For various reasons Ireland has become unpopular with readers and with publishers and his reputed right-wing politics may be part of this though I could find nothing through google. His most recent work The World Repair Video Game was eventually serialized and then published in hardback by Tasmania’s Island literary mag (who may still have copies on hand).

Ireland will be 92 this year. Is he still writing? You’d think not. But I suspect that 18 year gap after The Chosen contains more than one unpublished novel.


The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)
Burn I found intolerably racist and could not finish.
The Glass Canoe (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)
A Woman of the Future (here) see Bonny Cassidy Sydney Review of Books (here)
City of Women (here)
The World Repair Video Game (here) Lisa/ANZLL (here)

Other material:

D. Musgrave, Post-Carnivalism in David Ireland’s The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, 2013 (pdf here)
The Conversation: The Case for David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe, Apr 2014 (here)
ABC podcast: The Renaissance of David Ireland, May 2015 (here)
SMH: The Return of David Ireland, Genius, May 2016 (here)
Aust Explained: The Glass Canoe, Sept 2016 (here)
J.Rank.org: David Ireland critical study (here)
Helen Daniel, Double Agent: David Ireland and His Work, Penguin, 1982
Ken Gelder, Atomic Fiction: The Novels of David Ireland UQP, 1993.

11 thoughts on “David Ireland

    • I’m reading the Glass Canoe and in fact this post was part of my review but I thought it made sense to split it out. Very interested to see what you have to say about AWOTF (and that stone will take an MF winner bird at the same time). I want to read The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, but then I’d better get stuck into the ones we don’t have reviews for.

      Liked by 1 person

      • BTW You may have noticed that a certain person has been reblogging my posts so often that there are more of my posts on her blog than there are of hers. I got sick of it so I’ve turned off the reblog function to get rid of her. She’s not doing it because she loves my posts, she’s doing it so that links to her blog swallow up all the space in my recent comments list. It’s a kind of spam and judging by her photo and tagline, I am doubtful about the purpose of her blog as well.
        Anyway, that will have implications for if you want to reblog any of mine, so you’ll have to let me know when you want to do it, and I’ll turn it back on, just for you for a short period of time.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I wondered what was going on and had been deleting all caps comments without reading them. I’ll miss being able to link to you automatically, but we’ll get round it. (It seems to me that fewer bloggers say ‘also reviewed by’ than you’d expect).

        Liked by 1 person

  1. An intriguing figure – and unlikely choice when you found his first novel racist! Good to read against the grain. I have somewhere a great article about his decline and lost years from ca 2012 in the Weekend Australian – will try to find for you.


    • The first DI I read was The Unknown Industrial Prisoner – I hope when I review it soon that I still find it one of Australia’s great novels. I’ve read a few others since over the last 3 or 4 decades, and tried to read Burn for the first time last year – a fictionalized account of the life of an Aboriginal VC winner, but it’s a vile book and I gave up.

      That would be great if you could find that article.


  2. I’m trying to remember ‘Burn’, what figures is the disintegration of a community with no real economy, and up against the authorities, then the ending for the central character heading off to burn the country. But I read it in the early 80s, memory not now clear … until I discover the picture on the cover was of Reg Saunders, the first ab commissioned officer in our history, whose autobiography is covered by Harry (? I forget now). He made colonel in Korea War after reinlisting, before some months in WWII stuck on Crete.


    • I didn’t get very far into Burn. I wrote about it briefly at the end of whatever else I was writing about at the time and now can’t find it. I didn’t think he should have had a photograph of Reg Saunders attached to a fictional work ‘about’ him. The depiction of Aboriginal life on the banks of the river was stereotyped. And two or three chapters in, the protagonist lined up with other men to ‘sleep with’ his daughter. That was more than enough for me!


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