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Jeff Kildea. Tearing the Fabric: Sectarianism in Australia 1910-1925.

JEFF KILDEA. Tearing the Fabric: Sectarianism in Australia 1910-1925. Citadel Books, Sydney, 2002; ISBN 09581019 0 6; 379 pages.

Dr Kildea has done Australian Catholic history singular service. Both in writing such a valuable hook and in publishing it himself--to say nothing of the dedication and sacrifice involved in finding time in a busy barrister's practice to pursue historical research at this high level: the subject is that of his PhD thesis at UNSW.

It is a sad fact of contemporary publishing, in a popular consumer economy, that publishers shy away from risk, that being seen as any topic with an uncertain and naturally limited 'academic' or scholarly market. The result is both a process of dumbing down, and the depriving of the intelligent general reader of access to the wealth of knowledge available in university theses. Twenty years ago such work as Dr Kildea's might have found ready publication--things less substantial did--but at present, a hard-headed commercialism and stress on fashionable subjects (of which religion is certainly not one) rules. The way round this, if you have sufficient enthusiasm for and confidence in your subject, is to self publish. Which Dr Kildea has done. It is an initiative worthy of congratulation--and of success. This book should be bought on principle, to affirm applause for the initiative and its subject.

But it is not only publishers who are hard-headed. Readers are too. Will they get their money's worth? Resounding yes: this is a fine piece of scholarship, an excellent research exercise, on a subject of neglected importance in both Catholic history and Australian politics. Dr Kildea resurrects from undeserved obscurity and neglect the story of the Catholic Federation, a mass activist organisation claiming 100,000 members in NSW, acting as it saw it, in defence of Catholic rights. The period 1910- 1925 was one of division and turmoil in Australia. The Great War and the Irish Rebellion, together with the continuing matter of education, raised issues in which questioning of the role of Catholics in Australian society was central--and bitterly contentious. The book's title Tearing the Fabric suggests some of the atmosphere of hatred, distrust and fear that pervaded those times. Whether this came close to degenerating into anything resembling civil war is not a question this book poses or explores. But it is a real question, however much beyond the legitimate boundaries of this exploration.

Indeed the very achievements of this book dispose one unreasonably to wish for more. Perhaps this is a function of the ambitious subtitle--Sectarianism in Australia 1910-1925. This is essentially a book about NSW, and its sectarianism is presented in its narrowly political manifestations. But what Dr Kildea has done is something this reviewer believed could not be done, this is, write an illuminating, thorough and perceptive history of the Catholic Federation of NSW, and set it firmly where it belongs in the context of the dramatic sectarian politics of its times.

Any person interested in Catholic history should find this a compelling read, and ample food for thought. But remember--buy it, don't borrow from a friend.

Patrick O'Farrell
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Author:O'Farrell, Patrick
Publication:Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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