Leary Kin: Australian Larrikins and the Blackface Minstrel Dandy

By Bellanta, Melissa | Journal of Social History, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Leary Kin: Australian Larrikins and the Blackface Minstrel Dandy


Bellanta, Melissa, Journal of Social History


On 11 November 1880, the Australian bushranger, Ned Kelly, was executed in Old Melbourne Gaol. Over the preceding week, an outpouring of resentment, curiosity and impending grief had made itself felt in the streets around the prison. Thousands had attended a protest in Melbourne's Hippodrome, many of whom were larrikins, or rough youths, and raffish-looking women. Tens of thousands more had signed a petition calling for Kelly's reprieve. The night he died, hundreds crammed into Apollo Hall, paying a shilling apiece to get up close and personal with members of his family. Seated in armchairs on the stage, Kate and James Kelly, both siblings of Ned, had talked for some time with the larrikin members of the audience. (1)

The Apollo Hall was primarily a blackface minstrel venue. It was leased at the time to the Georgia Minstrels, a group of African-American performers on tour, whose manager had sub-let it to the exhibitors of Kate and James. (2) It is unlikely that there were direct links between the Georgias and the Kelly siblings. Nonetheless, the fact that they appeared at the Apollo during the Georgias' tour would have struck many as wryly appropriate. As poor Irish-Australians of a larrikin and disorderly temperament, the Kellys were often described in terms of blackness. Their loose connection with the Georgia Minstrels gives us an intimation of the broader relationship to be discussed in this article--that is, the relationship between larrikins and blackface minstrelsy in late nineteenth-century Australia.

Often seen as crucial to Australia's national identity today, the phenomenon of larrikinism emerged in the 1860s. (3) The word larrikin is widely attributed to the expression larkin' about, pronounced in a heavy Irish brogue. Others have speculated that it came from leary kin, colloquial for a savvy street-youth. (4) Whatever the precise derivation of the term, larrikins were indeed street-youths given to anti-social hijinks, and often violent crime as well. The word was sometimes applied to disreputable girls. Far more often, however, larrikins were rough boys and young men milling about in the central places of Australian cities. Along with their lionisation of the Kelly gang, these youths were renowned for their delight in popular theatricals, including solo "nigger" acts in concert halls and blackface minstrel shows. They were often to be found in the cheap gallery-seats of minstrel venues such as Apollo Hall, cheering white actors "blacked up" with burnt cork or, more unusually, African-American performers got up in blackface guise.

Larrikins were not the only Australians to be drawn to minstrelsy in the 1870s and 1880s. Minstrelsy's combination of roisterous character-songs, sentimental ballads, comic sketches and hilarious burlesques appealed to diverse audiences in Australia--decidedly more diverse than in North America or England. (5) Nonetheless, larrikins were among minstrelsy's most devoted clientele, and were certainly its most uproarious. More than anything else, they were drawn to rowdy "male display" songs, to borrow a phrase from William J. Mahar. They were drawn to songs such as "Zip Coon", "Fashionable Fred", "Razors in the Air", and "The Man With the Seal-Skin Pants": acts in which blackface dandies strutted the stage in sharply extravagant dress, skiting about their accomplishments with a deliberately burlesque panache. (6) For larrikins, these urban swells were redolent of the flamboyant Anglo-Celtic outlaw tradition embodied by the Kelly gang. They had something of the glamour of the Newgate anti-hero about them, a well-established subject in low Victorian melodrama, and also of other insurgent figures in Irish and Australian history.

With their focus on big city life, dandy acts explored what urbanization and modernization meant for Anglo-Australian society. The changes brought by modernization meant that a range of social and racial groups were forming new aspirations to status and leisure. …

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