Scott Denis McCarthy

HDR student

My PhD research examines the Australian-Catholic middle class in Victoria and New South Wales through the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. I am particularly interested in how that class functioned amidst sectarian tensions in the wider community, and how social relations between affluent Catholics and the Anglo-Protestant ascendancy were shaped by those tensions and their expressions. This research is thus less concerned with the theological history of the church than it is with the cultural history of Catholics in the Australian community.

The literature examining the period with which this thesis is concerned has largely tracked the opposition between an overwhelmingly Irish, working-class Catholicism and the loyalist elements of middle-class Protestantism. This has neglected the Catholic middle classes, whose experience of sectarian sentiment, and the concurrent shifts in Australian society, was separate to and distinct from that of the working-class majority. In its occupation with Catholic separatism, that body of work has also failed to address the conservative tendencies in the Australian Catholic body, consigned as they often were to the proportionally small order of bourgeois laymen. This thesis, then, seeks to answer the questions: In what ways were the Catholic middle class alienated from Australian society during an era of religious agitation which typically excluded them from the terms of the debate? How was their footing within the establishment challenged by the evolving depiction of Catholicism as a menace to the federated Australian state? And to what extent did class distinctions foster feelings of dissent between Catholics at each level of society?

Through examining records in public and episcopal archives, chiefly in Victoria, New South Wales, and Canberra, this thesis will more accurately portray the Catholic élite as a collective, and determine the extent to which class affected the lived experience of the laity throughout the social divisions so closely linked with late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Australia.

  • What first sparked your interest in your field and how has that interest led you to your topic of research?

    My honours thesis examined the complexities of anti-Catholic sentiment during Australia’s Great War conscription crises. While researching for that project, it appeared to me that affluent Catholics at that time occupied a liminal space: between loyal religionists of a persecuted church and the prosperous products of an overwhelmingly Protestant ascendancy, generally complicit in the anti-Catholic discourse of the period. I found that those experiences were underrepresented and underemphasised in the existing literature; I also figured those experiences must have pre-dated the two years with which my honours thesis was concerned. When I proposed further research into that gap to my supervisor, Dr. Bart Ziino, his enthusiasm for the project encouraged me to pursue the topic as a PhD thesis.

  • What has been the highlight of your candidature so far?

    Attending the 2022 Australian Historical Association in June was an early highlight in my HDR journey. Having the opportunity to meet and speak with historians whose work has shaped my own research, along with getting to better know my peers here at Deakin, was a terrific experience. I was also fortunate enough to present a paper of my own, which was not only exciting but highly valuable in my beginning to develop a research profile. It was a great event to be introduced to what life as an academic historian entails.

  • What has been the most unexpected moment of your candidature so far?

    People’s (seemingly-)genuine interest in my work has been somewhat surprising, and very encouraging. While my topic may be somewhat niche, the academics and students I’ve discussed it with have shown excitement in its direction and potential. It’s been really great being around people who are curious and enthusiastic about each other’s work. I suppose, prior to commencing my candidature, that I expected the cohort to be more competitive, or at least that the broader community of historians would be a little more so in that sense. My experiences so far, being around candidates at Deakin and around historians more generally, has shown me that, actually, most historians are (to an extent) eager to hear more about the direction my work is headed in, and what it ultimately says.

  • You are stuck on a desert island with four books. Three are related to your field/area and one isn’t. Which books do you bring with you?

    For those related to my field, I would bring with me: Patrick O’Farrell’s The Catholic Church and Community: An Australian History (Revised 3rd Edition); Patrick Morgan’s Melbourne Before Mannix; and Jeff Kildea’s Tearing the Fabric: Sectarianism in Australia 1910 to 1925. These books have been, and will likely continue to be, treated as gospel while writing my PhD. For the outsider category, I would pack David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which probably demands endless re-readings, whether stranded on a desert island or not.

  • Writing is a big part of the HDR process. Do you have any rituals that help you get in the writing mood/vibe/mindset?

    For me, writing is all about discipline and self-imposed deadlines. When writing, I do my best to ignore the rest of the world and get to it. Having daily word-count targets or a broader idea that I want to articulate before the day’s up typically gets me through the slog. Someone somewhere said that they hate writing but love having written, which is a sentiment I can definitely sympathise with.


  • What do you do to relax and unwind after a long day of research/writing?

    I’ll often go to the gym and/or walk my dog once I get home from campus. I also try to read as much fiction as I can in the evenings, so as to get my head away from the work I’ve been doing for the day. Either that or I watch television with my partner – the gameshow Jeopardy! has become an evening staple as of late.

Australian Policy
 and History

Find out more