The reappearance in print of Patrick O’Farrell’s The Irish in Australiaserves to remind us of the enormous impact that Irish migration has had on the development of modern Australia, explains Limerick-based historian Ruán O’Donnell
APPROXIMATELY ONE third of the convict and free-settler emigrants to the British colony of New South Wales were Irish born.
Irishmen were well represented in the First Fleet which arrived in New South Wales from England in January 1788 with Offaly’s captain David Collins and John White holding the important positions of judge advocate and chief physician respectively in the inaugural colonial administration.
Irish convicts who had been sentenced in England and their marine guards were also landed in 1788 and the proportion of their countrymen in the colony increased rapidly from 1791 when the first transport, the Queen, reached Australia from Cobh, Co. Cork.
The mass deportation of Defenders and United Irishmen to the colony between 1793 and 1805 introduced a substantial community of experienced republican revolutionaries whose plots and uprisings created considerable ferment in 1800.
The Castle Hill rising of March 1804 was overwhelmingly an Irish affair and led to the first declaration of martial law in Australia.
The comparatively benign tenure of governor Lachlan Macquarie facilitated the assimilation of the disaffected Irish after 1810. By then ex-United Irishmen William Redfern of Belfast and James Meehan of Offaly played vital roles in developing health care and surveying the expanding Australian colonies.
The final defeat of Napoleonic France in 1815 lessened the perceived danger of Franco-Irish seditious collaboration in Australia.
As the major phase of convictism drew to a close in 1853, in part spurred by Irish-Australian lobbying, the continued immigration of Irish families maintained a strong sense of ethnic identity. Some 90,000 Irish emigrants arrived in New South Wales between 1836 and 1886 while others went to the newer state territories of Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania (then known as Van Diemen’s Land). Tipperary man Ned Ryan, transported for attacking a police barracks in 1815, reputedly amassed around 250,000 acres in south eastern New South Wales.
The extent and pace of the late 19th century influx owed much to the discovery of gold, the availability of affordable land and generally good employment prospects. Almost 400,000 Irish emigrated to Australia and New Zealand between 1850 and 1921.
The distinctive contribution of the Irish in Australia took many forms, not least the creation of a sizeable Catholic community and the adoption of a variant of Gaelic Football as a major sporting code.
Trade unions and the political fronts of the labour movement were also heavily indebted to Irish migrants and their descendants who were well represented at every level of colonial society. Irish miners at Ballarat goldfield, Victoria, were the focal point of a highly significant and violent protest in 1854 at the Eureka Stockade.
The stand against perceived administrative injustice and incompetence found an articulate figurehead in Laois man Peter Lalor, the brother of Land League proto-socialist James Fintan Lalor. Lalor subsequently became Speaker of the Victorian assembly.
The Irish community and its allies collected the huge sum of £95,000 for famine relief in Ireland in 1880 and the profusion of Irish cultural, religious and political organisations mirrored that of the North American experience.
The massive Patriots’ Memorial in Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery commemorated the ‘men of ‘98’ from 1900, and later, republicans who died in the 1916 Easter rising and republican prisoner hunger strike of 1981.
Between the 1880s and 1914 the Irish community in Sydney and Melbourne offered strong moral support within the British empire for the campaign to obtain home rule in their native country. The onset of thr first world war in 1914 and the repercussions of the 1916 rising lessened direct Irish-Australian input, although such revolutionary bodies as the Irish Republican Brotherhood maintained a presence in Australia.
The percentage of Irish born settlers in Australia dropped after 1945 owing to a relaxation of restrictions on non-English speaking applicants and other domestic and international factors. However, substantial numbers entered the country throughout the 1950s and 1980s.
Relations between the Irish and Australian governments further improved in the 1990s and Australia remains a major destination for Irish visitors and emigrants. Notable Irish-Australians include Australian Labour Party prime ministers John Curtin, Joseph Benedict, ‘Ben’ Chifley, Jim Scullin and Paul Keating.
However, there is no aspect of Australian life in which those of Irish extraction are not well represented.
The most accessible, if poorly referenced, account of the subject is Patrick O’Farrell’s The Irish in Australia, which has just been republished by Cork University Press. While O’Farrell, one of the key progenitors of the discredited revisionist movement in Irish history, has been superseded in terms of the history of the Irish in the early colonial period, his account of their later social progress remains the best in print.
Ruán O’Donnell lectures in history at the University of Limerick. The Irish in Australia by Patrick O’Farrell is published by Cork University Press priced £17.13 pbk
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2002 Ruán O’Donnell