A FEATURE BY Keith Harvey
What do Sydney’s Bankstown, Melbourne’s Preston and the Geelong suburb of Newtown/Chilwell have in common?
Answer: They were all at one time called Irishtown.
The name Irishtown arguably has been the single most common place name in Australia. Along with the three towns noted above, numerous other Australian cities and towns have had parts of them referred to officially or unofficially over the years as ‘Irishtown’, including parts of Bendigo and Adelaide.
Only a small number of these ‘Irishtowns’ officially exist today, all of them small towns or localities in rural settings. The locality known as Irishtown in NSW (Post code 2583) is in the Upper Lachlan Shire; in Tasmania, Irishtown (7330) near Smithton in the northwest of the State has a population in the 200s as does Irishtown (6401) in WA, about 84kms from Perth (north of Northam).
Irishtown in Victoria, just south of Castlemaine, near Freyerstown has a population today of zero – the only ‘feature’ of the town today is the sign marking the spot where a bustling gold mining town once stood. There are no recognizable streets or standing buildings, let alone residents, there today.
The name ‘Irishtown’ is problematic for students of Irish history and culture. It may seem strange to many that the name originated in Ireland itself many centuries ago.
The newsletter of Placenames Australia notes that the very name Irishtown is a symbol of Irish dispossession of their own land:
Irishtown, as a placename that marginalised the Irish, began in twelfth-century Ireland when the English expelled Irish rebels from the walled town of Waterford as punishment for their opposition to the English invasion. The rebels’ new home was on low-lying and marshy ground. Later, New Ross, Wexford also had a designated ‘Irishtown’ that was physically separate from the main town. Overall, around nine Irishtowns were named in Norman- and English-controlled Ireland in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries….
Dymphna Lonergan in an article on Irish place names in Australia focusing on Irishtown in Adelaide, agrees:
Irishtown is to some extent a derogatory term. In today’s Ireland, the Irishtowns are anachronistic; these names, dating from the twelfth century, marked places to where the native Irish were banished, usually following a military defeat. Areas named Irishtown in Ireland were typically outside the English-controlled towns and were often walled off from them. In late nineteenth-century in North Adelaide the laboring classes in their small cottages were not walled off from those living in big houses, but the name Irishtown served the same purpose of naming the undesired.
In a number of cases, this view seems correct. Irishtown in Bendigo was an undesirable area: low lying and poor. But in other cases, the name Irishtown may have had better connotations.
Patrick O’Farrell in his book, The Irish in Australia, notes that Bankstown in Sydney was given its name because of the concentration of 1798 rebels who settled there. They were unlikely to have considered the name a sign of dispossession:
Of the 1798 rebels, some returned to Ireland…Others the great majority- remained to become the most prominent and prosperous Irishmen in Sydney Town: James Meehan, William Davis, James Dempsey, Edward Redmond and Michael Hayes were all ’98 veterans. Seventeen ninety-eight veterans, centring around the group of Wicklow rebels, formed such a landholding concentration to the south-west of Sydney as to attract to the district the initial name of Irishtown [now Bankstown]. This concentration, from 1809, was apparently contrived by Meehan as government surveyor, and, spreading from Liverpool to the Illawarra district, acted as a continuing magnet for further Irish concentration; others were attracted to the vicinity by the prosperity and society of their countrymen….
The north-east portion of Preston in Melbourne is believed to have been given its original name by its Irish-born but Methodist purchaser, Samuel Jeffrey, around 1850. The name was subsumed into Preston, named for its English counterpart in Lancashire, England within 10 years.
With hindsight it is unclear whether the name Irishtown, in the Australian context, has the same connotation as the original Irishtowns in Anglo-Norman Ireland. Clearly some Australian Irishtowns were less than desirable locations in which to live and work, such as those in Adelaide and Bendigo and the names have vanished as conditions improved and populations diversified.
Other Australian Irishtowns perhaps simply recorded a fact: the predominance of Irish settlers or even offered a positive attraction for would be settlers in a wide brown and alien land far from the familiar damp green pastures of home.
Keith Harvey has worked in the Australian labour movement for many years. He is currently editor of The Debate, the journal of the Australian Institute of Employment Rights and is a trustee director of an industry superannuation fund.