St Patrick’s Day in South Australia

King William St, Adelaide, 1916

As with cities all over the world, Adelaide in South Australia has been without a St Patrick’s Day parade during the Covid19 years. For Adelaide, current restrictions in place mean no parade in 2022, unlike some other cities (see out What’s On segment).

The extract below from the book Irish in South Australia: New histories and insights (2019) is a reminder of the importance of the St Patrick’s Parade to the Irish abroad in particular. The chapter author is Simon O’Reilley from Kapunda, a town about 85ks from Adelaide.

Adelaide today

The Irish, as a founding people in South Australia, formed strong social and community networks, while maintaining bonds of kinship with their oppressed homeland. Given this attachment, it is only natural that the feast of St Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, would be commemorated with as much importance in South Australia, as in any other place around the world where Irish migrants settled. From the beginning of European settlement, St Patrick’s Day in South Australia has been commemorated annually as a rallying call to express Irish identity in a new land.


It is more than likely that St Patrick’s Day would have been celebrated among the first Irish Catholic families that came to South Australia in the first years of settlement, either privately or in clusters, through religious devotion or as a small celebration. However, a number of the colony’s prominent early citizens were Irish Protestants, who were proud of the land of their birth and it was one of these, George Kingston who organised the first publicly-announced celebration of St Patrick’s Day, advertised in 1840. Just four years after the colony’s founding it was proclaimed that, ‘The Sons of Erin will celebrate the festival of their Patron Saint by dining together at Fordham’s hotel’. Since the cost of attendance was 30 shillings, this event was probably not intended for the general Irish community. By 1843, a celebration for the wider community was organised:

Southern Australian newspaper 1843

Incidentally, this is ‘the first reference to a game of football being played in South Australia … probably a variety of Gaelic Football’. The following year it was advertised that ‘a few of the ancient games of our forefathers will be revived on the green.’ By 1845, three separate festivities for St Patrick’s Day were advertised: a dinner at the Freemason’s Tavern, football and a roasted ox at Thebarton, and publican, Edward McEllister of the Irish Harp, Rundle Street, supplying tickets for a supper at 2s 6d each.

Thebarton Oval today (

By 1849, the St Patrick’s Society of South Australia was formed. Its founding members included prominent Irish Protestants such as Major Thomas O’Halloran, George Kingston, and Robert Torrens as well as Catholics including Edward McEllister and Fr Michael Ryan. The society was essentially a lobby group with a clear agenda to revive old associations, communicate information to Ireland, assist new immigrants on their arrival, and lobby government for a fairer proportion of Irish immigrants granted passage to South Australia from Irish ports. The society also emphasised the suitability of Irish migrants for life in the colony. The following year the society had erected St Patrick’s Hall in Leigh Street adjoining the Wellington Inn, with a well-attended meeting on St Patrick’s Day.

River Torrens named after Robert Torrens’ father

In a speech at the formation of the society Robert Torrens declared: ‘The Thames alone should not supply the fertilizing stream of emigration; equally valuable labor abounded on the banks of the Shannon, which had an equal right to share in the abundance with which we are blessed’. Composed of such prominent citizens, the society had some effect, as Irish migration to South Australia began to pick up into the mid-1850s. By 1857, Bishop Murphy reported a population of 14,000 Catholics in South Australia, the majority being Irish.

the town of Kadina is around 150ks from Adelaide. This badge is from Simon O’Reilley’s collection of St Patrick’s Day badges

The attempted assassination of Prince Alfred in New South Wales on 12 March 1868 by self-proclaimed Fenian, Henry O’Farrell, placed much suspicion on Irish communities all over Australia. A few days later, just before St Patrick’s Day, 1868, two soldiers of the 50th Regiment compelled a tradesman in Adelaide to haul down a ‘Fenian flag’ outside his premises. Another incident some years later during a Catholic procession in Kadina had similar parallels, when a police officer attempted to seize an Irish flag, provoking a defiant response.

In the late 1860s, Fr Julian Tenison Woods used St Patrick’s Day to lecture on the evils of drunkenness, forming a Temperance Association that night in 1868, which became known as the St Patrick’s Temperance Association. Despite the lull in celebration earlier in the decade, by the late 1860s and early 1870s, the celebration of Mass and a lecture followed by a concert in the town hall, was the norm for St Patrick’s Day in Adelaide, with the first mention of a procession being made in 1870.

However, it was not until 1878 that an imposing formal procession through the principal streets of Adelaide was organised by a committee headed by the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society (HACBS). Taking part too were the Australasian Catholic Benefit Society (ACBS), the Labourers’ Branch of the Labor League and the United Cabmen’s Society of Adelaide. General interest from the public was shown by the fact that five to six thousand people were present to witness the start of the procession. Along the whole route, the inhabitants turned out en masse to witness the procession, from St Francis Xavier’s Hall down Grote Street, along West Terrace and down Hindley Street, where the balconies and windows of the different shops and houses were thronged with spectators, to North Terrace and through to the grounds of Government House, where they were received by the Governor.

Adelaide Irish pipe band still going today

In Adelaide by 1912, a feature of the procession was the newly formed Irish Pipe Band. The Band would be at the head of the column for many years and indeed still is to the present day. The recently formed Irish National Foresters also appeared for the first time this year. By 1914, St Patrick’s Day speeches from the United Irish League echoed sentiments which fully anticipated Home Rule to be granted following the passing of the Bill, after decades of careful political lobbying, mostly by the same people who were lobbying in the 1880s. Little did they know, whilst on the cusp of success, that everything would change utterly: the Great War, the subsequent Easter Rising in Dublin, and the psychological shift of Irish sentiment from cautious Home Rule politics to outright militant demands for an Irish Republic.

Although, the Great War seemed not to dampen the enthusiasm for St Patrick’s Day in Adelaide, a feature of the parade in 1916 was the voluntary inclusion of soldiers from training camps around Adelaide, the total muster being 1,431 officers and men. The sectarian division caused by the conscription debate and the Irish Rising of April 1916 did not seem to have an adverse effect on the St Patrick’s Day demonstration itself in the ensuing years; indeed, they gave the day further emphasis although resentful loyalist voices were to become louder.

The continuity of St Patrick’s Day speaks of a strong sense of community and identity among Irish migrants and their descendants over generations in South Australia. Domestic, Irish and global events combined with religious constraints, folk traditions and external community expectations formed the evolution of this expression. Initially, St Patrick’s Day was used to express loyal sentiments, but political events in Ireland provoked notions of solidarity. This connection to Ireland would last well into the twentieth century, as a strong sense of Irish identity was passed on from Irish migrants to the first and second generation. At the moment when notions of Irish identity in South Australia were confidently at their peak, tumultuous political events in Ireland, the Great Depression and the Second Word War forced Irish South Australians to re-evaluate their focus. After generations of looking to Ireland, the close connection could no longer be sustained and their focus would turn to local issues of politics, religion and society in Australia.

Dymphna Lonergan is a member of Tinteán’s editorial group and has contributed two chapters to Irish South Australia: new histories and insights (Wakefield Press 2019). Enquiries to