Feisty Irish Women and Irish National Foresters

Two new Irish Australian research areas under way at the moment are Susan Arthure’s archaeological dig at Kapunda, South Australia, and James Nicholas’s research-in-progress on the Irish National Foresters in Melbourne.

Feisty Irish Women

Susan on Baker’s Flat Irish settlement in Kapunda, SA

Susan, from Trim, Co. Meath, arrived in Adelaide in the 1980s as a webmaster, and then made a career move to archaeology in the noughties with a PhD study at Flinders University. We have covered some of Susan’s archaeological research work previously at https://tintean.org.au/2020/04/09/an-irish-clachan-in-south-australia-by-susan-arthure/ on how feisty Irish women stood ground for their land rights, and in last month’s Tinteán, see https://tintean.org.au/2022/11/10/god-in-a-bottle/but now Susan has had international recognition with her interview on The Ryan Tubridy Show on RTÉ Radio1. Her archaeological dig has not only revealed the existence of a clachan built by Irish immigrants in South Australia, but also what may have been a ‘sweat house’. You can listen to the interview via the link here https://bit.ly/3AQG5vS

A Call Out for Irish National Forester Stories

James Nicolas has sent us an account of the Irish National Foresters in Melbourne with a call for further stories and ephemera for an upcoming book.

The Irish National Foresters were a Friendly Society that commenced in Ireland and then started in Melbourne in 1886 and eventually spread across Australia. Known as the INF they provided for members medical benefits and funeral cover along the lines of other Friendly Societies along with a social, community focused platform. They differed from most other Friendly Societies in Australia in that members had to be Irish-born or of Irish descent. They set up branches across Melbourne, mainly in the inner suburbs and areas with large Irish populations. Richmond, Collingwood, Fitzroy, Clifton Hill, North & West Melbourne, Brunswick, Coburg and Northcote were INF strongholds, as were regional areas that had strong Irish populations such as Ballarat, Geelong, Bendigo, Maryborough, Kilmore and mining towns across Gippsland.

Meetings would occur on a weekly basis across the branches and a weekly meeting would involve the normal business of running a branch but included Irish language, dance, dinners and cultural focus with a big emphasis on the education and development of its members through lectures on a wide variety of subjects that were socio/political like the Eight-Hour Day, or the role of women, or the benefits of being in a union; increasingly the group was much focused on Irish Independence. 

They regularly held dances and picnics and ran their own hurling, cricket, football and other sports competitions. Being a member of the INF played a role in keeping the Irish community united and proud of their history and culture and this was seen in the oath of Induction to the INF that members took until the 1960s that talked of the Irish patriots of recent and long-term Irish history and it was expected as a member that you were proud to be Irish and promote Irish causes.

Originally the INF was secular and it did not matter whether you were Protestant or Catholic, only that you were Irish or of Irish descent, but eventually it came under the influence of the Catholic church and then changed its rules that essentially made being Irish AND Catholic a prerequisite for membership. As such when new branches were formed they were normally aligned to a catholic parish and met in the church halls. Branch names included the Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet. Michael Davitt, CS Parnell, Dan O’Connell and Joseph Biggar.

So who were the members of the INF apart from being Irish? The answer is they came from all sectors of the Irish community. Originally there were male only branches but with most social functions mixed; by 1906 female-only branches were established, and eventually most branches became mixed, and females were heads of branches and also head of the Society in Victoria on a number of occasions. Membership of the INF came from both white collar and blue collar workers, with many ALP politicians, councillors and unionists as members and leaders. The affluent Irish and the clergy were also represented in the ranks of membership. Most famously, Archbishop Mannix became not only a member, but the INF patron and protector and was a regular at INF events. Only one of his biographies makes mention of his involvement in the INF and that was relatively brief. Prime Minister James Scullin also was a member. Similarly, occupations identified with early Irish communities like mining, police and railways were highly represented and strong representation from what would be typically called working class peoples.

Socialisation between branches was strong, as were events with like minded groups, such as the Hibernians, in which at various times in their histories a merger was touted but never eventuated. The INF also were heavily involved in the management and running of the St Patrick’s Day events not only in the CBD but regionally, and its spectacular branch banners were long a feature of these marches.

By the late 1960s the INF membership was declining and ageing. It was being impacted as all Friendly Societies were by the nationalisation or at least state based schemes of workers compensations and health benefits which reduced the advantages that such societies gave its members. The INF was also being hit by the assimilation of the Irish community into the wider Australian population with second and third generations seeing themselves as Australians first, so it became harder and harder to recruit new members. The INF celebrated its centenary in 1986 and while this was a time of great celebration it was in some ways the end of the era as within a small amount of years the majority of branches closed and the INF centralised before eventually closing its social side that had been the hallmark of being a member of the INF.

I have made contact with a number of former members and obtained their memories and received a number of photographs and memorabilia and am interested in hearing from anybody who was a member or had family members who were, or any photographs or items of interest in the writing of this history. I have contacted historical societies across Victoria; most have never heard of the INF, a small number like the Korumburra in Gippsland and Werribee had collections of INF memorabilia and photographs. I have extensively looked at resources such as Trove and the Advocate paper post-Trove in the state library, books on local and Australia-wide Irish history and culture, the Public Records Office Victoria and the Royal Historical Society. The Catholic Archdiocese Historical department also contained archives on the INF.

I am sure when this book is finished people will consider that this is a piece of Irish Australian history that has been largely ignored prior to now and will enhance our understanding of the Irish diaspora and no doubt a number of readers will have had ancestors who were devoted INF members.

James is passionate about local history and has written a number of books and short stories on Australian history subjects. Amongst his works are Canterbury Football History 1881-2013; The Gunyah: A Centenary of Scouting in Canterbury 1915-2015; Warrnambool: a long way to Tipperary: the incredible life of John Hyland, an early Western Districts pioneer, and The Mystery of Fairyland, Kew. He can be contacted at  cobrascfc@gmail.com or 0407511057