A Brief History of the Irish in Australia

Tinteán Preamble

See ‘What’s on’ for further information on Irish in Australasia research.

Originally written around 2007 as an intended revision of the Introduction to the author’s book Shamrock to Wattle, the author says to do it again he would need to take account of the great work that has appeared since then. The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2013), A New History of the Irish in Australia (2018), and Irish South Australia (2019), to make more room for the Irish in Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia, explore the complex relationship between Irish and Aboriginal people, and assess the varied contribution of Irish-born women to Australian life and culture.

A Brief History of the Irish in Australia by Trevor McClaughlin


What kind of contribution have the Irish made to the development of Australian society? Have they moved with the mainstream of European settlement? Or have they been a minority set apart, often at odds with the Anglo-Saxon majority, slow to participate in the benefits of ‘the lucky country’? Has the Irish contribution been a valuable one, one which has enriched Australian society as a whole or has it been largely divisive and disruptive? Has their different way of looking at the world, their warmth, cheerfulness, innocence and Celtic melancholy outweighed their sectarianism, their ‘tribal’ memory, their feuding, their drunkenness and political corruption? As this last sentence illustrates only too well, we will need to be wary of national and racial stereotypes. Such stereotypes easily distort our perception of the Irish in Australia. 

Who were the Irish?

How do we define ‘Irish’ anyway? We should be careful not to let our own political, religious or other prejudices define who or what was Irish. Our definition should be broad enough to take account of the different cultural traditions within a changing Irish society, and tolerant enough to include Anglo-Irish and Scotch-Irish as well as native Irish, Presbyterian and Episcopalian as well as Roman Catholic. While the Irish who came to Australia had much in common, they were not an homogeneous group but came from a variety of backgrounds. They came from different social classes, different economic and educational backgrounds, had different political and religious outlooks, even the dialect they spoke was different There was no single, standardised and unchanging Irish man or woman who was a typical representative of them all. Historical writing about the Irish in Australia is slowly giving recognition to that fact. 

In one regard at least, family historians are fortunate. However much they may wish to find Irish rebels or, for that matter, Anglo-Irish gentry among their ancestors, they have little choice in the matter. They are forced to accept whoever the genetic lottery has given them as an ancestor, whether that ancestor be orange or green, gentleman or domestic servant, political prisoner or pickpocket, policeman or bushranger. In representing these people as they actually were and in trying to understand them, family historians make use of some very basic, though often neglected, historical skills. 

Among the Irish who came here and who belonged to the mainstream of colonisation and settlement were Richard Bourke, Governor of New South Wales, John Hubert Plunkett, the far-sighted Attorney-General and politician, Richard McDonnell, Governor of South Australia, and John Foster, Colonial Secretary of Victoria, all of them high ranking colonial officials who were mainly, though not exclusively, Anglo-Irish. 

At the other end of the social spectrum, though still in the service of Imperial Britain, were the large numbers of Catholic Irish in the British armed forces (42 per cent in 1830), some of whom were to settle in Australia and New Zealand. Most of these soldiers, as indeed was the case with the majority of emancipated Irish convicts and assisted migrants, fitted into the main pattern of European settlement. 

Irish Settlement

This, of course, is not to deny a distinctively Irish pattern of settlement. In New South Wales, the main direction of Irish Catholic expansion was to be the south and south-west of Sydney, from Irishtown, about five miles on the Sydney side of Liverpool where a number of the ‘men of ’98’ had settled, via the Campbelltown-Appin-Camden region to Argyle and from there to Georgiana, King and Murray and into the neighbouring squatting district; or to use names you are perhaps more familiar with, from Appin via Goulburn to Yass, Boorowa, Jugiong and Wagga into Northern Victoria. The lllawarra district, especially around Kiama, was another area in New South Wales with a relatively high proportion of Irish settlers, many of them Protestants from the Ulster Counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone. 

At a later date, when Victoria expanded, Kilmore to the north of Melbourne, Warrnambool and Port Fairy in the Western District, the parliamentary constituency of Warrenheip and the electoral wards of central Melbourne were all of relatively high Irish concentration. Similarly, when Queensland opened up, Irish migrants set down their roots on the Logan, near Waterford, in Kerry Valley, at Pine Mountain, outside Ipswich, in the Drayton-Harristown area outside Toowoomba and the Maryvale-Gladfield area near Warwick. 

In Australia in the nineteenth century the Irish did not cluster in urban ghettos in the manner of their countryfolk in North America and Britain. In Australia, unlike North America, they did not avoid rural areas. They were neither frontiersmen nor did they concentrate in the major cities. The Catholic Irish, however, showed a marked tendency to settle where the English and Scots did not. 

While many Irish, perhaps the majority, were very much part of the mainstream of Australia’s colonial development, others of them may be seen as a tributary to, or standing apart from that development. There has long been a history of Irish protest in Australia, a tradition in which an Irish minority found itself at loggerheads with the dominant and dominating British order of things. 

A Tradition of Protest

The transportation to Australia of Irish political prisoners was, in part, the foundation of that tradition of protest. Among these political prisoners were those who had taken part in the 1798 Rebellion, men such as Joseph Holt and the Wicklow chief, Michael Dwyer, Young Irelanders of 1848, such as William Smith O’Brien, Terence McManus, Thomas Meagher and John Mitchell and the Fenians who came to Western Australia in 1868, the most famous of whom was John Boyle O’Reilly. With some justification we can claim that the Castle Hill Rebellion of 1804, the Irish origins of many bushrangers in the 1820s and 1860s, Eureka Stockade at Ballarat in 1854, Catholic education politics and the anti-conscription campaigns of 1916-17, are all different manifestations of that tradition. 

Bushranging, for example, was not an uniquely Irish occupation or offence. Yet many bushrangers were of Irish or part Irish descent, among them, Jack Donohue, the archetypal ‘wild colonial boy’, Martin Cash of Tasmania, O’Meally, Dunn, Gilbert and Ben Hall, and best known of them all, Ned Kelly, whose exploits are firmly printed on Australia’s consciousness. As with most folk heroes, legend and fact have become confused. Nowadays, the less attractive side of bush rangers’ activities has been suppressed or forgotten; the myth remains. We also need to remind ourselves that many of the troopers and constables, O’Grady, Walsh, Lenehan, Fitzpatrick, Lonigan, Scanlon and Kennedy, who helped suppress bushranging, were also of Irish descent. Much of the venom and sense of ‘tribal’ revenge contained in Ned Kelly’s impassioned Jerilderie letter stems from recognition of that fact. Perhaps the real tragedy of Ned is that he was, in the words of one historian, ‘an ill-educated dead-ender in a rural slum’. 

Eureka Stockade

(Creative Commons)

A more acceptable example of the Irish tradition of protest in Australian history is the role they played in the gold miners’ rebellion at Eureka in 1854. Irish opposition to and conflict with arbitrary government, as exemplified at Eureka, was one of the formative influences in Australian history. Yet we should be careful not to exaggerate the role of the Irish. In many respects Eureka was more than a purely Irish rebellion. Some historians have claimed that Eureka was the work of foreigners, a view which has some credibility if we define foreigner as someone who was not native-born. Thus the Irish, Americans, English, Welsh, Scots, French, Germans and Italians who took such a prominent part at Eureka and whose political ideas, expressed in the Ballarat Reform League, were derived from the Chartists or the 1848 liberal and democratic revolutionaries in Europe, may be described as foreign not native-born. Other historians argue that Eureka should be seen as the culmination of a more general digger protest. The high cost of miners’ licenses and the brutal and bullying administration of the licensing system was of concern to all diggers, not just Irish ones. Their opposition to the system had been made clear at Forest Creek, Bendigo, Castlemaine and elsewhere, long before the Eureka rebellion occurred. These qualifications having been made, it is also important to realise the crucial role the Irish did play at Eureka. 

The leadership provided by the Irish in the days immediately before the skirmish at Eureka is well known. Towards the end of 1854, the Eureka lead was in the hands of the Tipperary ‘boys’ whose reputation for brawling may well have driven some of the other diggers away. Peter Lalor, brother of the young Irelander, James Fintan Lalor, inspired the rebels to an oath of resistance and was Commander-in-Chief of the men behind the Stockade. Twenty of the thirty-four men who were either killed or wounded on the morning of 3 December were Irish, most of them from County Clare. And of the thirteen ‘ringleaders’ arrested by the troops of the 12th Regiment, taken to Melbourne and charged with treason, six were Irish. All thirteen were eventually acquitted. We should also acknowledge the peacemaking role played by Irish born clergy, Fathers Smyth, Downing and Bishop Goold and by John O’Shanassy, future Premier of Victoria. 

The other Irishmen who participated in the events surrounding Eureka are perhaps not so well known. In all honesty, it is likely that Tom Mooney and John Farrell, two of the culprits in the Eureka hotel tragedy, one of the incidents which so angered the diggers, were of Irish origin. Moreover, given the high percentage of Irish in the British army and in the Victorian police force, it is also likely there was a significant number of Irish among the forces which put down the rebellion. John King, who pulled down the ‘Southern Cross’ flag, for instance, hailed from Antrim. 

Of interest for what it tells us of the multi-faceted nature of Irish involvement, is the political ruckus in Melbourne immediately after Eureka and at the time of the trial of the thirteen ‘ringleaders’. David Blair, for example, a pious and abstemious Ulster Presbyterian and sub-editor of the Argus, was an outspoken critic of the actions of the Government at Eureka, and for a time, was a vociferous advocate of republicanism. Just as remarkable was the large number of Irish lawyers, who took part in the trial of the thirteen. The Attorney-General, W.F. Stawell, Mr. Justice Barry, before whom Timothy Hayes was tried in March 1855, better known as Chancellor of the University of Melbourne and judge at Ned Kelly’s trial, and R.D. Ireland whose cross-examination of police witnesses did much to bring about Hayes’ acquittal were all graduates of Trinity College, Dublin. Unlike Hayes, they were Anglo-Irish and like Peter Lalor, they were to play an outstanding role in Victorian politics in the second half of the century. 

Catholic Irish

This rich variety of influences which the Irish, in general, brought to bear on the events surrounding Eureka was also a characteristic of the largest single group to come here, the Catholic Irish. The existence of broad lines of division in nineteenth-century Ireland, between town and country, industrialising north and agrarian south, between male and female and between pre-Famine and post Famine times, should alert us to the diversity of Irish migrants’ experience and hence of their influence here in Australia. 

As yet, relatively little detailed work has been done on the history of Irish migrants and their assimilation in Australian society, at least, from the migrants’ own point of view. A preliminary survey of assisted migrants to New South Wales between 1848 and 1851, essentially famine migrants, suggests that the majority of them came not from a cottier class but from a ‘middle class’ of small farming families holding between five and fifteen acres of land. Did many of them bring capital with them, perhaps gold sovereigns from under the mattress? How soon, if at all, did they become property-holders in Australia? In the nineteenth century, both the Illawarra district of New South Wales and the Western District in Victoria were areas of small farms with a high concentration of Irish settlers. Current historical opinion holds that the Irish ‘settled’ at the bottom of the social scale. Lacking capital, low in literacy, and with limited agricultural skills, they helped form the backbone of a colonial working class. If as this suggests, Irish migrants initially moved down the social scale, not up, as a result of migration, might this help explain why some of them held on to their Irish identity? 

Family historians are well placed to address such questions. What was the social and economic background of your ancestors? How soon did they become property owners in Australia? Did the Irish-born members of your family marry Irish, English, Scots or native-born? Is there evidence of their retaining their Irish identity for a considerable period of time? What work did they do? From the occupations given on marriage and birth certificates, can you detect signs of upward social mobility over a number of generations?  

With the passage of time Irish Catholics eventually did become part of the fabric of Australian society. With the coming of each generation, they moved along and some of them, up the social scale. But their ascent was neither rapid nor easy. The means by which they carved themselves a place, their religion, politics and education, also preserved their distinct and separate identity and indeed, contributed to the prejudice against them. 

Religion, politics, education

All three, religion, politics and education, were closely interwoven. The Church which gave Irish Catholics a place of worship, afforded them some protection, spiritual comfort and a religious community to which they might belong, functioned on an expanding scale largely by means of an Irish-born clergy. Take for example, the work of Bishops Matthew and James Quinn and James Murray in the 1860s, and at a later date, of the achievement of a number of long lived princes of the Church, Cardinal Patrick Moran from Carlow, Archbishop Michael Kelly from Waterford, the anti-conscription campaigner, Archbishop Daniel Mannix from Charleville in Cork, or the more conciliatory Archbishops Patrick Clune from Clare and James Duhig from Limerick, and you will appreciate the power which an Irish-born hierarchy has wielded in the Australian Catholic Church. 

One of the major achievements of this Church has been the construction of a separate school system. In the 1870s and 1880s, in their resistance to liberal and secular education, the Australian hierarchy looked to the Irish religious for support. Some of the best-known Catholic schools, St Ignatius College, Riverview (1880), St Patrick’s College, Goulburn (1875), Xavier College, Kew (1878) and St Anne’s College, Warrnambool (1874) date from this period. Not surprisingly, issues associated with the expansion of the Catholic education system have been among the most hotly debated issues in Australia’s political history. Yet despite its divisive influence, Catholic education also contributed to the growth of a religious community, gave the Irish respectability, a means of rising up the social ladder and reminded Australian Catholics of their Irishness, at a time when the proportion of Irish-born in the community was steadily diminishing. 

Finally, politics, in which the Irish displayed a talent for seeking and gaining power. Here was a way both to challenge the Establishment and force an entry to it. By and large, the Irish in Australia concerned themselves more with local issues than with those of their homeland. Yet here also, on those occasions when the two did coincide, as, for instance, in 1868, after the attempted assassination of Prince Alfred and in 1916-17, at the time of the conscription referenda, Australia has seen some of the bitterest squabbles in its political history. At worst, there was an element of truth in the stereotype of Irish sectarianism, (not the monopoly of any one creed I hasten to add) too much church influence, too many deals being made, graft and corruption, too easily accepted, and a political machine which put block voting before any rational examination of political issues. At best, through an association with the Labor party, Catholic and working-class Irish have displayed a passionate concern for social justice and have forced their way into the centres of political power. Witness James Scullin, Joseph Lyons, Arthur Fadden, John Curtin at Joseph Chifley and more debatably, the Duffys, Youngs, Ryans at Keatings of the 1984 Federal Government. 

What was your ancestors’ contribution to the making of Australia? Was it made in any of the ways just surveyed? Perhaps it was not so much politician, teacher or prelate but as sportsman or publican, admirer of Les Darcy, Fanny Durack, Dan Minogue or Jack Dyer, or as patron of the turf club? Perhaps none of these, it was as mother, daughter, wife or husband father, son who lived and survived as best they could.

Trevor McClaughlin is an academic and a historian, now retired from Macquarie University. He is the author of Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia: Documents and Register (1991 and 2001), From Shamrock to Wattle: Digging Up Your Irish Ancestors (1985 and 1990), and ed. Irish Women in Colonial Australia, (1998).

Enter your email address to receive notification of new posts by email.