Attitudes towards Irish Immigration

by Kerry Edwards

MA, Dip.Ed, Dip.Ed.Stud.,Dip.Soc.Sci.


There is an Irish Australian folksong called “Fare thee well Me Darlin’ Mary Ann”  that contains the lines:


Our land may be poor but this I’m sure

We’re welcome where ever we roam

So at the break of the day

We’ll be sailing away

To the shores of Austral i ay


In another verse we are asked to believe that in Kalgoorlie “men get rich, and there’s plenty of girls, or so I have been told”.


In the words of another song: It ain’t necessarily so……


In the Australian experience, the identities of being Irish and being Catholic were intertwined.  Racial and religious prejudice were doubly compounded by those who knew themselves and their tribe to be superior to this “other”.  The Establishment was English and Anglican, and the Scots Presbyterians were in the ascendancy.  Below the Irish were the Australian indigenous people and the Chinese.


This view of the social pecking order tended to exclude those Irish who were definitely not Catholic, the many Northern Irish of Scots Presbyterian descent, particularly the Orangemen, and those English and Scots who were always Catholic, and English people like Caroline Chisholm, a convert to Catholicism, who stands out in history because she was so unusual.


I will concentrate on two periods of Australian history:  the convict years and the Gold Rush, and only briefly mention other events that illustrate the attitudes towards Irish immigration.  These two periods have been critical in shaping Australian society.


Firstly, a quick look at Ireland at the time of the first settlement at Sydney.  The Penal Laws were designed to drive the indigenous Irish population “into the clay”.  Under the Popery Laws, no Catholic could sit in Parliament, on the bench or in a jury; none could vote, teach or hold any army commission.  The property laws were written to break up Catholic estates and consolidate Protestant ones.  Protestant estates could be left intact to eldest sons, but Catholic land had to be split between all the children.  Catholic landowning families degenerated in sharecropping within a generation or two.[1]  In 1788, Catholics in Ireland owned about 5% of the land.  [2]These laws unified Irish Catholics very effectively and eliminated the question of a class struggle within Catholic society.  The invader was the common enemy, and Irish political prisoners transported to Australia came from backgrounds as diverse as the peasantry and the professions.


The English politician and writer Edmund Burke remarked in 1792 that Ireland was divided


into two distinct bodies, without common interest, sympathy or connection.  One…was to possess all the franchises, all the property, all the education, the other was to be composed of drawers of water and cutters of turf for them.  Are we to be surprised when by the efforts of so much violence in conquest… we had reduced them to a mob?


Irish convicts transported to Australia fall into the following categories:


·    those convicted in England for crimes committed in England

·    those convicted in Ireland for criminal offences committed there

·    those convicted of political crimes.


The first group were city dwellers, poor and poorly educated and repeat offenders, usually for theft.

The second group could be further divided into City or Country dwellers.  Those convicts transported from Dublin and Cork were often similar to their compatriots in London and Manchester ie recidivist petty thieves.  Those from the country however show different patterns.  The theft is more often of food and livestock, without violence, and they were more likely to plead necessity. 


These two groups constituted approximately 80% of Irish convicts transported to the Australian colonies.  Various academic authorities[3] have agreed with John Polding the first Catholic bishop and archbishop in Australia, that “about four fifths of Irish convicts can be properly described as ordinary criminals, mostly thieves…”


There were approximately 30,000 men and 9,000 women transported directly to the Australian colonies from Ireland. The Australian historian, Professor Alan Shaw has estimated that less than 600 Irish convicts were specifically politically prisoners, but he conceded that there was a further group of up to 5000 convicts whose motivation for their crimes could have made them political rebels.  Although the Irish convicts may not have differed greatly from their British counterparts in their criminality, in other respects the differences were significant.  Their backgrounds were rural rather than urban, they included a greater proportion of women, and they had long memories of oppression:


The 19th century historian and Irish landlord W.E. Lecky wrote that the Irish were “educated through long generations of oppression into an inveterate hostility to the law, and were taught to look for redress in illegal violence and secret combination”[4] 


The proportion of Irish transported to NSW was approximately 25% while it was only 10% to Tasmania.  Writers like Robert Hughes attribute significant differences to the society of each colony to this fact, and much emphasis is given to the fact that no convicts, Irish or otherwise, blotted the foundations of South Australia and Victoria.


One of the first to publish a severe judgment against the Irish was Captain David Collins, himself from an Anglo-Irish background, serving in the army, supporting a political system based on an ascendancy class.  He referred to the Irish convicts as:


Defenders, desperate and ripe for any scheme from which danger and destruction might come.  Irish women were just as bad, they had plotted the preparing of pulverised glass to mix with the flour of which the sailors were to make their puddings.  What an importation!


Collins who was the Judge Advocate for the new colony , despised the Irish prisoners “They do not deserve the appellation of men”. This racist attitude, common enough at the time, did not bode well for the dispensing of justice in the settlement.


If Collins was representative of the army, the Reverend Samuel Marsden spoke for the Established Church.  Marsden, also known as the “Flogging Parson” held great authority in the colony of NSW, and reacted vigorously to the waves of Irish convicts, particularly those that arrived as a consequence of the Risings of 1798 and 1803.  He died before the Young Irelanders, Ribbonmen and the last of the United Irishmen and Whiteboys arrived.


His hatred for the Irish Catholic convicts knew no bounds.  It spilled into his sermons, pervaded his table talk and was set down at length in a memo to his ecclesiastical superiors in London:


The number of Catholic convicts is very great…and these in general composed of the lowest class of the Irish nation, who are the most wild, ignorant and savage race that were ever favoured with the light of civilisation, men that have been familiar with every horrid crime from their infancy.  ….As they never appear to reflect upon consequences but to be   always alive to rebellion and mischief, they are very dangerous members of Society.   They are extremely superstitious, artful and treacherous, which renders it impossible for the most watchful and active government to discover their real intentions…..


Marsden was particularly suspicious of the Irish because English was not always their first language, therefore relying on English speaking informers did not always get him the information he wanted.  Convicts were flogged for speaking Irish, among the legion of punishments for misdemeanours they daily lived under.


Marsden is possibly best remembered for his attitude to Irish women.  His description of any woman living with a man to whom she was not married according to the rites of the Anglican Church as “a concubine” was an insult to Irish womanhood.  Several generations of colonists existed without a Catholic priest to solemnize marriages and baptisms.  Most refused to use the Anglican clergy, professing their commitment to each other, and baptising their children themselves.  Marsden was instrumental in keeping Catholic clergy out of the colony, arguing that if the Mass were tolerated “the colony would be lost to the British Empire within the year.”[5]  In 1812 he wrote:


We have now cleared the colony of all the Catholic priests, have schools established in almost every district so that the rising generation will be brought up in the principles of the Protestant religion.


Irish convicts reacted to these moves by keeping their children home, and as the hedgerow schools had operated in Ireland, developed an alternative form of education, or let their children grow up illiterate, rather than risk losing the faith or worse, going the next step of becoming Protestants.


Irish convict women were doubly insulted.  Jennifer Harrison in her work “The very worst class”: Irish women convicts at Moreton Bay,[6] quotes an English writer who was otherwise sympathetic to the convict cause:


I really wish it was in my power to speak well of these women, they are of the very worst class, their habits the most depraved of all kinds, and reformation is quite impossible.


Subsequent academic research has shown that very few women, even amongst the recidivists sent to Moreton Bay, were “really of the very worst class”.[7]


The administration of the colony joined in the chorus of prejudice.  It was obvious that Governor Brisbane, writing in 1824, shared the view that the Irish were dangerous.  “It is a remarkable fact that every murder or diabolical crime which has been committed in the colony since my arrival has been perpetrated by Roman Catholics”.[8]


The Irish were doubly oppressed by their colonial masters:  oppressed as the indigenous people of conquered Ireland, and further oppressed as convicts in the new colonies.


While the male members of the Establishment dished out floggings and executions to maintain discipline, an episode that involved the wife of the Governor, Mrs Elizabeth Macquarie shows an alternative, and ultimately successful method of co-existence.


Only a couple of months after their arrival, when the Governor was away on his first visit to Parramatta, Mrs Macquarie found herself confronted by the overseer of a band of convicts.  He claimed that his men, mostly Irish Catholics, had been accustomed to celebrating St Patricks Day.  Mrs Macquarie found her choice of decision limited.  She could refuse to give her permission and have to deal with 50 possibly resentful men, or she could agree and risk the celebration turning into an unruly drunken orgy.  She solved the problem with admirable tact and won the respect and affection of the convicts by treating them like human beings.


She granted them some time off work, to be spent “reverently” in the barracks, then told them to report to Government House in the afternoon.  To their amazement the men found themselves before a feast of Irish stew and pudding.  After this meal, the men were in no mood for drunken rioting and most returned to the barracks to sleep.


Regardless of anyone’s attitude to Irish settlers, free or convict, the shortage of labour in the colony meant that there was work for everyone who wanted it.  Prospective employers might put advertisements in the newspaper, Wanted General Servant No Irish Need Apply, but there were plenty who did not, and plenty of Irish emancipists and free settlers who would give their countrymen and women an economic lift.


Macquarie’s approach to governing the colony was to promote family life and dignity through work.  Tickets of leave were handed out generously to convicts who towed the line.  Land grants followed.  James Meehan, the former Irish political prisoner from the 1798 Rising, was made the Surveyor General, and with Governor Macquarie’s approval, concentrated Irish emancipists to the south west of Sydney, the fertile fields of Liverpool and Campbelltown.  Bryants, Burkes, Byrnes,Dwyers, Doyles, Murphys, Sheehans Sullivans and Ryans among many others re-established Irish family life and prospered.  The South West of Sydney has remained an identifiably Irish stronghold, returning strong Labor candidates, the most famous and progressive of all being Gough Whitlam, who was Prime Minister between 1972 and 1975.  The current member for that seat, Mr Mark Latham is an outspoken thorn in the side of the Establishment, justifying his colourful language by saying that “that is how people in my electorate express themselves.”


But I am racing ahead.


The legacy of sectarianism in Australian politics, the sense of a community divided between English Protestant “haves” and Irish Catholic “have-nots” began in the convict period and influenced the patterns of power in Australian life for another 150 years.  In NSW the Irish convicts were responsible for the working-class resentment of authority, its ethos of mateship and a fair-go, and a mistrust of boss cockies.  The use of satire and ridicule to take the tall poppies down a peg or two, is a facet of the Irish sense of humour remoulded into the Australian mainstream culture.


The next great wave of Irish immigration came with free settlers.  Starting as a trickle during the 1840s it became a torrent after 1851, when gold was discovered in the Bathurst area, west of Sydney and at Ballarat north of the relatively new settlement of Melbourne.  News of previous finds was suppressedduring the convict period.  Thereis the story of the Reverend Ralph Clarke approaching the Governor at the timewith several gold nuggets. Governor Gipps is said to have replied:


Put it away Mr Clarke or we shall all have ourthroats cut!


By 1851, therewere few convicts still under their original sentence, and after a longagricultural depression of the 1840s and population losses to the Californiangoldfields after 1849, an influx of immigrants was probably seen as an economicstimulant.


From 1851 to 1861,the population of the Australian colonies went from 400,000 to 1,168,000.  Half a million emigrants came fromBritain and Ireland, and the rest from all over the globe.  The folk song “DennisO”Reilly” portrays a common Irish perspective:


When first I left Old Ireland’s shore

The yarns that I was told

How folks in Australia

Could pick up lumps of gold.


How gold dust lay in all the streets

And the miner’s right was free

Hurrah I said, my loving friends,

That’s just the place for me.


But theminer’s right wasn’t free, and once the alluvial gold was picked upby the lucky early diggers, earning enough to pay for the licence became quiteonerous.  To collect the licensefees and enforce the law generally, police force was recruited especially forthe gold fields.  It was claimedthat the officers got their appointments through influence with the Governorand that the ranks contained plenty of exconvicts and doubtful characters.  The diggers came to regard the goldfields police, known as “the traps” as little better thanbushrangers in uniform. One of their own officers described the traps as“the most drunken set of men I ever met with.”[9]


One very zealouspolice officer, Inspector Armstrong, was nicknamed  “The Monster” for good reason.  Armstrong carried a riding whip with aheavy brass knob on the end of the handle, which he used freely against anyonewho got in his way.  He was a noteddestroyer of grog tents.  One oneoccasion he ordered his men to set fire to an Irish widow’s tent, knowingthat her sleeping children were inside. The wretched woman, whose husband had been killed in an accidentscreamed “For God’s sake, sir; spare my tent! Spare mychildren!”


The traps, foronce, refused to obey this order, and the furious Armstrong sprang from hishorse and burned the tent himself. The hysterical woman barely managed to rescue her children, including anew born baby, and stood by helplessly as all her worldly goods went up inflames.  Armstrong rode away,followed by his men and the abuse of every digger on that field.  What was worse, was that when Armstrongwas finally dismissed from the force when public outrage could not be ignoredhe boasted that he had made 15,000 pounds, when his official salary was 400pounds.  He had destroyed the smallsly grog sellers, like our Irish widow, but permitted the bigger players tostay open in return for a share of their profits.


These incidents,and many more like them, were not forgotten by the diggers.  The mining town of Ballarat became theflashpoint in the disputes between the diggers and the gold fields traps.  The firing of Bentley’s Hotelcame soon after the persecution of Gregorius, the servant of the Catholicpriest Father Smyth.  Gregorius hadbeen arrested for not having a digger’s licence and then convicted ofassaulting a trooper.  In fact,Gregorius didn’t need to hold a licence, as he was not digging for gold,and he was unlikely to have tried to assault a trooper.  He was a cripple.


The BallaratReform League broadened their demands for ending the licencing system andpolice corruption.  They now wantedrepresentatives in Parliament, adult male franchise, a new miningadministration and the unlocking of the land held by squatters.  At a meeting of 15,000 miners atBallarat on 29 November 1854, the new flag of the Southern Cross was raised andIrishman Peter Lalor led the miners against the authorities at the EurekaStockade.  When the Governor, SirCharles Hotham tried to have the diggers convicted of treason, no jury wouldfind them guilty.  As each man wasacquitted he was carried shoulder high from the courtroom by the cheeringcrowds.  Almost all of the demandsof the miners were won, and Peter Lalor was elected to Parliament andeventually became a rather conservative speaker of the House.  Lalors still sit in the Victorianparliament.


The Australiancolonies of New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland achievedself-government in 1856.  Universalmale suffrage was still a little way off, but the increase in property valuesmeant that many immigrants who would never have been able to vote in theirnative lands could exercise that right in Australia.  Britain was reluctant to enforce colonial executive ruleagainst the demands for democratic government and risk the loss of the coloniesthrough an Australian equivalent of the American War of Independence.


The Irish embracedthe opportunities that the new colony offered.  There would now be political independence through democracy,and the ownership of land offered a secure economic foundation.  The Irish would not assimilate andbecome English, nor would they give up their religion and becomeAnglicans.  They would becomeAustralians.


Charles GavanDuffy, the Irish rebel who escaped death or transportation after 1848 becausethree successive trials acquitted him, summed up the new attitude.  Arriving in Melbourne as an immigrantin 1855, to begin a long political career, he told a predominantly Irishwelcoming banquet that they should accept the liberal 1856 Constitutions:


this was not Ireland, but Australia - Australian,where no nationality need stand on the defensive, for there was fair play forall…But let me not be misunderstood, I am not here to repudiate orapologise for any part of my past life. I am an Irish rebel to the back bone.[10]


The 1860s saw thepeak of Irish immigration to Australia. There were sectarian disturbances, riots and virulent attacks on IrishCatholics in the Protestant and mainstream press.  Fears of being over run by an inferior race were expressedwidely.  Again the Irish wereportrayed as stupid, ignorant, lying, drunken, superstitious, riotous, seditious,and with aspirations beyond their station.  Newspaper cartoonists portrayed the Irishman as first cousinto a chimpanzee.


Social observerslike the Englishman Richard Twopeny wrote that “Most of our servants are Irish, lying and dirty.” Likewise the novelist Anthony Trollope, writing of his visit toAustralia in 1871, declared that Melbourne had an “Irish quarter”.


The men often clustered in the densest inner cityneighbourhoods near the waterfront and railway yards, in places likeDarlinghurst and West Melbourne, where they earned their living as labourers,carters and navvies.  Like theircountrymen who migrated to English and American cities, they coccupied thelowest rung on the occupational ladder and some of the most crowded anddilapidated housing.[11]


In 1887 theIrish-Australian journalist JF Hogan rejected Trollope’s observation:


There is no such thing as a distinctive Irishquarter in Melbourne, known and recognised by that contemptuous term.  Irishmen and their families are to befound in all parts of the city and suburbs and everywhere they form apeaceable, orderly, and industrious element in the general population, not a“residuum of poverty and filth” as Mr Anthony Trollope insinuates.


In rural areastoo, Irish Catholic settlement grew. In the 1861 census, which showed an overall Catholic population for NSWof more than 28 %, people spread from the south western concentration ofSydney, and the gold fields of NSW and Victoria.  Binalong was 35%, Gundagai 36% and Cooma 40%.  The town of Boorow, with an Irish Catholicpopulation of 51% was known as the Tipperary of Australia.  The local joke was that if you threw astone down the street there, you would hit a Ryan or a Dwyer but only if youmissed a Hurley or a Corcoran first. Another joke asked:  Haveyou been to Ireland?” and replied “No, but I’ve been toBoorowa”.  When the Bank ofNew South Wales opened there in 1866, among its first customers were tenDwyers, ten O’Neils, ten O’Connors and nine O’Briens.  The 1872 post office directory listed 46Ryans in the Boorowa district.[12]


Patterns of Irishsettlement around valleys near Kiama, south of Sydney, have left a landscapevery similar to that of rural Ireland: stone walls, cottage ruins and green green grass.  Similarly the settlement at Port Fairy- originally known as Belfast - was an obvious Irish landscape inVictoria:  green rolling hills andwhitewashed stone cottages.  ButWilliam Rutledge’s attempts to create a settlement of tenant farmers likethose of Ireland had a few subtle differences.  Writing in 1884 Rutledge notes:


Pigs and potatoes are here but the spirit of thepeople has undergone a change.  Thepeasant farmer does not touch his hat to me or address me as “yourhonour”.


Irish Australianscertainly did not go in for …what was the expression Mark Lathamused?  Whatever it was, theydidn’t do it then and they won’t do it now.


I have onlybriefly touched the surface of the topic of “Attitudes to IrishImmigration to Australia”. Our experience was different from that of the US for example.  There were no coffin ships of Irishescaping the Famine, meeting a very unwelcoming crowd at Boston Harbour.  There were no riots and shouts of“no more Irish”.  Butthe discrimination was nevertheless there and active.  Irish Australians have had to work and fight for political,social and economic equality.  Theownership of land has been a critical force shaping the lifestyle of city andcountry dweller alike.  Theexercise of political power, particularly through the Labor Party and its offshoot the DLP, has been effective in achieving in Australia social reforms anda liberal democracy to be proud of. The affluence and safety thus achieved has had the effect of making amore conservative society, to protect those gains.  If Irish Australian have the lost the fire in their belly itmay be because they have heeded the old advice:


Always keep tight hold of nurse,

For fear of meeting something worse!


Australia has hada fair share of Irish Australian sabre rattling republicans, several fine PrimeMinisters (two whose ancestors came from the same Tipperary village), folkheroes, valiant Victoria Cross winners and eminent Churchmen.


But alwaysremember that Irish Australia has produced more nuns and public servants thanbushrangers!

[1] Robert Hughes The Fatal Shore 1987 p. 183

[2] Edmund Campion Australian Catholics 1987 p.6

[3] AGL Shaw and Patrick O”Farrell, quoted in When Irish Eyeswere Not Smiling by C. Ryan in AFFHO NewsletterAugust 2000

[4] Ibid.

[5] Campion, opus cit p. 12

[6] Irish Convict Lives ed. Bob Reece 1993 p.179

[7] Ibid p 194

[8] Campion, opus cit p7

[9] Bill Peach Gold 1983 p.60

[10] Audrey Oldfield The Historical Background p3 State Library of NSWForum on Republicanism 1999

[11] Quoted in The Irish in Australia History Lecture 8, Monash University September 2001 p.3

[12] Campion opus cit. P.30