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The Irish in Australia

The Irish in Australia
By Sharon White

It has been estimated that around 35 percent of today’s Australian citizens have Irish ancestry. Jackelin Troy cites that for most of the nineteenth century at least a quarter of the population of Australia was Irish or of Irish parentage. Therefore it can be agreed that the Irish were a dominant element in the pluralistic Australian society. Many historians have cited that the Irish have made a significant contribution to the development of Australia and of the Australian identity.

Many of the 19th Century Irish Catholics, who arrived in chains or as assisted migrants, at the bottom of a vicious caste system of British Australia, developed into law-abiding citizens with the desire to contribute to and be respected in Australian society. Historian Bob Reece cites the labor value of the Irish and their social ambition triumphed over ancient prejudice. Economic success and social mobility were possible; political influence was in reach; the old reoccupations of Ireland were not so relevant.

However, with many of the Irish immigrating to Australia as criminals it could be conceived that some would have had a negative impact on the country. Irishmen counted for 23 percent of the total number of convict males in Australia for the period of transportation from 1788 to 1867. A negative impact the Irish had on Australian society was that Protestants and Catholics alike brought their issues of Green versus Orange and anti-establishment versus Monarchist, creating conflict in the Australian colonies. There was conflict between the underclass consisting of the Irish Catholics and the ruling class of British Australian. The Irish were regarded with suspicion due to fears that they were likely to be unruly and anti-establishment because of the struggles for independence in Ireland. There were differences between the Irish and the dominant English in the Australian colonies based on religion, sometimes language, and a presumed opposition to values of the ruling class and an assumed inferiority of the Irish based on imported English attitudes. With Irish Catholics carrying their name like a distinguishing brand - for example, O’Brien, Hennessy and Murphy; it invited a distancing reaction of categorization and a response of aggression. Some historians have argued that it was the Irish who were at the forefront of certain hostilities; however, it was not always them who were responsible. Conversely it was British paranoia of Catholic numerical and political dominance and in the 1840’s when assisted migration got underway that marked the non-conformist anti-Irish/Catholic rhetoric. The British also provoked Irish Catholic aggression when they created rules to compel them to join in Protestant religious services. These attitudes and atmosphere caused tension in the colonies and sometimes disruption to the development of the country. However, many historians have argued that this activity marked the history of most of the Australian colonies in the 19th century.

Likewise, the Irish and their sectarian attitudes caused major problems in the Australian colonies in the 19th century. There were reports of subordinate Catholic farm laborers showing their grievances to landlords. There were occasional attempts to shoot Protestant farmers, along with prominent Orangeman going around armed due to this threat. There were instances of outbreaks on 12th July (the commemoration of the victory of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690). For example, in Melbourne Orange Lodges celebrated the 12th July in 1846 and this caused retaliation from the Catholic Irish leading to a riot in which shots were fired and some wounded. Also, in Sydney a transparency portraying King William crossing the Boyne was stoned by Irish Catholics Protestants replied with rifle fire into a crowd with a boy of eleven being killed. Also, there was a presence of the Fenian movement in Australia in 1860s causing paranoia among the British. This paranoia became reality on March, 1868 an Irish Catholic and Fenian, Henry James O’Farrell, attempted to kill the Duke of Edinburgh in Sydney: this provoked the Orange movement to double its membership by the end of the year to 2000.

However, the point can be argued that the Irish and their sectarian attitudes did little to disrupt Australian society, and many Irish Protestants and Catholics left their issues in Ireland and got on with contributing the country. O’Farrell highlights also that the bulk of Ulster Protestant immigrants coming to Australia had little patience with divisive Irish politics or sectarian animus. This is portrayed by the fact that many Protestant men from the north were happy to intermarry with other groups in the colony including Irish Catholic women. In districts like Kiami, south of Sydney as well as places like Shoalhaven and Gerringong they had up to double the state average of Irish and the population was of mixed Irish: Protestant and Catholic. In most places like this where the mix was high, still very little violence occurred as the temper of extremists was very unpopular.

On the other hand, it can be argued that Irishmen, especially Catholics have had a substantial impact in many fronts of Australian society. For example, in most, if not every colony, Irishmen will be found distinguishing themselves as political leaders, especially late 19th century. For example, James Hogan writes about the Irish in Australia in 1887 and can see the immediate effects the Irish have had on politics in Australia. He writes Responsible parliamentary government, or, in simpler words, Home Rule is in operation in all the Australian colonies save one, and it is, therefore, not surprising those colonial legislatures should have a large proportion of Irishmen, when it is remembered that the choice of efficient representatives is left unreservedly in the hands of the people. This depicts that the Irish would have been popular in democratic Australia because much of the nation would admire and relate to the idea of home rule off Great Britain. He also alleges the ability of the Irish in politics giving the example that since the inception of parliamentary government in Victoria, all the Speakers of the Legislative Assembly have been all Irishmen. It can therefore be agreed that the Irish would have played an important role in legislation and policy making in 19th century Australia.

Due to their considerable numbers in Australia, it is not surprising that the Irish made a significant contribution to the Australian linguistics of the 19th Century. For example, the Irish were mainly located in the urban and rural working-class sectors they therefore had direct contact with the native Aborigines who were moving into these areas also. Jacklin Troy proposes that it was the Irish who developed and spread the Pidgin among the Aborigines. The pidgin was a simplified form of speech mixing two or more languages for communicating between the Natives and English speakers. Troy thus cites that in many cases the Irish were the most numerous in terms of early contact with Aborigines and it was their Irish-English which must have provided the input to New South Wales Pidgin. And although the Gaelic language diminished along with the population in Ireland because of the Great Famine, the Irish would have had some influence on Australian-English, words and the accent.

However, many believe the Irish had the most influence over the development of the church in Australia. As Hogan writes, in all this it can be seen how large a part Irishmen had in laying a foundation for the Church in Australia. Due to the Irish there was a massive number of Catholics in 19th century Australia. These Irish set up churches and educational institutions spreading Catholicism in the country. For example, an Anglo-Irish liberal Sir Richard Bourke passed the New South Wales Church Act in 1836 this disestablished the Church of England and laid the foundations for a pluralistic religious and educational system.

Therefore, in conclusion, the Irish had a negative impact on Australia in some aspects of society such as criminality and cause of some troubles however much of this was not their responsibility and has been largely over-exaggerated by general discussions on the Irish. On the other hand, Irish contribution to Australian society in such aspects as education, politics, literature and the development of settlements largely outweighs these negatives. O’Farrell demonstrates in his studies that the Irish contributed in a multitude of ways to the development of the Australian economy, political systems and national character. It is difficult for Australians to imagine their history and development of their young country without the Irish element.

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