As Australians, we’re happy to take any excuse to drink. And so, every year on March 17, the entire population of this broad, brown land scours their family tree for the merest hint of a convict sent over for threatening a British magistrate or attempting to blow up a statue of Queen Victoria.
It's all so we can bung on a Gaelic brogue and lift a Guinness (or a Kilkenny, if we’re not as stout of heart as our forebears) to the snake-deporting saint of the craic. But now that we’re in an era were cultural appropriation is generally frowned upon, it’s wise to know a bit of Irish history before some Colleen bails you up for a grilling on Yeats and Moher puffins.
Irish convicts were the main drivers of this year’s celebration, as Judge Advocate David Collins reported in his diary: “On the 17th St Patrick found many votaries in the settlement... Libations to the saint were so plentifully poured, that at night the cells were full of prisoners.”
Governor Macquarie got into the spirit of things, providing “entertainments” for government labourers.
Things got downright un-Australian (and, more to the point, un-Irish) as the St Patrick’s Total Abstinence Society and Sydney Total Abstinence Society joined forces to begin what would become an annual parade to promote temperance. In 1843, this expanded to include a tea party attended by the mayor and his wife, but fortunately the marches were banned in 1846 as part of the general crackdown on political and religious marches.
St Patrick’s Day was, for a brief and shining moment, a public holiday.
Picnics! Music! Parades! Tug-of-war!
The St Patrick’s Day Riot! Picking up from the Sunday before, a riot broke out in Hyde Park, in response to the second consecutive anti-Catholic sermon from Baptist pastor Daniel Allen. 15-20,000 people lined up for a sectarian battle royale, and the Catholics chased Allen home as a general melee took place with the Protestants. Police eventually restored order with batons.
Our first cardinal, Patrick Francis Moran, arrived from Ireland in 1884. Concerned that St Patrick’s Day was too closely associated with “loud” activities that promoted negative cultural stereotypes, he set about converting the day into more of a religious holiday. This began with a solemn high mass at St Mary's Cathedral in 1885, and Moran gradually shifted the focus to be on Irish Catholic assimilation and respectability in the Australian community. There was still drinking, of course.
St Patrick’s Day was declared a (one-off) public holiday in Sydney, mainly because Queen Victoria had talked up Irish bravery in the Boer War. The trend continued in 1901 and 1902, until Protestants got the hump about the whole thing and convinced the NSW Premier to make everyone go to work in 1903.
Archbishop Daniel Mannix was one of the most prominent local Irishmen at the time, leading the battle against conscription and outspoken on British rule in Ireland. So it made sense for him to lead the St Patrick’s Day parade through Melbourne. It was an opportunity to reassert Catholic loyalty to Australia while agitating for Irish independence. These parades were a highlight of the next several decades, until petering out in 1970.
Following an international trend, Irish-themed pubs popped up all over Australia, strengthening the broader cultural engagement with St Patrick as folk without a trace of Gaelic blood took the opportunity to wear green and drink beer. U2, Sinead O’Connor and The Cranberries dominated the charts that decade, too. Coincidence?
Jimeoin released The Craic, ensuring we enter the 21st century armed with a new word to use on St Patrick’s Day.
Watch The Rise of Irish Australia on Saturday 18 March at 5:35pm on SBS.