• Irish immigrants leaving for Australia. (State Library Victoria)Source: State Library Victoria
Director Eoin Hahessy examines the Irish-Australian relationship.
Eoin Hahessy

17 Mar 2017 - 5:20 PM  UPDATED 20 Mar 2017 - 10:42 AM

It was Irish Catholics, by opposing the dominant Protestant English order, who were the galvanising force behind the development of a new Australian identity and society. It was the Irish who created an Australia identity. So goes the view of historian Patrick O’Farrell in his sweeping look at the Irish contribution to Australia.

In The Rise of Irish Australiaa defining period in the formation of modern Australia is explored, a period which offers many lessons for challenges today’s Australia seeks to surmount.


The history of the Irish in Australia

Since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 the Irish, by will or not, have been part of the fabric of Australia. Indeed Australia, the weary adage goes, remains the most Irish country in the world outside Ireland. Yet it seems today the Irish-Australian relationship is a forgotten one, an old unsexy relic of a country seeking a modern stride and sensitive, even slightly embarrassed, towards its Anglo-Celtic past.

Ned Kelly retains a position of warmth, that crackpot yet somehow endearing uncle, a symbol of that innate rebel resting somewhere in the outback of the Australian soul. The stirring role of Peter Lalor in Australia’s only armed rebellion, Robert O’Hara Burke’s successful yet ill-fated expedition from south to north Australia and the simply unbelievable Catalpa rescue of 1876 - Irish contributions to Australia’s historical store receive polite colourful mentions yet scant deep reflection.

As one of Australia’s first significant migrant communities, Irish Catholics were viewed with disloyalty and suspicion. They had stepped into an Australian society dominated by the Protestant ascendancy. Irish Catholics, as Gerald Henderson observed in Meanjin recently, were expected to know their place, being mere "hewers of wood and drawers of water". 

World War I exacerbated these tensions as Catholic loyalty to the cause of the Empire was questioned. The then Irish Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, cross-examining Australia’s role in the war, went head-to-head with Prime Minister Billy Hughes in the bitterest sectarian chapter in Australian history. With Australia voting to reject conscription, not once but twice, a society was left divided and reeling.

What can we learn from history?

The history of the Irish in Australia offers a lens to explore how Australia treats its Muslim community today. Alas, in a world where economics has become the primary tool to understand the world, history is consigned to the kids' table. Irish-Australian history doesn’t even get in the door. How Irish Catholics moved in Australian society from being the suspicious outsider to becoming part of the furniture offers potential to exploit understanding among our communities. Empathy, time and shifting sands of importance can erode positions that today seem deeply entrenched.

So perhaps it is not just the historical notches, the pluck of the string, lilt of the song, craic over the counter or hunger to work that the Irish have given to Australia. Perhaps it can be both historical and current perspectives. The astounding thing Australians seem to forget is how astounding Australia simply is. Absorbed by a collective guilt, a nation that has the foundation to call attention to and lead a headless world in what is right is strangely mired in relentless convulsive bickering.

Why did the Irish come to Australia?

We come from a nation where emigration is embedded within our DNA. Our recent economic house of cards grew from an innate historic Irish hunger to own our own land, similar to the insatiable desire for houses we see unfolding on Australia’s property pages today. Once by boat, now by air, we Irish have been blessed that Australia has been Ireland’s modern day pressure valve. We arrive in this land and smile at its potential.

For over a quarter of a century this continent has side-stepped not one but the last three global recessions. You sit at a corner of the globe that the entire world is fixated upon, with a higher education system that is envious in its standard and inspirational in its ambition. Your beguiling landscape, drenched oh so joyously with sun, is the home of the most ancient civilisation on this planet. You gave us the politics to help save our environment and the technology to allow us to work together.

This St Patrick’s Day when the Sydney Opera House and Melbourne’s State Library flick green, it is perhaps time not to fall into misty-eyed Irish sentiment or, even more frighteningly, lazy stereotypes. Perhaps instead it is useful to look back upon the course of history to use the Irish-Australian experience to learn, educate and develop the cavernous potential within this Australian community.


Eoin Hahessy is the director of Irish-Australian documentary The Rise of Irish Australia, which is available right here, from SBS On Demand:

Visit michael1916.com for more details.

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