The Irish in Australia: explorers and settlers

by Ita Marguet

In the early decades of European settlement in Australia, the majority of Irish people were convicts. Three evils in the colony were considered to be: alcohol, the Catholic religion and Irish female convicts. Viewed as thoroughly depraved and abandoned, to their overseers in Colonial Australia there was only one thing worse than an Irish convict man: an Irish convict woman! More than 9,200 women convicts of all ages were sent to Australia.

The hostility of Irish convicts to the penal system was reflected in numerous ballads which circulated widely; well known examples are Bold Jack Donahue and The Wild Colonial Boy, which dramatised the exploits of bushrangers and celebrated defiance of the British authorities. Francis MacNamara, ‘Frank the Poet’ (born 1811), is credited with a number of these ballads. With the increase in the number of settlers, other forms of verse were very much in evidence.

From the middle of the nineteenth century, lyrics full of nostalgia for the green fields far away and poems on the quest for Irish liberty filled the columns of newspapers in every colony. A pervasive influence was poet, Thomas Moore (1779-1852), whose collection of Irish Melodies, popular also in translation throughout Europe, provided models with their wistful tones and muted demands for freedom.

The Irish came to Australia with a strong sense of their political rights. They were inspired by the great Irish political movements, led by Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), whose campaign for Catholic Emancipation gained him the title of ‘The Liberator’. There was strong Irish-Australian support for Home Rule, and large sums of money were raised for the cause of Irish liberation, at home and abroad.

Irish in Australia
Close to Sydney, on a spectacular clifftop setting above the Pacific Ocean, the working Waverley Cemetery is an unique non-denominational traditional cemetery. Rich in history, it was established in 1877 and has become the final resting place of men and women who helped shape Australia where many Irish, other settlers and their descendants rest. It is an example of a Victorian and Edwardian Era necropolis.
An unique feature of the cemetery is the Martyr’s Monument, which took two years and £2000 to build, from 1898 to 1890; it is the largest monument in the world dedicated to Irish nationalist opposition to British rule in Ireland. Designed by a medical practitioner, Charles William MacCarthy (1848-1919), Chairman of the 1898 Centenary Celebration Committee, the splendidly-ornate Irish Monument (grave 578-600) commemorates Irish Catholics and non-Catholics, who gave their lives in the 1798 Rebellion, hundreds of whom were transported to the then-recently established colony at Sydney, NSW. The monument also commemorates those who lost their lives in the Easter Rising, in 1916, forever immortalised in the famous poem by WB Yeats, Easter 1916. Also inscribed are names of the ten Republican hunger strikers who died in the campaign of 1980-81, for ‘political status’ in the H-Blocks of the Maze Prison. In Irish and English, an inscription on the monument reads “In loving memory of all who dared and suffered for Ireland”.

The elaborately-decorated monument and paved structure carries many inscriptions and is mounted with a Celtic cross. It displays bas reliefs with heads of five significant Irish rebel leaders. It shows the arrest of United Irishman, Lord Edward Fitzgerald (1763-1798), and the victory of Irish 1798 rebels over uniformed British forces known as the Battle of Oulart Hill. Two pikes decorated the monument gates until they were stolen. The Irish pike was a weapon of choice for many of the rebels during the 1798 Rebellion. Two sculpted Irish wolfhounds sit guarding the monument representing an old Irish symbol of fidelity.

The memorial is also a tomb beneath which lie the remains of United Irishman, Michael Dwyer, known as “the Wicklow Chief” and his wife, Mary. Michael Dwyer had great support among the ordinary people. Despite many forceful house-to-house searches in the area, and the harassment of his relatives, he was never betrayed. From his hiding place he and his men carried out daring and provocative raids against those members of the loyalist militia, known as yeomen, who were burning Catholic homes and looting property. He became a folk hero in the process.
After the Rebellion, he and his men successfully avoided capture hiding in the Irish mountains until they surrendered, in 1803, on condition of being exiled to the United States. Instead they were sent to Australia, but as political exiles, not convicts. Once he had served his sentence in Australia, Michael Dwyer became a police constable. He never returned to Ireland. A painting, The Search for Michael Dwyer, by William Sadler II, hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland, in Dublin.

Explorers and Settlers
What do explorer Robert O’Hara Burke; bushranger, Ned Kelly; Eureka stockade leader, Peter Lalor; and Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, have in common? Like millions of other Australians, they are of Irish ancestry. The Irish, and their descendants, have been part of the Australian history since the arrival of the First Fleet, in Sydney, and its convicts, in 1788. Among the thousands of Irish who came were some whose stories have become legends, and whose efforts have made Australia what it is today.
In 1895, Mark Twain (1835-1910), American writer and humorist, wrote: “The finest thing in Australian history… a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against oppression”. Just before dawn on 3 December, 1854, a force of soldiers and policemen stormed a rough fort on the Ballarat goldfields known as the ‘Eureka Stockade’ when many were killed. The rebellion came after a long period of protest against the way the Victorian goldfields were being administered. Miners objected to the cost of licences, brutal police ‘licence hunts’, the unrepresentative nature of colonial government and general corruption.”

Led by Irishman, Peter Lalor, the story of the miners’ battle at Eureka quickly entered into Australian folklore. He chose the password ‘Vinegar Hill’ recalling the last great battle of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland.
With archival film and other images, the rebellion is featured in a major exhibition Not Just Ned: a true history of the Irish in Australia which opened on 17 March, 2011, at the National Museum in the federal capital of Canberra. It brings together a collection of rare and precious objects, documents, paintings, drawings and photographs, to tell one of Australia’s greatest stories: the true history of the Irish in Australia. Stories cover the extraordinary influence of the Irish in everything from politics and religion, to art, industry, dance and music.

From Canberra, the exhibition will travel to Ireland for the Irish to take pride and inspiration from the successful contribution in their adopted lands, not least that most ‘Irish’ of countries, Australia.
The exhibition has major sponsors and partners. Its curator, Richard Reid, is an Irishman from North of the border, who emigrated and obtained a PhD in History at the Australian National University. Displays include touch screen technology and historical video and films. A favourite section is called “The Craic”, devoted to Irish music and dancing on the stage, complete with fiddle, flute and accordions. A resource room has a collection of Irish art and craft for sale and a selection of books and associated literature by Irish and Australian writers. There are lectures, educational and entertainment programmes related to the exhibition, and a computer space with sources to help search for family history.

Note: Acknowledgement is given to exhibition and other sources used in preparation of this text. It follows a visit to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra, March 2011.

Not Just Ned: a true history of the Irish in Australia is on show at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra (17 March – 31 July 2011). The official exhibition brochure, with text and pictorial, is a document of the National Museum of Australia Press 2011.