The Irish made up about one quarter of all those transported to Australia in the nineteenth century, and nearly half of all assisted passages between 1829 and 1851. There were 2253 Irish orphan girls sent to NSW between 1848-1850[i]. My own great-great-great grandmother, at the age of 18, was one of 140 female orphans sent from Cork and other Irish towns to Sydney in 1832.
Huge numbers of young Irish people arrived in Australia without the means to return, never seeing their families again. They set about creating a sentimentalised and untouchable version of Ireland, complete with a revival of Gaelic speaking, Celtic symbols, little people and shamrocks.
In 1898, when the Devonshire Street cemetery was reclaimed to build Central Station, the Irish community carried the remains of Michael Dwyer and his wife triumphantly in a procession to Waverley cemetery. Dwyer had been sentenced to transportation in 1803 for his role in one of the Irish Catholic uprisings, the insurrection of 1798, yet he received a pardon in 1810 and became high constable of Sydney in 1815. By 1820 he owned 620 acres of land, of which 100 acres had been granted to him.[ii] The Sydney Morning Herald reported with unmistakeable sentiment on Monday, May 23 1898:
The first celebration in honour of the Irish patriots of 1798 took place yesterday, and was made the occasion of a great public demonstration. The remains of Michael Dwyer and Mrs Dwyer, which were during the week exhumed from the Devonshire-street cemetery, were placed in a coffin and mounted upon a catafalque in St Mary’s Cathedral during yesterday’s service. At 1 o’clock Cardinal Moran … pronounced the final absolutions and delivered a brief address, eulogising the patriotism of the Irish chieftain and exhorting his bearers to cultivate a similar love of country. At a quarter to 2 o’clock, when the coffin was placed in the hearse, an immense concourse had gathered without St Mary’s Cathedral.
It took the procession two hours to reach Waverley cemetery, the march attended by many thousands of people and the streets lined with ‘great numbers’ of people, ‘and green was displayed from many hundreds of buttonholes’. When they reached the vault, prayers were said, the Irish flag was raised and the foundation stone for the Irish monument laid. Speeches dwelt on ‘the heroism and patriotism of the Irishmen who rose in arms in 1798’.
The strength of the Irish as a community grew: in October 1916 it led to a political crisis. The Easter uprising of 1916 in Dublin had dulled the willingness of Irish people the world over to cooperate with the British. In Australia, the waning Irish support for the war effort helped to bring in a ‘No’ vote on the referendum on conscription.
By June 1920, when a banquet to honour Melbourne’s very Irish Archbishop Mannix had failed to include a toast to the king, the Sydney Morning Herald’s mood had changed. Under the heading ‘Sinn Fein in Australia’ its editorial thundered against the Irish:
It is impossible to escape the conclusion that here in Australia is a force which works steadily for mischief, which seeks ever to bring about disruption and schism … there is no room for disloyalty in Australia … there is also no room for the perpetuation of old-world feuds; here we are all Australians, whatever the land of our birth … if the malcontent cannot give expression to their opinions without offending our most cherished convictions and sowing strife in our midst, let them be silent.[iii]
We still hear this language around us, and it is just as dangerous today as it was then. There are still people insisting that there is only one way of thinking in Australia, that everyone agrees on what our ‘cherished convictions’ might be, and for anyone who even wants to ‘give expression to’ opinions that differ, ‘let them be silent’.
[i] O’Farrell, P. The Irish in Australia. UNSW Press, 2000, p23, 69, 74
[ii] CMH Clark. A History of Australia Vol 1. Melbourne University Press 1962. P.388.
[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, June 19 1920.