Diaspora: The Irish in Australia

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The Irish in Australia

The first half-century of white settlement in Australia, beginning with the "First Fleet" of 1788, was dominated by convicts from Britain and Ireland. About 36,000 of Australia's 163,000 convict settlers were from Ireland, most of them of "peasant" background in contrast to the mainly urban laborers and artisans from Britain. Colonial indignation prevented further transportation to New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) after the 1840s, and the last shipload of convicts, containing sixty-three Fenian rebels, reached Western Australia in 1868. Irishmen were also prominent among those supervising the convicts, ranging from common soldiers to officials such as Sir Richard Bourke from Thornfield, Co. Limerick, who initiated assisted immigration while governor of New South Wales from 1831 to 1837.

Between 1840 and 1914 about a third of a million Irish people emigrated to the Australian colonies. Until after the World War I the Irish were second only to the English as a component of Australia's immigrant population. In 1891, when the number of Irish immigrants peaked at almost 230,000, they accounted for nearly a quarter of foreign-born Australians, with little variation between the eastern states. No other regions of settlement apart from some of Canada's eastern provinces drew so heavily upon Irish settlers. If Australia was a minor destination for the Irish, Ireland was a major source for the Australians.

The flow from Ireland to Australia was sometimes a trickle, sometimes a minor flood. By comparison with the immense emigration elsewhere during the years of the Great Famine, there was rather little movement to Australia, where demand for immigrant labor was sluggish until the discovery of gold in 1851. The effect of economic fluctuations was blurred and indirect. Few Irish immigrants could afford the full fare of about 17 pounds at the best of times, being reliant upon assistance from governments whose readiness to invest in emigration was affected by political as well as economic calculation. More than any other stream of Irish settlers, those choosing Australia were subject to state management.

Every Australian colony offered financial encouragement for emigration, under schemes that were often cumbersome, restrictive, and liable to sudden amendment or termination. Inducements ranged from land guarantees to free passages, with many intermediate varieties of partial funding from the state, typically supplemented by contributions from those already in the colonies. A combination of British recalcitrance, Irish eagerness, and colonial demand for unskilled labor ensured that the Irish were consistently overrepresented among assisted immigrants, especially in New South Wales and Victoria. Over the entire period 1836 to 1919, subventions were provided for nearly a quarter of a million Irish immigrants, about half the number from Britain. Ireland's persistent poverty ensured that the Irish were underrepresented among those wealthy enough to pay their own way. The withdrawal of assistance was therefore a major factor in reducing the ratio of Irish to British immigrants as well as in increasing the proportion from Ulster.

State funding was supplemented by private benefactors such as landlords and colonial philanthropists. But the main sources of private funding were those already in the colonies who contributed toward further immigration under the various nomination and remittance schemes. Irish settlers, everywhere adept at forging chains of migration from their localities of origin, made far more intensive use of these facilities than did British settlers. The increasing preference of colonial governments for nomination schemes devolved most of the selection process to previous immigrants, encouraging self-replication in terms of background.

Political concern about the quality of assisted immigrants ensured that remarkably detailed statistics were compiled. Over two-thirds of Irish assisted immigrants arriving in New South Wales between 1848 and 1870 were aged between fifteen and twenty-nine years. About two-fifths traveled in family groups. In a country chronically starved of women, the Irish were unique in their response to the inducements for female immigration. The most spectacular importation of Irish girls as servants and potential wives occurred during the Great Famine, with the removal of over 4,000 female orphans from Irish workhouses. Women greatly outnumbered men among Irish assisted immigrants. With men predominating among unassisted immigrants, Irishmen and Irishwomen settled in Australia in virtually equal numbers. Every other immigrant stream was dominated by men.

The typical Irish assisted immigrant embodied "human capital" in the form of vigor rather than skill. The vast majority of men described themselves as plain laborers or agricultural laborers, and the women as domestic servants. That many Irish immigrants had worked only within the family unit did not detract from their capital value, in a primitive economy with insatiable demand for unskilled manual labor. A more serious impediment to success in Australia was illiteracy. Until the 1860s, only a minority of Irish immigrants were reportedly able to read and write. Subsequently there was a rapid improvement in basic literacy, among both immigrants and the population of origin.

The most controversial attribute of Irish immigration was the predominance of Catholics, who usually accounted for about four-fifths of the total. This slightly exceeded the Catholic component in the regions of Ireland most inclined to provide Irish Australians. The predominance of Protestants among unassisted immigrants probably explains the surprisingly large non-Catholic component (29%) of Australia's Irish-born population in 1911. The Protestant element in Australia's Irish population was less important than in New Zealand or Canada, but presumably greater than in Britain or the United States.

The prevalence of chain migration ensured that the distribution of county origins changed remarkably little between the later 1840s and the end of the century. Two regions were particularly inclined to send settlers to Australia, neither being particularly poor but both being overwhelmingly rural. Clare and Tipperary were almost invariably the two counties sending most assisted immigrants to Australia, with a secondary cluster in south Ulster. Once in Australia, the Irish dispersed throughout the settled districts with striking uniformity. In contrast to their compatriots in the United States, they were no more inclined to cluster together than were other immigrant groups. The Irish showed no tendency to avoid agricultural districts, and English settlers were usually more urbanized than the Irish.

While Irish immigrants penetrated every trade and profession, their aggregate occupational status remained low throughout the nineteenth century. The first comprehensive occupational census for different religious groups was conducted in New South Wales in 1901. The male occupations most heavily colonized by Irish immigrants were (in descending order) religion, "independent means" (having private sources of income), refuse disposal, and road construction. Building construction, a trade often regarded as being quintessentially Irish, attracted few Irish workers in New South Wales. By 1901, the admittedly aging population of Irish-born women was no longer overrepresented in domestic service. For most women, however, paid employment was only a secondary indicator of status, since the majority entered the workforce only as a prelude or sequel to housewifery. Marriage probably offered better chances of upward mobility than employment. By 1911 the majority of both Irish husbands and Irish wives were married to persons born outside Ireland. Even so, ethnic and especially religious networks continued to affect Irish marriage choices. The statistics indicate a marriage market that was neither fully open nor firmly closed, so permitting alternative strategies for social mobility through marriage. Such findings suggest that most Irish men and women made fairly effective use of their opportunities in Australia before World War I.

After federation in 1901 Irish immigration slowed to a trickle, causing the Irish-born population to decline from 186,000 in 1901 to 106,000 in 1921, and to its nadir of 45,000 in 1947. Though a few former servicemen and others from Northern Ireland received assistance from empire-settlement schemes, citizens of the Irish Free State were ineligible for assistance. The postwar resumption of assisted immigration caused a recovery to 70,000 by 1981, representing 0.5 percent of the population and only 2.3 percent of those born outside Australia. The Irish presence in twentieth-century Australia was dominated by those, often of mixed descent, who considered themselves Irish, an identity fostered energetically by the Catholic Church through its network of schools and social clubs. As the Catholic community was transformed by the influx from continental Europe, Irishness became increasingly a sentimental affiliation or a flag of convenience in the stormy waters of multicultural Australia.

SEE ALSO Diaspora: The Irish in Britain; Diaspora: The Irish in North America; Migration: Emigration from the Seventeenth Century to 1845; Migration: Emigration from 1850 to 1960; Migration: Emigration and Immigration since 1950


Fitzpatrick, David. Oceans of Consolation: Personal Accounts of Irish Migration to Australia. 1995.

O'Farrell, Patrick. Letters from Irish Australia, 1825–1929. 1984.

O'Farrell, Patrick. The Irish in Australia. 1986.

David Fitzpatrick