Irish Story

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In the mid 1780s, the British Empire had just lost one of their prized possessions, the 13 colonies of the North American continent.

These American colonies had been the Empire's favorite dumping ground for "undesirables". The new destination was a 15,000-mile trip by boat to New South Wales in Australia. From 1791 to 1868, around 160,000 convicts were transported to Australia as convicts. Of that total around 30,000 were Irishmen and 9,000 Irishwomen. By 1900, around 80% of Australia 's population was Irish or had Irish parents. Over a hundred years later, nearly 40% of Australians claim Irish roots.

Australia began its colonial life as a jail. It was thousands of miles from anything remotely resembling the world the British and Irish prisoners had left behind. Though some had committed genuine crimes, many were sentenced to transportation for crimes as petty as theft of vegetables, a coat, or a handkerchief. From 1846, many more arrived as voluntary immigrants when the famine made life unsustainable in Ireland.

The first convict ship to carry Irishmen to Australia was the Queen , which arrived in Australia on 26 September 1791. The early 1800s saw a large increase, as the survivors of the 1798 Rising began to pour off the ships. For the authorities in Australia, these United Irish rebels constituted a special threat and were treated more harshly than the typical felon.

Reverend Samuel Marsden, head of the Anglican Church in New South Wales, indicated what sort of treatment the Irish could expect from the British establishment when he called them "the most wild, ignorant and savage race that were ever favoured with the light of civilisation." Eventually, this harsh treatment led a small number of the United Irishmen to rise up against the colonial authorities on 4 March 1804, at Vinegar Hill near Parramatta. This rebellion was quickly suppressed.

Many of the convicts were transported to Australia for being involved in land agitation. In the late 1840s, along with a large wave of desperate refugees from The Great Hunger, more political convicts began arriving. These were the men of the Young Ireland Party transported for their brief rising in 1848, including John Mitchell, William Smith O'Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher and Terrence McManus. Of those four, only O'Brien served out his time: the other three escaped to the United States. Their story is told eloquently in Thomas Kenneally's book The Great Shame.

Among the last convicts to arrive in Australia were the Fenians. The most famous of those was John Boyle O'Reilly, who escaped by boat to America barely a year later. Once there, he rose to prominence in Boston and, with John Devoy, helped organise a daring sea rescue of six other Fenians from Australia.

For tens of thousands of Irish deemed felons by the British, and tens of thousands more driven to emigrate by famine, Australia became a place of exile. The new land also nurtured old grievances against class privilege and harsh British rule.

Perhaps the most notorious Irish Australian was the outlaw Ned Kelly. Kelly's father was from Tipperary and his mother from Antrim. In 1877, a powerful landowner accused Ned of stealing stock, which led to the arrest of Ned's mother, Ellen. Ned became an outlaw, and his success owed much to the support he had from ordinary people, who saw him more as a freedom fighter than a highwayman. He was eventually caught and hanged, but his legend lives on in Australia as a symbol of resistance to unjust British rule.

When 150 miners violently resisted the imposition of a large licence fee in 1854, around half of them were Irish. Their leader was Peter Lalor, whose father was a member of the British Parliament and whose brother was Irish nationalist writer James Fintan. Though they lost their fight at Eureka [and Lalor lost an arm in the affray], public support for their grievances was so strong that they were all acquitted and the licence fees were abolished. Lalor was later elected to parliament.

Through much of the 20th century, Irish Australians tended to down play their ethnic roots. The stigma of convict ancestry may have been part of it in spite of the fact that many thousands of Irish had not come as criminals but actual discrimination against Irish Catholics played a part as well. As late as the 1950s, a Catholic archbishop threatened [successfully] to remove Catholic money from some banks in Tasmania to force them to end hiring discrimination against Irish Catholics. In the mid 1960s it was common knowledge which public service departments were kindly disposed towards Catholics and which were unwilling to hire them.

The 1990s saw Irish-Australians putting much of their former reticence about their ancestry behind them. Today the Irish in Australia have begun to embrace their ethnic roots to such a degree that one government official called Australia "the most Irish country outside of Ireland." A major factor in this was probably the booming economy in Ireland, which changed how Ireland was seen internationally, as well as an upsurge of interest in all things Celtic.






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