Irish Migration to Australia

Dr HUGH McDERMOTT (Prospect) [5.21 p.m.]: Tomorrow is St Patrick's Day. It is a great day, not only for the Irish and those of Irish heritage but also for all people who support such a great day. As members would know, the Irish were among the first European settlers in Australia and they have contributed substantially to the development of contemporary Australia. Around six million Australians have Irish ancestry. As the second largest community in Australia, Australians of Irish heritage have a significant influence, not only on the Australian character but also on all aspects of Australian society, historically most notably on the police force, the judiciary, the trade union movement, the Catholic Church, and politics and education. Prominent Australians of Irish ancestry from this House have included 11 New South Wales Premiers: James Dooley, Thomas Wadell, Sir James Martin, Patrick Jennings, Jack Lang, Joseph Cahill, Sir William McKell, James McGirr, John Fahey, Kristina Kenneally and, more recently, Barry O'Farrell.

I am sure that most people know of St Patrick's story. Celtic tribes from Ireland regularly raided Roman Britain. In one of these raids a boy named Patricius was captured, taken back to Ireland and sold into slavery. He escaped, returned to his homeland and studied theology in France. He then returned to Ireland and converted the mostly non-Christian people to Christianity. In recognition of this contribution St Patrick was made the patron saint of Ireland and each year masses, dinners and parades are held in his honour all over the world.

The Irish have had a significant impact on Australia and first came to Australia as convicts—as the member for Parramatta mentioned—but also as soldiers and sailors in the First Fleet in 1788. From 1791 until 1867 some 50,000 Irish convicts were transported to Australia, mostly for criminal offences, but a significant number were political prisoners from the uprisings in Ireland. Once in Australia these prisoners were involved in a number of uprisings including the 1804 Castle Hill convict rebellion and the Norfolk Island riots. Up until the 1860s Irish Fenian prisoners were being transported to Australia. During this period almost a quarter of all convicts were Irish.

In the first settlements a significant number of Irish free settlers also arrived in the colony. They included labourers, tradesmen, shopkeepers, journalists and accountants, and of course the numbers greatly increased in the 1840s when the Great Famine hit Ireland. Some eight million people lived in Ireland at the time and those numbers were halved. Two million died of starvation and almost two million emigrated, some 23,000 to Australia. In the second part of the nineteenth century more than 400,000 settlers from Ireland, including many young single men and women, migrated to Australia with the assistance of the Catholic Church or the government. These people went on to become agricultural labourers, domestic workers and railwaymen. They became very actively involved in trade union politics and Labor politics in New South Wales.

It is interesting to note that in 1900 nearly 60 per cent of all New South Wales policemen were Irish born. Most Irish settlers were Catholic and they have been accompanied by more than 2,000 Irish Catholic priests over that time. They built a very strong church here in Australia and founded Catholic education, and today almost one-fifth of all Australian students go to Catholic primary or secondary schools. Irish migration fell dramatically in the early years of the twentieth century and after the civil war but has increased in the past decade due to the global financial crisis and the economic austerity measures implemented by the Fine Gael coalition government. Once again, the Irish are forming a significant number of migrants to Australia in the professions, information technology, construction and health care.

Ireland gained independence in 1921 following a bitter war of independence and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty but six of the original nine counties of Ulster in the north-east remained an occupied part of the United Kingdom. This year the Irish celebrate the centenary of the 1916 Easter uprising in Dublin, which led to independence in the south. On this St Patrick's Day we honour those who fought and died for freedom, justice and peace and celebrate those Irish migrants who helped to build and continue to make such great contributions to modern Australia. As we say in Irish, tiocfaidh ár lá.

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