Irish Australian

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Australians of Irish ancestry
Ned kelly day before execution photograph.jpg
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Total population
7,000,000 (30% of the Australian population of partial Irish ancestry)[1][2]
80,000 (by birth, 2011)[3]
2,087,800 (self-declared Irish ancestry, 2011; 10.4% of the Australian population)
Regions with significant populations
Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth
Australian English, Irish
Roman Catholic, Protestantism
Related ethnic groups
Irish people, Anglo Celtic Australians, Scottish Australians, Welsh Australians, English Australians, Cornish Australians, Manx Australians

Irish Australians (Irish: Gael-Astrálaigh) have played a long and enduring part in the history of Australia. Many came to Australia in the eighteenth century as settlers or convicts and contributed to Australia's development in many different areas. In the late 19th century about a third of the population in Australia was Irish.[4]

There is no definitive figure of the total number of Australians with an Irish background. At the 2011 Australian census, 2,087,800 residents identified themselves as having Irish ancestry either alone or in combination with another ancestry.[5] This nominated ancestry was third behind English and Australian in terms of the largest number of responses and represents 10.4% of the total population of Australia. However this figure does not include Australians with an Irish background who chose to nominate themselves as 'Australian' or other ancestries.

The Australian embassy in Dublin states that up to 30% of the population claim some degree of Irish ancestry.[6] Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke has said: "... apart from Ireland, Australia is more Irish than any other country. It is true that more people of Irish descent have gone to the United States than to Australia; but, as a proportion of the population, higher in Australia than in the United States.

The Irish influence in Australia permeates the whole of our national make-up..."[7] The Immigration Museum, Melbourne also states that over 10 per cent of Australians claim an Irish ancestor, meaning that Australia has proportionately more people of Irish descent than any other country outside Ireland.[8]

Demographic history[edit]

People with Irish ancestry as a percentage of the population in Australia divided geographically by statistical local area, as of the 2011 census

Around 40,000 Irish convicts were transported to Australia between 1791 and 1867, many for political activity, including those who had participated in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the 1803 Rising of Robert Emmet and the Young Ireland skirmishes in 1848 in the midst of the Great Famine. Once in Australia, many of these prisoners continued to plan escapes from British military custody — for example, the 1804 Castle Hill convict rebellion, and continual tension on Norfolk Island in the same year also led to an Irish revolt. Both risings were soon crushed. In these decades, the Irish language was the main language of Irish prisoners, and many Irish were flogged or killed by fellow convicts for speaking what was seen as a conspiratorial tongue.[9] As late as the 1860s, Fenian prisoners were being transported, particularly to Western Australia, where the Catalpa rescue of Irish radicals off Rockingham was a memorable episode.[10]

Other than convicts, most of the laborers who voluntarily emigrated to Australia in the 19th century were drawn from the poorest sector of British and Irish society. After 1831, the Australian colonies employed a system of government assistance in which all or most immigration costs were paid for chosen immigrants, and the colonial authorities used these schemes to exercise some control over immigration. While these assisted schemes were biased against the poorest elements of society, the very poor could overcome these hurdles in several ways, such as relying on local assistance or help from relatives.[11]

Most of the Irish that went to Australia were free settlers. The 1891 census of Australia counted 228,000 Irish-born. At the time the Irish made up about 27 percent of the immigrants from the British Isles.[12] The number of Ireland-born in Australia peaked in 1891. A decade later the number of Ireland-born had dropped to 184,035. Dominion status for the Irish Free State in 1922 did not diminish arrivals from Ireland as Irish people were still British subjects. This changed after the Second World War, as people migrating from the new Republic of Ireland (which came into being in April 1949) were no longer British subjects eligible for the assisted passage. People from Northern Ireland continued to be eligible for this and continued to be seen officially as British. Only during the 1960s did migration from the south of Ireland reduce significantly. By 2002, around one thousand persons born in Ireland — north and south — were migrating permanently to Australia each year. For the year 2005-2006, 12,554 Irish entered Australia to work under the Working Holiday visa scheme.


Over four thousand young female orphans from Irish workhouses were shipped to the Australian colonies at the time of the Great Famine (Ireland) (1848–50) to meet a demand for domestic servants. Treated with hostility by Australian public opinion, and often exploited or abused by employers and others, the girls frequently died in poverty. Some, however, made upwardly mobile marriages, often surviving older husbands to experience long widowhoods. The Catholic Church only became involved in the 1870s, when its relief agencies in England were overwhelmed with Irish immigration; still, only about 10% of the resettlements were through Catholic agencies until after World War II. Australian Catholic groups began importing children in the 1920s to increase the Catholic population, and became heavily engaged in placing and educating them after World War II. The practice quietly died out during the 1950s.[13][14]

Status of the Irish[edit]

The Irish Australian flag

Walker (2007) compares Irish immigrant communities in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain respecting issues of identity and 'Irishness.' Religion remained the major cause of differentiation in all Irish diaspora communities and had the greatest impact on identity, followed by the nature and difficulty of socioeconomic conditions faced in each new country and the strength of continued social and political links of Irish immigrants and their descendants with the old country. From the late 20th century onward, Irish identity abroad became increasingly cultural, nondenominational, and nonpolitical, although many emigrants from Ulster (and especially from Northern Ireland) stood apart from this trend.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Irish Australians — particularly but not exclusively Catholics — were treated with suspicion in a sectarian atmosphere. The outlaw Ned Kelly (1855–80) achieved the status of a national folk hero; ballads, films and paintings have since 1878 kept the feisty robber's tale alive.[15] Kelly, who was hanged for murder, is often viewed romantically as the sort of treatment Irish Catholics in Australia could expect: in reality, however, most of the Irish were urban workers who experienced less official discrimination in Australia than they had at home in Ireland, and many Irish Australians — Catholic and Protestant — rose to positions of wealth and power in the colonial hierarchy. Many Irish men, for example, entered law, the judiciary and politics, while in Ned Kelly's time 80% of the Victorian police were Irish-born, and half of those had served in the Royal Irish Constabulary. In major cities such as Melbourne and Sydney, Irish social and political associations were formed, including the Melbourne Celtic Club, which survives today. The Irish settler in Australia - both voluntary and forced - was crucial to the survival and prosperity of the early colonies both demographically and economically. 300,000 Irish free settlers arrived between 1840 and 1914. By 1871, the Irish were a quarter of all overseas-born.

St. Patrick’s Day[edit]

O'Farrell (1995) demonstrates the importance of St. Patrick to the Irish, whether northern or republican, Protestant or Catholic, and how Australian manifestations of the Irish festival evolved. St. Patrick's Day became an expression of Irish identity and was emblematic of Irish culture and traditional separatism that migrated with the Irish to Australia. The early immigrants to Australia from Ireland were mainly members of penal colonies; assemblies or any such expression of Irish culture were not permitted. St. Patrick's Day at first was the exception, because it was not highly political, was ecumenical and was subordinate to the wider recognition of Britain. In a series of letters, a P. Cunningham, stated that a St Patrick's Day "jubilee" Ball was being held in Sydney in 1826.[16] The situation changed, however, in the 1830s with the growth of wealthy Irish Catholic emancipists and the introduction of Irish Catholic priests. These factors gave rise to conflicts and tensions that were to remain constant thereafter as the rise and decline of domestic Irish political movements influenced the Irish population in Australia. With the outbreak of World War I, imperatives imposed by the demands of war overshadowed Australian Irish sentiment.[17]


The idea of fraternity and how to organize it was one of 19th-century Europe's invisible exports to the New World. Fitzpatrick (2005) explores the international diffusion of the Loyal Orange Institution, with comparative reference to Freemasonry, its main model. Three alternative explanations are discussed for its appeal outside Ireland: that it facilitated the assimilation of emigrants, transmitted 'tribal' Irish animosities to fresh contexts, or adapted itself to preexisting sectarian rivalries abroad. These hypotheses are tested using evidence from South Australia, where Orangeism flourished in the absence of heavy Ulster Protestant immigration. A collective profile of Orange South Australia is derived from lodge records showing age, religious denomination, and occupation, and the appeal of Orangeism is related to local political and religious contexts. In this case, Orangeism was primarily an export of organizational techniques rather than Irish personnel or bigotry.[18]

Catholic nuns[edit]

McGrath, (1995) demonstrates the success of the Catholic nuns who arrived in Parramatta, New South Wales, from Ireland in 1888, noting their group's growth from nine newcomers into a flourishing congregation of over two hundred women within sixty years. By the 1950s this group of women religious was responsible for 24 primary schools, five secondary schools, and two orphanages. In Australia they carried on the Irish tradition of the Sisters of Mercy and lived a monastic lifestyle. Their sparsely furnished bedrooms were referred to as cells. There was little or no heating. The sisters sustained their monastic lifestyle by a spirituality that originates from the 17th-century school of spirituality. Their relationship to the clergy was one of devotion, dedication, and subordination. They kept themselves very much in the shadow of the clergy, reflecting the status of women in the larger population. It was societal pressures from without that eventually led to the decline of the Sisters of Mercy as Australia moved into the 1960s. Radical reevaluations forced a restructuring of the Catholic Church as a whole, and a rethinking of what kinds of service the Church would require in modern times.[19]


Before 1890, Irish Catholics opposed Henry Parkes, the main liberal leader, and free trade, since both represented Protestant, English landholding and wealthy business interests. In the great strike of 1890 Cardinal Moran, the head of the church, was sympathetic toward unions, but Catholic newspapers were critical of labor throughout the decade. After 1900, Catholics joined the Labor Party because its stress on equality and social welfare appealed to people who were workers and small farmers. In the 1910 elections Labor gained in areas where the concentration of Catholics was above average, and the number of Catholics in Labor's parliamentary ranks rose.[20]

World War I[edit]

Irish Catholics comprised a quarter of Australia's population in the early 20th century. They were largely working-class and voted for the Labor Party. The referendum on conscription in 1917, following the Easter Uprising in Dublin, caused an identification between the Irish, Sinn Féin, and the anti-conscription section of Labor. Pro-conscription forces exploited this, denouncing outspoken anti-conscription Catholics, such as Archbishop Mannix, and T.J. Ryan, the Premier of Queensland, for disloyalty. In general, Protestants, armed with the authority of tradition, championed the idea of Australia as an integral part of the Empire; and Catholics, freed from that authority by their Irish origins and their working-class affiliations, looked to the future by placing Australia first and the Empire second. There was no simple correlation between Catholicism, Protestantism and conscription, but the idea of an anti-conscription Catholic-Labor alliance stuck for many years.[21]


Irish Catholics have been the nation's largest minority throughout most of Australia's history. Their resistance to the elite Anglocentric establishment has keenly marked the development of sport. Mostly working class, the Irish played sports such as rugby league and Australian Rules football, while the Protestant majority often preferred cricket, soccer, rugby union and boxing. The tensions and contrasts between these two sporting cultures eventually built the attitudes and beliefs toward games and sports that Australians share today.[22]

Present day[edit]

At the 2006 Census 50,256 Australian residents declared they were born in the Irish Republic and a further 21,292 declared to have been born in Northern Ireland. Cities with the largest Irish-born populations were Sydney (12,730), Melbourne (8,950) and Perth (7,060).[23]

At the 2011 Census 2,087,800 Australians (10.4% of the total population) declared they had Irish ancestry either alone or in combination with another ancestry; only Australian and English ancestries were more frequently nominated.[5]

According to census data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2004, Irish Australians are, by religion, 46.2% Roman Catholic, 15.3% Anglican, 13.5% other Christian denomination, 3.6% other religions, and 21.5% "No Religion".

Irish Australian settlement patterns are not significantly different from those of the Australian population as a whole — that is, a third live in New South Wales and a quarter live in Victoria — except that around 22 per cent live in Queensland (compared to only 18 per cent of the general population). Relatively few as a proportion reside in Western Australia (7.6 per cent of Irish Australians compared to 9.9 per cent of the general population).

The 2001 Australian census recorded that persons reporting some Irish Australian ethnicity accounted for 10.7 per cent of all responses in the Australian Capital Territory (42,540 responses), 10.2 per cent in Victoria (469,161 responses), 9.9 per cent in New South Wales (622,944), 9.7 per cent in Queensland (433,354), 7.8 per cent in Tasmania (42,552), 7.6 per cent in Western Australia (171,667), 7.5 per cent in the Northern Territory (18,325) and 6.7 per cent in South Australia (119,063).

918 persons at the 2006 Census reported using the Irish language at home.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Record number of Irish immigrants to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in Australia
  3. ^ Ireland country profile
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b "ABS Ancestry". 2012. 
  6. ^ Australia- Ireland relationship - Australian Embassy
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Hughes, Robert. The Fatal Shore. London: Routledge (1987)
  10. ^ Bruce Rosen, "The 'Catalpa' Rescue," Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 1979 65(2): 73-88,
  11. ^ Richards, E (1993). "How did poor people emigrate from the British Isles to Australia in the nineteenth century?". Journal of British Studies 32 (3): 250–79. doi:10.1086/386032. JSTOR 176082. 
  12. ^ T. Jordan-Bychkov, Australia, 2009, p. 44
  13. ^ Trevor McClaughlin, "Lost Children? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia," History Ireland 2000 8(4): 30-34,
  14. ^ Barry M. Coldrey, "Child Migration and the Catholic Church," Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 1993 79(3-4): 199-213
  15. ^ Graham Seal, Tell 'em I Died Game: The Legend of Ned Kelly (2002) cover the legend.
  16. ^ Frank.Crowley,"Colonial Australia: A documentary history of Australia 1," Thomas Nelson Pty Ltd, Melbourne 1980: 356
  17. ^ Patrick. O'Farrell, "St Patrick's Day in Australia," ‘’Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society’‘ 1995 81(1): 1-16
  18. ^ David Fitzpatrick, "Exporting Brotherhood: Orangeism in South Australia," Immigrants & Minorities 2005 23(2-3): 277-310, 34p.
  19. ^ Sophie McGrath, "Women Religious in the History of Australia 1888-1950: a Case Study - the Sisters of Mercy Parramatta," Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 1995 81(2): 195-212
  20. ^ Celia Hamilton, "Irish-Catholics of New South Wales and the Labor Party, 1890-1910," Historical Studies: Australia & New Zealand 1958 8(31): 254-267
  21. ^ D. J. Murphy, "Religion, Race and Conscription in World War I," Australian Journal of Politics & History 1974 20(2): 155-163; Alan D. Gilbert, "Protestants, Catholics, and Loyalty: an Aspect of the Conscription Controversies, 1916-17," Politics 1971 6(1): 15-25,
  22. ^ Peter A. Horton, "The 'Green' and the 'Gold': The Irish-Australians and Their Role in the Emergence of the Australian Sports Culture," International Journal of the History of Sport 2000 17(2-3): 65-92
  23. ^ Australian Bureau of Statistics
  24. ^ ABS 20680-Language Spoken at Home (full classification list) by Sex - Australia

Further reading[edit]

  • Hogan, James Francis (1888). The Irish in Australia. Melbourne: George Robertson & Co. 
  • Jupp, James. The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, its People and their Origins (2002)
  • O'Farrell, Patrick. The Irish in Australia: 1798 to the Present Day (3rd ed. Cork University Press, 2001)
  • Wells, Andrew, and Theresa Martinez, eds. Australia's Diverse Peoples: A Reference Sourcebook (ABC-CLIO, 2004)

External links[edit]