Irish Australians

Irish Australians
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) are an ethnic group of Australian citizens of Irish descent, which include immigrants from and descendants whose ancestry originates from the island of Ireland. Irish Australians have played a considerable part in the history of Australia. They came to Australia from the late eighteenth century on as convicts or settlers, 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]

Demographic history

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, including some who had participated in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the 1803 Rising of Robert Emmet and the Young Ireland skirmishes in 1848. Once in Australia, some were involved in the 1804 Castle Hill convict rebellion. Continual tension on Norfolk Island in the same year also led to an Irish revolt. Both risings were soon crushed. 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.[7]

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.[8]

Most Irish emigrants 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.[9] 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. Some settlers greeted them with hostility and some were exploited or abused by employers and others. Although a number eventually died in poverty, others 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. Even so, 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.[10][11]

Irish language

The first convicts and soldiers to arrive in Australia included a large number of Irish speakers, an example being private Patrick Geary, who in 1808 acted as court interpreter for Patrick Henchan, a convict accused of theft.[12] An account from 1800 refers to convicts speaking Irish among themselves (this being regarded as evidence of conspiracy), and it was acknowledged in the 1820s that priests could not perform their duties in the colony of New South Wales without a knowledge of the language.[13] There is a reference to Irish-speaking bushrangers in Van Diemen's Land in the early nineteenth century.[14]

The gold rushes of the 1850s attracted many Irish to the colony of Victoria, with a high proportion of Irish speakers. An Irish-speaking priest, Fr Stack, was appointed to minister to Irish miners in the gold-rush locality of Bendigo.[15] Irish immigration was at its height in the 1860s, the main counties of origin being Clare, Tipperary, Limerick and Kilkenny, all of them areas where the language was still strong.[16] Irish continued to be spoken in Australian country districts where the Irish had settled, and there is some evidence of its being transmitted to the next generation.[17][18]

The Gaelic Revival in Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century found a response in Melbourne and Sydney, with branches of the Gaelic League being established. The 1970s saw a renewal of interest in the language, chiefly among Australians of Irish descent,[19] and there is now a network of Irish speakers in the major cities. The Department of Celtic Studies at the University of Sydney offers courses in Old Irish and Modern Irish,[20] and Newman College (University of Melbourne) houses a collection of books and manuscripts in Irish often used by scholars.[21] Australians have published fiction, poetry and journalism in Irish.

Status of the Irish

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.[22] 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

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.[23] 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.[24]


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.[25]

Catholic nuns

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' spiritual practices reflected the 17th-century school of spirituality.

Their relationship to the clergy was one of devotion, dedication, and subordination, thus 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 re-evaluations 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.[26]


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.[27]

World War I

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.[28]


The Irish Echo (Australia) is a newspaper available in print and online, covering Irish news and other matters of Irish interest.[29]

Tinteán is an online journal directed chiefly at Irish Australians. Its stated aim is to provide serious comment and an independent perspective on a wide range of Australian/Irish topics. It publishes some material in the Irish language.[30]

An Lúibín is a fortnightly Irish-language newsletter, distributed online in Australia and overseas. It deals with language matters and also contains articles on folklore, literature and current affairs.[31]


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.[32]

Present day

At the 2006 Census 50,256 Australian residents declared they were born in the Republic of Ireland 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).[33]

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).

Irish language use

In the 2011 Census 1,895 persons were reported as using Irish as a household language, most of them in Sydney and Melbourne.[34] This represents an increase from the figure of 918 in the 2006 Census.[35] There are no official statistics regarding the use of Irish outside the home.

See also


  2. Record number of Irish immigrants to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in Australia
  3. Ireland country profile
  5. 1 2 "ABS Ancestry". 2012.
  6. Australia- Ireland relationship – Australian Embassy
  7. Bruce Rosen, "The 'Catalpa' Rescue", Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 1979 65(2): 73-88,
  8. 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.
  9. T. Jordan-Bychkov, Australia, 2009, p. 44
  10. Trevor McClaughlin, "Lost Children? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia", History Ireland 2000 8(4): 30-34,
  11. Barry M. Coldrey, "Child Migration and the Catholic Church", Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 1993 79(3-4): 199-213
  12. Hall, p. 238.
  13. O’Farrell, p. 27.
  14. The bushrangers in question were named Scanlan and Brown. A third member of the gang, an Englishman named Richard Lemon, was said to have killed Scanlan because he was tired of hearing him and Brown speaking Irish together. Hughes, p. 227.
  15. Noone, p.41.
  16. Noone, p. 12. See also the discussion in Fitzgerald regarding the state of Irish in Ireland at the time.
  17. Noone, p. 44.
  18. Ó Nuadháin, Val agus Ryan, Colin: 'Nioclás Ó Domhnaill: Laoch na Gaeilge san Astráil' in Feasta, Bealtaine 2009.
  19. Noone, pp. 148-163.
  20. "Celtic Studies : Faculty of Arts : University of Sydney Australia". Arts and Social Sciences. 2015-05-13. Retrieved 2015-05-13.
  21. The O'Donnell Collection:
  22. Graham Seal, Tell 'em I Died Game: The Legend of Ned Kelly (2002) cover the legend.
  23. Frank.Crowley,"Colonial Australia: A documentary history of Australia 1", Thomas Nelson Pty Ltd, Melbourne 1980: 356
  24. Patrick. O'Farrell, "St Patrick's Day in Australia", Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society’‘ 1995 81(1): 1-16
  25. David Fitzpatrick, "Exporting Brotherhood: Orangeism in South Australia", Immigrants & Minorities 2005 23(2-3): 277-310, 34p.
  26. 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
  27. Celia Hamilton, "Irish-Catholics of New South Wales and the Labor Party, 1890-1910", Historical Studies: Australia & New Zealand 1958 8(31): 254-267
  28. 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,
  29. Irish Echo (Australia's Irish Newspaper):
  30. Tinteán:
  31. An Lúibín can be found at the website of the Irish Language Association of Australia:
  32. 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
  33. Australian Bureau of Statistics
  34. Special Broadcasting Service (SBS): Prompts: 'Location,' 'All other languages,' ‘Irish’.
  35. ABS 20680-Language Spoken at Home (full classification list) by Sex – Australia

Further reading

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