A celebration of Irish-Australian culture

By Gaia Vince 17 March 2010
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As the Irish diaspora celebrates St Patrick’s Day, Australia’s National Museum plans to showcase Irish culture down under.

NED KELLY, KEVIN RUDD, Thomas Keneally, Nicole Kidman, even XXXX beer. The list of famous Australians with Irish ancestry goes on and on. Now, the National Museum of Australia (NMA) is developing a major exhibition to celebrate the Irish presence in Australia and a history that goes all the way back to 1788 when the Irish landed as part of the First Fleet.

“Australia, proportionately, has more people of Irish descent than any other spot outside of Ireland,” says Richard Reid, senior curator at the NMA in Canberra. “This is much more than a convict story; many of these people were the economic refugees of their day. They came to Australia to seek a better life, and sent money back to their families in Ireland and to help [bring them] out here.”

Somewhere between two and six million Australians today are thought to have some Irish ancestry and according to the 2006 census there were at least 50,000 Irish-born people living here.

50,000 Irish convicts

One-third of all convicts sent to Australia were Irish (around 50,000 people). A small proportion of these were political prisoners who helped forge a reputation for riotous debate and protest in the nascent nation. “Back in Ireland, these people often lacked a political voice and clout, so they were very determined when they got here to make sure they were not ignored,” says Richard.

In nineteenth-century Ireland, most Catholic Irish did not own their own land and so there was a strong movement from the community in Australia to ensure land ownership.

One of the most famous incidents in which the Irish were deeply involved was the Eureka Stockade near Ballarat in Victoria in 1854, led by Irishman Peter Lalor, which included demands for the right to land. It led to the 1862 Duffy Land Act – Charles Duffy was another Irishman – and an enormous six metre by four metre map of Victoria, commissioned by Duffy. This showed land available for purchase, and the map will form a prominent part of the exhibition.

Ned Kelly

In the 1870s, outlaw Ned Kelly committed a host of criminal acts. He tried to justify the thievery by playing up his Irish heritage and claiming that he, and others like him, were victims of the establishment and anti-Irish police – even though 80% of the police force in Victoria was Irish at this time.

He is still regarded as a folk hero in some quarters, and the NMA is hoping to display the rag-tag armour, fashioned from iron ploughs, which belonged to all four members of the Kelly Gang.

According to Museum Victoria, in Melbourne, people of Irish descent have also long had more respectable roles in the public life of Australia. At Kelly’s trial in 1880, Sir Redmond Barry, the judge who sentenced him to death, was also Irish. Redmond’s story, quite apart from his involvement with Ned Kelly, will also feature in the NMA exhibition.

Although Australia has had its fair share of rebellious Irish – including James O’Farrell, who attempted to assassinate the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred, at a picnic in Sydney in 1868 – most have integrated seamlessly into the country’s social and political life.

The Green Isle

“Because the Irish were there at the very beginning in Australia, they didn’t suffer the same degree of ghettoisation or marginalisation as happened in America,” Richard explains. Throughout the 19th century, immigrants kept pouring into Australia from the Green Isle; up until 1945, up to one-third of Australians had some ancestral connection to Ireland.

Women were sent out on government ships to work as domestic staff on the new colony and to redress the gender ratio. The exhibition will display an anchor from the Nashwauk, a ship wrecked off South Australia in 1855, carrying 207 of these young Irish women. “They were carried from the waters on the shoulders of men who swam out to rescue them – and they all survived,” Richard says.

The exhibition has already been two years in the planning and will recognise an important part of our cultural heritage, says Richard.

‘Irish in Australia’ opens at the NMA in Canberra on St Patrick’s Day, 2011.

The St Patrick’s Day Parade in Sydney