Everything about this new group of arrivals was wrong. Their religion was alien to the mainstream majority, and linked to a foreign theocratic state. They introduced separate schools, and imported foreign teachers, the women dressed in veils and clothing that dated from the middle ages. Long established residents, whose tenure in this new land went back at least a generation or so, spoke anxiously about the size of these new immigrants’ families, and feared that within another few generations, this dangerous minority would breed themselves into the majority.
Worst of all, some of their young men carried a huge chip on their shoulders, a grievance against the society they found themselves in. Nurtured on parental tales of violence and dispossession back in their homeland, they formed ethnic gangs, hassled women, attacked the police, and moved into organised crime and the New South Wales Labor Party. Some of them grew a characteristic shaggy beard that announced to the world their radical beliefs – you can see it in portraits of Ned Kelly.
Yes folks, it’s St Patrick’s Day on 17 March – and these bearded radicals were Irish.
Today, St Patrick’s Day is celebrated with green beer and cabbage, if it is noticed at all. It is certainly not a contentious political occasion, as it once was. The sectarianism of the past has virtually disappeared – to be replaced by other fault lines, which I deliberately highlighted above.
But it is worth revisiting these past tensions, if only for the reassurance they give that hostility between Irish Catholics and English and Scottish Protestants eventually dissipated, and that the dire predictions of past generations that the Irish minority could not assimilate or would overwhelm the majority were wrong. Similar dire predictions directed today at Islamic immigrants are likely to prove equally wrong in the future.
A lot of Irish came to Australia in the 19th century. About one third of the 160,000 convicts were Irish. Most were petty criminals, but some were transported for political offences, such as the United Irishmen after the failed 1798 rebellion, Young Irelanders after 1848, and Fenians in 1867. There was also a large free migration to the colonies, especially during the potato famine in the 1840s. All these immigrants had good reason to feel bitter about British policy in Ireland, and many transferred their resentments to the British colonial governments in Australia.
But many did not. For a start, the British Parliament ended discrimination against Catholics in the public service in 1829, and Irish Catholics began to work for the colonial governments from then on, particularly in the law. The policemen Kelly killed were all Irish born, as was the judge who sentenced him. Kelly, on the other hand, was Australian born. The Jerilderie letter, his garbled message of rage and rebellion against ‘the English yoke’, comes from his parents, particularly his American stepfather.
What would England do if America declared war and hoisted a green flag as its all Irishmen that has got command of her armies forts and batteries even her very life guards and beef tasters are Irish would they not slew around and fight her with their own arms for the sake of the colour they dare not wear for years. and to reinstate it and rise old Erins isle once more, from the pressure and tyrannism of the English yoke, which has kept it in poverty and starvation, and caused them to wear the enemys coats.
Kelly’s cry of fury does hint, though, at the potential for such grievances to turn violent, especially in the hands of someone mentally unstable. In 1868, an Irishman called Henry James O’Farrell attempted to shoot Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred, at a picnic at Clontarf in Sydney. Shortly before this, a group of Fenians had attempted to invade Canada, so the public was already anxious about possible global conspiracies. O’Farrell was found guilty and executed, despite his probable insanity, and the NSW Premier, Henry Parkes, rode the subsequent wave of fear about Fenian violence for his own political ends. There are parallels with the present here, too.
All in all though, the anxieties of Protestant colonists proved baseless. The Irish Catholic church set up separate schools, and recruited Christian Brothers and Sisters of Mercy from Ireland to teach, but their efforts to create a separate cultural tradition never amounted to much, beyond the oddity that Catholic children used to pronounce the letter H as ‘haich’, in the Irish fashion.
Irish families have not outbred the Protestants either. Irrespective of religion, family size has tended to fall in the last century or more for many reasons: urbanisation, an end to child labour, compulsory schooling and therefore better education for women, all led couples to limit family size, long before the advent of effective contraception, or Humanae Vitae.
And the beards? Joseph Holt, one of the leaders of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland, was transported to NSW. On his way home many years later, he and his shipmates were shipwrecked in the Falkland Islands. An American whaler from Nantucket rescued them 2 months later. Captain Fanning first came ashore, looked at Holt ‘very earnest’ and shook his hand. Holt ‘explains’ cryptically:
My Good Reader in order to let you know the cause of him coming to me: I wore my beard under my chin as a mark of what I was, and he had his in the same manner. He and I spoke two or three words together which made us to know more than I am going to tell my reader.
For Holt, the way he wore his beard identified him to a co-conspirator in the Irish republican cause, the equivalent of a Masonic handshake. By Kelly’s day, however, a full beard was probably little more than a fashion statement – or was it?
Reference: Alan Atkinson, The Europeans in Australia (1997) discusses the implications of Joseph Holt’s meeting with Captain Fanning.