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Geographic Origins

Ireland lies to the west of England. It is bordered by the North Channel to the north-east and by the Irish Sea to the east. The north, west and south coasts of Ireland are bound by the Atlantic Ocean.

History of Immigration and Settlement

In the 1830s EG Wakefield, the theorist behind South Australia’s foundation, suggested the possible benefits of Irish emigration to the colonies. Colonel Torrens, an Anglo-Irish member of the House of Commons and the South Australian Colonisation Commission, was also enthusiastic about sending Irish labourers to South Australia. He believed that emigration would solve Ireland’s social and economic problems and that the Irish would be able to make a valuable contribution to South Australia’s growth. Torrens argued that Irish immigration to South Australia would divert some of the unemployed migrants who were travelling to England in large numbers only to face further misery. However, the theory of ‘systematic colonisation’ aimed to encourage the emigration of ‘men of capital’ and labourers rather than paupers.

Prospective immigrants were able to bring out one labourer for each 20 acres of South Australian land they purchased. Several Irish landlords used this scheme as a way of reducing overcrowding on their estates. The labourers who arrived in this manner were indentured to their landlord for several years at low wages as payment for their ‘free’ passages. By August 1839, there were 300 Irish Catholic families living in the colony, many of whom had been brought out under this scheme. The ‘systematic colonisation’ policy of land sales and immigration came to a halt after the bankruptcy of the colony in 1840.

The mid-north township of Clare was established by Edward Burton Gleeson in 1842. He named it after County Clare in western Ireland. Gleeson had arrived in South Australia aboard the Emerald Isle in 1838. In 1840 he established a sheep station at what is now Clare. John Hope was another Irish pastoral pioneer of the district. He was born in Ireland in 1809. Hope immigrated to South Australia in 1839. He settled at Wolta Wolta, good water, homestead on Koolunga station, a 246-square-kilometre property. Considerable numbers of Irish immigrants settled in the region of Clare and in other mid-north farming areas. The Catholic community of Sevenhill, south of Clare, was for many years made up of Irish, German and Polish Catholics.

The Assisted Passage Scheme was revived after 1845. The failure of Ireland’s staple crop, the potato, in that year and in 1846 produced a severe famine that killed hundreds of thousands of people and led many more to immigrate to the United States, Canada and Australia. The famine dramatically increased the number of Irish immigrants who came to South Australia. From 1848 to 1858, 15,448 Irish arrived in the colony. Some of them settled in the township of Armagh, which was established near Clare in 1849. The Irish immigrants who settled in Armagh built traditional Irish cottages and maintained customs such as ‘wakes’. Many Irish immigrants chose to settle in South Australia because it was enjoying prosperity after the discovery of rich copper deposits in the colony’s mid-north.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s a considerable number of Irish male immigrants worked as bullock drivers who transported copper ore from the Burra mines to Port Wakefield or Port Adelaide. Shortages of domestic servants in South Australia resulted in 1,620 Irish females receiving assisted passages in 1848. These Irish girls were helped out of the workhouses by Ireland’s Poor Law Unions, which were required to provide five pounds for each immigrant. This was a supplement to free passage from Ireland to South Australia.

Some Irish South Australians worked to increase the number of Irish colonists. The Adelaide Saint Patrick’s Society was formed for this purpose in 1849. The society’s members were predominantly affluent Anglican male colonists. Members included RR Torrens, the son of Colonel Torrens, and Sir George Kingston. Initially this organisation aimed to promote the immigration of Irish landowners to South Australia.

The economic situation in South Australia had changed considerably for the worse by the time a further group of Irish female domestic servants arrived in 1849. Many of these girls were unable to find work and, with no form of family support, a number of them became prostitutes. Irish females accounted for an astonishing 42 per cent of Adelaide prostitutes in 1851, a sad reflection of the neglect by those who had brought them to the colony yet provided little or no support once they arrived. Many Irish women were sent to country areas such as Kapunda, Robe, Encounter Bay, Gawler, Willunga, Yankalilla and Clare in order to find work. They were not considered suitable to work in ‘genteel’ Adelaide society.

In 1852 the Saint Patrick’s Society suggested that South Australian authorities sponsor the immigration of female Irish paupers to replace labourers who had gone to the Victorian diggings. The scheme was not implemented, which should surprise no one considering the plight of many Irish women already in South Australia.

British antagonism and anti-Catholic sentiments contributed to many Irish immigrants being treated with hostility in South Australia. Although much of this hostility was vented at the young female immigrants, another 5,000 domestic servants were sent to the colony in 1855. Many of these women married shortly after their arrival. A Female Immigrants Board was set up to supervise these women and provide for their well being.

By 1861 Irish-born immigrants accounted for 10 per cent of the population of South Australia. Between 1851 and 1861, 14,350 Irish immigrants arrived in South Australia. By 1861, however, only 9,645 lived in the colony. Many Irish immigrants moved to the Victorian goldfields during the first half of the 1850s, hence the discrepancy in the figures. Official attempts were made to curtail immigration abuses in 1857. South Australia’s newly founded government passed laws, known as the ‘Proportions Regulations’, restricting the inflow of Irish Catholics. This was an attempt to ensure that fair proportions of Protestants and Catholics immigrated to the colony. But the restrictions did not prove very effective in curtailing Irish immigration.

The majority of Irish who settled in South Australia arrived after the initial period of colonisation, thus missing out on many of the opportunities presented to early settlers. British South Australians were hostile towards Irish immigrants’ Catholic heritage, their lack of capital and education, and their limited potential as employees. Irish arrivals were more restricted in their opportunities for advancement than immigrants of Protestant English and Scottish backgrounds.

While the majority of Irish immigrants were Catholic, there was also a small inflow of Irish Protestants. These people tended to be more affluent and held positions of importance in the colony. They relied on their British connections and sought employment in the service of the British Empire.

Patrick McMahon Glynn was a prominent Irish Catholic South Australian who immigrated to the colony in the late nineteenth century. Glynn was born in Gort, County Galway, on 25 August, 1855. He was educated at French College and Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated in law. Glynn was admitted to the Irish Bar in 1879. Lack of opportunities in Ireland led Glynn to immigrate to Australia. He departed London aboard the steamship Orient on 4 September, 1880. On 16 October the Orient berthed in Melbourne. Glynn struggled to establish himself in Victoria for a couple of years before deciding to join his aunts and an uncle in South Australia. He arrived in Adelaide on 2 July, 1882, and was admitted to the South Australian Bar in the following year. He practised law in Kapunda and was the editor of the Kapunda Herald from 1883 until 1891.

Glynn was elected to the South Australian House of Assembly as the Member for Light in 1887. He was elected to the seat of North Adelaide in 1895. Two years later he married Abigail Dynon, whose parents had emigrated from Ireland in 1854. Patrick and Abigail later had eight children.

Glynn was a delegate to the Federal Convention to plan the unification of the Australian colonies, 1897-98.  He was the Member for Angas in the first Commonwealth House of Representatives and served in federal parliament until 1920. He died on 28 October, 1931, and was buried in West Terrace Cemetery.

A number of South Australian settlements have been named after counties and towns in Ireland. In 1855 Daniel Brady, an Irish immigrant, named Cavan on Port Wakefield Road after his home county. In the following year Governor MacDonnell named Dublin, 48 kilometres north of Adelaide, after his place of birth. Also in 1856 Thomas Williams and Joseph Bleechmore named the township of Auburn after Oliver Goldsmith’s verses about the deserted Irish village. In 1858 Daniel Brady had another burst of nostalgia and named Virginia north of Adelaide after his hometown. Brady also built a hotel in Virginia and named it after the Wheatsheaf Hotel in Virginia, County Cavan, Ireland. The Adelaide suburbs of Glandore and Kilkenny were named after a village and a city in Ireland.

After 1860 there was little further large scale assisted immigration to South Australia during the nineteenth century except for a short period between 1864 and 1866. As a result of the sporadic nature of later Irish immigration the proportion of Irish South Australians steadily declined from a high of 10.4 per cent in 1860 to 3.1 per cent in 1901.

The nature of Irish immigration to South Australia in the nineteenth century was distinct from English and Scottish migration patterns. There were a greater proportion of married couples among English and Scottish immigrants: the Irish tended to arrive as single adults, many later sponsoring relatives to join them in South Australia. The Irish also accounted for a higher percentage of people from the United Kingdom applying for assisted passages. Of the 2,395 applications for assisted passage in 1858, 1,643 were Irish.

Irish immigration to South Australia continued throughout the early part of the twentieth century, but the numbers were small compared with earlier periods. The turbulent times of the First World War, the Great Depression and the Second World War restricted all immigration to Australia. After the Second World War the Australian government initiated programs to increase its population. From 1948 the Australian Immigration Department offered assisted passages from Ireland to Australia. South Australia received some of these Irish immigrants. Although migration from Ireland to Australia is still strong, in recent years it has generally declined.

Irish immigrants have settled throughout the state.

Community Activities

Early Irish South Australians influenced the development of popular sporting culture in the colony. Prize fighting, while condemned by ‘respectable citizens’, was a much relished recreation of the Irish labouring classes. Several Adelaide hotels, including the Shamrock and the Emerald Isle, had special boxing saloons. The fights were gruesome ordeals, lasting as long as the men could continue to stand.

A ball game called caid was popular among nineteenth century Irish South Australian labourers. A forerunner to modern day Gaelic football, caid consisted of teams of unlimited size and play of unlimited duration. Caid was particularly popular among Irish South Australians who had immigrated from Donegal, Kerry and Antrim. They only played it on special occasions. In 1843 a group of Irish South Australians held a caid match on 17 March, Saint Patrick’s Day.

Wrestling was also popular among some Irish South Australians, although it was much stronger in the Cornish and Devonshire communities.

While there were English, Polish and German Catholic South Australians during the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church of South Australia became predominantly Irish in character. It maintained this identity well into the twentieth century.

In 1844 an Irish immigrant, Father Francis Murphy, was consecrated as the first Catholic Bishop of Adelaide. He was born in Navan, County Meath, in 1795. In 1845 Bishop Murphy consecrated Saint Patrick’s Church, West Terrace. Murphy chose the music of Mozart, Haydn and Mazzinghi for the Mass. The singing was led by three skilled choristers and was accompanied by a harmonium. Newspaper reports noted that such church music had never been heard in Adelaide before. It became a regular feature of Masses at Saint Patrick’s, attracting many Protestants as a result. Between 1848 and 1860, when large numbers of Irish arrived in South Australia, Catholic congregations grew in size, as did the importance of the Catholic Church as a voice for the South Australian Irish population.

Rivalry between Catholics and Protestants, although less divisive than in other Australian colonies, affected life in South Australia. The Saint Patrick’s Society aimed to ‘twine the orange lily and the evergreen shamrock into one immortal wreath’. But the Irish Catholic community still found themselves separated socially in colonial society. The Irish Harp newspaper was founded in May 1867 in an attempt to address this problem. The founders aimed to foster a community spirit among South Australian Irish Catholics, and to give them a medium to voice their ideas and concerns. The Orange Association of South Australia was formed in 1871, perhaps in response to the publication of the Irish Harp. Nothing is known of the association’s activities.

Lack of money and status had always barred the majority of Catholics from participating in the social life of the colonial elite. Irish Catholics nevertheless continued to organise and maintain their own societies for the promotion of Irish and Catholic issues. The Hibernian Society was founded in the 1860s with the aim of providing for the social and financial needs of Catholic men and their families. The Hibernian Society was perhaps the most dominant Catholic lay organisation. Literary societies developed to further the education and improve the social confidence of Catholic youth. These societies all included a high proportion of Irish South Australians.

The Catholic Women’s League of South Australia was an important women’s organisation. With the aim ‘To unite Catholic Women in a band of common fellowship for the promotion of religious and intellectual interests and social work’, these women organised social gatherings, fundraising events and even adopted the role of surrogate mothers to young Catholics coming on their own to South Australia during the 1920s. The league’s importance as a social organisation once again came to the fore with the onset of the 1930s Depression. One of the league’s responses was to form a registry to find work for unemployed Catholic women.

The Irish Catholic versus English Protestant split became more pronounced towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Irish-born clergy who dominated the South Australian Catholic Church were vocal champions of Irish political issues. Perhaps the most important case was their support for the Irish Home Rule Movement. This proved a divisive issue from the mid-1890s, and reached its climax with the outbreak of the First World War. The English army’s quelling of the Irish rebellion of 1916 led to division among several Australian communities. Many Irish, especially the clergy, voiced outrage over the actions of the English and responded by leading anti-conscription campaigns, a move that bred long-term hostility between Irish and English Australians.

The Australian Patrician Association was formed in May 1949 to provide a meeting centre for Irish migrants and to promote Irish culture and dancing. Its Irish Memorial Hall opened in Carrington Street on 16 May, 1958. In 1961 the Australian Patrician Association became the Irish Australian Association. Extensions to the Irish Memorial Hall were completed in 1980. It continues to be a meeting place for Irish South Australians, their friends, and visitors from Ireland. The association’s hall is open each Friday night with live traditional music. Events throughout the year include ceilis, social evenings, dinners and cabarets. For many years the Irish Association has run Gaelic language classes and an Irish library. A number of Irish groups are associated with the Irish Australian Association.

The Australian Irish Dancing Association, AIDA, was founded in the mid-1960s to bring Irish dancing in Australia within the guidelines set by the Irish Dancing Commission in Dublin. Classes are conducted throughout the city and metropolitan areas. Dancers perform in a soft shoe for reels and slip jigs, which are graceful light dances. A heavier shoe is worn for other traditional dances such as jigs, hornpipes and set dances.

The Gaelic Athletic Association of South Australia, now known as the Gaelic Football and Hurling Association, was formed in 1968 to promote Gaelic football and hurling. Games are played each Friday and Sunday evening from October until March at St. Marys Park, Laura Avenue, St. Marys.

The Adelaide Irish Pipe Band, founded in the 1950s, practises at the Irish Club each week. Members wore the saffron kilts until the year 2000 when the McNeill tartan was adopted. The band leads the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and marches in the Anzac Day Parade and the Credit Union Christmas Pageant.

The Dubliners and Friends Group were founded in the late 1980s. It is a social group that includes many ex-Dubliners in its membership. The group meets once a month to plan functions such as balls, dinners, quiz nights and overnight trips.

The Celtic Music Club of SA Incorporated holds monthly dances in the Irish Hall. On Monday nights there are free lessons in the playing of the Kin Whistle followed by music sessions in the clubrooms. All are welcome to these activities which are most enjoyable.

The Irish National Day is the Feast Day of Saint Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland. It is celebrated on 17 March. Saint Patrick’s Day is the highlight of the Irish Australian Association’s year. Saint Patrick was a native of Britain. It is believed that he studied Christian theology in France before landing in Saul, Ireland, where he built his first church in 432. It is believed that Saint Patrick travelled around Ireland for 30 years, preaching, ordaining priests and founding churches. He died in 461. His feast day is a combined celebration of Irish Christianity and culture.

During the weekend nearest to 17 March a St. Patrick’s Day Parade takes place in Adelaide. Festivities follow at the Irish Hall throughout the day until midnight, featuring Irish music, songs and wonderful displays of Irish dancing. Irish food and a barbecue are available during the day. The bars remain busy serving Irish drinks such as Guinness, Kilkenny and Caffreys. ‘Céad, míle fáitte’, a hundred thousand welcomes are extended to all.

Organisations and Media

  • Irish Australian Association Inc.
  • Gaelic Football and Hurling Association
  • The Adelaide Irish Pipe Band Inc.
  • AIDA, Adelaide Irish Dancing Association
  • Dubliners and Friends Group of South Australia Inc.
  • Saint Patrick’s Week Festivities Committee
  • Guinness Appreciation Society
  • 5EBI-FM Radio Program
  • Website, www.irishclub.org.au

Statistics

According to the 1981 census there were 6,656 Irish South Australians.

The 1986 census recorded that 2,847 people from Northern Ireland and 3,560 people from the Republic of Ireland resided in South Australia. 37,641 people said that they were of Irish descent.

The 1991 census recorded that 3,832 South Australians had been born in the Republic of Ireland. 8,929 South Australians said that their mothers were born in the Republic of Ireland, and 10,355 that their fathers were.

The 1991 census recorded that 2,601 South Australians were born in Northern Ireland. 3,410 South Australians said that their mothers were born in Northern Ireland, and 3,566 that their fathers were.

The 1996 census recorded that 2,367 South Australians were born in Northern Ireland, and 3,615 were born in the Republic of Ireland. There was a second generation of 6,223 born to those who were born in the Republic of Ireland.

The 2001 census recorded 3,260 Irish-born South Australians, while 119,063 people said that they were of Irish descent.

The 2006 census recorded that 2,083 South Australians were born in Northern Ireland, and 3,191 were born in the (Republic of Ireland), while 108,422 people said that they were of Irish descent.

The 2011 census recorded that 2,163 South Australians were born in Northern Ireland, and 3,480 were born in the (Republic of Ireland), while 121,248 people said that they were of Irish descent.

The 2016 census recorded that 2,085 South Australians were born in Northern Ireland, and 3,301 were born in the (Republic of Ireland), while 134,436 people said that they were of Irish descent.

By Migration Museum

This article is part of the From Many Places project documenting the diverse cultural groups in South Australia. It is a project started by the Migration Museum in 1992 and continued in partnership today. 

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