In researching the Derryveagh Evictions for an earlier post, I happened on an exhibition entitled ‘Not Just Ned: A true story of the Irish in Australia‘, hosted by the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Australia has been a destination for the Irish diaspora for centuries. While the circumstances of the migrations have changed down the ages, Australia continues to absorb thousands of Irish emigrants.
Ned Kelly of the exhibition title, is regarded either as an outlaw or as a folk hero who defied the ruling class in colonial Australia. He perished at the end of a rope in 1880 at the age of 25. He was the son of an Irish convict father, John Kelly from Tipperary, who was sentenced to 7 years deportation either for stealing 2 pigs or for being a patriot, depending on which source appeals most, as his trial records have not survived from that time.
The transportation of convicts to Australia is something we in Ireland are familiar with – and why wouldn’t we be ?! Don’t we sing our anthem, ‘The Fields of Athenry’ till our hearts almost burst, at soccer internationals and at rugby matches, to remind ourselves and our foes about poor fictional ‘Michael’ , transported to Botany Bay because he…….” stole Trevelyan’s corn, so the young might see the morn? ”. However, not all convicts were male. Children as young as 12, and women were also sent into exile, and in addition, many young children were transported with their mothers. The receiving authorities in Australia complained that the women and female child convicts were arriving unskilled and they were of no use to the settler population. In response a facility was set up in Dublin whereby females were upskilled in needlework, laundry, cooking and knitting , so enabling them to become valuable servants on arrival in Australia. In all some 30,000 Irish men and 9,000 Irish women were sentenced to transportation ‘across the seas’.
Australia was hungry for people to help it grow as a nation, and Ireland could offer many wretched groups who were in dire circumstances. Between 1848 and 1850 11 shiploads of ‘Famine orphans’ were sent over to Sydney. These girls were mostly teenagers, aged 14 to 19 and most ended up in service. Many were indeed orphans and one wonders what their thoughts were, having lost their parents to hunger, then finding themselves on a voyage across the sea that lasted for some 3 months. As mentioned in an earlier post, the Donegal Relief Fund had been set up in Australia in 1858 for the assistance of people from Donegal who were in dire circumstances and many, including the younger members of the Derryveagh evicted families, left these shores for new opportunities in Australia in the years to 1862.
Voluntary emigration from Ireland increased in the middle of the 19th century when many went to make their fortune in the Australian Gold Rush. There was an added bonus that it also helped them escape the oppression of British rule at home. Assisted immigration schemes were then set up by the Australian government which resulted in a huge influx of settlers from all over the world, including Ireland. By the mid 1940’s it is estimated that a third of the population of Australia was Irish Australian.
Government assisted passages continued after World War 2 until the mid 20th Century and were offered as a means of providing a labour force for Australia’s emerging industries as well as increasing the population. This resulted in one of the largest mass migrations ever from Europe. The so-called ‘ten pound poms’ were British subjects, including Irish born prior to 1949, who paid a fare of £10 per adult with children travelling free. Employment, housing and a good lifestyle were promised upon arrival.
In the 2006 Australian census, 51,256 stated that they were born in the Republic of Ireland and 1.8 million claimed some Irish ancestry.
Australia continues to be a magnet for great numbers of young Irish – whether as backpackers on a gap year, in search of the surf on Bondi Beach or regrettably, as economic migrants who are once again forced from these shores in search of a better life. While some are happy to go, many more would prefer to have options other than to have to go ‘across the seas’.
National Museum of Australia : Not Just Ned, a history of the Irish in Australia. See more here
The Fields of Athenry Lyrics
The Australian Dictionary of Biography Online Edition: Edward (Ned) Kelly 1855- 1880. See more here
Sources in the National Archives for research into the transportation of Irish convicts to Australia (1791-1853) by Rena Lohan. National Archives of Ireland
Irish Famine Memorial website: Famine Orphan Girl Ships to New South Wales. irishfaminememorial.org
Irish in Australia essay by Richard Reid, Curator National Museum of Australia accessed here
The Ten Pound Poms article on Wikipedia accessed here
Wikipedia: The Irish Diaspora Census statistics