A New History of the Irish in Australia: Racial profiling Down Under

‘No Irish need apply’ may have been replaced with ‘Protestants preferred’ but anti-Irish sentiment has not disappeared

 Convict uprising at Castle Hill in Sydney,  1804: Australia’s British colonial community responded to the Irish with a mixture of fear and loathing. Photograph: National Library of Australia

Convict uprising at Castle Hill in Sydney, 1804: Australia’s British colonial community responded to the Irish with a mixture of fear and loathing. Photograph: National Library of Australia

Sat, Feb 2, 2019, 06:00


Book Title:
A New History of the Irish in Australia


Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall

NewSouth Publishing

Guideline Price:

This book is not a comprehensive history, as its title might suggest. At the outset, however, its authors acknowledge that that was not their intention. Indeed, they give due recognition to an earlier landmark study by historian Patrick O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia (1986), which in their view remains central, not least because it posed many of the important questions. Rather, the inclusion of “new history” in the title of this collaborative publication by Elizabeth Malcolm and Dianne Hall is intended to indicate fundamentally new perspectives on these questions and others, with fresh findings and promising opportunities for further healthy revisionist work on the subject.

O’Farrell argued that Australian identity was forged by a collision of two cultures: Protestant Englishness and Catholic Irishness. While he accepted that the Irish were perceived in racial terms, he viewed religion as “the highest ground of the anti-Irish argument”. For their part, Malcolm and Hall widen the lens by looking more closely at the “racialisation” of the Irish during the colonial period. By drawing on the latest research, as well as on new methodologies and sources previously unavailable to O’Farrell, they focus on particular themes, such as gender, popular culture, crime, mental health, eugenics, employment discrimination, and political exclusion.

It is estimated that about 25 per cent of Irish immigrants in Australia were Protestants. While their religion gave them a distinct advantage, relative to the rest of the Irish-Australian community, they were not immune from the negative effects of racialisation. Yet it was largely against Irish Catholics, and especially the immigrant poor, that the “anti-Irish argument” was levelled. Accordingly, racial tropes were used in their depiction in political cartoons, in newspapers and books, and on stage. In employment advertisements, they faced the “no Irish need apply” line. Malcolm and Hall make good use of digitised Australian newspaper databases in mining these ads, revealing that they declined from the 1880s onwards to be replaced by the more commonly stated “Protestants preferred”.

Irish-born politicians often took a lead from their working-class constituents in supporting legislation that restricted the intake of Chinese and other immigrants of colour

In racial discourse, the Irish were in a liminal position: they were European and white, but not white enough. Between the 1860s and 1880s, for example, Melbourne Punch targeted Bryan O’Loghlen, one of Victoria’s most prominent Irish Catholic politicians, labelling him subversive, corrupt, and akin to “the Negro”. Racial othering was also given free expression by British Liberal politician, Sir Charles Dilke, when he made derogatory remarks about Irish-Chinese marriages during his tour of the Victorian goldfields in 1867, and more explicitly when he articulated his vision of a “Greater Britain”, in which white settler colonies would be included but the Chinese, Indians and Irish excluded.

Even though the Irish would later face exclusion under eugenics-based immigration laws that were designed to keep out Asians, their liminal position in Australian society could also put them on the right side of the colour bar, for they were not bound by race laws that prevented people of colour from marrying non-Europeans. In other words, the Irish were still viewed as white, despite their perceived racial inferiority.

They did face official barriers against marrying indigenous peoples, but these were encountered by whites generally under colonial and state Aboriginal protection Acts. As it happened, Irish-Aboriginal relationships continued anyway, more commonly involving Irish men than Irish women.

Political interests

Ironically, it was their very whiteness that was sometimes used by the Irish themselves to serve their own socioeconomic and political interests. While visiting the Antipodes in 1889, the leading Irish nationalist politician, John Dillon, told an audience in New Zealand that “we [in Ireland] deserve home rule because we are white men”.

This racialised language would be echoed in a different political climate at the time of the Irish Race Convention in Melbourne in 1919, during which the discussion was focused on “self-determination for the last of the small white nations which languishes under the oppressor’s heel”.

What particularly fuelled fear was the perceived threat of Irish nationalism and republicanism

In Australian domestic politics, Irish-born politicians often took a lead from their working-class constituents in supporting legislation that restricted the intake of Chinese and other immigrants of colour. The Irish were a varied group, but there were those who quickly identified with the dominant white colonial community, and who may be said to have become more coloniser than colonised (if we are to accept that the Ireland they left in the 19th century was a colony).

More research is required on Irish-indigenous encounters, but there were certainly those among the Irish who played an active part in the dispossession of Aboriginal lands and the erosion of native culture. We could take, for instance, Roscommon-born Catholic William Cahill, who, as a former member of the Royal Irish Constabulary and commissioner of police in Queensland from 1905, saw fit to tighten the coercive screw on the indigenous population, even though police powers in the state were already quite extensive. Interestingly, the comical stereotype of the Irish policeman was a staple of anti-Irish humour.

From the earliest days of convict transportation, the British colonial community responded to the Irish with a mixture of fear and loathing, giving rise to, and sustaining, racial stereotypes, some of them more alarming than those which evoked laughter.

What particularly fuelled fear was the perceived threat of Irish nationalism and republicanism, especially mid-Victorian Fenianism. The terror associated with the latter was well illustrated in March 1868 when Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred, was wounded in an assassination attempt in Sydney, an act carried out by Irishman Henry James O’Farrell, who was believed (without foundation) to be a Fenian. In fact, Fenianism was not a significant threat in Australia, but opponents of the Irish capitalised on the Sydney shooting to further stereotype and denigrate the Irish.

Cultural dynamics

It is through an examination of such stereotypes, a clearer delineation of categories, and a closer study of the cultural dynamics within the Irish immigrant community that the authors of this work have challenged the earlier findings of O’Farrell and others. If, for example, we look at Irish committals to asylums, we can see evidence of cultural biases which influenced doctors’ diagnoses and prognoses. It is also important to bear in mind that many Irish committals were initiated by family members, who may have carried from Ireland a common practice of committing “lunatic” relatives, a practice with which Irish-born policemen may in fact have been familiar and therefore more open to rendering assistance, given that it was the duty of the police to deliver the individual to the asylum.

The positioning of the Irish in the perceived hierarchy of races in Australia remained unresolved until the 1930s and it was not until after 1945 that those academics who were considered experts in the field finally dropped the idea that the Irish and the English could be distinguished by race.

More recently, there have been attempts to simply subsume the Irish into the category “Anglo-Celtic”, a term which Malcolm and Hall reject. For them, it covers over important differences and points of conflict. And in as much as they have set out to explore the nature and extent of anti-Irish prejudice in Australian history, they are at pains to point out that it continues to have currency in Australian society. To illustrate, they cite the comments made in 2011 by federal Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, who for the purpose of scoring political points, likened the Labour Party to an “Irishman who lost 10 pounds betting on the Grand National and then lost 20 pounds on the action replay”.

In reading the cautionary conclusion to this book, one is reminded of the call by the leading historian of Britain, Catherine Hall, for a “re-remembering” of its empire as a necessary exercise in not only better understanding its past, but in dealing with its legacy. Hall is referenced in this work under review, but only briefly and not to the extent that would have been expected. Her published contribution, together with those of others who have written on the role of Protestantism in the forging of British identity and in the shaping modern British society and politics, would have provided an important framework for the issues explored here.

That said, the collaboration between Malcolm and Hall has delivered a hugely significant book that fully deserves its title: its findings are original and challenging, and while it will certainly prove accessible to the general reader, it will also serve to encourage further scholarly research.

– Laurence Marley lectures in history at NUI Galway