Irish in Australia ‘were not shirkers’ in first World War

Conference to hear of 6,000 Irishmen who signed up to the Australian WWI forces

Almost 6,000 Irishmen served in the Australian forces in the first World War and nearly 900 were killed, a conference will hear this week.

Professor Jeff Kildea, who has spent many years researching the subject, has counted 5,774 Irishmen who served in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and 860 who died. He believes the final figures will be higher than that.

The Irish Anzacs Database will be launched today by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and the Australian ambassador to Ireland Dr Ruth Adler.

It will allow anybody to access the military records of Irishmen who served in the Australian forces. Unlike the British records which were substantially damaged during the Blitz, the Australian records remain intact and some individual entries run to more than 100 pages.


Professor Kildea, the Keith Cameron chair of Australian History at University College Dublin, says the figure gives the lie to the idea propagated in Australia at the time that the Irish were "shirkers and Sinn Féiners".

The Irish and those of Irish descent were dogged by persistent sectarian allegations that they were anti-British and therefore anti-Australian.

The outspoken Cork-born Archbishop of Melbourne Daniel Mannix is regarded as one of the chief opponents of conscription in Australia during the war. Two referendums in Australia seeking to impose conscription were defeated in 1916 and 1917 and the Irish were blamed for both.

The Easter Rising and its aftermath also had a profound effect on public opinion too in Australia and reopened sectarian tensions.

In 1917 the Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes wrote to Keith Murdoch, the journalist and father of Rupert Murdoch, that the " non-Irish population are going out of Australia to fight or as railway workers, carpenters etc. The Irish remain behind."

However, Prof Kildea argues that the Irish continued to sign up in proportionate numbers right up until the end of the war.

Some 140,000 out of 4.5 million in Australia in 1911 or 3.13 per cent of the total population were Irish-born. They made up 1.55 per cent of the AIF.

However, Prof Kildea said the Irish population in Australia was much older than the general population as the great wave of Irish emigration was in the middle of the 19th century.

He said the percentage of those of military age (between 15 and 41) who were Irish-born was 1.41 per cent and therefore they enlisted in proportionate numbers if not slightly above.

Professor Kildea estimates that some 150 Irish-born soldiers died fighting in the AIF in Gallipoli, a place which has huge significance for the Australian nation both then and now.

Some 130 are named on the Australian roll of honour, but more died of their wounds afterwards.

Antrim was the most represented county with 855 recruits, followed by Dublin (780), Cork (551) and Tipperary (347).

Martin O'Meara from Lorrha, Co Tipperary, won a Victoria Cross during the war but was admitted to a psychiatric institution after the war suffering from paranoid delusions and died in Perth aged 50.

The Irish Anzacs Project is a research undertaking of the Global Irish Studies Centre at University of New South Wales, made possible by a grant from the Irish Government’s Emigrant Support Program. The event at UCD will occur simultaneously via video link with a launch event at UNSW.

The launch will be followed by a day-long symposium on ‘Australia and Ireland in the First World War’.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times