President says Irish had role in injustices against Aboriginal people

Higgins says Irish in Australia were victims of prejudice but some inflicted injustice too

President Michael D Higgins acknowledged that injustices were inflicted on the Aboriginal people by Irish emigrants in Australia in a landmark address to the Parliament of Western Australia.

In his speech, the first by a head of state to the Perth-based parliament, Mr Higgins recalled the historical connections between Ireland and Australia, the "distinctive Irish influence" on the formation of Australia, and the contributions of prominent Irish emigrants, from Young Ireland leaders William Smith O'Brien and Charles Gavan Duffy to Michael Davitt, the founder of the Land League.

The President referred to the injustices and prejudices that faced new Irish arrivals over centuries: the thousands of young girls transferred to Australia to “meet the labour force needs and the gender balance in the new colony” and convicts “who, on arrival, encountered a prison system that was slavery by another name.”

The girls were “exposed to humiliation based on the threefold prejudice of gender, religion and nationality,” he said.


But, equally, Irish emigrants had to share some of the responsibility for the injustices perpetrated against the Aboriginal people which all elements of the society had participated in and acquiesced, he said.

“If we are to be truly unblinking in our gaze, we must acknowledge that while most Irish emigrants experienced some measure - often a large measure - of prejudice and injustice, there were some among the number who inflicted injustice too,” Mr Higgins told about 95 lawmakers in the state’s parliament.

The people responsible for crimes against Aboriginal communities “had to include, we must recognise, some who were Irish in Australia too,” he said.

Mr Higgins described the 1992 speech by former Australian prime minister Paul Keating acknowledging crime against the Aboriginal people as "an emancipatory act in the ethics of memory."

He suggested that the apology was perhaps down to Australia’s distance from what were for years considered “mother countries” that allowed the country exercise “an independence of thought characterised by an unwillingness to become an unquestioning servant to old orthodoxies.”

The President visited the parliament on the second day of formal engagements of his State visit to Australia, the seventh State visit of his six-year presidency.

Paying tribute to the Irish who made a mark on Australia, Mr Higgins said a third of a million Irish people emigrated to Australia between 1840 and 1914.

Today, he said, there were more than 90,000 Irish-born people in Australia, while two million Australians claim Irish ancestry in the national census.

"Ever since Paddy Hannon struck gold in Kalgoorlie, " said Mr Higgins, referring to Co Clare prospector and his 1893 discovery, "Irish men and women have come to labour, with hand and brain, in the mines of this State; to work the soil in the vast Wheatbelt, to contribute to commerce and industry, law, journalism and the academy; to be involved in the practice of their faith and have it recognised."

Davitt travelled across Australia and New Zealand for seven months in 1895 and saw "a new society in embryonic form which was profoundly shaped by the thoughts and actions of Irish emigrants."

He found “a new world full of hope and promise” which would “at its best, vindicate the economic, social and political rights and liberties of the people.”

“The impulse to build here a new and better world, to bend the destiny of this land towards a more humane and egalitarian future, has been a recurring theme in Australian discourse,” said Mr Higgins.

“The Irish who contributed to this discourse perhaps saw reflected in this coming nation, as Davitt put it, the future form of a free Ireland.”

The President counted his own relatives among the emigrants from Ireland; his grandfather’s brother Patrick Higgins, “a plough man,” emigrated with his sister Mary Ann travelled from Co Clare in 1862. Five of his grandfather’s family of seven would end up moving to Australia.

The “ebb and flow” of Irish migration since the Second World War has been a result “of the push and pull of economic and social circumstances, individual hopes and dreams, and in the Irish case, as with others, of the pressures of a society and economy in Ireland that so often struggled but was not always permitted to provide the necessary opportunity and security to all its citizens,” he said.

Mr Higgins later delivered his second speech of the day at a conferral ceremony at the University of Western Australia and attended an evening concert of Irish music and culture called A Sense of Ireland in Perth.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times