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Sorting out the Irish immigrants of colonial Australia

Eric Richards, Flinders University, Adelaide, 1 July 2011

RICHARD REID: Ladies and gentlemen, we will make a start. I am going to hand over to Perry McIntyre to introduce Eric Richards.

PERRY McINTYRE: Thank you Richard. I want to make a small correction to the Director’s comment this morning that I was co-convenor of this conference. I think being Richard’s friend and talking him through it and helping do the abstracts and biographies was my delight, hardly rating as a co-convenor. I just want to get that right. It is my delight today to be able to introduce to you Eric Richards.

When I was back starting my baby steps into Irish-Australian history or simply colonial Australian history, Eric was one of the people who was furiously supportive to me. He probably doesn’t even remember me back that far in the early 1970s. During that period Eric convened three immigration seminars at the Research School of Social Sciences at ANU, which is where Richard ultimately had done his PhD. People help us by being encouraging way back then. I used to sit in terror that he might look at me. Finally it is really nice to be able to be sitting among your peers. It’s people like Eric who have helped us all the way through that.

Eric has been working in all aspects of immigration and population statistics, mainly based in Adelaide since the 1960s. He just revealed to me something that he also has in common with Richard in that they both came to Australia as ten pound Poms - a modern immigration scheme. I hand over to you, Eric Richards. Thanks, Eric.

ERIC RICHARDS: Thank you very much indeed, Perry, for those memories and to Richard for inviting me - or inciting me here - to talk in a slightly contrary fashion about the Irish emigrants in colonial Australia. It’s a great pleasure and privilege to be here on this occasion.

My credentials for talking about the Irish in Colonial Australian are slim and I will have to make a virtue of this fact. Here I am assisted by the Melbourne historian Inga Clendinnen, who is very helpful on tricky historical principles such as those I am raising. She declared a few years ago that ‘people should be forbidden to work on the history of their own country’ and that ‘Australian History ought to be handed over to, say, Ethiopians or Serbs’. So it is in an Ethiopian spirit that I am approaching the subject of the Irish emigrant in colonial Australia. I think my father would say that that sounds very Irish.

I want to start very positively, as an historian of migration, by affirming that the Irish have incontestable claims to have exceptional status in the world of international migration. They were at the top of the league table for most of the nineteenth century immigration story and were disproportionately represented in Australia, perhaps more than anywhere else. They were, as we all know, ‘foundation people’ in these colonies.

But these special Irish features can be overdone, and the whole notion of Irish particularity has been subjected to satirical scepticism by that well-known Canadian iconoclast Donald Akenson, who has directly challenged ‘the assumption of Irish exceptionalism’.

I suspect that, despite Akenson’s mockery, the scepticism has been diminishing in the past decade. There has been a growing concentration on matters of national celebration, especially of diasporic celebration. As we know there are theorists of diaspora. It is certainly not confined to the Irish and to Irish history – but the Irish do it best of all and with the most conviction, as this conference and exhibition yet again perfectly exemplify. The way we set up our studies necessarily amplifies the sense of contrast, the old assertion of vive la difference in historical studies that we have here in this context yet again.

This approach connects with a widespread focus on national and ethnic ‘identity’ as well as the ‘who do you think you are’ approach to the past. The pursuit of identity, and its beguiling forms of construction, is now rampant in historical studies. It feeds patriotism and nationalism as well as the mighty mills of nostalgia, genealogy and family history. In Scotland, for instance, it is often associated with a search for tragic dimensions. There is a search for tragic origins, preferably with a palpable connection with the Highlands and Culloden and especially the Highland Clearances. This is the Scottish parallel with the Irish concentration on the Famine and English oppression, and a good deal of talk about victimology and the ‘haemorrhaging’ by way of emigration.

The pursuit of national identity and the essence of Scottishness or Irishness has generated some new historical research and it can yield extremely precise historical evidence about individuals and families. This type of micro-history supplies the enormous appetite for the re-discovery of identity –and brings consolation and delight to our present generation. I have admiration for much of this sort of work: the delving into individual stories and the quest for family connections stretching deep into many generations of historical change. It is an adjunct to Heritage Tourism or what Roy Foster has called ‘misery tourism’, especially widespread in Ireland. I suspect that the much-neglected émigre English will begin to feel a sense of envy about much of this and will soon begin to re-construct themselves as victims of the enclosure movement, of the industrial revolution and of the dark satanic mills. Perhaps this will eventually invest the English with a greater dignity as emigrants and boost their own tourist trade and their roots for heritage searches.

My argument is that these tendencies are nourishing the great god of exceptionalism. The quest for identity is a powerful fuel in nationalism and sectarianism. It carries its own hazards and historians have become somewhat uncritical of what they are doing very often, it seems to me. Moreover, they insist on the unique and special experience – to the point at which the common experience is lost or regarded as insignificant. They tend to exaggerate difference and they neglect connections and the overlapping experiences amongst the component elements in the bigger picture of which they are part. These forces of identity and national celebration are the forces of what I would tend to regard as the balkanisation of history, especially in the study of migration – my speciality.

They obscure the larger elements and especially obscure the commonalities of the story. I am therefore what I would have to call an identity-sceptic – less and less convinced that this is a good use of historians’ effort and investment. I want to talk about some of the anti-balkanising possibilities to pit against the identity-driven and celebratory history of our times. Paradoxically, though I am rather decrying the obsession with ‘identity’, I am more than ever in quest of roots, Irish roots in particular. I want to return to these notions when I reach the last part of my paper which concerns the deepest roots, origins, determinants and ultimate causes of the great emigrations which were emitting across the Atlantic world from the late eighteenth century. In this story the Irish were prominent from the start and remained at the top of the ladder of per capita emigration for a whole century or more.

Meanwhile I am using the term ‘sorting out’ in the sense of categorising the Irish, working out their collective characteristics, with the idea of fathoming their origins, role and relationship to the receiving colonial society. ‘Sorting-out’ is a way of finding out what ultimately brought them across the globe in this extraordinary fashion for most of a century. So I’m looking at Irish emigrants in the receiving society of colonial Australia and the relationship between these long distance partners in this great human exchange over that period.

Fredrich Engels back in 1856 toured Ireland and described it as:

… an utterly demoralised nation … fulfil the notorious function of supplying England, America and Australia … with prostitutes, casual labourers, pimps, thieves, swindlers, beggars, and other rabble.

Goldwin Smith in the United States a few years later in 1864 remarked:

The Irish have built a great part of New York. Also constructed the railroads. They live short.

Another author much more recently celebrated the Irish labourers as ‘The Men Who Built Britain’.

We have an Australian echo later on with Arthur Calwell, who was a great advocate of the Irish in Australia - and indeed privileged his own Irish roots above all his non-Irish roots where he presented himself. Planning the post-war immigration, he declared that Australia must avoid being:

… a dumping ground for ‘pommies’ and cockney outcasts…We want men who are our equals not our inferiors.

Calwell said it was the Scots and the Irish who had built Australia, ‘The English never did much of the labourers’ work’ and now the dams were being built by people from Europe as well as Ireland and Britain. This may have been a rhetorical flourish by Calwell but it uttered a prevailing view. This was an echo of the great claim made on behalf of the Irish immigrant in the United States and Britain.

I am looking at the structural relationship between Ireland and Australia especially in the nineteenth century – the way in which they interacted and generated this quite remarkable flow of Irish humanity across the globe. I want to ask the how and the why of this transmission, and to what else it related. Most of all I want to see the emigrant Irish as part of the wider demographic systems of which they were, I maintain, inherently a part. I am searching for degrees of complementarity and reciprocity of the migrations that poured from Ireland to Australia in the colonial period and which terminated rather abruptly in the twentieth century.

It is part of the constituent parts of an intercontinental exchange that we are looking at between Ireland and Australia with huge migrations of people, culture, capital and much else. The Australian colonies drew on Ireland disproportionately - more so even than Scotland - and this is one of the central facts concerning the essential relationship. It meant ultimately that Australia was a much more Irish place than one would have expected and the Irish heritage is stronger here, as evidenced by the vitality of Irish history in Australia.

It has been said that ‘Irish emigrants were unusually well tailored for the role of servicing other people’s industrial revolutions’. But that is not quite the case in Australia, it seems to me. Moving to Australia was propelled in the first instance by the requirements of rural Australia, the primary producers and their needs. And for this I am going to argue the Irish were best suited in terms of their background and skills - not entirely unlike the manner in which Irish labour was servicing English and Scottish agriculture in the mid-nineteenth century.

There were always vested interests in the operation of this great interconnection between the two countries, not least among the emigrants themselves, who had most to gain by the exchange and most to lose in that great lottery. Whatever may have been the consequences of rural evacuation from Ireland, the landlords of Ireland were undoubtedly beneficiaries of emigration. They supported, coerced, pressured, and encouraged emigration in many well-known ways. Their motives, as always, were decidedly mixed – economic gain, panic, humanitarianism, desperation and opportunism amongst the landlords. Opportunity was particularly on offer in the Australian assisted immigration systems which were extremely generous through this time. They were attractive schemes not only to prospective migrants, but also to the landlords and the poor law authorities and miscellaneous charitable bodies in Ireland. The question arises very often of how much the Australian system was cynically manipulated by conniving landlords to rid themselves of unwanted population. I will come back to this in a short while.

This then relates to the solution to the problem of Irish poverty and population pressure. If we accept the argument that the primary solution was the reduction of the population in relation to resources by the mid-nineteenth century – to reduce land hunger in Ireland – we are, of course, in contentious territory. But it applied, as I will argue, across the board in the British Isles – including England and Scotland – and that Australia was offer some relief to all parts of Britain in terms of rural overpopulation, certainly in the late nineteenth century.

Irish historians, and others, generally recoil from the idea of a mechanical explanation of migration. It has to be said that the Irish had most to gain by emigration to Australia. Australia sustained the highest living standards and wages in the world through most of the nineteenth century, while Ireland was mired in poverty which in many ways was worsening in the middle decades of that century burdened by extreme population growth.

We should never underestimate the sensational growth of population in Ireland between 1790 and 1845 which was at 1.3 per cent per annum – almost at the extreme end of any kind of population increase and much faster than the population growth that was occurring simultaneously in England. But the growth began to slow between the 1820s, 1830s and into the 1840s by means of various mechanisms. While Ireland remained grotesquely vulnerable to crop failure; Australia was extremely short of labour and population. The two needs were matched, I am going to suggest, by the various mechanisms which generated during that time.

It is the urgency of that relationship to obtain labour in the colonies and to get out of Ireland that provide the drivers of the differential recruitment in Ireland. I am going to argue that there was a very good fit between Ireland and Australia in those times, despite colonial resistance to the very idea of Irish immigration.

Australia was begin to recruit free emigrants from Ireland at a key time of transition in the demographic and socio-economic history of both countries; that is in the 1830s and 1840s. Australia was converting out of its dependence on the supply of convicts while rapidly expanding its labour requirements in the primary industries. Its needs were becoming closely defined and now informed by a civilising mission and a theory of colonisation which dictated the sort of immigrants they were looking for.

There was a simultaneous transformation in Ireland quite different. At that time migration within and beyond Ireland was beginning to quicken quite significantly, and its eighteenth century concentration of emigration in the north-east of Ireland in Ulster was beginning to be broken. Emigration from the south and the west in the 1830s had begun to make emigration an all-Ireland phenomenon. Peasant Ireland was now mobilising for mass selective emigration before the famine, well ahead to the famine catastrophe. These two transitions were occurring at the opposite ends of the world and my argument is they were intersecting at the end of the late 1830s.

I have been surprised by some of the recent findings on the state of Ireland before the famine, which have great implications for our view of the relationship between Ireland and Australia. The idea that Ireland was failing and that it was heading inevitably towards a Malthusian disaster is now, it seems, quite misleading. Moreover Ireland’s connection with Britain was not necessarily all negative in terms of the effect on the welfare of the Irish. Land hunger was rising alarmingly as the population grew, but the nutritional status of the people remained surprising good in those years before the famine even though living standards were low, the possibilities of betterment were narrowing, economic security was weakening and alternative employment opportunities outside agriculture not good at all.

The position is rather paradoxical: the Irish on average were growing taller literally and more literate, with a widening pattern of consumption, before the famine. With a diet of potatoes and milk products and good supplies of fuel, they were significantly and measurably taller than their English counterparts who earned better wages. Moreover, the gap between England and Ireland was maintained through those decades before the famine. This may have been a consequence of rural life compared with the effective industrialisation and urbanisation in England. But in Ireland they were taller than the English and were tallest of all in Ulster, even though Ulster was industrialising to a degree at that time. Ulster is a surprising element in this story: it seems to get the benefits of industrialisation without some of its most obvious costs in nutrition and bodily welfare. For the rest of west and southern Ireland the consequences of very rapid population growth were dire: worsening land/labour ratios, population pressure, poverty and perhaps the end of hope. At the same time it was also very difficult to get out. So we now have evidence amassing that the living standards in Ireland on average were actually rising in Ireland before the famine from a very low base.

The evidence produced by Deborah Oxley in recent time has argued that before the famine the Irish were becoming more literate, growing taller and consuming more exotic products than the better-off English. This is based on anthropometric evidence measuring heights and reinforced by other scholars in the field. We are told that ‘The distribution of resources in the pre-industrial Irish family resulted in an unusually tall population’. We can see that in the army recruits and particularly in the female part of the population. Irish women were particularly taller than their English counterparts during the pre famine era. The small Irish towns did best of all, it seems. And thus the deteriorating living standards of English women contrasted with the increasing heights of Irish women over the period before the famine and population growth producing a great reservoir of emigrants.

They were tall by European comparisons also during that time. They were not falling behind in nutritional status. It is a confusing picture from all these peculiar statistics but the story is one of nutritional standards which were higher than those maintaining in England, Scotland and Wales. You have other regional variations which I can’t enter into for the moment.

The implications for Australian recruiters is that they were facing perhaps, I am suggesting, a relatively well-fed rural population which was increasingly suggestible to the idea of emigration even before the famine. They were well suited to Australia’s needs and recruitable, notably amongst the more literate and the young. Beneath them would be a substrata of Irish rural society which were simply too poor for emigration, which we all know was a very expensive business.

There is a possible that these people were in many ways ideal for Australian labouring needs. The problem was. of course, connecting them into their systems, but it soon became clear that Ireland was a good recruiting field for both men and women, particularly men and women who were interconnecting with the Australian systems. They were reproductive at an astonishing rate, which is another element in this story, emigrating before the famine and drawing heavily on Ireland particularly because it was extremely difficult to recruit in England and Scotland at that time; so Ireland makes up for the deficits from the rest of the British Isles.

We have other evidence of a statistical sort that have been looking at 15,000 or more of the migrants in the great mass migration from Ireland to Australia in 1841. We can look at some of the data there at a time when Australia is beginning to recruit in the late 1830s and 1840s for free migrants in large numbers. Australia quickly discovered that the propensity to emigrate from rural England and Scotland was inadequate, so Ireland compensates for those deficits in migration. Even in South Australia which is the least Irish place - it had the best image of any of the colonies in the late 1830s – was drawing disproportionately on the recruits out of Ireland. From New South Wales in 1841 62 per cent of the emigrants come from Ireland and look at those as compensating for the reluctance of the English.

Looking at those more than 15,000 and despite the negative publicity against the Catholic Irish peasantry coming to Australia, they are clearly the ‘bone and sinew’ to a large extent of that immigrant population and on average, I would suggest, they are probably better specimens. The selective procedures were discriminating and often rather chaotic, but in the basic facts shaping the process - the costs of entry into the assistance schemes and so on – of selection the Irish were fitting the bill better than anyone else in the intakes.

More specifically I have been looking at the literacy counts amongst those migrants, the ability to read and write, which is registered amongst that large number of people at that time and in, of course, the later populations coming into Australia as assisted immigrants. What is clear is that they were more skilled and more literate than the people from whom they were drawn from the home populations. They were above the average of the home populations in literacy and occupational status.

It suggests that the Australian colonies were creaming-off the upper layers of the various strata across the British Isles, not just in Ireland, but it certainly applies to the Irish. They were consistently, uniformly and reliably more literate than the populations in Ireland from which they were drawn. Whether they were from Tipperary, Donegal Ulster or Munster or, for that matter from Manchester, Caithness or Cornwall, we have that same consistency: they were more literate than the people they came from, and reliably so in that data.

It is likely that the Australian colonies did better than other destinations – and this is a factor that we tend to ignore or downplay. Within the structural framework, the old relativities were intact; that is, the Scots were more literate than the English; the English were more literate than the Irish who were at the bottom of the class. But they are still being drawn from the top echelons of the home population of each of those places. it was not a fatal handicap and they were in any case better placed then their countrymen and women at home. My assumption is that the measures of literacy, age and skills provide a good proxy for the overall quality of those incoming migrants.

There are two suggestive conclusions for that kind of evidence in the pre famine Irish emigrant to Australia: first, they were coming from a population whose physiological bodily condition was on average better than we thought; and, secondly, the selections procedures by the people themselves and the agencies yielded a higher strata of the population than we expected.

So the relationship was thus established: on the one side a country passing through a demographic revolution, pre-industrial in structure, and mobilising itself in new forms of mass migration. This is then connected distantly with rapidly expanding antipodean colonies eager for working migrants but selective and unsure of its capacity to cope with the Irish in large numbers. On average the Irish were poorer and less well-educated and more rural than other immigrants, but they were more recruitable and adaptable to colonial needs. The essential reciprocity, at least a major element of it, is established in that intercontinental interchange very early in the piece.

There are particular channels emerging and ways of sorting out the migrants as part of what we were trying to do, particularly amongst the female population. Timothy Coghlan said that Australia resorted to Ireland to ‘obtain strong, healthy young women willing to work, but not trained as servants’. He was responding to the kinds of selectivity that was being established by that time and later in the century.

So emigration was expensive and highly selective and it was being drawn from the Irish population in various different ways but decidedly not a cross-section of the Irish population. They were rural people but strong in body, and their poverty was their greatest restraint and impediment. But rural labour was the top priority for the Australian colonies. Consequently, special mechanisms were being developed to get them to Australia.

The profile was very distinctive, as various analysts particularly David Fitzpatrick have pointed out. One of the points I want to stress further is the way in which this mechanism operated from Ireland, particularly by the remittance systems that have been looked at in great detail. It apparently is the case that Australian migrants, Irish in particular, sent rather less remittances back to their home country – to Ireland in this case – than they did in other destinations particularly from North America. There were relatively low private remittance levels from Australia. I think the reason for this is that the remittances were channelled into the institutional systems, the official migration assistance channels that were operating by the colonies. The Irish were particularly adept at making use of those. So the remittance system was channelled into the official institutionalised change of migration, which was again another great Irish achievement that I will emphasise again in a moment.

The benefits to Australia were decisive, whatever mechanisms there were. For Ireland there was always an argument about the loss of its people though this is true of all countries losing emigrants. The actual numbers relieved directly to Australia during the Famine catastrophe were considerable but relatively small in the total movements and in terms of Ireland’s total problem. Australia’s role in relieving the famine is that it widened the potential destinations and also received those that were able to escape – those with some resources at their disposal or had connections and assistance from kin and the official channels in Australia. Patrick O’Farrell declared that there were very few famine refugees in Australia. It was in other words still highly selective.

After the Famine the recruitments were different but still, I would suggest, very selective. It still favoured the somewhat better off and particularly those with a nose for acquiring land amongst the migrants. After the famine the system seems to have operated efficiently, interlocking the two ends of the transaction. Australia particularly gathers to it people who directly seeking the acquisition of land. The land acquisition instinct amongst the Irish is a particular aspect of the migratory story that is being told.

The unaccompanied female component of the migration system is again another way in which the two sides interlock very effectively. Ireland becomes the best recruiting ground to meet Australia’s insatiable demand for female migrants. Migrants after the famine tend to be ‘surplus offspring’. The American demographer Timothy Guinnane has demonstrated that in the evacuation of Ireland after the Famine emigration is particularly vital and that the disinherited younger sons – and younger daughters too – of the families were especially suggestible in the migratory thing, and I think Australia receives a large number of those, particularly through the operation of primogeniture as it operated in Ireland. Australia becomes a beneficiary of that.

One of the consequences of what I am arguing is that the famine – and demographers tend to reinforce this – becomes less vital in this story. The story of the famine mechanisms connecting the two countries both precedes and succeeds the great catastrophe itself and expresses itself to a large extent in the way in which Irish have a disproportionate differential appetite to re-establish themselves on the land. I think that is manifested in Australia as well as in other countries.

I am conscious of losing time and having to skip rather large sections. I wanted to deal with the landlords to a degree and particularly refer to the work of Margaret Ray’s work on Elliot [the British emigration official TF Elliot], which some of you may know, where she seems to find that the operations of the colonial land and emigration commissioners was a much more professional operation than we might have expected and managed to keep the persuasions of the landlords, if we can call it that, at bay and worked very effectively in an increasingly professional way.

In terms of the flow of capital and entrepreneurship in Australia from Ireland I think that is lower than one would expect in proportional terms. I am arguing in my paper here that, while capitalists and entrepreneurs from Ireland are under-represented in the ADB [Australian Dictionary of Biography] and in the books of pastoral pioneers, that is not necessarily an expression of disadvantage so much as the fact that Ireland was not generating large funds of capital and of entrepreneurship, simply because it was not being industrialised through that time. This is what one would expect. Out of Scotland and parts of England you have the reverse story. That is a further expression of that situation. Similarly I would suspect that the flow of professional people to Australia is a further reflection of the situation back at home.

At the top I am rather intrigued by one case that I really must tell you about, because I have just been reading about this story of the appointment of a Catholic Irishmen as Governor of the colony of South Australia in 1861, which is rather extraordinary in itself. Sir Dominick Daly did not obscure either his nationality or his faith. The reception of his appointment was as chilly as one can imagine in South Australia in 1861. In the euphemisms of the time he was ‘received not without prejudices and misgivings’ and ‘he came amongst us as a stranger, and alien in religious profession’. There was a flood of protesting correspondence about his appointment at that time. Unhappily he died seven years later in 1868 at which time the province was rapturous in the celebration of his life and his contribution to the state. The grief at his death was extraordinary: he had been universally revered as the ‘most popular governor, the kindliest and the most impartial.’ It was difficult for South Australians to work out whether it was a reflection of his virtues or of their extraordinary tolerance at the time. He is an example of the professional Irish getting a foothold in Australia, but proportionally rather lower than ordinary Irish who came by way of the mechanisms I have been talking about.

The governmental migration schemes which draw upon the remittance urges of the assist migrants from Ireland particularly and create this communal replanting of Irish folk in Australia is a way in which Irish savings in the colonies were being channelled into the system and indeed, I would suggest, provided a substantial financial economic contribution to the system, which we tend not to measure. That is, the way in which Irish savings within Australia subsidised further rounds of migration through the institutionalised migration is a very important mechanism at work.

Where the Irish were disadvantaged in Australia – I would not wish to diminish that disadvantage – seems to me to reflect in the first instance the fact that they are coming in with lower levels of literacy and lower levels of assets than their contemporaries from England and Scotland. They are not unlike other groups in other migrant societies such as Sicilians in New York or Indians and Philippinos in the Gulf States. People coming in at the bottom of the migrant intakes, bottom of society, and having to work up their way through society from a lower level have a longer ladder to climb up than other people. I suspect that Irish disadvantage in Australia were to dissimilar to those faced by people say from the Highlands of Scotland or from St Kilda or from Bedfordshire. People from Bedfordshire had the lowest level of literacy amongst all the immigrants from mainland Britain. Their efforts through the colonial society would have been rather similar to those that faced Irish migrants.

In England itself there were similar sorts of pressures outwards within English society to get rid of the lowest parts of society by way of emigration. There were schemes in the 1880s to educate children in London to prepare them for emigration. I have a quotation from Samuel Smith in 1885 about the corruption of urban life and how it must be relieved by emigration to the colonies in order to ‘de-odorise, so to speak, this foul humanity’. He is talking about English people in London and how they should be pushed out to the colonies and he was not alone.

The urban poverty question in Britain produces the same kind of outward pressure by authorities and by intellectuals in the late eighteenth century, particularly those dealing with agricultural labour and the endless internal migration of agricultural labour into London and the cities causing increasing social difficulties. It is a broad cross-British problem, and of course the Irish situation is a severe and larger aspect of that same sort of pressure outwards from rural communities into urban places.

I often look at this in terms of what I call a U-shaped curve to describe the typical trajectory of ordinary migrants as they experience their removal from home through the journey to arrival, re-establishment and then very slowly up the other side of the U-shaped curve. You can see this in the lives of many emigrants. Henry Parkes is a very good example of the downward movement before emigration and then very slowly up the other side.

You can see this in many cases that we look at: the severity of the fall and rise depends on the state and status of the immigrants on arrival. Clearly the people who arrived as authentic refugees from the famine – whether from the Isle of Skye or Skibbereen – were placed differently from the majority of migrants. You would expect the average Irish migrants assisted to Australia to have laboured under a number of disabilities for the reasons I have explained, particularly lower literacy, lack of capital, deeper rural backgrounds associated with a degree of prejudice of a cultural, social and religious variety. Literacy and poverty determined the place of all migrants in a hierarchy of esteem, and the Irish were not well placed. But their rise up the other side of the U-shaped curve is something which we discuss and argue about. The fact that there was less segregation of the Irish in late nineteenth-century Australia perhaps is a suggestion of a relatively unimpeded upward mobility to the centre of colonial society.

I am talking about this reciprocation between the two places, between a pre-industrial economy towards the colonial pastoral economy, the fact they are rural people coming into Australia from rural Ireland fit the needs very successfully. They had lower rates of remittances home and lower rates of return home, because living were so much higher in Australia than they were elsewhere.

Donald Akenson, I refer to again, wanted to use Australia as a ‘clean laboratory’ for testing the behavioral differences between Catholics and Protestants’. He wants to argue that the Irish were little different from other immigrants. There was evidently not much segregation of the Irish in Australia: more inclined to marry outwards and less likely to join Irish associations and organisations than in other Irish places around the world; indeed perhaps facing fewer barriers to self betterment. They were dominated by single people and this made them very desirable, flexible and portable members of the colonial labour force.

I have tried to connect these two countries at the far ends of the early and the reciprocation that is going on between them and to suggest have a particular complementarity with Australian needs and there are two-way benefits in both directions which are, of course, a very complicated story if I went into it in any detail.

As I said at the start, I am most interested in what propelled emigrants around the globe to the broad question of the general movement of people around the globe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The Irish were the most migratory of people in the nineteenth century and of course were heavily represented here in Australia. The experience of getting to Australia and the fate of the Irish, and the shaping and maintenance of their identity when they arrived here, naturally that experience monopolise our attention. But there are certain prior questions to which I always seem to revert. Most notably I mean the ultimate causes of emigration of which the Irish were such dominant, central exemplars. They are interesting as migrants beyond their Irishness.

What indeed were the fundamental forces which activated and channelled the extraordinary mass migrations, in this case, those of the Irish – and were there uniquely Irish causes in these Irish circumstances? In this big picture of migration, the one that I am seeking, I am always drawm back to the work of the great American historian Bernard Bailyn - he was here in the early 1990s actually – who conceptualised the problem about 20 years ago. He envisaged the intercontinental flows of migrants in the great Atlantic system at the end of the eighteenth century - the time when the entire mobility system was galvanised in three continents. In a sense it was the beginning of modern migration and its genesis is one of the greatest mysteries in humanity’s recent history. Bailyn talked of tectonic shifts, of entire societies bulging and adopting new shapes which produced these enormous extrusions of people across the globe. Much of this is couched in appropriately mystical metaphorical language, because we are not at all clear what was going on in those great shifts of people; in other words, the fundamental forces for migration. It seems to be founded in the last analysis on demographic movements in the deep rural foundations of western societies.

It is these deep foundations of Western societies and in that big picture it is where the Irish were founding members playing a very early and massively differential role from the late eighteenth century onwards. Australia was a distant but very small remote outlier of that much bigger system. I suspect that Irish emigration was part of the broad British Isles sector of the West European system – part of the shifting elements over the period after 1780. But there was an exceptional Irish component in these bigger shifts. It was to do with the very early, indeed precocious, Irish involvement and with the scale of its contribution to the oceanic flows of which Australia was a surprisingly large shareholder. The Irish were one of several overlapping diasporas issuing out of the North and South Atlantic, and the Australian element was an expression of that elemental force which produced this extrusion of those people.

So at the end I am brought back to the literal roots of all this mobility – Irish roots or otherwise. As I look for the essential origins of the great migrant movements of which the Irish were so prominent a part I find myself retreating into the deep past, into the actual homelands – to the towns, the villages, the parishes, the farms, and to the very soil of the emigrating people of Ireland, of the British Isles - of Clonoulty, the Isle of Man, Anglesey, County Cork and so on. I am delving for the transits out of the pre-industrial world which eventually merge into the inter-continental flows of emigrants. This includes, of course, those who arrived in Australia from all over Ireland. This is where the material generated from the parish level, at the ‘Who do you think you are?’ level, is vital: it is at the level at which people made probably the most important decision of their lives: namely, the decision to emigrate. This is the level from which evidence of the questions – why did it happen? What was going on, why and what? - were the essential transformations taking place at that time.

Gary Magee and Andrew Thompson urge us to ‘go beyond the rhetoric of settler identity to explore in detail’ the structural foundations of these great changes. They particularly look at the Irish case and the effective remittances and the way that kept the systems together and produced international kinship networks and the mechanisms of migrations.

The best exponents of these dense connections are historians such as our esteemed orchestrator Richard Reid, who asked the critical question: Who they were, where they came from and what happened to them?’. He indeed tracked them back to the exact spot, the actual plots of land. It seems to me that when we can trace many more of the individual migrants even deeper into their first origins, into the soil of Ireland and elsewhere, then I will be prepared to celebrate and rejoice in the exceptional history of Irish emigrants. I will be able to do that when we have got deep into the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, to those roots at that depth. I will be able to celebrate identity and its exceptionality in a perfectly objective and Ethiopian spirit. I will leave you with that thought. [applause]

PERRY McINTYRE: I was struck when you were speaking about the Irish as being exceptionally tall and well fed into the 1820s and 1830s with the comparisons with other peoples in the British Isles but also across Europe and wondering whether some of the things you are pointing out are not so much about good things happening in Ireland as exceptionally awful things happening elsewhere. And again movements out to colonies as not so much great, wonderful opportunities as other peoples not having those opportunities.

When I am thinking about people in France going through the awful disruptions of rolling revolutions in that period, there is not the opportunity for them to go out to Empire in the same way that it was possible for people in the new British Imperial world that is emerging at that time, if you see what I mean. In terms of height and physical welfare, if you look at the French, they have been through all these revolutions and the opportunity to be physically well developed is kind of not there. In Britain, you have rural populations moving into the awful conditions of the cities so they are being stunted, if you see what I mean - I think English people physically are quite stunted anyway over many centuries but particularly from that industrial period onwards. It’s not so much that the Irish are going ahead and having wonderful opportunities but I wonder if they are just being kind of ordinary for that period and everyone else is being held back.

ERIC RICHARDS: It is mystifying and paradoxical but it does seem to be the case from the evidence that the Irish are taller than the English and they are taller than most people in Europe. I suspect that is a consequence of the special diet which is said to be nutritionally very good but rather tedious and boring - potatoes and milk is an extraordinary diet apparently. But in England there is a debate about how far the standard of living was falling in the industrialising population, and it is often put down to the adverse consequences of industrialisation. So you have them going down and the Irish either maintaining or slightly improving, despite the sensational growth of population. It is very paradoxical, confusing and difficult to understand - and how that affects their propensity to emigrate, I am not sure.

The living standards in England are actually higher in terms of wages than in Ireland through this time, so another paradox. One suspects that it would be in logistical terms easier to get out of England than it would be to get out of Ireland. But the opportunities for employment are perhaps more available in England than in Ireland, and then the Famine itself then alters the situation very radically in the most appalling way. But after the Famine you have Irish emigration increasing at a time when living standards apparently are rising. So an anti-Malthusian situation emerges after the famine. How all of this affects the propensity to emigrate is very interesting and very testing in terms of providing a clear explanation. It’s terribly interesting and very important to work out what is going on to produce this galvanising of huge populations across the oceans in the way that we are talking about. It’s a very interesting question.

QUESTION: SDuring the nineteenth century with the various famines and the big Famine, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow were up to 50 per cent Irish. How would you dissect the ones that came out from Britain that were ethnically Irish to Australia and the ones that came out from Ireland itself? Coming later, Churchill said when they were agitating for the return of the ports, ‘We will give them the ports if they give us back Liverpool.’ I just wondered how you would dissect them because there were huge populations in Irish populations in British cities, even in London, in the nineteenth century.

ERIC RICHARDS: Yes. Obviously an awful lot of Irish emigration is two- or three-step migration within Ireland and then maybe to Liverpool and then maybe within England or Scotland and then on the boats to Australia or America. It’s difficult sorting them out, except where you have very good records. I think some of the Australian records do show places of birth rather than places of last residence, so you can sort them out to that degree. But it is technically a very difficult problem working out who is actually Irish and who is English, when an awful lot of them leave from Liverpool and are not registered at all.

In one way they are registered in the Australian records and that is much better than in most others. Australia has some of the best emigrant registers for the assisted migrants. The unassisted are practically invisible for large parts of the nineteenth century - very difficult to work out like trying to herd cats in terms of sorting it out. Of course, it’s not exclusive to the nineteenth century. It is still extremely difficult to work out emigrant numbers, emigrant origins and emigrant destinations, and who are permanent, who are temporary and so on.

In the nineteenth century in some ways it’s easier with our excellent Australian records, but in other ways it is more difficult in terms of the stage migrations that take place. We treat with great skepticism all emigrant data, particularly statistical data, except some of the excellent data relating to assisted migrants, especially in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

QUESTION: Eric, thank you for that placing of the Irish migration in the context of other migration from parts of the United Kingdom and in Europe. I want to take you up on the matching of what comes out with what is needed here. Obviously labour, and Irish agricultural labour will fit the Australian agricultural labour needs. But once you come to the situation of the Land Acts and the idea of going onto a small farm, I am wondering would you give us a reflection from your research - I will jump away. Geoffrey Searle says ‘It’s the cruellest dream of the nineteenth century in Australia that people could have a small farm.’ There comes a point when the desires of the people coming doesn’t match the Australian economic situation in that regard. Is that making sense? Is there anything in the records that you are looking at of the policy makers that explains what happens there after the Land Acts? The micro studies are all showing that, all these family histories are showing that - I don’t know whether it is eight out of ten – but a lot of the selectors fail, don’t they?

ERIC RICHARDS: I think that what one finds amongst migrants - not just Irish migrants but amongst Cornish migrants I have been looking at recently and some Scottish migrants is that very often they are still in the grip of a rural myth or rural dream to reinstate themselves or to gather for the first time a plot of land. This remains a strong intuitive sense right through the nineteenth century. You certainly see it in America; you see it in Australia; and you see it in another places. It has political consequences when their yearning for acquisition of land is blocked by the ‘land monopolies’, as they are called at the time. That has enormous political repercussions in New Zealand, Australia, America, Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere.

When some breakthrough is made with that and these small holders gain land under that dream, often it is not very viable in economic terms, as we would say these days, and it leads to a poor consequence for the fulfilment of those dreams. The small plots of land or small acquisitions that they obtain eventually prove to be too small. I have been looking at the York Peninsula in South Australia recently with the great movement of small holders onto the land in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s is a great rush of people, including a lot of Irish, and a lot of ex-miners go into the land. But most of them don’t survive more than a generation or two and eventually they are amalgamated back into large holdings. It’s the end of that dream. It is a dream and maybe it’s a bit of a nightmare, too, for a lot of them over a generation or so.

QUESTION: Richard Herriman here. Just a bit of a comment: from reading Annie’s PhD stuff about nineteenth-century migration to the Mt Barker district it struck me that you have the idea that you are going to get richer because you can maybe get a plot of land and farm it. But the other thing that became really apparent is the increasing industrialization, processing of materials and increasing opportunities of people over that century that made it so that, even if a certain number of small farmers failed, there was going to be plenty of opportunity in other areas. I was just thinking if all this farming business was such a drag, the information would have got back to Ireland or wherever and they wouldn’t have come. In other words, there must have been some good things going on apart from farming.

ERIC RICHARDS: The growth of the cities in Australia is very peculiar because Australia becomes a very urbanised place before it becomes industrialised effectively. It doesn’t really industrialise until the 1940s, but the big cities are already disproportionately large back in the late nineteenth century, which presumably are operating in a sort of entrepreneurial role but nevertheless drawing labour into them for the servicing sector of those cities.

RICHARD REID: Thank you, Eric, for that. I knew we would get the stratospheric overview and I want to thank you for that. I want to make a comment and then draw attention to something you said at the end. In terms of New South Wales anyway - I am not going to speak about the other colonies but I don’t know the systems so well - it’s not two-stage migration in relation to the Irish from 1848 to 1870 in assisted migration, it’s coming from Ireland. The commissioners are quite clear about that. They don’t want to recruit Irish in England and they don’t do it by and large. The same with the remittance stuff; it is all back to Ireland. If you examine the remittance regulations and all the figures are there for that, all the individual ones, their addresses are back in Ireland, not in England, when they sponsor them. They sponsor them to an address where they are living in the British Isles. You think that’s two-stage?

ERIC RICHARDS: If I can intersperse, I am saying the remittance is back for assisted passages not to subsidise home life in Ireland.

RICHARD REID: This is to bring them out here, but they are not two-stage immigrants, they are actually living Ireland.

ERIC RICHARDS: That is what makes it different from American immigrants.

RICHARD REID: Absolutely but I am saying they are not living in England, they are living in Ireland - that is the important point. They are not two stagers in relation to assisted immigrants. People who are not assisted may well be that, but the assisted ones from coming from Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s who are remitted are not living in England at the time. You see my point?

ERIC RICHARDS: What about those in Liverpool?

RICHARD REID: Well, they don’t get nominated to Liverpool; they get nominated to the parishes in Ireland. Their referees are the parish priests. They are not living anywhere else except in Ireland. The commissioners won’t allow them to be living somewhere else if they are Irish. It’s in the regulations. I can show you that stuff. Never mind, we will leave that one for the minute. It’s complicated.

The other thing you said at the end is this business of going back to the parish level and disaggregating it all the way down, as I have tried to do with Clenalty. What becomes the big question is not so much this thing at either end of the globe, it’s why does somebody decide to come in 1855, 1858 or 1861? You can see the pattern as it emerges and that seemed to me to be always the question I am asking. They have survived there until then 18… what triggers it at that moment? What triggers it in 1861? That is the complexity of the issue when you are looking at it from leaving Ireland. I didn’t provide an answer to that because I didn’t have the information. All I could see is exactly when they are coming and from what part, so you can make certain assumptions about that but you never get to the real guts of it from an individual level.

ERIC RICHARDS: My very swift response to that is that I think those decisions in 1855, 1859 or whatever are part of a much bigger story. It’s relating the micro decisions with the global situation that is occurring in terms of mass migration out of western Europe. It’s connecting those two things which may provide an answer to both questions.

PERRY McINTYRE: A quick question or comment from Anne Herriman.

QUESTION: Just to bring in that South Australian perspective, which I think is quite different, the evidence there is that it’s local demand. The 6000 girls who came to South Australia in 1855 and 1856 were in response to demand due to the lack of labour and the internal migration of people to the goldfields, for example. That lack of labour changed a local perception of whether they wanted immigrants from Ireland, so you get that local thing happening at that point.

ERIC RICHARDS: That must enhance the differential between Ireland and Australia, the want in Australia and the urgency out of Ireland magnifies the incentive.

PERRY McINTYRE: It’s unfortunately my duty to draw this session to a close. However, it’s only towards the end of the first day so I encourage you all to continue these kinds of discussions and debate. Thank you so much, Eric, for stimulating us and for coming from the non-Irish colony of South Australia to talk to us about the Irish, because obviously that is another factor we have to think about - there is no blanket statement like there were no Irish that went to South Australia, et cetera. Thanks very much, Eric. [applause].

Date published: 31 October 2011