Across the world on 17 March, Irish expatriates and those who share Irish ancestry celebrate St Patrick’s Day. But what is the story of the Irish in Queensland?
Queensland has been holding celebrations in honour of St Patrick annually since the 1880s. It seems a non-sequitur to see residents of contemporary Queensland rejoicing a 4th century Romano-British missionary credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. However, there is good reason for this enduring acknowledgement of the Patron Saint of Ireland.
In the earliest days of the penal settlement of Moreton Bay more than half of the convicts sentenced were Irish (Evans 2007, p29), while many of the military command and rank and file also had Irish connections or were of Irish descent. Irish migration continued with the advent of free settlement in the colony of Queensland, although immigration quotas were set to locally replicate the proportions of Irish in the UK (Evans 2007, p88). Many prominent 19th century Queenslanders, including senior Public Servant, Peter McDermott, and founding partner of the retail store McDonnell and East, Frank McDonnell, were of Irish descent. By the 1890s, Irish migrants made up approximately a quarter of the population of Queensland – setting the scene for an active and vocal community.
Irish identity was actively promoted in the latter part of the 19th century through Irish organisations such as the Queensland Hibernian Society, the Queensland Irish Volunteers, and the Queensland Irish Association. Both sectarian and secular community expression was present with Protestant and Catholic Irish alike settling in the colony (Sullivan 2014). And while there were many high profile Irish community leaders, business men and politicians, the bulk of Irish immigrants were working class. Sectarianism and labour unionism were key elements of political dialogue in Queensland, together with an ongoing, and at times vitriolic debate, in wider colonial society regarding Irish (particularly Catholic) immigration.
The issue of Irish ‘home rule’ was a dominant political question of British and Irish politics in the late 19th and early 20th century. The home rule movement spread through immigrant Irish communities across the world from 1880s, particularly after the first Home Rule bill was defeated in the House of Commons Irish Government in 1886. This continued interest in Irish independence was no different for Irish living in Queensland. In north Queensland, Irish immigrant and Townsville banker William Lennon campaigned for Irish self-government and aligned himself with the Home Rule Movement. Lennon arrived in Australia in 1851 and later in 1886 became the Manager of Burns Philp and Company Limited, and founding Director of the Bank of North Queensland in 1888. At this time, the Irish population in Townsville was estimated to be as high as one third, and there was much support for the Irish Parliamentary Party in the British House of Commons. When Irish Home Rule delegate, John Dillon visited and addressed 800 people, it was the largest crowd that had ever assembled in Townsville.
While largely non-sectarian, the Irish associations in 19th century Queensland were part of this political debate. However, they were also key organisations in the promotion of an Irish identity and community – the attendance at Irish clubs allowed expression and affirmation of identity, while St Patrick’s Day parades, together with dance, music and poetry all acted as conduit for cultural continuity in a new place.
This continued into the 20th century, through the continued arrival of Irish migrants, as well as the growth of Australian-born descendants. In this diasporic community, the romantic representations of a homeland far away, experienced through events such as St Patrick’s Day celebrations, and community associations like the Queensland Irish Association, allowed and continue to provide opportunities for the Irish community to celebrate their identity. Similarly, personal effects such as a pipe calling out “Ireland Forever”, or shamrock-adorned mementoes and statues of an “Irish Girl” that are emblematic of connections though representations of Irish-ness, become expressions of identity.
A tradition shared by Irish migrants, descendants and for many in the general community St Patricks’ Day continues to be a day to celebrate Irish identity – and often involving a beer or two at a local Irish-themed pub. So today, as we mark another St Patrick’s Day in Queensland, it is interesting to reflect on how these seemingly perplexing traditions arise through the histories and stories of Queenslanders and how they continue to resonate in our community today.
Further Reading: Ray Evans (2007) A History of Queensland, Cambridge University Press; Rodney Sullivan (2014) The Queensland Irish Association: Origins and Consolidation, 1898-1908. Queensland History Journal 22(5):401-415.
To explore more fascinating elements of our past search for Queensland’s stories on Queensland Museum’s Blog.