The forgotten shared history between Ireland and Australia

Eoin Hahessy

What does it mean to be Irish? Is it the sounds, smells and tastes, wrapped up in that dull gnawing ache of home? Is it our character, quick on humour, short on inflated pride? We each have our own slice of what it means to be Irish, but for me it is our history.

We are a minuscule nation, we know this, yet the impact of our diaspora has echoed across this world. Yet we forget the history we were spoon-fed at school; it resides in the deeply unsexy corner of our collective. That history is magical, the story of a diaspora that shaped the social and political life of many of the places we emigrated too.

A Laois man was at the forefront of Australia’s one and only defining revolution for democracy. The Irish judge who sentenced the bushranger Ned Kelly to hang also established two cultural and educational pillars of Australian society: the University of Melbourne and the State Library of Victoria. More than 6,000 Irish-born men and women served in Australia’s armed forces during the first World War. A quick-witted Archbishop from Cork led the campaign to defeat conscription being imposed in Australia, not once, but twice during that same war.

History allows you to understand what it means to be Irish, and it is not confined to the borders of our nation

The centenary of the 1916 rising offered an opportunity to tell a chapter in our diaspora history. Ireland may have overdosed on the centenary of the rising, but for me and my partner, Sarah, living so far away, this has been an exciting year to be Irish. The volume has been turned up on what it exactly means to be Irish.

Sarah and I wanted to awaken interest, to inspire different conversations and provide a moment to reflect on a fascinating but forgotten period of shared history between Ireland and Australia. So in a challenge that will test any relationship, we set up a production company and made a documentary.

We discovered the Easter Rising had had a surprising impact in Australia. The executions of the leaders of the rising influenced that Cork-born, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, to take a public stance on an Australian question. At the time, a bitter sectarian divide opened in Australian society, as an Irish-Australian Catholic force, which would shape the political and social trajectory of this nation, was forged in the embers of Ireland’s 1916 rising.

After five years here, the taste of Tayto has dissipated. But if the longing for home has waned, we have realised that a deeper sense of Irish identity can be gained by exploring the footprints of our previous generations.

Twenty years after Melbourne was founded on the banks of the Yarra river, one-third of Australia’s population was Irish-born. Melbourne was one of the great centres of Irish emigration. A land synonymous with chains had become a land of opportunity. Though culture, sport, politics and music, the Irish mark is deep on the Australian soul. Yet our shared history has been forgotten on both sides.

Every day I walk to work at the University of Melbourne from the suburb of North Melbourne, the original home of Irish who settled in the slums that once dotted this area. Above the awnings and the screaming noise of advertisements are Irish surnames chiselled with pride into the concrete. A bakery, merchants, butchers.

I think about the families and their journeys; I wonder if they ever returned, or where they went. I take pride in their achievements.

Our history is not locked behind our borders, it is meant to be shared, to give us a deeper appreciation of who we are.

This article originally appeared in The Irish Times Abroad on Tuesday 22 November 2016. 

Header image: Map of “The Kingdome of Ireland”, showing the Scottish coast and Wales and with two putti holding a lyre on the upper left hand corner of the map, engraving, 1750 Published: ca. 1750. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images.