The Tasmanian Irish

St Patrick’s Day.  It is a day which is not only enthusiastically celebrated world-wide, but in Tasmania as well.

From the beginning Irish immigrants and people of Irish descent played an important part in the settlement of Tasmania and the development of attitudes and institutions. Since the days of convicts there have been many Irish societies and organisations. Probably the first Irishman of some note to settle here would be Dr Jacob Mountgarret who came with John Bowen in 1803.

We tend to think that the majority of convicts who came to Tasmania were Irish, but this is not so. About 25 per cent of all convicts were, with the rest, 70 per cent being English, and a spattering of other nationalities and races. Most of the Irish convicts were sentenced because of criminal acts, but many also were victims of a defective land system, which meant the peasant became increasingly dependent on the landlords. Many were transported on what was called “White Boy” offences, ranging from disturbances and taking illegal oaths to stealing cattle, sheep and horses, particularly in times of hardship, such as during the potato crop failure. The worse offenders were transported to Van Diemen’s Land then to Macquarie Harbour.  Peak times were during the 1830s.

There were also political prisoners such as the seven Irish exiles to Van Diemen’s Land, John Mitchel, Thomas Francis Meagher, John Martin, William Smith O’Brien, Kevin O’Doherty, Terence MacManus and Patrick O’Donohoe, They were sent to their penal home in 1849 and 1850.  Three of the seven exiles were Protestant. 

Another political prisoner of note was surveyor James Meehan who played an important part in the establishment of Hobart under our first Governor, David Collins.

The Irish influence was strong during the most peculiar social upheaval in 1879 that Tasmania has ever seen. Whipped up by a visiting preacher, Charles Chiniquy, he held meetings at the Town Hall and lambasted those of the Catholic faith.  The disturbance was so great, that it was the only time the army has been called out in Tasmania to restore peace.

As with many thousands of Tasmanians, from a very difficult beginning they carved a life for themselves, foundations of which seceding generations have enjoyed. The Irish blended in well. True, they kept their pride in being Irish, but over all there was little confrontation in Tasmania.  Most worked hard, many made good for themselves.  Hard, working, law-biding, moral, strong family people.

The Irish Legacy in Tasmania lives on. The Irish largely settled towns such a Richmond and Westbury and a number of Tasmanian towns have Irish names such as Avoca, Blessington, Irishtown, the Shannon River and Liffy Falls.  Castle Forbes Bay in the Huon was established by the landing of Irish female convicts in 1836 from the vessel of the same name.

Up until when Eric Reece (a Methodist) became Premier, all Labor Premiers were of Irish extraction and Catholic. One such was Dwyer-Gray a most colourful and interesting Premier.  He was a staunch Tasmanian who actively worked for secession, believing Federation had not been kind to the island he loved and served. True like many Irishmen he loved the bottle, which proved to be a bit of a problem. We must not forget that our only international film star, Errol Flynn was of Irish stock. Errol was more prone to claim Irish ancestry than his Tasmanian origins.

Militarily of course, their contribution to our war effort was strong.  Perhaps during the Boer War, they sympathised with the hardy Boer, but during World War I their contribution is without question and they suffered the price as well as everyone else.  Indeed the Irish participation in the war on the side of the British was enormous and that is why the Irish uprising in 1916 was a failure. During World War II of course they had so harmonised with the rest of the population they were no longer, by a large degree, distinctive to the rest of the population.

C.M Dennis, the great Australian poet, up there with Lawson and Paterson, was of Irish extraction as was Rolf Bolderwood who wrote the Australian classic, Robbery Under Arms, two among many.

Our affection for Ireland is strong, not forgetting that the influence that it has had in shaping our State which cannot be underestimated.  Irish humour is world renown. The Irish have the wonderful ability to be able to laugh at themselves. Irish humour has not only delighted us all, but has influenced how we view matters.