St Patrick’s Day is an event that is widely celebrated and promoted. The wearing of the green and of the shamrock is fashionable throughout the world. Festivities take place to recall and declare all things Irish. With the celebration of St Patrick’s Day, one wonders and ponders on the contribution that the Irish have made to Tasmania.
We tend to think that the majority of convicts who came to Tasmania were Irish; but this is not true. About 25 per cent of all convicts were Irish, therefore leaving more than 70 per cent being English, with a spattering of other nationalities and races making up the rest. Interestingly enough out of all types of convicts, the Scots were the best educated, the English had a literacy rate to some degree of 50 per cent, the Irish the lowest. 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 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 and here I must mention 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. Several successfully escaped while, one was caught in the act and the others were pardoned by Queen Victoria. Three of the seven exiles were Protestant.
So what has their contribution to Tasmania been? In one word: enormous! As with many thousands of Tasmanians, from a very difficult beginning they carved a life for themselves, foundations of which seceding generations have built on. The Irish blended in well. Sure, they kept their religion and 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. Was it a struggle? Of course.
Our Irish Legacy in Tasmania lives on. The Irish largely settled towns such a Richmond and Westbury and many Tasmanians have Irish names, both Christian and Surnames. Out of their religion come magnificent cathedrals such as St Mary’s and St Joseph’s. All Labour Premiers of Tasmania until Eric Reece were of Irish and Catholic stock. One of the most colourful and interesting Premiers, was Dwyer-Gray who was of this ilk. 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 was a bit of a problem. We must not forget that our international film star, Errol Flynn was of Irish stock. Errol was more prone to claim Irish ancestry than his Tasmanian origins, perhaps something we Tasmanians may wish to forget.
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.
Our affection for Ireland should be strong, not forgetting that the influence that it has had in shaping our State which cannot be underestimated. Irish humour is world renown. They have the wonderful ability to be able to laugh at themselves, something which (and they may not like to admit it) they have in common with the English. We all have our “Irish” joke. Maybe politically incorrect, but the beauty is, the Irish join in.