It is a genuine reflection of the Irish influence in Australia that in a country home to more than 200 different nationalities, there is so much joyful and widespread celebration of Ireland’s national day.
People partake in a pint of Guinness and great ‘craic’ in every corner of this nation on St Patrick’s Day. But it would be short-sighted and naïve to assume it is simply due to Australians loving a drink and a good time.
Our connection to the Emerald Isle runs much deeper.
As Irish Echo readers would know, I have my own personal links to Ireland, with my two great-great-great-grandfathers – born in Dublin and Dunisky, Cork respectively – arriving in Australia in the 1840s.
Australia’s first links with Ireland go a little further back to the earliest days of white settlement, to 1791, when 155 Irish convicts from County Cork landed on our shores. Over the ensuing 80 years of convict transportation, around 50,000 of their compatriots unwillingly (we can assume) followed in their footsteps.
Disappointingly for those amateur genealogists out there hoping to find a that special ancestor with a colourful history in their distant past, Irish free settlers during this period outnumbered convicts by about seven to one.
Over the course of the next 140 years, Australia’s Irish population has ebbed and flowed – falling from over 220,000 in the 1880s to less than 40,000 at the time of the 1966 Census. The latest estimates from the Australian Bureau of Statistics put our Irish-born population at just over 72,000.
During this period, Ireland has provided us with more than its fair share of prominent Australian figures. In the political sphere, four Prime Ministers in the first half of the twentieth century – James Scullin, Joseph Lyons, John Curtin and Ben Chifley – were born to Irish parents. Other former Prime Ministers able to lay claim to Irish ancestry are William McMahon, Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd.
Currently, migration from the Emerald Isle is undergoing a resurgence. We are the third most popular destination for Irish emigrants after the UK and US, and Ireland has recently joined the ranks of our top 10 migrant source countries – a position it last achieved a quarter of a century ago.
Anyone who has frequented Australia’s pubs and backpacker hostels could also tell you that the number of Irish Working Holiday Makers is on the rise. Last year, we granted visas to almost 22,000 of them – that’s almost 50 per cent more than the previous year.
Economic troubles back home have also seen growing numbers of these young people looking at the Working Holiday experience as a positive opportunity to sample work and life in Australia.
One more statistic, if I may. While just over 70,000 of us were born in Ireland, 1.8 million claimed Irish ancestry at the time of the last Census.
When you think about it, this is quite remarkable. Virtually everyone in Australia has a migrant background, meaning that identifying ancestry is a tricky proposition. The fact that almost two million people were able to acknowledge their Irish heritage – even though most weren’t born there – is a strong testament to its resilience.
Which is a significant reason, it is fair to assume, as to why so many people recognise the joys of Saint Patrick’s Day and join the sea of green every year.
At the end of the day it all comes down to Irish pride. People are proud to be Irish, proud to know the Irish and, let’s not forget, proud to claim some form of Irishness, especially on St Pat’s Day.