The Prime Minister has paid tribute to the “empire of song and story” built by the Irish in Australia.
In what was the first appearance by a serving Australian Prime Minister at the Lansdowne Club’s St Patrick’s Day lunch – an annual gathering of over a thousand Irish Australians – Ms Gillard acknowledged Ireland had been “doing it tough” recently.
She told a crowd who had gathered to mark St Patrick’s Day, and the 25th anniversary of Australia’s largest Irish network, that Australia was looking forward to Fine Gael and Labour offering the country a fresh start.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, NSW Premier Kristina Keneally, NSW Liberal Leader Barry O’Farrell and Ireland’s Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, also addressed the gathering.
Ms Gillard said that the real legacy of the Irish in Australia was characterised by education, hard work and respect.
“The Irish landed just a few miles east of here. They landed in chains. Yes, they brought a song and a smile and a tear, and “drinking, praying, fecklessness” – all that malarkey,” said the Prime Minister.
“But we know you a bit better than that. We know what really happened. Our Irish worked. And they taught their kids. And I don’t see too many chains in the room today.”
The Prime Minister also paid tribute to an “empire of song and story” and to the contribution the Irish had made to education in Australia.
“People have made the point before me – these kinds of Irish people and these kinds of Irish values were how Irish emigration created a kind of Irish empire.
“Not like the empire that the Romans or the British built, but an empire nevertheless – an empire of song and story; an empire of education.
“The Roman Empire’s strongholds were its legions. The British Empire’s strongholds were its ships. The Irish Empire’s strongholds are its schools, the thousands of them in Australia today; St Mary’s, St Joseph’s, St Edmund’s, St Pat’ – the strongholds of the Irish empire.”
In a speech that focused strongly on Irish Catholicism, Mr Abbott joked about the Coalition’s opposition to Labor’s planned price on carbon.
“I’m afraid my own ecclesiastical namesake, St Anthony Abbot, was a rich merchant who gave away all his worldly possessions to live on a desert mountain top, clad in skins and living on locusts and wild honey,” said Mr Abbott.
“According to St Athanasius, the devil fought with St Anthony by afflicting him with boredom, laziness and fantasies of women, and I thought to myself, this is what happens when you try to live with the lowest possible carbon footprint.”
The Lansdowne Club presented its chairman, Peter Brennan, with a specially made trophy to mark his 25-year involvement.
With a New South Wales State election just days away, the lunch hosted some verbal jousting between Ms Keneally and Mr O’Farrell
The NSW State Opposition Leader said politicians have always had an affinity with St Patrick’s Day.
“There’s a reason why St Pat’s Day and politicians go hand in hand.
“St Patrick had the first example of spin ever seen in the world. If you believe he drove the snakes from Ireland you would believe Labor’s election promises,” said Mr O’Farrell.
Mr O’Farrell’s Liberal Party is well ahead of Labor in polling for the New South Wales election, to take place on March 26.
Premier Kenneally, his opponent, told the crowd that “with a Keneally going up against an O’Farrell in this election, the only certain winner in New South Wales on March 26 will be the Irish.”
By Luke O’Neill