'As Game as Ned Kelly': The Rise and Fall — and Rise — of the Irish in Australia

By Joseph Gannon

Perhaps the most famous — or infamous — Irishman ever to trod south of the equator was the outlaw Ned Kelly, whose legend gave birth to "Ned Kelly," the major-motion picture which was released in the United States in 2002. The Australian-born Kelly's father was from Tipperary and his mother from Antrim. In 1877, a powerful landowner accused Ned of stealing stock, which led to the arrest of Ned's mother, Ellen. The rest, as they say, became the stuff of legend.

(Left: Ned Kelly the day before his execution - Victoria Police Museum)

To best understand the film, one must understand the world the Kellys and other Irish faced in Australia, a world literally half a world away from the land they once called home. For tens of thousands of Irish the British deemed felons, Australia became a place of harsh and enforced exile, and a land to nurture generations-old grievances against class privilege and harsh British rule.

In the mid-1780s, the British Empire had just lost one of their prized possessions: the 13 colonies of the North American continent. Though many realize that this was an economic loss for the Empire, fewer realize that the Empire lost another valuable asset with that defeat.

"They have begun to concert schemes. I fear they will be a troublesome lot."

The American colonies had been the Empire's favorite dumping ground for "undesirables." The place they chose as the new destination for their felons was a 15,000-mile trip by boat: the southwest shore of New South Wales in Australia. From 1787 to 1868, about 160,000 convicts would be transported to Australia. Of that total around 30,000 were Irishmen and 9,000 Irishwomen, almost exactly one quarter of the total. Today, 33 to 40 percent of Australian's claim Irish roots, certainly one of the highest percentage anywhere. This is more than double the percentage of Americans who claim Irish ancestry.

Australia literally began its colonial life as a jail whose walls were the endless Pacific Ocean that surrounds it. It was thousands of miles from anything remotely resembling the world the British and Irish prisoners had left behind. Though some had committed serious crimes, many were sentenced to 7-to-10 years of "transportation to Van Dieman's Land" for crimes as petty as theft of vegetables, a coat, or a handkerchief. "Van Dieman's Land" was an island off the southeast coast of Australia, named for the Dutchman who had organized the first exploration of the area in the 1640s. Contrary to legend, not all the Irish came there on convict ships; many arrived as voluntary immigrants as well.

The first convict ship to carry Irishmen to Australia was the Queen. It arrived in Australia on September 26, 1791. While some Irish continued to arrive throughout the decade, the end of that decade and the beginning of the 1800s saw a large increase, as the survivors of the 1798 Rising began to pour off the ships.

(National Library of Australia - Hobart Town on the Derwnt River, Van Dieman's Land. Probably from a surveyor's sketch, circa 1804.)

The most famous were Joseph Holt and Michael Dwyer. For the authorities in Australia, these United Irish rebels constituted a special threat; they were treated more harshly than the typical felon who had gone before. In fact, being thousands of miles from Ireland had not tempered their dislike for British rule.

"They have begun to concert schemes. I fear they will be a troublesome lot. I cannot say I like the place near so well as I did before," said Elizabeth Paterson, wife of the lieutenant-governor. And the Reverend Samuel Marsden, head of the Anglican Church in New South Wales, indicated what sort of treatment the Irish could expect from the British establishment there when he called them "the most wild, ignorant and savage race that were ever favored with the light of civilization." Eventually, this harsh treatment led a small number of the United Irishmen to rise up against the colonial authorities on March 4, 1804. It was quickly suppressed.

All through the first half of the 19th century, the British continued to deport the Irish to Australia. Many of these were involved in land agitation: Whiteboys, Ribbon Men, and others.

(Right: National Library of Australia, Canberra - 
The Rising at Castle Hill, 1804.)

Then in the late 1840s, along with a large wave of desperate refugees of The Great Hunger, a more well-known brand of convict began arriving. These were the men of the Young Ireland Party transported for their brief rising in 1848. John Mitchell, William Smith O'Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher, Terrence McManus and others, the list is a veritable Who's Who of Irish revolutionaries of the mid-19th century. Of those four, only O'Brien would serve out his time; the other three escaped to the United States.

Among the last transported "criminals" to arrive in Australia were the Fenians. The most famous of those was John Boyle O'Reilly. O'Reilly would escape by boat to America barely over a year after arriving. Once there, he would rise to prominence in Boston and, with John Devoy, would help organize the daring Catalpa sea rescue of six other Fenians from Australia, arguably the high point of the Fenians' history.

It should be remembered, however, that all during the years that Irish convicts were deported to Australia, and after that policy ended as well, many thousands of Irish were emigrating there voluntarily. Of course, like all Irish emigration during the years of British occupation, one could debate whether it was entirely voluntary.

Although the Irish in Australia were less supportive of Irish revolutionary movements than their American cousins, they were not passive in new homes far from the old country. Within Australia, their resistance to the authorities was notable. When 150 miners violently resisted the imposition of a large license fee in 1854, perhaps as many as half of them were Irish, and it was Irish-born Peter Lalor, whose father was a member of the British Parliament and brother was Irish nationalist writer James Fintan, who led them. Though they lost their fight at Eureka — and Lalor lost an arm — public support for their grievances was so strong that they were all acquitted, the license fees were abolished and Lalor was later elected to the Australian Parliament.

(New York Public Library: John Boyle O'Reilly's mug shot.)

To many of the Irish in Australia, then and now, Ned Kelly's escapades were a continuation of the class struggle in Ireland. For others, it was merely the story of an infamous thief. In 1880, after many months of evading capture, Kelly and his gang were trapped at Glenrowan. Kelly's gang was killed, but he survived, thanks to his homemade suit of armor. He was condemned to death by a judge born in County Cork and was hung at the Old Melbourne Jail on November 11, 1880. He is still remembered today when Australians call a tenacious person "as game as Ned Kelly."

Through much of the 20th century, Irish Australians tended to down play their ethnic roots. The stigma of "criminal" ancestry may have been part of it — in spite of the fact that many thousands of Irish had not come as criminals — but actual discrimination against Irish Catholics probably played a part, as well. In the 1950s, a Catholic archbishop had to organize a threat to remove Catholic money from some banks in Tasmania to force them to end hiring discrimination against Irish Catholics. And as late as 1980, a public campaign was organized against the pervasiveness of "Irish jokes."

The last few decades, which has seen interest in Ireland and the Irish blossom all over the world, has also seen Irish-Australians putting much of their former reticence about their ancestry behind them. Today, the Irish in Australia have begun to embrace their ethnic roots to such a degree that one government official called Australia "the most Irish country outside of Ireland."


Ned Kelly: the movie
Ned Kelly's World
Ned Kelly: Australian Iron Outlaw
National Archives of Ireland Transportation Records Database: Find records for family members or look up famous deportees.

Selected Bibliography:

Views: 1964

Tags: , Ned, , Australia, Diaspora History, Edward, Irish Freedom Struggle, Kelly, Kelly", Ned

Comment by Margaret Whittock on November 12, 2013 at 4:12am

Fascinating and very interesting article. Thank you. 

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on November 13, 2013 at 6:16am

Good stuff, Joe!

Comment by Kieron Punch on November 18, 2013 at 5:16am

Joe, my GGGG-Grandfather, John Murphy, was one of the 30,000 Irishmen transported to Australia/Van Diemen's Land. He was not transported for any romantic involvement in the 1798, Robert Emmet, or Young Irelander rebellions, but rather for passing a forged bank draft. Only a few years before his conviction forgery had been a capital offence, so it could be argued that he was fortunate to receive the sentence he did rather than being executed.

The link below shows a report of his arresthttp://tinyurl.com/lhczkmm (near the top left of pg 845)

This link shows his conviction and sentence

http://tinyurl.com/kj3rbe6 (half way up the right side of pg 1061)

This link shows his record from the Irish National Archives transportation databasehttp://tinyurl.com/luh8h6y

Comment by Gerry Regan on November 18, 2013 at 10:21am

Kieron, do you remain in touch with the Australian branch of your family? 

I watched "Gallipoli" last night for the first time in 30+ years and enjoyed the reference by protagonist Frank Dunne's father to his son's intention to enlist in the Australian army heading to Gallipoli. He stated angrily something to the effect, "Did you forget your grandfather was executed by the English, only a few miles from Dublin!" Any idea what Mr. Dunne was referring to? Was it the '98 or more likely the Fenian Rising, which means that the writers took some historical license?

Comment by David Healy on November 11, 2015 at 3:35pm

A few comments:

1) While Anthony Van Diemen, then the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, organised the voyage of Abel Tasman, he (Van Diemen) didn't sail on the voyage. While Van Diemen's Land was named after him, it was subsequently renamed "Tasmania", after Abel Tasman.

2) The Pacific Ocean doesn't "surround" Australia; it's only on the East Coast. We have the Southern Ocean to the South, the Indian Ocean to the West, and the Timor Sea to the North.

3) Samuel Marsden was known as "The Flogging Parson" for his treatment of convicts, particularly the Irish.

4) There is a magnificent memorial to Michael Dwyer ("The Wicklow Chieftain") in Waverley Cemetery, Sydney, maintained by the Irish National Association of Australia.

David Healy

(5/8ths Irish, and proud of it; Ancestors from Kerry and Clare)

Comment by Gerry Regan on November 14, 2015 at 9:52am

Thanks for these insights, David. Hope you share more of your unique perspective and Irish story with our fellow members. Get

Founding Member
Comment by Nollaig 2016 on November 11, 2016 at 12:51pm

He was hung at the Old Melbourne Jail on November 11, 1880

Comment by Rosemary Hayes on July 23, 2021 at 11:41pm

I beg to differ on the fact they were not indifferent to Ireland.My ancestors came here in the 1880s and were fiercely loyal .We grew up in the faith and certainly cultural undertakings. Fiercely Anti British my mother used to say,'we were my Irish than the Irish ' We were discriminated for jobs.No Irish need apply.even in the 1950s there were firms that would not allow Catholics a job.And,worse if you were Irish and Catholic that deprived you of employment.

Truth told ,those I knew were fiercely Irish .Great story about Ned Kelly .A great spot to visit in Victoria if you come to Australia.. Thank you 


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