Australia: How Did The Irish Get There?

As that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she'll wait and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay
It's so lonely round the fields of Athenry

- From "Fields of Athenry" by Pete St. John
Published by Pete St. John/Celtic songs.

Any cursory look at the population of Australia will turn up a large percentage of Irish surnames among the population. One might be tempted to ask how so many people from such a poor nation manage to emigrate there. The answer to that question is that, although some emigrated voluntarily, especially from the 1840s onward, a very large number of them never paid for the passage to Australia; they came as the guests of the British Empire.

For many years, the English, as a way to lessen prison overcrowding and make a profit to boot, had sold convicts to shipping contractors, who then sold these men and women to planters in the New World as indentured servants, usually for terms of seven years or longer. But with the coming of the American Revolution and with the growing preference in the Americas for black slaves, whose labor was bought for life, a new destination had to be found for these surplus convicts.

In 1786, the English found this new destination: Botany Bay in eastern Australia. Although Botany Bay itself soon proved to be an unsuitable location for a penal colony, and the colony was moved to Port Jackson, near what is now Sydney, the name Botany Bay entered Irish folklore as the destination of all convicts. The first convict ship with solely Irish convicts was the "Queen" in 1791; the last Irish convict ship arrived in Australia in August of 1853. Though that marked the end of ships leaving Ireland for the sole purpose of transporting convicts to Australia, convicts were still shipped there until 1868; the last ship to arrive included 62 Fenians who had participated in the 1867 rising. In the end, perhaps as many as 40,000 Irish men, women, and children had been transported, the euphemism the British used for deportation, to Australia.

(A government jail gang in Sydney in 1830 by Augustus Earle.National Library of Australia.)

Certainly, most Irish then and now would quarrel with the term convict being applied to most of those who were transported. Many were unquestionably political prisoners, those transported for the 1798 rising, Young Irelanders such as Thomas Francis Meagher and John Mitchel, and many Fenians later. But if we look at some of the crimes committed by others who were transported: theft of linen, a shirt, a handkerchief, many for stealing sheep and cattle, turnips, corn, or potatoes (many of these later offenses during the Famine), it is obvious that if not political prisoners per se these people were, at the very least, victims of a corrupt political system. Some of those who were transported were as young as eleven or twelve. Considering the impossibly low standard of living that was imposed on the native Irish population, living in a land of abundance, and even without imposing the values of the 1990's, how can the English colonial system in Ireland be looked on by any unbiased person as anything but incredibly corrupt.

(Below: Flogging a convict at Moreton Bay, 1836 - Artist unknown)

As is often the case when a terrible social injustice is done to one or several generations of a people, the succeeding generations may actually benefit from the terrible suffering of their ancestors. Many Irish-Americans may live better today than they would if their ancestors had not been driven from the country they loved, and many Afro-Americans may live better today than they would have if their ancestors had not been stolen away from Africa and brought here as slaves, and, no doubt, many Irish-Australians now live a better live than they might have if their ancestors had not been transported. But that fact does not in any way excuse or mitigate the crimes against those ancestors or turn the perpetrators of those crimes into benign social engineers.

The Irish who were transported to Australia for what are, today, the most minor of offenses, offenses they were often driven to by extremes of poverty, were torn from family, friends, and a country many of them loved dearly. They endured a perilous journey, which often included brutal treatment by the ship's crews: flogging, handcuffing, chaining, and other indignities. In Australia, they were forced to do hard physical labor, often on short rations and were punished if they didn't attend Anglican services. Catholic masses were not permanently allowed in the penal colony until 1820.

The vast majority of the Irish who were transported to Australia were ordinary people who did what they had to do to survive, most never again saw the land and people they loved. For many years, Australians were reluctant to study or talk about the history of the so-called convicts from whom many of them descend. That is unfortunate because Australia is a richer land today for their suffering. Their history and their contributions to the building of Australia should not be forgotten. - Joseph Gannon


Irish National Archives: Ireland-Australia transportation database

Irish Convicts to New South Wales 1788 - 1849

Irish Convicts Transported to Australia


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Tags: Australia

Comment by John J. Gaynard on November 26, 2013 at 8:56am

Thank you for a very interesting article. It reminds me of two things, one serious and one not so serious. The serious one is to recommend Robert Hughes's great book The Fatal Shore to anybody who wishes to learn more about the early history of Australia.

The not so serious reminder is about the young Irish lad who turned up in Australia without the right paperwork and was subject to questioning about how fit an Aussie he could become if he was let in. The Border Police officer asked him if he had a criminal record. The young lad's reply was, 'I didn't think I needed one anymore.' Needless to say, after a reply like that, he was sent back home on the next plane out.  

Comment by DJ Kelly on November 27, 2013 at 1:26pm

Transportations to Australia did not really end in 1968. In fact the transportation of children, some of them orphaned, some of them merely the children of poor people, to Australia continued beyond the middle of the 20th century. In her very moving book, published in the US under the title: 'Oranges and Sunshine' , and in the UK as 'Oranges and Sunshine: Empty Cradles', Margaret Humphreys tells some tearfully tragic but true accounts of physical and sexual abuse and of mothers wrongly told their children had died, children told their parents did not want them, etc. Even some of the children of women who had signed up to war work in WW2 were taken away from them and never returned.  

Comment by Gerry Regan on November 30, 2013 at 8:23am

Meaning 1868, then, DJ?

Comment by Rose Maurer on December 1, 2013 at 9:55am

Sharp proof reading eye there, Ger! Thank you for a great blog, Joe Gannon - one needs regular, sharp reminders of the unspeakable horrors inflicted by the powerful on the poor, by those who would have considered themselves to be 'upright, God fearing citizens.

Comment by P.J. Francis on October 28, 2015 at 2:13pm

It is interesting to note that thousands of Irish people are moving to Australia today.


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