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Australia and the Empire/The Irish in Australia



The Australians, as I have stated, are by origin three-fourths British and one-fourth Irish. Beyond a general statement to the effect that the "Irish element in Australia" is in the main "faithful to the British Crown and connection," I forbore in the preceding chapter from giving any analysis of this important section of the colonial population. But the recent publication in England of what I cannot but regard as most misleading and mischievous views on the subject impels me to offer a separate chapter on the "Irish in Australia," in which I propose to discuss their racial characteristics, especially in relation to public affairs, and to the well-being and continuance of the Empire.

I must at the outset call the reader's special attention to an article entitled "An Australian Example," which appeared in the Contemporary Review of January 1888, from the pen of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, formerly a leader of the "Young Ireland" party, but more recently a politician, and now a pensioner, of the Colony of Victoria; and to a recently published book. The Irish in Australia, by Mr. J. F. Hogan, an Irish- Australian journalist.

I must confess that the effect of this strong dose of Celtic literature on the uninstructed British mind must be truly appalling. According to both these authorities, it is the Irish who have done everything worthy of record in these so-called British colonies. If, however, one turns from the glowing, if somewhat immature, pages of Mr. Hogan to the Victorian Year-Book of Mr, H. H. Hayter, the Government Statist, one quickly re-awakens to the fact that the great bulk of the Australian people are of British descent or birth. Can it be then that the race which Lord Salisbury has proclaimed to be the "Imperial and consolidating" race in these islands has, despite its superior numbers, played but a minor rôle at the Antipodes?

Before attempting to deal with this interesting question, let me briefly state what I conceive to be the political intention of Sir C. Gavan Duffy's Essay, "An Australian Example." He shows that the Colony of Victoria dates its rise and progress from the day when it achieved political separation from New South Wales; when Melbourne, and not Sydney, became the seat of government. Ireland, therefore, he argues, will prosper when its laws emanate from College Green, and not from St. Stephen's. Furthermore, running throughout his pages is the assumption, that under the free and equal suffrage of democratic Victoria, the Irish Celt has quite held his own against the Anglo-Saxon colonist; and that, therefore, it would be beneficial for Ireland and not injurious to the Empire, if the government were placed in the hands of the predominant race. I cannot but think that Sir C. Gavan Duffy very much weakens the effect of his otherwise adroit literary performance by extraneous abuse of Mr. Balfour. We Victorians would at any time have hailed the brilliant Irish Chief Secretary, especially with an official "lodge" at Melbourne, as an ideal Secretary of State for the Colonies. Mr. Balfour is in fact the kind of man for whom, at least a few years ago, we used to cry out in our troubles; a statesman of initiative, possessing courage, intellect, and culture, and not a mere Downing Street drone. If Sir C. Gavan Duffy is really serious in considering the autonomy of Victoria as an "Australian example," which Great Britain should follow in her treatment of Ireland, then I fear he is sadly deceiving himself, if not his readers. The experience he gained in the Speaker's Chair of the Legislative Assembly at Melbourne will not, I venture to think, be ever utilised by an Irish House of Commons in Dublin. With regard to the second thesis of his paper, viz., the political capacity shown by the Irish race in the colonies, a subject which is also treated ad nauseam by Mr. Hogan, I will now endeavour to express my own unbiassed opinions. In thus specially dealing with the "Irish in Australia," it is, however, of the very first importance to keep before one's mind the racial distinction between the Anglo-Irish and the Irish Celts. In a dim and confused way this has passed through the mind of Sir C. Gavan Duffy, even in the midst of his Home-Rule reveries. To a thoughtful reader, indeed, the most suggestive point in the whole of his Magazine article is his somewhat ambiguous confession that these Anglo-Irish colonists have been the dominant political factor in the making, if not of Australia, at least of Victoria. Whenever it serves the purpose of his argument, Sir C. Gavan Duffy is not slow to emphasise the racial distinction between what he calls the two "sections" of Irish settlers; but he more often ignores or strives to obliterate it. Mr. Hogan, on the other hand, appears quite ignorant of the fact, and his book so teems with bulls and blunders that I should seriously advise him to recast its form. As a history it is ludicrous; but there is material perhaps for an Irish-Australian prose idyll of the Paul and Virginia type, which under some such title as "Pat and Brigitta," might delight the yet unborn antipodean babe.

Sir C. Gavan Duffy is of course on an entirely different intellectual plane from Mr. Hogan, but it is lamentable to notice how readily he copies the loose and inaccurate statements to be found in The Irish in Australia. For instance, the late Marcus Clarke is referred to as the "one man of genius who wrote an Australian novel recognised in Europe as a masterpiece," and is on that account apparently classified as an Irishman. As a matter of fact, Clarke was born at Kensington, educated at Highgate, and never even saw Ireland; his father being an English barrister of the Middle Temple, though connected with the Anglo-Irish gentry, and his mother an actress, who was, I believe, of Jewish descent. But he wrote a very powerful novel, and so is at once claimed, first by Mr. Hogan and then by Sir C. Gavan Duffy, as a "fellow-countryman." Neither space nor patience, however, is sufficiently elastic to permit one to expose these curiously suggestive myths which have been invented, I suppose, to support Mr. Gladstone's Home-Rule proposals.

Let us, however, turn for a while to the genuine annals of Australia, when I think we shall be at once struck with the historic achievements of the Anglo-Irish colonists, whose political and intellectual ascendency reads simply like a brilliant colonial addendum to Mr. Fronde's English in Ireland. Sir C. Gavan Duffy eulogistically refers to William Charles Wentworth, under his old and familiar sobriquet of "the Australian Patriot." Without altogether indorsing Dr. Johnson's familiar definition of patriotism, one can only say that the title fails to describe the supreme achievement of Wentworth, whose real place in our colonial annals is that of the political father of free Australasia. It would take a goodly volume, and one well deserving the reverent labours of a painstaking and patriotic pen, to give an adequate account of the career of this Australian "nation-builder." He crave New South Wales its constitution. He established in the colony trial by jury. He founded the Sydney University, from which has sprung every other alma mater at the Antipodes. That such achievements were not the results of mere good fortune, or blind chance, but were the work of a great and comprehensive political genius, will perhaps best be brought home to the minds of Englishmen, by reiterating that Wentworth's rival, both in the Senate and at the Bar of New South Wales, was Robert Lowe, and that on most occasions he proved himself quite the intellectual compeer of the future Viscount Sherbrooke.

William Charles Wentworth, who was born in New Norfolk, then a famous, or infamous, penal settlement, and educated at the University of Cambridge, was by descent Anglo-Irish; his father hailing from Ireland, but his historic name and religious creed are full evidence of his English lineage. Turning to the colony with which, like Sir C. Gavan Duffy, I am most familiar, Victoria, I too can recall the time when its intellectual princes were, with one or two exceptions, of Anglo-Irish stock. What Victorian can forget Sir William Foster Stawell, formerly Chief-Justice, now Lieutenant-Governor of the colony, a man with the singleness of purpose, and inflexibility of will, of his great countryman the Iron Duke, and who, whether as the leading politician or the highest judge, has left the impress of his character and personality like that of a die on the colony? As a judge, however, he was surpassed by the judicial temperament and legal attainments of Mr. Justice Molesworth, who for many years presided over the Equity Court, and whose decisions were often reviewed, but rarely if ever reversed, by the Privy Council. He too was born in Ireland, educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and called to the Irish bar, but was of course of an English patrician family. The late Dr. William Edward Hearn,[1] the well-known constitutional lawyer and political economist, "the greatest thinker who ever made his home in a British colony," was also of the "English garrison" of Ireland; while in Mr. George Higinbotham, who has worthily succeeded Sir "William Foster Stawell in the Chief-Justiceship of Victoria, we have yet another Anglo-Irishman, who, under the widest democratic suffrage, ruled the colony, for a number of years, with almost the power of a despotic sovereign, though purely by his lofty character, fine, intellect, and overpowering personality.[2]

It would not be difficult to give a reason why from a poor country like Ireland, with its two antagonistic races, there should have been such a noteworthy exodus to the new El Dorado. These Anglo-Irish, high-minded, courageous, well-educated, energetic, and born with the instincts of a governing race, were exactly the kind of men to take the chief part in the founding and ruling of new colonies, such as those which had been so magically called into existence, by the gold discoveries at the Antipodes.

In the political building-up of Australia, these Anglo-Irish have indeed been like a small but powerful body of patricians, who from the first made their influence felt over the general mass of English, Scotch, and Celtic-Irish plebs. With regard to the purely English colonists and their descendants, who were always in a great majority, it is not denied that there was a sprinkling of men of good birth and high character who were from the first among the ruling caste of Australia. Still, comparatively few ambitious young Englishmen of the high type of Robert Lowe went so far afield to pick up a fortune. Among the English emigrants attracted by the gold discoveries, there were, for the most part, a number of thoroughly respectable, though in most cases unfortunate, middle-class families. With these went in shoals the οἱ πολλοί—lowly men and women,—who, however, by the very fact that they had the spirit and enterprise to cross the great waste of waters, displayed their superiority, at least in these qualities, to their equally poor and discontented but stay-at-home kinsfolk. What part, let me incidentally ask, has this great bulk of Englishry played in the making of Australia?

Were any one to take the trouble to go through the lists of Cabinet Ministers, members of Colonial Legislatures and Municipal Councils, and to examine the names in the learned professions, and those over the great houses of business, and to glance down the roll of members of the clubs and scientific and philosophic institutions, he would find that the overwhelming majority are English.

The "constitutional history of Victoria," says Sir C. Gavan Duffy truly enough, "cannot be written in a paragraph." "When it comes to be written," he proceeds, "it will be seen how large and effectual a factor were the Irish of both sections. It would be absurd to suggest that they were fitter than Englishmen to administer a system honourably known to the world as 'English liberty,' but they were more eager to show that they were fit, and readier to make the sacrifice which a public career involved in a gold colony, where 'be in a hurry to grow rich' was the accepted gospel."

I have fully and frankly conceded all that he can possibly demand for what he calls one "section" of the Irish, and now propose to examine the purely Celtic claims.

Sir C. Gavan Duffy quotes, with marked approval, the saying of some Scotch journalist, that they (the Celtic Irish) were "the only politicians in the colony,"—meaning the only men of the rank and file who would organise, and make a sacrifice of time or money, to return a candidate or control an election.

Allowing for the picturesque exaggeration of statement often thought necessary to effective journalism, there is much truth in the remark. It accounts, too, for many of the men who have come to the surface, and for not a few of the practices which have been tried under the guise of "English liberty" in the colonies and elsewhere. Lest Sir Charles Gavan Duffy should deceive himself, as well as other people, as to the true meaning of the prominence of the Irish Celts in Colonial Legislatures and Cabinets, Municipal Councils and Road Boards, I will presume to imitate his favourite practice, and relate a little anecdote, the only artistic drawback to which is that it happens to be true.

One day, walking through the great Melbourne legal hive, appropriately called Temple Court, I came upon two barrister friends—one a Celt, the other an Anglo-Saxon. The former had just been returned for some "up-country" constituency, but, as he well knew and, to do him justice, would have been the first to admit, he was in intellectual grasp or political capacity altogether the inferior of the Englishman, who saw no prospect of adding the magic letters M.P. to his name.

"Why don't you," said the glowing young Irish colonist, "stand for some country constituency? You would be sure to be returned."

"Well," said the Anglo-Saxon slowly, with a quiet smile, "I am not an Irishman, and therefore the Irish wouldn't vote for me. I am an Englishman, but no English elector would consider that any reason for giving me his support."

Here we have the gist of the matter. Whatever Lord Salisbury may think, it is really to the ambitious young colonist, emulous of public honours, in many cases a distinct misfortune to belong to the "Imperial consolidating" English race. No Australian needs the bulky book of Mr. Hogan, or the magazine essay of Sir C. Gavan Duffy, to assure him that the Irish Celt is a powerful factor for good or evil in our colonial affairs. It is as true as any such general statement can be that every Irishman is a politician,—not only a voter at elections, but an organiser and a wire-puller, and what is called the "Roman Catholic vote" has become the veritable monster of the colonial Frankenstein, Let me tell Sir C. Gavan Duffy another little colonial electioneering story, the moral of which is, I think, equally obvious.

There was to be a keen contest in one of the divisions of Melbourne, and it became known, from certain unmistakable indications, that at the eleventh hour the dreaded Roman Catholic vote had been ordered to go over to the other side. In this emergency what was to be done? On the Committee was a very enthusiastic and, of course, sharp-witted Jewish gentleman who said: "If the Irish are going to sell us, after what Father —— solemnly promised me, why shouldn't we call on the Church of England clergyman, who is not only universally respected in the constituency, but has far and away the biggest flock?"

Drowning men, especially in the sea of politics, clutch at any straw; and so a deputation waited on the worthy Canon. Fixing his genial eye on the acute physiognomy of the expectant Semite, the most influential Anglican clergyman in the district gravely said:—

"I think, gentlemen, were I to bend my mind to it, I could perhaps induce my aged and somewhat imbecile verger to vote for your man. But there is not another person I would presume to influence, on such a matter, in my parish."

Perhaps this is not an inappropriate place to point out another trait which sharply distinguishes a very worthy and not inconsiderable section of the Englishry in the colonies from the Celtic Irish. One of the most intellectual, and certainly one of the most estimable, men it has ever been my good fortune to know intimately—an old English colonist who has lived in Australia for nearly forty years, and whose judgment and opinion I would rather have on almost any mundane question than that of two-thirds of the House of Commons, to say nothing of the local Legislative Assembly—once gravely said to me:—

"I have only voted once since I have been in the colony. I voted for So-and-So; and don't know if God has forgiven me, but I certainly have not forgiven myself."

It may be urged that a political pessimist of this pronounced type, however worthy in all the private relations of life, is not fit to be a citizen of a free State. There may be some truth in this, though I remember Mr. Ruskin, who is not held to be an ignoble or unenlightened Englishman, making a very similar public confession. If, on the other hand, the principle to "poll early, and poll often," be the mark of perfect citizenhood, then I must admit that the Irish Celts attain to a very lofty standard indeed. At the same time, let me point out that under universal suffrage—of which, nevertheless, I have always been an advocate—the cultured and highly individualised type of Mr. Ruskin, and my old colonial friend, which is, in many respects, the salt of the earth, must be "bossed" by party "rings" and vulgar political "wire-pullers," whose one grand aim in life is to see that the "right name" is dropped into the slit in the ballot-box.

These illustrations are, I trust, sufficient to show the undue influence that a minority, bound together by racial and religious ties, will often exercise in an intelligent but divided community.

The best passage in Mr. Hogan's book is an eloquent extract from a lecture by Mr. James Smith, a well-known Melbourne journalist, eulogising the filial piety of the Irish domestic servants, both in America and Australia. Speaking from his own experience, Mr. Smith gives an instance of three sisters, "unsophisticated but warm-hearted Irish girls, domestic servants in this city, who regularly remit one-third of their earnings every year to Ireland in order to support an aged and widowed mother in comfort and independence." No one will deny that such "acts of filial piety" are in the highest degree praiseworthy. But Mr. Smith, with what Herbert Spencer aptly calls "the anti-patriotic bias" of the cultured Englishman, fails to see that this generous behaviour is purely tribal. The class whom he so highly eulogises, and which owes everything to Australia or America, as the case may be, is at heart essentially and narrowly Irish. The real question is, What do the Irish in Australia contribute spontaneously to Australian or Imperial objects? I was once struck by the remark of a shrewd Scotchman as we were gazing, with admiration, on St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Melbourne, Said he: "Many and many a Protestant pound has found its way into those solid walls; but do you think there is a single brick in any of our churches towards which they have given a shilling?"

It is exactly the same with regard to the charitable institutions; the Roman Catholics have always received large donations from the Protestants, but given little or nothing in return. Take the memorable instance of the £95,000 sent from Australia to relieve the last Irish famine. This sum, as Mr. Hogan says, was truly magnificent for a scattered population of only 4,000,000; but to adduce it as a proof of the munificence of Irish-Australian generosity, as he does, is sheer misrepresentation or gross stupidity. To my own knowledge, large amounts were contributed by English and Scotch colonists, and I very much doubt if the Irish contributions amounted to one-third of the whole. This is just an apt illustration of the fact that the English and Scotch colonists have surmounted the merely tribal or national instincts, and when the need arises they give freely to any deserving cause. The Irish, on the other hand, despite the "filial piety" which Mr. Smith very properly belauds, are not prone to bestow their charity on non-Irish objects.

I refrain from dwelling on the darker aspects of the Irish character. Mr. Topp, quoting from Hayter's Year-Book, summarises the criminal statistics of Victoria thus: "Out of every thousand Irish-born inhabitants of the colony, 80 were arrested, of Scottish-born, 40; of English and Welsh, 26; and of Victorian natives, 11." And of "43 criminals executed during the fifteen years from 1865 to 1879, 18 were Irish-born, and 22 were Roman Catholics;" an appalling ratio, when we bear in mind that they only number altogether one-fourth of the population. I will close this chapter by giving my reasons for considering the autonomy of Victoria and the other colonies no rule for English statesmen to go by in dealing with Ireland. I regret to find that on this subject of Irish Home Rule, I seem to be in conflict with Major-General Sir Andrew Clarke, another of that distinguished band of Anglo-Irishmen, who were chief among the Conscript Fathers of the great colony of Victoria. Sir Andrew, it is well known, contested Chatham in the interests of Mr. Gladstone's Home-Rule proposals; and I can only conceive that, judging from the great part which he and a mere handful of Anglo-Irish gentry have played in our colonial history, he thinks, with the splendid courage of his race, that they could repeat the tale on the other side of the Irish Channel. With the highest feelings of respect towards himself, I must take leave gravely to dissent from this view, and to point out that the career of Mr. Parnell, who is of his own race and creed, should be a warning rather than an example.

It cannot be too clearly asserted that there is no real analogy between the system of self-government in Victoria and the only kind of "Home Rule" possible in Ireland. There is only one township in Victoria, a small one named Kilmore, in which there is even a bare majority of Irish Celts. To make the case of Victoria and Ireland at all analogous, it would be necessary that Melbourne and every other large town (except one) should be at least twice as Celtic as the township of Kilmore. If Sir Andrew Clarke will try to picture such a Victoria as this, he may then be able to form some idea of the difficulty that even men like himself and Sir William Foster Stawell would have had in the early days of "responsible government" in the colony. As a matter of fact, they would have been swept into the sea.

In the course of a recent correspondence with Mr. John Bright—to whom every loyal Englishman, irrespective of mere party divisions, should feel profoundly and personally grateful—I put the case of the supposed analogy in a way that seemed to meet with his approbation. Let me quote a paragraph of my letter for the special benefit of Sir Andrew Clarke.

"In the colonies we may have strayed in some points from what you would deem true Liberalism; but in all our legislation we have proceeded on the principle that we are one people. Our Irish fellow-colonists, when ill-advised, clamour against this. On Mr. Gladstone's plan we should have, in the colonies, a distinct and hostile Irish Roman Catholic nationality in a generation." This, in the fewest possible words, is the answer to the tissue of fallacies which Sir C. Gavan Duffy has woven together and called an " Australian example."

As a loyal colonist I cannot close without expressing my personal weariness of—I should say, contempt for—the cheap claptrap attacks so constantly made on Great Britain—her people, her government, and her Empire. What other nation, since the world began, would have suffered to grow up, and have even fostered under her broad ægis, such a belt of self-governing republics scattered all round the habitable globe? Under whose beneficent Imperial sway but hers could we find men whose past record is of political incendiarism, if not public crime, who, on showing any disposition to hold the lamp of Civilisation in lieu of the torch of Anarchy, have been elevated to posts of supreme trust, and have had pension, place, and title showered upon them? Truly, this Victorian era of ours, at least so far as it is concerned with the great Empire of Queen Victoria, is an era of hitherto unknown toleration of every form of race, creed, and opinion. From this all-embracing, beneficent path, who would wish to return to the narrow, miry byways of the intolerant Past? Britain, and her self-governing dependencies, as well as the great nation across the Atlantic, sprung from her loins, all prayerfully desire that they may be able to keep the path of freedom and toleration. But we must bear in mind that it is an experiment, and not an assured triumph, until it is proved that by this means, a hostile race, clinging to an alien creed, may be raised and assimilated. One of our most thoughtful modern poets, in a desponding mood, describes the task as being beyond even the strength of

"The weary Titan,
Bearing on shoulders immense,
Atlantean, the load
Wellnigh not to be borne,
Of the too vast orb of her fate."

Our greatest living philosopher tells us that Progress is not continuous, but rhythmic, like the waves of the sea, and that there is the ebb as well as the flow. And so, underlying this much-vexed "Irish Question," we should all train ourselves to recognise one of those strong, retrogressive forces that must either destroy the Empire, or be itself destroyed; and in this light I trust that this sketch of the "Irish in Australia" is not without political significance to the English and Scottish reader.

  1. See Appendix G,—Obituary, Dr. Hearn.
  2. Sir George Grey of New Zealand is another striking illustration.