The Glories of Ireland



Should one be called upon to give in brief the history of the Irish in the land of the Southern Cross, he could do nothing more to the purpose than to relate the story of the “Holy House of Australia.” The episode, indeed, is characteristic, not merely of the Irish in Australia, but of the Irish in every land and clime where they have striven and conquered.

On the fourteenth of November, 1817, there landed in Sydney an Irish Cistercian Father, Jeremiah F. Flynn. He had heard in Rome of the spiritual destitution of the Irish Catholics in Australia, and he secured the permission of his superiors to minister to the needs of his compatriots in the Antipodes. Shortly after his arrival he celebrated Mass in the house of an Irishman named William Davis, who had been transported for making pikes for the insurgents in the days of ’98, and then, on the first opportunity that presented itself, he sought the authorization of the colonial governor to exercise the functions of his sacred ministry. Far from hospitable was the reception accorded him by Governor Macquarie. The priest was told, with the bluntness characteristic of British officialdom, that the presence of no “popish missionary” would be tolerated in the settlement, and that the profession of the Protestant form of belief was obligatory on every person in the penal colony.

With the example of the “priesthood hunted down like wolves” before him, Father Flynn saw but one consistent course to pursue. His fellow Catholics, his fellow Irishmen, were in sore need of his help; that help they must receive, even though the civil powers refused their sanction. So for several months he went about as secretly as he could, hearing confessions, offering the Holy Sacrifice, and breaking the bread of good counsel. During this trying period, Davis was his host and defender and friend. Eventually the presence of the priest was detected; he was arrested and promptly sent back to England. Before the ship sailed he tried repeatedly to return to the house of Davis where the Blessed Sacrament was preserved in a cedar clothes-press, but the surveillance of his captors was strict and unsleeping. So in the dwelling of the convict Irishman the Sacred Species remained. Before this unwonted repository Davis kept a light ever burning day and night; and day and night crept the loyal Irishmen of the settlement to kneel in prayer before the improvised shrine. The “Holy House of Australia”, as the Davis dwelling came to be known, remained the only Catholic church in the colony until 1821, when two Irish priests, Father John Joseph Therry of Cork and Father Philip Connolly of Kildare, were permitted to attend to the spiritual needs of the Irish Catholics. Their coming marked the beginning of religious toleration in Australia and the termination of the sufferings and sacrifices of the Irish colonists, several of whom had had to pay dearly for their religious convictions. Davis himself had been twice flogged and once imprisoned for refusing to attend Protestant service.

Today, on the site of the “Holy House of Australia”, stands the church of St. Patrick. Davis gave the land and the sum of one thousand pounds to the church, and his fellow exiles contributed according to their means. This episode in the history of the Irish in Australia pays a touchingly eloquent tribute to the spirit of loyalty to God and country which has characterized the sons and daughters of St. Patrick everywhere whither their feet have strayed. It is the spirit which has embodied itself in the imposing cathedral of St. Patrick in Melbourne and the splendidly equipped college of St. Patrick in Sydney. It is the spirit which has made the Irish play so conspicuous a role in the civic and commercial history of Australasia.

Originally known as New Holland, Australia became an English penal colony after the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in the United States of America. An Irish element came into the colony in the last decade of the eighteenth century when, during the Orange reign of terror, upwards of a thousand people from the west of Ireland were deported by the Ulster magistrates and by Lord Carhampton, the notorious “Satanides”, who was charged with the pacification of Connacht. And during the first three decades of the nineteenth century the stream of Irish transportation flowed on. As a result of the Tithes agitation, the Charter and Reform movements, the Combination Laws and the Corn Laws, many more Irishmen were forced across the sea. It was not until 1868 that the convict system was permanently abolished.

It is difficult for us of a later day to realize the meaning of that word, transportation. Let us form some conception of what the Irish exiles suffered from the graphic picture painted in colors, somber but not untrue, by one who knew from firsthand experience the lot of the political prisoner. Writes Dr. Ullathorne in The Horrors of Transportation:

“Take any one of you, my dear readers; separate him from his wife, from his children, from all those whose conversation makes life dear to him; cast him on the ends of the earth; let him there fall amongst reprobates who are the last stain and disgrace of our common nature; give him those obscene-mouthed monsters for his constant companions and consolers; let the daily vision of their progress from infamy to infamy, until the demon that inspires them has exhausted invention and the powers of nature together, be his only example; house him, at night, in a bark hut on a mud floor, where he has less comfort than your cattle in their stalls; awake him from the troubled dreams of his wretched wife and outcast children, to feel how far he is from their help, and take him out at sunrise; work him under a burning sun, and a heartless overseer, and the threat of the lash until the night fall; give him not a penny’s wages but sorrow; leave him no hope but the same dull, dreary round of endless drudgery for many years to come; let him see no opening by which to escape, but through a long, narrow prospect of police courts, of gaols, of triangles, of death cells, and of penal settlements; let him all the while be clothed in a dress of shame, that shows to every living soul his degradation; and if he dare to sell any part of that clothing, then flog him worse than any dog! And thus, whilst severed from all kindness and all love, whilst the stern harsh voice of his task-master is grating in incessant jars within his ear, take all rest out of his flesh, and plant the thorn; take all feeling out of his heart, and leave the withered core; take all peace out of his conscience, and leave the worm of remorse; and then let any one come and dare to tell me that the man is happy because he has bread and meat. Is it not here, if ever there was such a case, where the taste of bread is a taste of misery, and where to feed and prolong life is to feed and lengthen our sorrow? And in pondering these things, do not those strong words of Sacred Scripture bring down their load of truth in heavy trouble to our thoughts, that, ‘Their bread is loathsome to their eye, and their meat unto their soul.'”

But the bright side of the story of the Irish in Australia and New Zealand unfolds in the subsequent years. The men who had been sent forth from Erin with the brand of the convict upon them became the founders of a new commonwealth. To them were joined the numerous voluntary settlers who, attracted by the natural resources of the island-continent and especially by the gold discoveries of the fifties, migrated to Queensland, Victoria, and New South Wales. When in 1858 William E. Gladstone sought to establish a new colony to be known as North Australia, he opened a fresh field for Irish initiative. As a result of his effort there stands today, on a terrace overlooking Port Curtis, the city of Gladstone, the terminal of the Australian railway system. It was here, according to Cardinal Moran, that in 1606, Mass was first celebrated in Australia, when the Spaniards sought shelter in the “Harbor of the Holy Cross.” The first government resident at Gladstone was Sir Maurice Charles O’Connell, a relative of the great Liberator; he was four times acting-governor of Queensland.

The list of Irish pioneer settlers in Australasia is a lengthy one. The name of Thomas Poynton stands out prominently. He was a New Zealand pioneer who had married an Irish girl in Sydney. The devotion of Poynton and his wife to the faith of their fathers is evidenced by the fact that he several times made the long journey from his home to Sydney to interest the church authorities in the wants of the New Zealand Irish Catholics, and that she twice made the same arduous trip to have her children baptized. Thomas Mooney has the distinction of being the first Irish pioneer in Western Australia; and yet another Irishman, Cassidy by name, carried out a policy of benevolent assimilation by marrying the daughter of a Maori chief.

Among the pioneer ecclesiastics were Father William Kelly of Melbourne and Father John McEncroe, a native of Tipperary and a Maynooth man, who for thirty years and more was a prominent figure in the religious and civic life of New South Wales. Father John Brady, another pioneer priest, became Bishop of Perth. Irish names occupy a conspicuous and honored place in the roster of the Australian episcopate. Notable on the list are Bishop Francis Murphy of Adelaide, who was born in Co. Meath, and Archbishop Daniel Murphy of Sydney, a native of Cork, the man who delivered the eulogy on the occasion of Daniel O’Connell’s funeral at Rome. But scant reference can here be made to the illustrious primate of Australia, Cardinal Moran, archbishop of Sydney from 1884 to 1911, who was such a potent force in the land of his adoption, and whose masterly History of the Catholic Church in Australasia puts him in the forefront of ecclesiastical historians. On his death he was succeeded in the see of Sydney by another Irishman, Archbishop Michael Kelly of Waterford. Archbishop O’Reily of Adelaide is a recognized authority on music, and has written several pamphlets on that subject. A Galway man, Dr. T. J. Carr, a great educator, is now (1914) archbishop of Melbourne, and a Clare man, Dr. J. P. Clune, holds sway in Perth.

Irishmen in Australia have figured largely in the iron and coal industries, in the irrigation projects, in the manufacturing activities, and in the working of the gold mines. But they have likewise distinguished themselves in other fields of endeavor. Prominent on the beadroll of Australian fame stand the names of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy (1816-1903), founder of the Nation newspaper in Dublin, member of the British house of commons, and afterwards premier of Victoria and speaker of the legislative assembly, and his sons, John Gavan Duffy and Frank Gavan Duffy, public-spirited citizens and authorities on legal matters. The Currans, father and son, active in the public life of Sydney, were afterwards members of the British parliament. Distinguished in the records of the Australian judiciary are Judges Quinlan, Casey, Brennan, and O’Dowd. The Rev. J. Milne Curran, F.G.S., is a geologist who has achieved more than local fame. Other Irishmen who have loomed large in Australasian affairs are Daniel Brophy, John Cumin, Augustus Leo Kenny, James Coghlan, Sir Patrick Buckley, Sir John O’Shannessy, and Nicholas Fitzgerald. Louis C. Brennan, C.B., who was born in Ireland in 1852, emigrated to Australia when a boy and while working in a civil engineer’s office in Melbourne conceived the idea of the “Brennan Torpedo”, which he afterwards perfected, and then in 1897 sold the invention to the British Admiralty for £110,000. Another Brennan, Frank by name, is president of the Knights of Our Lady of the Southern Cross and has been a labor member of the federal parliament since 1911; a third, Christopher John, is assistant lecturer in modern literature in the University of Sydney; and a fourth, James, of the diocese of Perth, was made a Knight of St. Silvester by Pius X. in 1912. Young Australia and New Zealand may be as the world goes, but already both have much to their credit in the domains of music, art, and literature; and here, as usual, the Irish have been to the fore. In the writing of poetry, history, and fiction the Celtic element has been especially distinguished. Not to speak of the writers mentioned elsewhere in this sketch, scores of Irish men and women have been identified with the development of an Australian literature which, though delightfully redolent of the land whence it sprang, nevertheless possesses the universal note which makes it a truly human product. Many years ago one of the most gifted of Irish-Australian singers, “Eva”‘ of the Nation, voiced a tentative plaint:

“O barren land! O blank, bright sky! Methinks it were a noble duty To kindle in that vacant eye The light of spirit–beauty– To fill with airy shapes divine Thy lonely plains and mountains, The orange grove, the bower of vine, The silvery lakes and fountains; To wake the voiceless, silent air To soft, melodious numbers; To raise thy lifeless form so fair From those deep, spell-bound slumbers. Oh, whose shall be the potent hand To give that touch informing, And make thee rise, O Southern Land, To life and poesy warming?”

Mrs. O’Doherty herself, who long lived in that Queensland which she thus apostrophized, helped in no uncertain way to answer her own question. So did John Farrell, the author of the truly remarkable “Jubilee Ode” of 1897 and of a collection of poems which include the well known “How He Died.” And so, long before, had the non-Catholic Irishman, Edward O’Shaughnessy, who went to Australia as a convict, but who laughed in lockstep and made music with his chains.

James Francis Hogan, author and journalist, was born in Tipperary in 1855 and shortly afterward was brought by his parents to Melbourne where he received his education. On his return to Ireland he was elected to represent his native county in parliament. He is an authority on Australian history and in his book on The Gladstone Colony has given us a fine specimen of modern historical method. With him must be mentioned Roderick Flanagan, whose History of New South Wales appeared in 1862.

Other Irish names distinguished in Australasian literature are those of the New Zealand poet, Thomas Bracken; Roderick Quinn; Desmond Byrne; J.B. O’Hara; the eccentric convict-writer, George “Barrington” Waldron; Victor J. Daley; Bernard O’Dowd; Edwin J. Brady; the Rev. J.J. Malone; and the Rev. W. Kelly.

Finally, the Irish in Australia have done more than their share in the work of education and social service. Under Irish auspices several of the Catholic teaching congregations, including the Christian Brothers and the Presentation Nuns, were introduced, and their work has borne goodly fruit. A mighty power for good is the Hibernian Australasian Benefit Society. The organization, which was founded in 1871, has spread rapidly and has a large active membership.

Truly the land of the Southern Cross is not the dimmest jewel in the coronet of Ireland’s glories.


Hogan: The Irish in Australia (1888), The Gladstone Colony (1898); Mennell: Dictionary of Australian Biography (1892); Duffy: Life in Two Hemispheres (1903); Kenny: The Catholic Church in Australia to the Year 1840; Moran: History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (1898); Davitt: Life and Progress in Australasia (1898); Bonwick: The First Twenty Years of Australia (1883); Flanagan: History of New South Wales (1862); Byrne: Australian Writers (1896); Wilson: The Church in New Zealand (1910); Hocken: A Bibliography of the Literature Relating to New Zealand (1909).

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