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Since 1791, Irish people have emigrated to Australia. Emigration initiatives such as the Earl Grey scheme for orphan girls in the 1840s, and events such as the Irish Famine in 1847, saw different waves of people arrive on Australian shores in the 1800s. Whether by choice or by situation, these pioneers went on to create a new life for themselves and their families, contributing to the Australia of today.

Painting of a ship carrying immigrants to Australia

Picture: The Lady Kennaway was one of six vessels that brought orphans to Williamstown, Victoria under the auspices of Earl Grey's Irish Famine Orphan scheme.

Researched and presented by Sylvia Quinnell for the Botany Bay Family History Society Irish Interest Group in New South Wales.

Irish in New South Wales

The 1st Irish Convict Ship to NEW SOUTH WALES was The QUEEN which arrived at Sydney Cove on 26th September 1791. It sailed from Cork in April 1791 and was the first convict ship direct from Ireland, all the convicts on board were Irish.

Once in Australia, some were involved in the 1804 Castle Hill convict rebellion in NSW.   Other than convicts, most of the labourers who voluntarily immigrated to Australia in the 19th century were drawn from the poorest sector of British and Irish society.  After 1831, the Australian colonies employed a system of government assistance in which all or most immigration costs were paid for chosen immigrants and the colonial authorities used these schemes to exercise some control over immigration.  Most Irish emigrants to Australia were free settlers and the 1891 census of Australia shows 228,000 people were Irish-born and a decade later the number of Ireland-born dropped to 184,035.

The Irish settler in Australia, both voluntary and forced was crucial to the survival and prosperity of the early colonies both demographically and economically.  300,000 Irish Free Settlers arrived between 1840 and 1914 and by 1871 the Irish were a quarter of all overseas-born.

The year 1810 saw the start of the southward expansion of the Colony of New South Wales.  This was under the governorship of Lachlan Macquarie 1810 – 1821 who promoted exploration. The Blue Mountains were crossed (1813) and the New Country around and beyond Goulburn was examined by an exploration party. This land proved to hold great prospects for grazing, and to the Deputy Surveyor-General for NSW a James Meehan, an ex-convict and veteran of the 1798 Rebellion in Ireland we can attribute the Irish influx to the southern district of NSW and their future success.

Lachlan Macquarie

A portrait of Governor of Australia, Major General Lachlan Macquarie.

Statue of Lachlan Macquarie

A picture of Major General Lachlan Macquarie's statue.


Blue Mountains

A picture of the Blue Mountains in Australia.


James Meehan

A picture of a statue of James Meehan in front of the Land Department Building in Sydney.

He knew what land was promising and he knew when it would become available.

Few people know the story behind the modern city of Canberra and its environs. Did you know that Duntroon was the home of the wealthy Campbell family and had become a Scottish village and that Yarralumla was an Irish village! The story behind the modern capital city of Canberra is but one special case of many which could be told about the early days of settlement and the Irish origins of so many rural people of southern New South Wales.   An ex-convict named Ned Ryan built up a grazing empire to the north-west of Canberra between Binalong and Cootamundra and promoted the emigration of his fellow townsmen from Tipperary and a glance through district cemeteries shows a significant proportion of the early immigrants to southern NSW have their origins in Counties Tipperary, Cork, Clare and Kilkenny.

My husband Peter and I have visited the cemetery at Gunning which contains graves of early Irish settlers but unfortunately a flood many years ago in the lower section have partly destroyed the headstones and they were unreadable. But we did have great success at Murringo Cemetery where we found many of his McInerney ancestors from County Clare including his great, great, Grandmother Bridget McInerney nee O’Dea and his great grandfather, James McInerney from Ballycally, County Clare and great grandmother Ellen McInerney nee O’Keeffe from Limerick.  Plus many more by the name of O’Dea and other Irish names, all from the County Clare region in Ireland.  One good thing about these old graves is the great information on the headstones. Many Irish settled in the areas of Gundaroo/Queanbeyan, Young, Boorowa, Koorawatha, Goulburn, Yass, Tumut, Cootamundra, & Wagga. In 1823 a Captain Currie and party reached the Maneroo (open treeless grazing country), later called Monaro. And in 1824 the most famous explorer of all the Irish “Hamilton Hume” led a party overland hundreds of miles to Port Phillip (Melbourne), opening up the famous Riverina district bounded by the Murray and Lachlan Rivers and in 1829 Captain Sturt followed the rivers west, which extended the settlement into the plains or levels country. Thus was the stage set for an unexpected rise to prosperity and freedom for many Irish people. However, the 1829 Census for the Goulburn Plains which embraced the modern Canberra district showed that there were 907 convicts (859 male, 48 female) out of a total district population of 1,141.  Of these residents, approximately 450 were Catholics, which at the time would certainly have meant they were Irish and none are listed as landholders. As the modern-day citizens of Canberra hurry along their busy highways, one might wonder whether anyone gives a passing thought to those pioneers who walked those same paths when it was a harsh unpromising land.

Hamilton Hume

A picture of a statue of Hamilton Hume, an early explorer of the present day Australia states of New South Wales and Victoria, in front of the Lands Department Building, Sydney.

The New South Wales Government encouraged immigrants especially men to go to country centres such as Maitland, Newcastle, & Bathurst from where they would be hired by landholders.

Going north of Sydney we find Irish Immigrants in places like Morpeth in the Hunter Region and its surroundings. Again Peter’s relatives the O’Keeffes migrated from Askeaton, Limerick to New South Wales in 1876 and settled in Morpeth, and travelled there by steamer from Sydney! Looking at numerous graves in the Morpeth Cemetery there seems to be a lot of O’Keeffes and many Irish Settlers in Maitland and the surrounding areas.

Also, NSW was responsible for the settlement of Irish Immigrants in Northern NSW and instigated immigration to Morton Bay, Brisbane Southern Queensland in 18?? with the arrival of the “Artemisia,” Sailing ships carrying the majority of travellers.  

Irish in Queensland

With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and with the signing of a mail contract, the Queensland Government in conjunction with the British Steam Navigation Company inaugurated a regular steamer service and instead of the first port of call being Moreton Bay/Brisbane by all sailing vessels travelling the Great Circle Route via the south of the continent and then moving north along the east coast;  the new route was via the Mediterranean and then the  Canal to approach Queensland from the north.  This meant that several ports along the eastern coast established reception deports for immigrants with the result that Queensland was the only colony to populate its territory from towns stretching along the entire eastern seaboard.  Ports of arrival in north Queensland included Thursday Island, Cooktown, Cairns, Townsville, Bowen, Mackay, Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Maryborough and Brisbane.  All other colonies were restricted to ports near their Capitals.

Read about Quinn's Immigration Scheme

Irish in Victoria

A strong Irish network of Bounty Immigrants existed in Melbourne before the 1850s. Then the Irish migrated in vast numbers, being the largest immigrant group after the English from 1854 to World War 1.  And by 1871 when the community numbered 10,468 more than one in four Victorians was born in Ireland.  The Irish famine of the 1840s caused large numbers of people to migrate due to poverty and difficult living conditions.  They worked in Victoria as whalers, fishermen and farmhands and in townships as labourers and factory workers. The Irish settled most densely in the inner city and for a time some of the poorer lanes of the central city sustained conspicuous Irish population. Such as Bourke, Gipps and Lonsdale wards.

The 1850s remain the most significant decade for Irish Immigration to Victoria. In Melbourne for most of the 19th century, Hotham – northwest of Melbourne was the most Irish locality because of its position near unskilled labour markets in the railway yards, warehouses and wharves.  Between 1850 and 1890 most Irish arrivals to Victoria came as assisted immigrants escaping cultural repression in Ireland and in contrast to many other groups they came as equal numbers of men and women.  Major waves of Irish migration commenced during the reconstruction of Irish Agriculture after the 1840 famine and during the gold rushes of the 1850s after the discovery of gold in Victoria. Many sought their fortunes on the goldfields around the Ballarat, Bendigo and the Blackwood area. My husband’s great grandmother, Jane Roach from Kings County, (Offaly) daughter of  Michaelis Roach & Jonnane Malone married Vincenzo Cocciardi (who jumped ship) Italian in Victoria on 27/12/1866   and they settled on the goldfields in Blackwood, raised 8 children and they are buried in the Blackwood Cemetery.  All around the Victoria Goldfields in places such as Bendigo, Ballarat one will find many graves of Irish Immigrants.

Irish in South Australia

a small scaled model of John Pirie's schooner, secured in a glass box display.

In 1836 the “John Pirie” and the” Duke of York” set sail for South Australia to establish the first settlers on Kangaroo Island and in 1884, 621 young Irish Orphan Girls were sent out to the young Colony of South Australia.

“Kapunda” in South Australia is a town on the Light River and near the Barossa Valley.   There the Miners were Cornish and the Labourers and Smelters were Irish and many of the Catholic Irish settled at St. Johns or Johnstown about 5kms.away to the south-west of the Mine.  This mine at Kapunda is the oldest copper mining town in Australia

Irish in Tasmania

 The Irish helped to open up areas such as Franklin and Cygnet in the Huon region and Deloraine and Latrobe in the north-west and an Irishman James Crotty was influential in establishing the Mount Lyell Mining Company on the west coast of Tasmania.

Another story of Peters is that of his GG Grandfather, a Thomas Sullivan from Tralee. He joined the British Army in 1805 served in the Peninsular Wars and other conflicts. He returned to Ireland and was stationed at the barracks in Athlone, County Roscommon and in 1823 his regiment was sent all the way to Tasmania! Thus Thomas Sullivan, who had married Maria Coghill in Roscommon by now, and their 3 children arrived in Tasmania where they remained until 1829. The book “The Sullivan Soldiers” by Kevin Davies (a 2nd cousin of my husband, Peter) states that Thomas and his family remained at Port Dalrymple (Launceston) for a number of years. Then in The Muster Rolls, we find that Thomas spent time serving in an area referred to as Clyde.  The Clyde River is in central Tasmania and from the Clyde area moved to Macquarie Harbour arriving about 1825. The Macquarie Harbour Penal Station is on the west coast of Tasmania and the only access to Macquarie Harbour is a narrow channel called “Hells Gate”. Extremely hard for convicts, but also very had for the soldiers.  Thomas moved and served in many areas of Van Diemen’s Land, but it is unlikely that his family were with him the whole time.  We know that they were in Hobart Town in Nov. 1826 as it is here that (Thomas 2nd) was christened.

Then in 1829, his whole regiment had to return to Ireland to be discharged.   But in 1848 he and his family finally left Ireland and returned to Tasmania as free settlers, later settling in Victoria.

One of his sons, Thomas the 2nd, married Rosanne Roach from Ireland in Victoria.  Rosanne (Rose Anne) being the elder sister of Jane Roach, and they later settled in Deniliquin NSW. Thomas trading as a Saddler.  

Irish in Western Australia

In 1826 convicts, which included some Irish convicts, were sent to King Georges Sound (Albany) to help establish a settlement there.  At that time the western third of Australia was unclaimed land known as New Holland.

King George IV

A portrait of King George IV, formerly known as Prince Regent, King of England, Ireland and Hanover.

Perth was founded as the Swan River Colony in 1829 by British and Irish Settlers.

Irish Immigrants who uprooted their lives due to hunger caused by the Great Famine settled in the South West between 1845 and 1852.  One such immigrant who travelled to Western Australia during the Famine was Bridget Mulqueen who settled in Bunbury and another lady Elizabeth Carbury who ventured to Dardanup.

Western Australia did not receive significant flows of immigrants from Ireland or elsewhere in the British Empire until the early 20th century.

For a greater insight into the people mentioned above, please find below the XO Chronicles detailing dates of birth, Irish origins, arrival in Australia and place of burial.

With thanks to Sylvia and Peter Quinnell who are members of the Irish Interest Group of Botany Bay Family History Society in Sutherland Shire NSW New South Wales.

In August/September 2016 Sylvia and Pater visited Ireland and through Ireland Reaching Out, met Margaret Spearin who helped them find the Catholic Church in Catrole where Peter’ great grandfather Jim McInerney was baptised. 

Jim McInerney and his wife Ellen O’Keeffe are Peter’s great grandparents and one of their daughters, Bridget, married John Quinnell thus moving from Murringo to Adelong to make their home.  

On Sylvia's family side are the Kavanaghs, Greens, Byrne & Molloy from around Arklow, Rathdrum, Coolgreany areas.

Photo of Peter and Sylvia taken in Athlone in 2016. 

Botany Bay Family History Society

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