By the middle of the nineteenth century the Australian colonies were already well known to many Irish men and women and represented different things to different people: freedom or imprisonment; somewhere new lives could be forged; or where imposed exiles must be endured. By the end of 1852 there was a new lure for these intrepid exiles of Erin – Gold!
The Irish flocked to the imagined El Dorado; between 1851 and 1860 roughly 101,540 of them had arrived in Australia with the vast majority of the immigrants finding their way to the goldfields. In The Gold Finder in Australia (published in 1853) John Sherer, commenting on the inhabitants of the goldfields, observed that ‘many of these were the offspring of the teeming soil of Ireland, which seems to throw off its population with the same degree of prolific spontaneity that it shoots forth the riches of its vegetation.’
Unlike their Welsh, Scottish and English neighbours, most of the Irish lacked mining skills. In the early stages this wasn’t a significant problem as alluvial mining, which required little expertise, predominated. However, as surface deposits of gold ran out, and alluvial mining gave way to deep lead mining, ‘to go it alone’ meant relevant skills were essential. Lacking these, the numerous Irish on the goldfields became a ready source of unskilled labour for the large-scale mining concerns that were developing. Although for some of the Irish their golden dream became a reality, for the vast majority a short, fruitless stint as a miner soon gave way to one of the mundane, but more profitable, professions available in colonial life. The abundance of available work, fuelled by the needs of the diggers, meant that many of the Irish enjoyed a standard of living well beyond that they had left behind in Ireland. Reporting on the Daisy Hill diggings near Castlemaine, the Cork Examiner informed readers that:
Young Irish Orphan girls who scarcely knew the luxury of a shoe until they put their feet on the soil of Victoria lavish money on white satin at 10/- or 12/- a yard for their bridal dresses and flout out of the shop slamming the door because the unfortunate shop keeper does not have the real shawls at ten guineas a piece.
The Irish immigrants revelled in this land of boundless opportunities, becoming employed as grocers, publicans, cartage operators, brewers, domestic workers, policemen and general labourers.
By character and sheer numbers, the Irish had a large impact on the goldfields communities that sprang up. They quickly earned a reputation for their colour and flamboyance on the diggings. With an infectious sense of humour the familiar Irish brogue could be heard issuing forth from hotels with iconic names such as Brian Boru, Harp of Erin and Shamrock. Goldfield society valued ‘the mirth loving Irishman, ever easing his labour by joke and repartee.’ However, as is always the case with the Irish, political discontent was never far from the surface. Of the diggers that took part in the 1854 Eureka stockade, one witness at the Gold Fields Commission claimed that ‘quite half of them were Irishmen’; the leader at Eureka, Peter Lalor, was also an Irishman.
The legacy of the Irish immigrants who came to the Victorian goldfields is diverse – it ranges from the leading role they played in the Catholic institutions of the major gold rush towns to the iconic Queensland beer, XXXX, originally brewed by two Irish brothers in the early days of the Castlemaine diggings.
The story of Irish-Australia has been attributed an important place in Australian history. Historians such as Patrick O’Farrell (The Irish in Australia, 2000) and Chris McConville (Croppies, Celts & Catholics, 1987) have written definitive works that highlight the dynamic role the Irish in Australia had in the development of our national identity. These large historical narratives have addressed many of the popular notions regarding the Irish immigrant experience and the character of the communities they created.