Research

‘Irish identity’ buried by SA’s colonial rule

Celtic crosses Navan cemetery

The ‘Irishness’ of Irish settlers was commonly ‘buried’ during British colonisation of South Australia, with many Irish emigrants such as farm workers and domestic help treated as ‘second-rate’ citizens.

An historical archaeology study of regional South Australia by Flinders University experts gives vivid insights into the towns and communities built by Irish migrants, many of them brought here to fill labour shortages in the fledgeling colony.

Alongside Irish colonial forefathers such as George Kingston, Robert Torrens and Charles Harvey Bagot, who joined the ruling elite, were hundreds of young female orphans shipped to SA in the 19th century as domestic workers, and poor rural workers who settled in regional ‘cluster’ areas in the Mid North and Clare Valley where they made a strong Irish footprint.

Many escaping the aftermath of Ireland’s Great Famine, the Irish in the ‘free’ colony – as in other Australian settlements – were largely indistinguishable from the appearance of their British counterparts except for their religion, says Flinders University archaeologist Associate Professor Heather Burke.

“Our archaeological analyses of architecture, land use, graves and personal items from three colonial sites in SA demonstrate forms of ‘Irishness’ that distinguishes the Roman Catholic and Protestant Irish from the non-Irish around them,” Associate Professor Burke says.

“While the Irish were relatively invisible within Australian colonial society, they did retain their national identity and culture in many ways and faced a degree of anti-Irish sentiment, for example the treatment of the young domestic workers who were often described as incompetent, stupid and insolent by employers.”

Irish clusters grew at Baker’s Flat near Kapunda, and towns with names like Navan, Clare, Donnybrook, Dublin, Kilkenny, Rostrevor and Tipperary. National symbols such as the Celtic cross, shamrock, harp and wolfhound, and cultural and religious practices, were signs of the Irish diasporic communities’ support for Irish political changes in the second half of the 19th century.

While the Cornish and Scottish, who also arrived in big numbers in colonial SA, much of the Irish history is under-researched and not celebrated, says Dr Susan Arthure, who writes about the Irish history of Kapunda in the book.

“Ireland was a colony of Britain when South Australia was colonised, so when everyone looked the same it was easy not to acknowledge Irish identity and treat people poorly,” Dr Arthure says.

Flinders University will host an Irish women history conference in Adelaide, 9-21 December 2019.

Source: Flinders University

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