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Michael D Higgins says Australian democracy has 'distinctive Irish influence'

Over 90,000 Irish-born people live in Australia.

PRESIDENT MICHAEL D Higgins has spoken about the influence of Irish emigrants in Australia.

Higgins made the remarks in a speech at the joint Houses of Parliament of Western Australia in Perth today.

“Since the arrival of the first fleet 230 years ago, Irish people have traversed the vast seas to this continent, some as prisoners and some as servants of empire, and later, as migrants fleeing hunger, poverty, oppression, frustration and stagnation, seeking fortune, adventure, professional or economic opportunity,” Higgins stated.

“A third of a million Irish people emigrated to Australia between 1840 and 1914, often travelling, particularly in the later period, with assistance from the governments of the new colonies. We Irish, for example, were the most prolific users of the nomination scheme, which allowed whole families to migrate over time.”

Higgins spoke about how his grandfather’s brother and sister Patrick and Mary Ann Higgins, emigrants from County Clare, arrived in Moreton Bay on 8 April 1862.

“Five of my grandfather’s family of seven would end up moving to Australia. Patrick was, in his own words, ‘a tiller of the soil’, brought up to the plough from a young age.

“He used these skills to become a worker and manager of several farms in Queensland, and finally to establish himself with his own farm at Sandy Creek, seven miles from the town of Warwick.”

Economic struggles

The president, who is on a state visit to Australia, noted how Irish people continued to emigrate to Australia after World War II.

The ebb and flow of migration since that time has been a result of the same conjunction of structural forces and personal agency, of the push and pull of economic and social circumstances, individual hopes and dreams, and in the Irish case, as with others, of the pressures of a society and economy in Ireland that so often struggled to provide the necessary opportunity and security to all its citizens.

Higgins said the “economic hardship in Ireland” during the late 1940s and 1950s was a catalyst for many emigrants.

“Today, over 90,000 Irish-born people live in Australia and of course two million Australians record their ancestry as Irish in your national census.
“Here in this State, one can see the manifold and multifaceted influence of Irish emigrants and Australians of Irish ancestry on the different periods and circumstances of your history…

“This new world, with its burgeoning democratic tradition, was formed and gave form, had an influence on, the struggle for democracy and independence in Ireland.

“Some of the defining characteristics of your Australian democracy, established in often perilous and difficult conditions, carry a distinctive Irish influence. Indeed, conditions in Ireland may have given to some a perhaps singular determination not to carry and repeat all of the sins of the old world in the new.”

Daniel O’Connell 

Higgins then spoke about the influence of a number of prominent Irish people in Australia, including Daniel O’Connell.

“The influence of Daniel O’Connell, the Irish liberator, extended to this country through the appointment of the remarkable John Hubert Plunkett as Attorney General of New South Wales in 1832 where he fought for and established the principles of civil and religious equality, and of equality before the law, helping break down the distinction between Emancipist and Exclusionist which had divided and marred the infant colony.

“His prosecution of the Case of Myall Creek with its vindication of the rights of indigenous people would come at a considerable personal cost.”

‘Slavery by another name’

Higgins noted that while most Irish emigrants had a positive experience of moving to Australia, “this was not always the case”.

“The dominant ideas of the time of the emigrants leaving and their arrival defined their experience.

“It was not a positive experience for the thousands of young girls, orphaned by the Irish famine, and transported to Australia under Earl Grey’s scheme developed to address a failing landlordism at home, and to meet the labour force needs and the gender balance in the new colony.

“These girls were exposed to humiliation based on the threefold prejudice of gender, religion and nationality.

“Neither was it the case for the thousands of convicted men and women who, on arrival, encountered a prison system that was slavery by another name,” he said.

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