Anti-Irish racism was brought to Australia on the First Fleet and remained a core element of Australian politics for almost 200 years. It was undoubtedly the main racial/communal division in the working class for much of this period. The divisions were so entrenched that they persisted for decades after the worst of the racism had receded.

Anti-Irish racism was a direct product of British imperialism. Ireland was England’s first colony and where the English ruling class perfected its techniques of social control, which it subsequently applied to its expanding colonial empire in Asia and Africa.

Those techniques included repeated genocides, mass famines, slavery, torture, mass deportations to penal colonies such as Australia, the destruction of the Irish language and the outlawing of Irish Catholicism. They also included more subtle mechanisms of cooption and bribery. But above all there was divide and rule – the planting in Ireland of settler populations from England and Scotland loyal to Britain. To back all this up, there was developed a set of racist ideas about the innate superiority of the oppressors over the oppressed.

On this score little has changed. For example, in 1836 British prime minister-to-be Benjamin Disraeli wrote: “The Irish hate our order, our civilization, our enterprising industry, our pure religion. This wild, reckless, indolent, uncertain and superstitious race have no sympathy with the English character”.

Substitute Muslim for Irish, and this could have been written last week.


The specific content of this racist ideology evolved over time. The idea that the Irish were uncivilised and barbarous (which was used to justify conquest, genocide and forms of slavery) morphed into the idea that the Irish were not white. They were depicted in the same way as Africans were portrayed in the 19th century: as non-humans – apes, gorillas, chimpanzees.

As is commonly the case with racist ideas, anti-Irish racism took on ideas very much shaped by class – the scornful, sneering attitudes of the respectable middle classes to workers and those at the bottom of society. The Irish in Australia, England, the US and Canada were overwhelmingly working class and were portrayed as lazy welfare cheats, drunken, dirty, uneducated, violent, criminal, stupid, with hordes of kids.

These attitudes and stereotypes became entrenched in popular culture in the English-speaking world in innumerable ways. Racist terms like paddy wagons (police vans to lock up the supposedly drunken Irish) and beyond the pale (the supposedly barbarian area of Ireland beyond the English-controlled pale of settlement around Dublin) persist to this day.

All this was interwoven with another key element (remarkably similar to anti-Muslim racism in today’s world) – hostility to Catholicism. In Australia, this became probably the dominant element in the racism. England was a Protestant kingdom for a Protestant people. Protestantism, which was central to middle class English identity, was supposedly an enlightened, modern, rational religion compared to backward, superstitious Irish Catholicism.

Prior to the 1870s, the Irish had not been particularly religious. They remained loyal to Catholicism more as an act of pride and identity against hated English rule. This clinging to Catholicism meant the Irish were seen as inherently disloyal. They supposedly owed their loyalties to the pope in Rome rather than to the king or queen of England in London, and there was the danger of them allying with Catholic powers in Spain or France.

Intermixed political struggle

The Irish originally came to Australia primarily as convicts. My ancestor Michael Casey, transported here for life for house-breaking, aged 14, was fairly typical. But there was also a solid leavening of political prisoners from the Irish rebellion against British rule in 1798, as well as other risings. In any case, in rural Ireland there was only a thin line separating theft from wealthy landowners and explicitly political offences.

Irish convicts played leading roles in repeated revolts in Australia, such as the 1804 Castle Hill rebellion, which seriously threatened British colonial rule. Significantly, in what proved a recurring pattern, the Irish were able to inspire a significant number of non-Irish to take up arms to join the rebellion – despite the racism. It was the same during the Eureka Stockade – in which Irish gold miners such as Peter Lalor played a decisive role – in the Kelly outbreak and subsequently in working class struggles.

The Irish, because of their national oppression, long history of struggle, the feeling that they had less to lose and cohesion as a group, played a vanguard role in a series of upheavals that breached the racial and religious divide and united the mass of the exploited and oppressed. It was repeatedly the case that the racial divide proved much easier to break at the bottom of society than among the middle classes and the better off.

Varied elements

What were the specific elements of anti-Irish racism? First, in the early years of the colony of NSW, there was no religious freedom. The Catholic Church was in effect banned.

Second, there was concerted opposition to the migration of young Irish women brought here to be servants. The colony was supposedly in danger of being swamped by Irish Catholics. The mere presence of young Irish women threatened to corrupt the morals of upstanding Protestant men and – abomination upon abomination – there was the danger of them converting their partners to Catholicism.

Third, there was opposition to Catholic schools – a longstanding source of tensions, which continued into recent times. The left in the 20th century did not play a very good role in this because of a misguided and rigid adherence to secularism. State schools, though nominally secular, stridently promoted loyalty to the British Empire and were rightly seen by Irish Catholics as alien, Protestant institutions.

Fourth, there was discrimination in employment, particularly in white collar jobs, the professions, banks, universities and so on. In the public service there were Protestant departments and Catholic departments. The various sections of the police force were divided along religious lines. When you went for a job, you were asked what religion you were or, later on, what school you went to, which was the same question.

Fifth, there were terrorist scares. The Fenians (Irish republicans) were involved in armed attacks in England in the 1860s. In 1868 in Sydney, in an incident similar to recent events in the West, a mentally unstable Irish-Australian, Henry James O’Farrell, shot at the duke of Edinburgh, who was on a royal tour of Australia. This led to an explosion of anti-Irish hate, which was leapt on by politicians to prove their loyalty to the empire. O’Farrell, despite being insane, was almost immediately executed.

Sixth, there were anti-Irish mobilisations by sectarian organisations such as the Orange Lodge (the Protestant supremacist organisation in Northern Ireland, which was a key element in cementing British rule there). By the late 19th century, it was easily the largest mass membership organisation in the colonies, with hundreds of thousands of members. It remained a powerful force, especially in NSW, well into the 1930s.

The intensity of the racism ebbed and flowed over the decades, partly in line with British imperial policy in Ireland. But it never went away. Irish Australians, who by the 20th century made up 20-25 percent of the population (and even more of the working class) maintained their identity in a way that none of the post-World War II migrant groups did – precisely because of the level of the oppression. They were not allowed to assimilate.

The communal divisions went extremely deep and were entrenched in mass organisations such as the Orange Lodge and subsequently the Masons, the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Young Men’s Christian Association and a plethora of other sectarian groups.

The mass anti-drink agitation that almost succeeded in imposing prohibition, as it had in the USA, inevitably took on a racist element because drunkenness was seen as an Irish failing, and pub owners were commonly Irish. Wowserism – hostility to gambling, swearing, drinking, dancing and sex – was strongly promoted by the Protestant churches and mass women’s organisations and was entrenched for decades in the respectable Protestant suburbs such as Melbourne’s Camberwell.

Communalism flowed into every aspect of life in all sorts of little ways that rubbed a raw nerve amongst Irish Australians. For example, the prayers they recite in parliament are Protestant versions of the prayers.

For decades, army passing-out parades were addressed by a bishop of the Church of England, which acted as though it was the official state religion. This practice ended only in the 1950s. In the lead-up to one royal visit, every Catholic soldier walked off the parade ground in Geelong – in effect a mutiny – when the Church of England bishop stood to address them.

This was just one example of a long pattern of resistance, which included innumerable riots against Orange Lodge events. In the 1840s, there were repeated mass mobilisations of many thousands of Irish armed with hurling sticks to oppose the Orange Lodge, which at times ended in shootings.

One of the most dramatic riots occurred in Brisbane in 1900, when an Orange Lodge public meeting attended by the cream of Brisbane high society was besieged. The local paper, the Courier, reported: “A fusillade of stones began to rain down on the roof” of the Protestant hall and shattered its windows. “Half bricks, sharp slate and stones several pounds in weight, were among the missiles.” The meeting had to be abandoned as audience members began taking injuries. “As Protestants left the darkened hall, they were set upon … hit by missiles, physically assaulted with fists and sticks and had their clothing torn and dishevelled.”

Early 20th century

In the early years of the 20th century, empire loyalism was on the rise in Australia. From 1905, Empire Day was officially celebrated, with its inevitable anti-Irish undertones. Then came the sharp flare-up with the World War One anti-conscription campaign. Among Irish Australians, working class hostility to conscription was intensified by national grievance. Consequently, working class Irish Australians mobilised in huge, militant protests.

In the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rebellion in Dublin, a wave of anti-Irish racism was unleashed in Australia. The government implemented harsh repressive measures under the War Precautions Act. Sinn Fein was outlawed, as was any advocacy of Irish independence. Irish republicans were rounded up and interned, and there were a number of deportations, including of Catholic priests. These harsh measures overrode any initial doubts about supporting the rebellion.

It was in this context that Daniel Mannix, the newly installed archbishop of Melbourne, came to the fore and played an extremely prominent role in opposing the second conscription referendum in 1917. Mannix spoke to huge crowds, including more than 100,000 at the Richmond racecourse in the heart of working class Melbourne.

In subsequent years, St Patrick’s Day marches were turned into huge manifestations of support for the revolution in Ireland against British rule, confirming in the minds of the Protestant establishment that Catholics were a disloyal fifth column.

These developments had a major impact on the ALP. There had always been a significant sectarian element in conservative politics, but, from around 1910 onwards, there was little or no space in the conservative parties even for middle class Catholics. Consequently, Catholic support, both working class and middle class, flowed overwhelmingly to Labor.

The 1916 split in the party over conscription reinforced this pattern. The great bulk of those who split away in support of conscription were Protestants. Labor became a party of Catholics and less religious working class Protestants. The grassroots ALP membership in working class areas in the eastern states was overwhelmingly Catholic. (This pattern was maintained for many decades, especially in NSW, where there was no serious presence of the DLP – the right wing, predominantly Catholic, split from Labor in the 1950s.)

In response, in the 1920s (in NSW in particular), the main thrust of the conservatives’ attack on Labor was that it was an utterly disloyal Catholic/Communist-dominated party, evidenced by Labor’s support for Irish independence. The NSW conservative government from 1922 to 1925 was dominated by the ultra-sectarian Protestant Federation. It imposed the caning of school students for not saluting the flag or honouring the king, and legislated to restrict the Catholic Church’s role in marriage.


The communal divisions and tensions didn’t simply go away. They were too deeply rooted in society. Discrimination in employment continued into the 1970s. The Liberal Party remained a largely Protestant fief until the 1990s. State aid to Catholic schools long remained a flashpoint for sectarian divisions. The DLP split, which was particularly strong in Queensland and Victoria until the mid-1970s, further polarised society along sectarian lines and carried the divisions into the unions.

The upsurge of struggle in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s revived explicitly anti-Irish racism, as distinct from catch-all anti-Catholicism. Anti-Irish jokes were a dime a dozen for years afterwards.

Irish Catholics remained very much at the bottom of society. The middle class remained disproportionately Protestant until the 1980s. Catholics disproportionately made up the prison population, in a similar way as Aborigines do today. Symbolic of this entrenched social divide, the name of the last person hanged in Australia in 1967 was Ronald Ryan.

A series of factors gradually eased the sectarian/racial tensions. First was southern Ireland gaining independence. Second was the shift in Australia’s imperial alignment from Britain to the US after the Second World War. Third was the postwar boom and the expansion of state welfare, which reduced reliance on sectarian organisations for welfare. Fourth was the granting of state aid to Catholic schools. Fifth was the massive postwar immigration, which shifted the ethnic balance of the population. Sixth was the overall decline in religiosity, especially amongst Protestants. Finally, and importantly, there was the upsurge of working class struggle and radicalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which fostered working class unity and sidelined the old divisions.