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Fresh look at Irish contribution to SA


A thirst for more than just Guinness was evident when around 300 people packed into the Irish Club in Carrington Street recently for the launch of a new book on the Irish diaspora. JENNY BRINKWORTH reports.

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A dearth of knowledge on the Irish-Australian contribution to the State’s history has prompted a group of academics and historians to compile a new book called Irish South Australia: New histories and insights.

Published by Wakefield Press, the book was launched last month by the Irish Ambassador to Australia, Breandán Ó Caollaí.

While English royalty is reflected in the name of the State’s capital and King William Street, few people would know that the first European to discover the River Torrens was Cork-born and educated George Kingston – well it seems his dog was looking for water actually. Nor might they know that the river was named after Derry-born Colonel Torrens, who was chair of the SA Colonisation Commission, and that Adelaide’s first judge and police commissioner were immigrants from Kerry and Limerick.

In fact, the book tells us that as well as Irish-born elite such as Kingston, who also designed many of Adelaide’s early buildings including St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, and Charles Harvey Bagot, there were doctors, farmers, lawyers, orphans, parliamentarians, pastoralists and publicans who made their home in South Australia in its early days.

The book begins with a timeline of the Irish in SA before Federation and ends with Irish place names that remain as permanent markers such as Clare, Donnybrook, Dublin, Kilkenny, Navan, Rostrevor, Tipperary and Tralee (as Tarlee).

As the editors note in their preface, while Irish Australia became a popular area of academic study in the late 1980s, up until now it has been largely focused on New South Wales and Victoria.

For one of the four editors, Irish-born archaeologist Susan Arthure, the topic gained significance for her after she uncovered the impact of Irish settlement at Baker’s Flat, near Kapunda. Her fieldwork identified the first ‘clachan’ – a traditional Irish settlement pattern characterised by clusters of houses and cooperative farming – to be recognised in Australia.

Her co-editors, Fidelma Breen and Dymphna Lonergan, are also Irish immigrants while Stephanie James has eight Irish great grandparents. In total there are 14 contributors, all of whom have a passionate interest in Irish history in SA.

The catalyst for the book was the 22nd Australasian Irish Studies Conference, held in Adelaide in December 2016, where many of the contributors gave presentations.

Of course Catholic bishops, priests and Religious are scattered throughout the histories, the development of the Catholic Church being inextricably intertwined with the existence of Irish communities. This was particularly so in small country towns such as Pekina where the first Irish settlers pleaded to Bishop Reynolds in 1874 for a ‘resident pastor’ to be sent there as soon as possible.

Similarly, in the South East, Irish pastoralist Anthony Sutton of Dismal Swamp was known for his involvement in Church life and even hosted Adelaide’s first bishop, Francis Murphy, for two weeks in 1854. This was well after the first Mass was celebrated in Dismal Swamp – in 1847 when a priest from Victoria lost his way and was taken in by the Sutton family.

Ambassador Ó Caollaí said the important message from the book was that, “we came, we worked hard and we made a huge contribution to SA, as we did wherever we went in the world”.

“The Irish community has dearly earned the high regard and respect in which we are held,” he said.

The Ambassador noted that the launch was being held on the feast day of St Brigid, who is seen as a role model for contemporary Irish women.

Professor Ronan McDonald, president of the Irish Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand (ISAANZ), said the book was a much-needed “adrenalin shot”. He said there had been an absence of Irish studies in universities in Australia, particularly compared to the US and Canada, even though Australia was often regarded as the “most Irish country outside Ireland”.

St Brigid’s Day was chosen deliberately by the four female editors to launch the book in honour of a strong female role model in St Brigid of Kildare, particularly as this year is the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in South Australia. From December 9-12 an ISAANZ conference will be held in Adelaide under the theme of ‘Foregrounding Irish Women: the Antipodes and Beyond’.

Irish South Australia: New histories and insights is available from Wakefield Press phone 8352 4455 or


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