Leabharlann na Meán



Parliament of Western Australia, Perth, 10 October 2017

Mr. Speaker,

President of the Council,


Members of the Legislative Assembly,

Members of the Legislative Council,


A Chairde,

Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, ba mhór an onóir dom é bhur gcuireadh a fháil labhairt le Parlaimint Iarthair na hAstráile.

Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, as President of Ireland, I appreciated the great honour that it is for me to address the Parliament of Western Australia and to have the opportunity of reaffirming the long and abiding bonds shared by the peoples of Ireland and the Commonwealth of Australia.


May I thank you for the kind hospitality – an fíorchaoin fáilte - and the warm welcome that you have offered to me and to the Irish delegation.

In making this visit as President of Ireland, I am minded of all those earlier visits by others, including my own ancestors.  My grandfather’s siblings came here in 1862. 

They did not come to a terra nullius and I wish to begin here today by acknowledging the first occupants of this land who for tens of thousands of years negotiated with its possibilities and its challenges, and developed one of the oldest cultures in the world, one that valued symmetry with nature, ancient wisdom and practical balances.

Mr. Speaker,

President of the Council,

Since the arrival of the First Fleet two hundred and thirty years ago, Irish people have traversed the vast seas to come or be brought to this continent, some as prisoners and some as servants of empire, and later, as migrants fleeing hunger, poverty, oppression, frustration and stagnation, seeking the economic opportunity of land tenure, adventure, professional or economic opportunity. There has never been any one Irish migratory experience and those who form the Australian component of the Irish Diaspora are no exception. 

The different streams of Irish migration to Australia show, for example, differences in religious affiliation, skills and loyalty. In the years before the Great Famine, Irish migrants were in the category of skilled workers and most often self-financing as to their passage, while post famine, it was the poor, the most broken and their dependants who sought escape and new beginnings.

All migrant journeys are impelled by both individual, deeply personal decisions to leave a home, and the timing of these personal decisions is affected by great structural economic, social, political and natural forces which shape the modern world. We find, in the journey of Irish, and indeed all, migrants to this country, a complex interplay of both impelling or attracting structural forces and personal decisions.

There are personal decisions that explain the ‘incidence’ in any case.  The structural factors perhaps explain the fluctuation in the rate.  It is a distinction I borrow from Emile Durkheim’s classic study on suicide, his use of what he terms necessary and sufficient factors in explanation of causality.

In the early years of the penal colonies, to those imprisoned on criminal or political charges, who were awaiting transportation in the gaols of Ireland, the foreign yet threateningly familiar names of Botany Bay and Van Diemen’s Land had a particular ring as they signalled leaving one’s home and one’s loved ones for imprisonment and exile.  The term could be for 7 or 14 years, and of course it had a particularly chilling effect if those awaiting transportation were aware that for some it could include or be followed by a forced removal to Norfolk Island – the Gulag of its time.

As transportation gave way to assisted passage, the new colonies of the southern oceans were offered as an arcadia of abundant land and, in time, the announcement of the discovery of mineral resources, offered or fantasised as a location for a new life or as some landlords saw it, an opportunity for clearing estates of what had become they saw as unproductive and increasingly more desperate and unmanageable tenants.

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. The migrants who came to Australia were diverse, Catholic, Anglican and Dissenting, Quakers and Jews. They came from all social classes and would in time include a diversity of experiences, from gentlemen and lawyers to farmers and cottiers.

My own grandfather’s brother Patrick Higgins, and his sister, Mary Ann, emigrants from County Clare, arrived in Moreton Bay on the Montmorency, on the 8th of April 1862.  Five of my grandfather’s family of seven would end up moving to Australia.  Patrick, a ploughman, 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 different farms in Queensland, and finally to establish himself with his own farm at Sandy Creek, seven miles from the town of Warwick.

This is perhaps a familiar story – Patrick was from the same county as his namesake, Patrick Durack, whose life and times as an overlander driving cattle to the Kimberlys were so memorably recounted in that great book of history Kings in Grass Castles the by that great West Australian author, his grand-daughter Mary Durack.

Since the Second World War, the Irish have continued to travel to Australia and have been part of the new waves of migration which have made Australia the multicultural society it is today. 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 or was not permitted, to provide the necessary opportunities and economic security to all its citizens.

During the late 1940s and 1950s, times of economic hardship in Ireland, the great post-war construction projects, particularly the Snowy Mountains scheme, attracted construction workers from Ireland. In recent years, Australia has again become both a site of travel and work, as many Irish people now come to participate in a prosperous, modern economy.

Today, over 90,000 Irish-born people live in Australia and of course 2 million Australians record their ancestry as Irish in your national census.  I am so happy as President of Ireland to have the opportunity of not only greeting them but also those who have welcomed them and with whom they make their lives as Australians.

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.  

Some lawyers came to seek a professional recognition, and opportunities advancement from which they were excluded access to at home on religious grounds.  Among them was John Henry Plunkett who should always be remembered as the Prosecuting Counsel at the trial of Myall Creek. Ever since Paddy Hannon struck gold in Kalgoorlie, Irish men and women have come to labour, with hand and brain, in the mines of this State; to work the soil in the vast Wheatbelt; to contribute to commerce and industry, law, journalism and the academy; to be involved in the practice of their faith and have it recognised.

It was here that Charles Yelverton O’Connor designed Goldfields Pipelines and Fremantle Harbour; here that John Hackett became the founding Chancellor of a great university; from here that John Curtin, the son of emigrants from County Cork, became Prime Minister of this Commonwealth; from here that the last of Fenian captives escaped aboard a whaling ship called the Catalpa.

The Irish imprint in this State is surely captured in the lines of that great West Australian poet of the Goldfields, Edwin ‘Dryblower’ Murphy, who wrote:

And the mulga low and grey.’

Mr. Speaker,

President of the Council,

One hundred and twenty-two years ago, in 1895, one of our nation’s finest patriots, the land reformer and labour leader Michael Davitt, travelled for seven months through Australia and New Zealand, and wrote of his journey seeking to understand the story of the goldfields of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie, the Utopian settlements of Murray River, and the rising cities of the future Australia.

Founder of The Land League, leader of the Land War in Ireland 1879 to 1882 and disappointed that a lease-hold rather than an absolute ownership system was not finding favour among the tenant holders whose cause he so stoutly defended in Ireland, he remained deeply interested in his travels abroad innovative forms of representation of interests.  His independent mind had led him to be removed from the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  Never a narrow nationalist, he saw the workers on the land and the workers in the factories and cities as having common cause.  Davitt was very aware of what he saw as the corrosive effect of absolute property ownership in terms of the emergence of an abuse of class position.  He was concerned to recognise those who laboured on the land, hence his emphasis on the naming of his organisation as the Land and Labour League. He encouraged workers, as indeed I would, to seek protection, join their trade unions and have a collective spirit.

Here in Perth, only five years after the proclamation of your constitution and achievement of self-government, and in other states, he found a confident legislature and people, who were, in his words, ‘teaching, by their examples, drawn not alone their parent countries, but other lands as well, the courageous wisdom of progressive legislation on most of the vexed social and economic problems of Europe’.

You will be pleased to know that he, as a former parliamentarian, concluded that Western Australian parliamentarians were proficient public speakers, ‘full to overflowing with the subjects –  climatic, commercial, constitutional’ that faced what he called ‘this coming country’.

He found in Australia what he saw as a new society in embryonic form which was profoundly shaped by the remembered thoughts and actions of Irish emigrants, who, whether of Irish ancestry or Irish-born, comprised, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a quarter of the population of the new Federation.  

Here in Australia, thousands of miles from the ancient conflicts and sometimes stifling orthodoxies of the old world, Irish people, he felt, could contribute to building what he wrote of as:

‘a new world full of hope and promise’,

one which would at its best, vindicate the economic, social and political rights and liberties of the people, raise the dignity of labour, foster an active government dedicated to the public purpose and, above all, subordinated to the public good.

Achieving this he knew would not be easy. It would not be without its challenges and contradictions.  The ‘Shearers’ mobilisation and the Sydney Lockout would polarise settlers and workers.  The Lockout of 1890 in Australia would have an echo in the Dublin Lockout of 1913.  Both defeats for workers would within a decade of such defeats lead to a massive recruitment and birth of what would become a strong trade union movement.

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 circumstances of the new.

Among the first political prisoners to arrive in New South Wales were members of the revolutionary organisation the Society of the United Irishmen, many of whom were Anglicans and Dissenters, who had fomented a rebellion to create an independent Irish Republic inspired by the ideas and practices of the American and French Revolutions. They were imbued with the ideas of the Rights of Man, by Tom Paine, of the case for religious and civil liberty for all, and many of those who stayed, upon completion of their sentence, would go on to become prominent Emancipists.

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, thus 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.

As to political representation, on 11 November 1854 on Bakery Hill, at the inauguration of the Ballarat Reform League, there stood, alongside English, Scottish and Welsh Chartists, German and Italian veterans of the Springtime of Peoples, and Victorians of all ancestries, a distinctive Irish presence influenced by the ideas of O’Connell and the Young Ireland movement, not only in the person of Peter Lalor, later elected leader of the diggers by universal acclamation, but also of Anastasia Hayes, who wove the Southern Cross which flew over the Eureka stockade.

The resolutions of that assembly were not narrowly national in any sense but universal in origin, and still echo today, in their demand for ‘the inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws they are called upon to obey’.

The impulse to build here a new and better world, to bend the destiny of this land towards a more humane and egalitarian future, has been a recurring theme in Australian discourse.  The Irish who contributed to this discourse perhaps saw, reflected in this coming nation, as Davitt put it, the future form of a free Ireland.

We can see this in the views of the leaders of Young Ireland, successors of the United Irishman, who were sentenced to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land in 1848.  While there, William Smith O’Brien, drafted a constitution for what would become the self-governing colony of Tasmania and he envisioned a federation of the colonies, willing to work towards a common good. Another leader of Young Ireland, Charles Gavan Duffy, arrived in Australia as an emigrant and, as a politician and later Premier of Victoria, became an advocate for Federation as the vehicle for the creation of a new nation.

The distance from Europe, and from Rome, allowed for the development of a distinctive Australian Catholic Church, long seen as an extension of Ireland’s spiritual empire, which was perhaps, at times, more willing to address the challenges of the new industrial society than its Irish counterpart.

In the tumult of the 1890s, which witnessed the great battles of capital and labour that gave birth to your great trade union movement, Cardinal Patrick Moran, the Archbishop of Sydney, supported the cause of labour, giving a distinctly Australian expression to the Papal Encyclical Rerum novarum, to the rights and duties of labour, and to the legitimacy, and at times necessity, of collective action to secure those rights and fulfil those duties.

This was a disposition not unique or limited to the Irish leadership in the Catholic Church, as is exemplified by Henry Bourne Higgins, a Methodist born in County Down and educated in Dublin, who declared, as presiding judge at the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration during the famous Harvester Case, that what was considered a fair and reasonable wage should be that which is considered sufficient for ‘a human being in a civilised community’ to support a family in ‘frugal comfort’.

I have highlighted these Irish contributions to the development of our shared values not only to celebrate the distinctive Irish influence on the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia and its States, but also to suggest that it was living and working in this young society which allowed for the expression and formulation of quite new modes of thought, modes which were equal to the challenges of the new and of the old world.

One of our contemporary challenges is to be faithful to meeting the challenge of an inclusive history. This is a challenge we face in both Australia and in Ireland.

While the Irish emigrant experience in Australia is for the vast majority of our recent Irish emigrants an overwhelmingly positive one, 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 often 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.

Nor was it the case either for succeeding generations who, in Peter Carey’s words bore “the historic memory of unfairness in their blood….the knowledge of unfairness deep in bone and marrow.”

Then too, if we are to be truly unblinking in our gaze, we must acknowledge that while most Irish emigrants experienced some measure – often a large measure – of prejudice and injustice, there were some among their number who inflicted injustice too.  For example, when former Prime Minister Paul Keating memorably acknowledged responsibility for crimes against Aboriginal communities, his “we” not only included the most powerful, it included all the elements of the society who had participated or acquiesced.  It had to include, we must recognise, some who were Irish in Australia too.  

His were powerful words:                                                         

“We took the children from their mothers. We practiced discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.”

His speech was, and remains, an emancipatory act in the ethics of memory. Indeed, it stands as an example to those of us who must do something similar in our different circumstances, for surely we can take encouragement from Thomas Keneally who has written that“if there are to be areas of history which are off bounds, then in principle we are reduced to fudging, to cosmetic narrative.”

It is perhaps the vast distance from what were for many years considered ‘mother countries’ which has allowed in Australia for the exercise of an independence of thought characterised by an unwillingness to become an unquestioning servant to old orthodoxies, and a tendency to innovation and experimentation in institutional forms and structure.

Mr. Speaker,

President of the Council,

Your Parliament has, since its inception, and perhaps magnified by distance displayed these characteristics, when as one of the first Parliaments in the world it would recognise the basic demands of equality by embracing women’s suffrage.

This spirit of intellectual independence is required today more than ever, and can so serve us well. The great issues of our time – the necessity for just and sustainable development, the challenge of climate change, the resolution of ancient and new conflicts, the reconciliation with communities and sections of communities who have been, or whose ancestors have been victims of great wrongs, the need to oppose, all of us together, by concerted voices of opposition and denunciation of the contemporary and increasingly, the persistence or invocation of a xenophobia and racism.  These challenges demand a critical and inquiring engagement from all of us. 

As to matters economic, and the need for a new international economic order becomes ever more clear, we have seen, over the past thirty years, the dangers of accepting, without examination, any reductionist, narrow, economic philosophy which would separate our engagement and activity in economic life from our culture and society. The consequences of suggesting a singularity of economic models rather than a plurality of models are obvious.

This has led, where it has been uncritically accepted, to the adoption of unsustainable economic models that have widened the inequality of wealth, power and income in our societies, created rather than mitigated instability, and contributed to the degradation of our environment.  We are challenged to produce alternatives, advance them with, of course the necessary courtesies of discourse, but being resolute in not accepting the failed paradigms of economy, society and life itself.

There now is an imperative need, an urgency, to challenge these still entrenched ideas, and to allow space for a new, more pluralist discourse, one capable of an ethical remembrance of the past and adequate to the responsibility of finding new solutions to our collective challenges, of participating in the resolution of the global challenges we face together on a shared vulnerable planet.

Mr. Speaker,

President of the Council,

May I conclude again today by saying that the warmth of the welcome I have received in Perth has touched me deeply, and is an indication not only of the strength of the Irish community in this city and in this State, but also of the warmth between the peoples of Australia and Ireland which I hope, and know will deepen.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir, guím rath and beannacht ar bhúr niorrochtaí ar son na daoine ngcoitinn.

I thank you and wish you and your colleagues success and good health on your work for all of the Australian people.