Irish Memories/Sydney Lives

The Irish National Association’s 100th Anniversary Oral History Project

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On 27 July 2015 the Irish National Association in Sydney will be 100 years old. To mark this occasion the Oral History and Folklore section of the National Library of Australia carried out a series of interviews with Irish immigrants, and Australians of Irish origin, who have contributed significantly to the richness of Irish culture and history in the Sydney region. The INA suggested the interviewees and the NLA carried out the interviews. These have now been placed in the library’s collections where, with some restrictions, they can be accessed.  What can they tell us about Irish life in Sydney over the last half century or so?

Most of the interviewees are Irish born and their stories reveal much about their pre-emigration life in Ireland, their personal reasons for leaving their homeland and why they chose to settle in Australia. For future students of Australian immigration in general, and Irish immigration in particular, these will prove to be invaluable sources of information as such material is rarely available in such detail for the great 19th century period of Irish emigration to this country. We learn of the lack of employment and useful training beyond primary school in what was the stagnant Irish economy of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, propelling thousands of young Irish on a pathway to Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Sometimes Australian journeys were undertaken from Britain where the famous ‘10 Pound Pom’ fare was available.

Equally valuable are the insights in the interviews with the Irish born about the early challenge of finding work and of the nature of this work in Australia – and in one case in New Zealand. For one migrant, fortunate training as a motor mechanic by the Irish Army, a training hard to come by for someone from rural Ireland, led to a job selling cars while another, with basic building skills, was able to turn this to good account in the Sydney building boom of the 1960s. Other stories take us into later experiences in such areas as the NSW Correctional Services and Community Services departments with descriptions of the positive effect of educational provision on prisoners and graphic scenes of the tragedy of child abuse. But perhaps the most moving story of all is revealed by one interviewee, a successful businessman, who now works in a hostel for the dying where he encounters the sadness of elderly Irish immigrants, men and women, who have lost all contact with friends and relatives in Ireland.

As might be expected, the interviews cover a range of personal encounters with Sydney’s Irish and Irish/Australian culture. Some have been strong supporters of the INA in its work – helping people to learn Irish, set dancing or to perform Irish music. Indeed the sheer vibrancy and toe tapping aliveness of Irish music is well to the fore as two of the interviewees, along in one case with the interviewer, treat the listener to a dazzling array of Irish melody on the mouth organ, accordion and flute. We sense the importance of music ‘sessions’ in keeping Irish music alive, and hear of the performance of Irish dances on old rickety platforms in the 1960s at the St Patrick’s Day event in the Sydney showground.

Personal memories abound of the time when the dances at the INA were the highlight of the week. There are also memories of Gaelic games played at Moore Park and of an Australian team taking on the All-Ireland football finalists, Meath, on their tour of Australia in 1968. Not surprisingly the modern political struggle in the north of Ireland, and the ongoing opposition to partition, is in evidence along with a detailed description of how this opposition played out in Sydney at the time of the republican  ‘hunger strikes’ in the Maze Prison near Belfast in 1981.

The memory of the Irish homeland in Australia, and more specifically in the Sydney region, is symbolised by two imposing monuments – the 1798 Memorial in Waverley Cemetery, remembering the so called ‘Great Rebellion’ against British rule of that year, and the Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine of 1848 to 1852. For most of the 20th century and up to recent times, the INA has assumed responsibility for the 1798 Memorial and a number of interviewees have significant things to say about the meaning of this monument, the ceremonies conducted there by the INA and its continuing importance to Sydney’s Irish community. Unveiled in August 1999, the Famine memorial is of much more recent origin. One of the interviewees provides a comprehensive and insightful view of the process that led to the creation and building of what has become one the most visible reminders of the Irish immigrant story throughout the formative colonial period of Australia’s European history.

With oral histories such as these the real way to appreciate their richness and diversity is to listen to them. At the moment that can only be done at the National Library of Australia although in the future some of the interviews may be placed on this site. Currently the Library is working to provide timed summaries from which it is possible to gain a fair idea of an interview’s content.

– Dr Richard Reid