Sunday, 29 March 2015

We Are All Boat People

Pic courtesy Catholic Leader

To celebrate St Patrick's Day the Tuesday before last, today's Catholic Leader ran a report which reminds us that many early Irish settlers were refugees, and boat people.

Like the people in the report, I have no problem identifying as a descendant of these boat people. My ancestors came out on the actual boat mentioned in the Leader. That  boat was the Erin-Go-Bragh.

Here is an extract from the story -

“It was a long journey, a six-month journey, the longest journey to Australia of any boat, with 54 deaths, one of the highest deaths of any boat,” Mr Nayler said. “The passengers nicknamed her the ‘Erin-go-Slow’.”

The Erin-go-Bragh has close ties with the Brisbane archdiocese, having been helped by the city’s first bishop.

“The incredible story of the Erin-go-Bragh was perhaps our archdiocese’s earliest efforts at supporting economic refugees and helped to develop our great state of Queensland,” Mr Nayler said.

In 1861, during a potato famine, Irish families in Country Offaly were forced to leave their land but, being poor, “begged” a local Catholic priest Fr Paddy Dunne to send them to Australia.

Fr Dunne contacted the Brisbane Bishop James Quinn and, with help from the Queensland Immigration Society, organised a passage from Ireland to Moreton Bay.

Erin-Go-Bragh. Artist Rodney Charman.

My ancestor on the Erin-Go-Bragh was my Great Great Grandmother. Here is the narrative as my dad wrote it after some research he did a few years before he died -

On the 1st August 1862, the sailing ship Erin-Go-Bragh anchored in Moreton Bay. She had previously been known as the Florida and was the first fully Irish immigrant ship to arrive in the Australian colonies. It was known popularly as the Erin go Slow because of the length of time the voyage from Cork (Queenstown) had taken. It had left Cork for Brisbane on the 7th February 1862. It was 1111 in tonnage, its length was 250 feet and it carried (officially) three hundred and eighty-seven passengers. I say officially, because from what I have read, it carried quite a few more unofficial passengers as well. Its master was George Borlase.

The issues of the Brisbane Courier of August 2nd and August 11th 1862 reports on its arrival and the voyage. It had left Queenstown with 431 migrants. On the fourth day after leaving, Typhoid fever and Scarlatina broke out on board. During the voyage, as a result, fifty-four deaths occurred, most of those dying being children. The winds were light and variable, and there were other mishaps besides the sickness.

At Liverpool, a religious bigot managed to get on board, with an augur, after lifting the copper lining in places, bored holes in the fervent hope that the ship would go down with its papist cargo. Legend has it (and it is true, according to Father T P Boland, a well qualified historian of the Catholic Church in Queensland), the man responsible was a Scot named Douglas. He himself later became a migrant to Queensland, and married here. The irony was that when he did “fall” for a girl, it was for an Irish Catholic. The children were reared as Catholics, and they and their descendants provided Catholic barristers, judges, doctors and priests who made great contributions to Queensland over the years. Pumps had to work continuously on the voyage. Off the Cape of Good Hope, fire broke out on board. As a result of this, the ship ran short of water and had to put in to Capetown to replenish its supply. This added a thousand kilometres to the voyage.

So long was the ship in arriving in Botany Bay, that the Archbishop of Brisbane, Bishop Quinn, wrote to Queensland’s Colonial Secretary, R. G. Herbert, stating his concern about its whereabouts.

When it did arrive, after almost two hundred days, it was held at anchorage (because of typhoid fever) near St Helena Island. After eleven days, the passengers were transshipped and landed near the present Customs House in Queen St.

The Erin-Go-Bragh did not make it back to Ireland. The last heard of the ship was that she was seen in Calcutta in October 1863.

One of the passengers on board the Erin-Go-Bragh was a nineteen year old orphan girl from Tullamore named Catherine Ryan. She became my Great Grandmother.

The Queensland Immigration Council was formed by Quinn, Queensland’s first bishop. He had arrived in Brisbane in May 1861, bringing five priests and six nuns with him.

At that time, there were thousands of people homeless near Tullamore. Many were, like Catherine Ryan, orphans. Orphans were common in Irish famine times and the great famines had occurred in the forties. Neighbours reared the orphans, because among the poor, there appeared more kindness than was apparent in industrial, political, or court circles of the time.

The reason for the number of homeless people near Tullamore was that Lord Digby, an absentee English landlord, wanted to rear sheep on his estate there. This meant that the tenants were expelled. These Irish tenants, unlike tenants in England, had no legal rights.

In Tullamore was a priest named Paddy Dunne. He had been in Ballarat in Victoria but returned to Ireland after a dispute with a bishop. It was he who suggested to James Quinn that these displaced people should go to Queensland.

There are a number of historical parallels between the boat people on the Erin-Go-Bragh and those who arrived in this country a few years ago, and are now banged up in detention centres.

They were, like the Irish, forced out of their native lands as a consequence of disaster. In the case of the Irish - a famine. In the case of the Vietnamese and people from the Middle East, war and persecution.

The British (who ran the colony at the time) had a moral responsibility for the parlous state of Ireland at the time. We (Australians) have responsibilities for the Vietnamese and refugees from the Middle East because of our military involvement. There is a very clear historical thread running through this issue.

The Irish were feared and hated, much in the same way that Middle-Eastern refugees (and to a lesser extent the Vietnamese) were feared and hated. The Irish were regarded as dirty, would out breed the British, and they were Catholic. The term in use was "dirty Tykes".

There was no organised political exploitation of the issue in 1862 and in the 1970/80s. It took Howard's grubby use of the Tampa incident and Labor's acquiescence to his shameful policies to destroy what was a proud and noble record.

It was probably just as well that my dad wasn't alive to see it. He would have been deeply ashamed.

We are all boat people.

Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...