FIRST WAVE: 'Bog' Irish

FIRST WAVE: Emigrant Ships to Port Phillip 1839-1845

Chapter Eight: 'BOG' IRISH

Among the many epithets of abuse hurled at Irish emigrants were allegations of their 'ignorance' and 'uselessness' as employees. These views were so generally held as to be considered universal in the colony. In 1842 the Port Phillip Patriot called bounty emigrants "from the South of Ireland" a "corps of bogtrotters", and "as utterly useless for any supposable species of farm labour as can well be imagined".(1) In the same year, District Superintendent La Trobe was similarly scathing in a letter to his superior, Governor Gipps in Sydney. La Trobe described emigrants from "the south and southwest of Ireland" as "so-called labourers" and "exceeding indifferent, if not worthless hands".(2)

Melbourne Immigration Board members Dr Patterson and Lieut. Patterson were no less critical in an earlier report to La Trobe. "A large proportion of single females, chiefly from south and south-west Ireland" had been brought into Port Phillip during 1841, they said."These young women have been found so totally unqualified for the common wants of the colony" that they "could not find employment but with great difficulty". In order "to obtain good, useful and virtuous farm and domestic female servants", concluded Patterson and Lonsdale, "the country towns and rural districts in England, Scotland, and the north of Ireland, are to be preferred".(3)

An alternative, albeit minority, interpretation of Irish emigrant unemployment had been put to Governor Gipps in 1840. The Attorney General for New South Wales, himself an Irishman, argued instead that unemployed Irish emigrants "remained on hand because they were Irish, and for that reason alone". In his opinion "there could be no doubt that it was Anti-Irish feeling which prevented them from being engaged while there were any immigrants from England and Scotland". This prejudice persisted "although Irishmen are found as good servants, as good shepherds, and as good men in every respect".(4)

The colony's chief legal officer felt it was "the duty of every Irishman to protest against the Anti-Irish feeling which is raised in this Colony; especially when the press had taken it up, and endeavoured to raise a prejudice against Irishmen, not only on account of their country but of their religion".(5) In these comments the Attorney General gets very close to accurately predicting the situation in Port Phillip a couple of years later. The issue of "national antipathies"  both excited the popular press and it appealed to religious bigotry. The examples mentioned at the start of this chapter disclose an undisguised preference for emigrants from the Protestant north of Ireland, while rejecting those from the Catholic south.

The question to be examined in the balance of this chapter is whether there were 'reasonable' grounds for the "Anti-Irish feeling" expressed by senior government officers and newspaper reporters alike. Were "Irish immigrants", or more precisely, "emigrants from the south and south-west of Ireland", less educated and less employable than their fellow-travellers from England, Scotland, and "the north of Ireland"?

The Lists of Immigrants recorded two columns of information that provide some usable forms of 'measurement' here. One is a measure of literacy, called in the Lists "Read & Write". The other is a description of work skills, often called "Trade or Calling" in the Lists. By reading this information from the perspective of a third column called "Native Place", it is possible to compare English Scottish and Irish attainments in education and occupation.

Literacy and education

The following graph, "Comparative Literacies", shows that Irish emigrants overall had lower levels of competency than bounty emigrants from England or Scotland. Ireland provided a greater percentage of people who could neither read nor write (24.1%) and those who could read only (20.8%). The Irish percentage of real literacy, the ability to both read and write (55.1%), was accordingly lower than the English (71.5%), and much lower than Scotland's high standard (84%).

Graph 10: COMPARATIVE LITERACIES. A composite bar graph showing relative competencies in literacy between English, Scottish, and Irish bounty emigrants, and a further division between those from northern (Ulster) and southern Ireland. Figures from Wales are included with those from England.

This graph also supports the view of colonial critics who saw a difference between Irish emigrants from the more Protestant north (Ulster) and those from the almost exclusively Catholic south (Leinster, Munster, and Connaught). Emigrants from Ulster had considerably higher levels of competence (at 65% literate) than those migrating from the southern provinces (51,2% literate).

If the broad slander of 'ignorance', or more bluntly 'stupidity', can be defined in terms of education received, then literacy rates present some form of measurement of that definition. However, these are emotive and abusive words, and they were mostly used in this insulting sense in the colonial controversy surrounding Irish immigration.

Discounting this inflammatory element of the public 'debate', and on the score of literacy alone, Irish emigrants were clearly at an educational disadvantage when compared to their fellow emigrants from England and Scotland. The pattern of advantage and disadvantage is specified further when Irish percentages of literacy and illiteracy are subdivided between the north and south of Ireland. Illiteracy was not an Irish problem so much as it was an Irish-Catholic problem.

The next graph compares the extent of il-literacy among Irish emigrants to Port Phillip between 1839 and 1845, with the percentages of il-literacy in Irish society as a whole according to Census of 1841. Both the Immigrant Lists and the national census provided this information in relation to each county of Ireland. To give a more accurate contrast, the graph has been organised so that each county is ranked first in its province, and then in alphabetical order.

Graph 11: IRISH ILLITERACY. A 3 dimensional bar graph comparing rates of illiteracy for Irish bounty emigrants and the whole Irish population (per Census 1841). Percentages are calculated for each county and counties are grouped in the four provinces of Ireland. The emigrant figures do not include 355 out 6,211 who recorded their "Native Place" as the generic "Ireland". Sources: Author's figures from Lists of Immigrants; Data collated from the Census of Ireland 1841 (in Walter Freeman, 1957, Pre-Famine Ireland: A Study in Historical Geography, Manchester University Press, Table 6, p. 136).

This graphical representation indicates two things. The first is that emigrants had much lower rates of illiteracy (i.e. they were more literate) than the greater Irish population. Emigrants were generally better educated. This supports the argument that those who left Ireland under the bounty scheme were not the most destitute. Migration was a deliberate decision made by those who still had something to lose if they persevered in Ireland. Emigrants tended to be a little better off than the 'vagabond and beggar' class, and part of their small advantage was reflected in slightly higher levels of elementary education.

The second point made by Graph 11 concerns the connection between lower levels of education and Catholic Ireland. The predominantly Catholic south and west of Ireland had higher rates of illiteracy (i.e. they were less literate) than the north and east where Protestant populations were larger. The variation in the Census county results for Ulster, and to a smaller degree for Leinster, support this interpretation.

The province of Ulster was not exclusively Protestant. There was a belt of less fertile country which crossed its southern and western counties (Cavan, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Donegal) and was home to Catholic majorities. Presbyterian majorities were more common in the north eastern counties of Antrim and Derry, (and the more fertile parts of Armagh, Down, and Tyrone). Similarly, in the province of Leinster there were older areas of Anglican settlement that predated the Ulster plantations of the late 17th century.

In the greater detail of county-level illiteracy, Graph 11 continues to leave little doubt about the existence of a Catholic-illiteracy connection. Where the colonial criticism of Irish 'ignorance' falls down however, is when the evidence of illiteracy is used to infer that a sort of congenital idiocy prevailed in Ireland in general, and Catholic Ireland in particular.

Literacy is a measure of education, not intelligence. Graph 10 and Graph 11 are also telling the reasonable observer that there was a gulf of opportunity between Catholics and Protestants in pre-Famine Ireland. Irish Catholics did not reject educational values. Rather, sufficient schools and teachers were simply unavailable for many Catholic families to educate their children, even at an elementary level.

The Irish-Catholic hierarchy of bishops and archbishops recognised that a better education system was an essential part of restoring their parishioners to their former social position in Ireland. But they remained suspicious of Protestant motives, fearing conversion of Catholic youth, and determined to pursue their own, separate institutions. Unfortunately, following a century and a half as a prorogued church, with persecution of personnel and complete confiscation of property under the Penal Laws, the bishops were starting from a long way behind.

A number of advances were made in the late eighteenth century, finally allowed by the gradual repeal of the most restrictive anti-Catholic Acts of Parliament. In 1777 the Presentation Sisters were founded as a teaching order of nuns. In 1795 St Patrick's College was established at Maynooth in Kildare, to supply an Irish-trained clergy. And in 1802 the Christian Brothers were founded to educate Catholic boys.

By 1824 there were 7,575 students in 46 convent schools, 5,541 students in 24 schools run by the Brothers, and 391 students attending the Maynooth Seminary. While these achievements were real enough, they represented a very small drop in a very big bucket of educational need.(6)

For example, the Irish Census of 1821 recorded a total of 1,749,000 children aged from 5 to 15 years. The Irish Census of 1831 revealed that approximately 80% of the Irish population was Catholic. It follows that the number of Catholic school age children in 1821 was roughly 1,400,000 (i.e. 80% of the total 1,749,000 Irish children counted in that year). 

The Second Report of the Irish Education Inquiry established that the number of Catholic children attending any type of school in Ireland in 1824 was 397,212. This leaves approximately 1,000,000 Catholic children unaccounted for.(7)

Diagram 1: 'Catholic Education 1824', below, is a pyramid-shaped representation of all those Catholic children. It descends from tertiary, through secondary, then primary, to no schooling. Colour shading also decreases from a pinnacle of the Catholic Church's influence on the educational process (Maynooth Seminary), down through the probably negligible influence of the local parish priest over an array of "hedge" or "pay" schools operated by independent 'teachers' throughout rural Ireland, to the nadir of neglect and no influence at all --- the million nominally Catholic children aged between 5 and 15 years, those who had either finished their few years of rudimentary schooling, or had never had the opportunity to attend school in the first place.

Diagram 1: CATHOLIC EDUCATION 1824. Not to accurate scale. Source of Data: S.J. Connelly, 2001, Priests and People in Pre-Famine Ireland 1780-1845, Dublin, Four Courts Press, pp. 58-61 & 96-98.

One further observation is worth making in the context of educational opportunity for Catholic school age children in pre-Famine Ireland. As the influence of the Catholic Church diminishes towards the base of the educational pyramid, so too does the quality of the teaching.

Catholic and Society schools were in large part funded by philanthropy and were staffed by religious orders or trained professionals. The "hedge" or "pay" schools, on the other hand, were funded by what parents could afford to pay each week. Impoverished areas could not attract the best teachers and classroom facilities tended to be "impermanent" or nonexistent.

In summary, this section on literacy and education suggests some substance to the colonists' accusation of 'ignorance' among Irish emigrants to Port Phillip. By redefining 'ignorance' in terms of education, the sting of insult is (partially) removed. It is then possible to acknowledge that the Irish had lower levels of educational achievement than others arriving under the Bounty Scheme.

This pattern of a lower percentage of literacy is repeated when statistics from southern and northern Ireland are compared. The Irish-Catholic education system was chronically under-resourced and the flow-on effect from this disadvantage was clearly reflected in the Immigrant Lists.

'Trade or Calling'

This next section examines the Immigrant Lists' recording of occupations and employment skills. Colonial administrators and employers regularly criticised the reliability of these descriptions. They claimed that many of the nominated categories were in fact fraudulent misrepresentations of an individual's actual work experience.

The habit of emigration agents in British ports 'topping up' ships to Australia and blatantly contriving to meet 'quotas' of preferred employee-types has already been mentioned in Chapters Two and Seven. Instances of emigrants being supplied with pre-filled certificates of character, or pre-signed medical certificates, were detected by Immigration Boards in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1842 Superintendent La Trobe admitted that such "instances of gross fraud are not wanting, and when the perfect impunity with which certain of these have been practised, is remarked, the suspicion arises whether they are much more numerous than supposed".(8)

The prevalence of this practice places a large question-mark over data collected from the "Trade or Calling" columns in the Immigrant Lists. It qualifies any interpretation of emigrant employability that is based on this information. Nevertheless, some value may be retained by these (admittedly dodgy) figures if analysis is limited to comparing them with themselves -- 'bad' apples with 'bad' apples. (This approach assumes that instances of corruption were linked to ports and agents, rather than determined by national or ethnic origins). It is with this reservation in mind that Irish emigrants' 'occupations' are set alongside those from England and Scotland in Graphs 12 and 13 below.

Graph 12: COMPARATIVE MALE OCCUPATIONS. A bar graph comparing the "Trade or Calling" of English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish bounty emigrants to Port Phillip between 1839 and 1845. Source: Authors figures derived from the Lists of Immigrants.

Graph 13: COMPARATIVE FEMALE OCCUPATIONS. A bar graph comparing the "Trade or Calling" of English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish bounty emigrants to port Phillip between 1839 and 1845. Source: Author's figures derived from the Lists of Immigrants.

These graphs plot real or absolute numbers rather than percentages. An obvious inference to draw from them is that Irish emigrants, both male and female, were mainly unskilled workers. 1,797 Irish males were labourers and 1,841 Irish females were house-servants. In addition, the proportion of unskilled to skilled Irish emigrants was much higher than the corresponding ratios for emigrants from England and Scotland.

From these figures it is reasonable to conclude that in relative terms, more Irish emigrants lacked specific marketable skills, both in rural or agricultural occupations and in industry or construction trades, than was the case with emigrants from other regions. In this context, and after the pejorative tone of 'useless' has been disregarded, the colonial employers' complaints seem less incoherent.

Importing a person without the requested skills and experience meant that he or she was not immediately employable. That emigrant may be employed straight off the ship, but the benefit of his or her labour would not accrue to the employer straight away. There was a delay until expertise and full productivity was reached. Meanwhile, costly mistakes could be made by the inexperienced "New Chum".

However, this argument probably sounds more significant in theory than it proved in practice. Squatters on the Governor's Immigration Committee implicitly conceded as much when they published their pamphlet, "Sketch of a Shepherd's Duties in New South Wales", in 1841. In that document, designed to be distributed to emigration agents throughout Britain, it was claimed that, "almost anyone is capable of taking charge of a flock...the shepherd only has to follow the directions he may receive...and if possessed of common intelligence, he will soon be capable of acting for himself".(9)

Employers nonetheless continued to worry that emigrant ships delivered too many unskilled (Irish) workers to the District. The problem of Ireland's stagnant, subsistence, economy turning out masses of unqualified and under-employed labour was already widely acknowledged. Contemporary observers needed to go no further that Ireland's Poor Inquiry of 1835. According to the Inquiry's Commissioners, Ireland was a society in partial paralysis, pending total collapse. 
"The great proportion of the Population about and amongst whom the Inquiry was to be made, is constantly fluctuating between Mendicancy and Independent Labour. In whole districts, scarcely one of that class of substantial capitalist farmers so universal in England, can be found. The small resident gentry are but few, and the substantial tradesman is not to be met at intervals of two or three miles as in England, for there are but few towns of sufficient trade to create such a class...the poorer classes in Ireland may be considered as comprehending nearly the whole population..."(10)
The fundamental absence bemoaned here is that of an entrepreneurial middle class. There are almost no 'Improving' landowners ("substantial capitalist farmers"), or prospering small businessmen ("substantial tradesman"). Instead, the "poorer classes in Ireland" predominate, most of them 'landless labourers' whose fortunes languish between abject beggary ("Mendicancy") and occasional day-rate work ("Independent Labour").

The Census of 1841 counted a population of 8,175,124 in Ireland. Of these, 7,039,659, or 86%, lived outside of towns with more than 2,000 inhabitants.(11) This percentage of 86% describes a society which was trenchantly rural and annually dependent on intensively cultivated agricultural production. It was therefore, in the main, a 'traditional' subsistence economy, on densely settled land, with little stored surplus to withstand a failed harvest.

The 1841 Census also classified the rural population into two groups, "farmers", and those "chiefly dependent on their own manual labour" (which they defined as those occupying a holding of less than five acres). Under the general heading of persons "ministering to food" (i.e. engaged in agriculture), the Census identified 453,000 "farmers" and 1,128,000 labourers, servants, herdsmen, ploughmen, and dairy keepers. It is helpful to keep in mind here that each one of those counted represented an economic 'household', including, in most cases, women and children.

The following diagram, like the earlier one in this chapter, is a pyramid-shaped representation of relative population numbers. Similarly, it is not drawn to exact scale, and it uses aggregate numbers of each group to give a fuller sense of the expansion towards the bottom of the pyramid. Diagram 2 is likewise dependent on census data extracted and summarised by other parties, in this case principally from Kerby Miller in Emigrants and Exiles and Sean Connelly in Priests and People.
Diagram 2: RURAL IRELAND 1841. Not to accurate scale. Source: K.A. Miller, 1988, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, New York, Oxford University Press, and S.J. Connolly, 2001, Priests and People in Pre-Famine Ireland 1780-1845, Dublin, Four Courts Press.

In rural Ireland there were approximately 453,000 "farmers" who hired labour, 408,000 "smallholders" who used family labour, and 700,000 "labourers" who sold their labour. Agricultural Ireland was an economy based on leased land. At the top of the pyramid were a small group of well-bred wastrels who had inherited and therefore actually owned the land.

They leased out their estates to 'substantial' farmers and 'middle-men', who in turn sub-let part of their leasehold to smaller farmers, who sub-sub-let it to smallholders. At the bottom of the economic heap, labourers competed to get on-farm positions with a "cabin" (cottiers), or "conacre", a small plot to grow their own potato crop ('day' labourers).

Rents for "conacre", or the small stone and turf "cabins" that cottiers occupied, were high because competition for them was fierce amongst a rapidly growing population. For the same reason, but with inverse results, wages were low at 8 or 9 pence per day. The Poor Inquiry Commissioners calculated in 1835 that, on average, agricultural labourers had only 135 days of paid employment each year. Most labourers, and most smallholders, knew the Summer Hunger, a period of semi-starvation between consuming the last of the previous harvest of potatoes and being able to start 'digging' the new crop.

The weeks or months of the Summer Hunger were a time of seasonal migration to England and Scotland for those who could get to a port, or begging on the roadside for those who could not. The Poor Inquiry did not exaggerate when it stated that three million of "the poorer classes" in Ireland were "subject every year to the chances of absolute destitution". Labourers and smallholders alike were only ever a harvest away from disaster.(12)

It is apparent from this background that opportunities to gain useful or marketable employment skills were virtually nonexistent for the vast majority living in pre-Famine rural Ireland. There is nevertheless a final comment to make on Diagram 2, which is relevant to a small section of the Irish emigrants who shipped to Port Phillip under the bounty scheme.

Graphs 12 and 13 show a noticeable number, 101 males and 165 females, who nominated their occupation as "farm servants". Diagram 2 shows 100,000 labourers classified as "farm servants". These were described in 1837 as "young men between sixteen and twenty-five years of age who reside in the family of their employer...for remarkably low wages seldom exceeding 1 Pound per quarter".(13)

In rural Ireland the position of "farm servant" was a customary and socially approved form of agricultural apprenticeship. It was "a phase passed through" by many adolescents, "between leaving their parents' home and setting up their own families, either as day labourers, cottiers, or small occupiers". In other words, the label of "farm servant" did not necessarily have the negative connotations of cheap, exploited labour. Instead, it was viewed as an important stepping-stone in life, a preparation for independent adulthood in an essentially agricultural society. (14)

In conclusion, the 'occupation' columns in the Immigrant Lists show a large contribution of unskilled labour from Ireland, and this bias applied to both male and female emigrants. In addition, a higher proportion of Irish emigrants were unskilled than was the case with their counterparts from England or Scotland.

However, contemporary concerns about the 'uselessness' of Irish labourers and house servants were probably exaggerated. The tasks awaiting the emigrants on sheep stations in the Port Phillip District were not difficult to learn, and in any event, most of the Irish came from a fundamentally agrarian background (albeit a subsistence form of agriculture). A willingness to apply themselves to new variations of this type of work was really all that was required of them. 


(1) 'Immigration', Port Phillip Patriot, in The Sydney Herald, Friday 13 May 1842, p. 2
(2) 'Copy of a Letter...', British Parliamentary Papers, 1843, Accounts and Papers - (5) - Emigration, Vol. XXXIV, Appendix M, p. 75
(3) As above, Appendix N, p. 78
(4) 'Legislative Council', The Sydney Herald, Monday 26 October 1840, pp. 2-3
(5) As above
(6) S.J. Connelly, 2001, Priests and People in Pre-Famine Ireland 1780-1845, Dublin, Four Courts Press, pp. 58-61, 96-98
(7) As above
(8) Parliamentary Papers 1843, p. 76
(9) British Parliamentary Papers, 1843, Accounts & Papers - (6) - Emigration, Vol. XXXI, Appendix D, p. 49
(10) First Report from His Majesty's Commissioners into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland ('Poor Inquiry'), 1835, London, House of Commons, p. 369 <>
(11) T.W. Freeman, 1957, Pre-Famine Ireland: A Study in Historical Geography, Manchester University Press, pp. 13 & 33
(12) K.A. Miller, 1988, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, New York, Oxford University Press, pp. 51-53
(13) SJ Connelly 2001, p. 45
(14) As above


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