Melbourne, like many cities in the USA, Canada and Great Britain, has been shaped in both material form and cultural life by emigration from Ireland. A strong Irish network existed in Melbourne prior to 1850 and indeed the meeting place of the first Parliament of Victoria was the Irish Melburnians' St Patrick's Hall. Bounty immigration swelled Irish numbers before 1850, but major waves of migration commenced only after the discovery of gold in Victoria and during the reconstruction of Irish agriculture in the period after the 1840s famine. As a result, while the vast bulk of Irish settlers in Melbourne were drawn from rural Ireland, and most likely from the small land-holding class, a steady stream of Irish professional men arrived in the 1850s, especially lawyers and doctors, who made an early and long-lasting mark on Melbourne life. The new University of Melbourne was shaped by its association with Trinity College, Dublin, most notably through the Irish political economist and one of the four foundation professors at Melbourne, W.E. Hearn. The first chancellor of the university, Redmond Barry, had also graduated from Trinity. Barry founded the Melbourne Mechanics Institute, sat on the Supreme Court bench and played a central role in the creation and expansion of the State Library of Victoria (Melbourne Public Library). Another Trinity graduate, Richard Ireland, born in Galway in 1816, was admitted to the Irish Bar in 1816 and arrived in Melbourne in 1852, where he defended the Eureka rebels before becoming a minister in governments headed by Irishmen Charles Gavan Duffy and John O'Shanassy.
Ulster Protestants gradually established a place in the skilled trades of Melbourne, and also managed to dominate some civil service departments by the end of the 1860s. Catholic Irishmen were typically unskilled workers or small shopkeepers. They too sought to cement networks in government employment, filling many positions in the 'uniformed working-class', the railways, post office and customs services, for example. From its formation, the Victoria Police was structured along the same lines as the Royal Irish Constabulary and the typical constable was likely to have been born in Ireland, as were many of those he arrested.
While the 1850s remained the most significant decade for Irish migration to Victoria, perhaps more important single years of emigration were 1864, 1879 and 1884, peaks associated with crises in Irish agriculture. Thus the lawyers from Trinity College were a minority, though a highly influential one, in a migration of young men and women from small farms. Since Victoria, unlike other colonies, quickly abandoned schemes of mass-assisted immigration, the Irish were more likely to have arrived as unassisted immigrants, suggesting that they were drawn from among the middling ranks of agricultural society. While the most significant county of origin for the Melbourne Irish remained Clare, comparatively rich farming regions - Meath, Tipperary and Armagh, for example - figured more highly than the poorer western counties of Kerry, Galway and Mayo. Extended sequences of familial chain migration allowed these regional concentrations to persist until the last decade of the 19th century.
In Melbourne, the Irish settled most densely in the inner city. For a time some of the poorer lanes of the central city sustained noticeable Irish clusters. Yet the Irish-born were never a numerical majority in any local government area or city ward, even though they may have controlled local political and cultural life. In the city itself, Bourke, Gipps and Lonsdale wards had populations which were more than 20% Irish in 1871, the peak year for the city's Irish-born population. Irish women, who most typically worked in domestic service, moved from these concentrations to wealthy suburbs such as St Kilda and Kew. For most of the 19th century the inner municipality of Hotham (North and West Melbourne) was the most Irish locality, a consequence of its proximity to unskilled labour markets of the railway yards, warehouses, wharves and the carting work available around the western end of the central city. The horseracing industry, naturally, depended on Irish-Australian trainers, jockeys and stewards, and less often, on Anglo-Irish owners and officials. The most famous Irish horseman in Melbourne was Tom Corrigan, the jumps jockey killed in a fall at Caulfield racecourse in 1894, and whose funeral became an astonishing display of public mourning.
The formal Irish association in Melbourne, the St Patrick's Society, had set out to maintain a secular if politicised identity. Society members were successful at the first Melbourne City Council elections. By 1846 there were three Orange Lodges in Melbourne. Organised as a fraternal society, Lodge members failed in their two major goals, to restrict the influence of Catholicism in Melbourne public life and to stage regular annual processions, although Orange-men were regularly successful in local government elections in places like South Melbourne and Brunswick. Attempts by the Orangemen to stage marches resulted in several violent conflicts and charges of murder against Protestant Irishmen. After 1871 Catholic benefit societies took on a decidedly nationalist character. The rise of Home Rule in Ireland, and in particular the status of Parnell, gave impetus to new secular Irish institutions, most noticeably the Celtic Club, which sought to avoid dominance by the Catholic clergy.
Overwhelmingly Catholic, the Irish established massive churches. These were extended and joined by presbytery and school as the century progressed. The Catholic church and school complex in Richmond, St Ignatius atop Church Street Hill, the basalt church of Clifton Hill and the sandstone St Mary's Star of the Sea in Victoria Street, West Melbourne, symbolised the strength of Irish Catholicism in inner Melbourne. These parishes spawned a rich array of cultural institutions, from sodalities to the more nationalist benefit societies and debating clubs. The Australian-born children of Irish immigrants were thus to be caught in this web of somewhat sanitised 'Irishness', reinforced when Catholic secondary schools, the key schools staffed by Christian Brothers, were introduced to working-class parishes.
The institutionalised Irishness of the Catholic parish suggested a cohesive Irish Catholic community. However the rates of out-marriage were high, exaggerated in the years during which young Irish-born women outnumbered Irishmen. The Irish character of the inner city was thus diffused through families with one Irish parent, usually the mother, through trade unions like those of the railwaymen, cabals of Irish town councillors and parliamentarians, and by the major public institutions of the inner city, most noticeably the hotel. Irish publicans seemed to have more than their share of the inner-city bar trade and a strong hand in the activities of the licensed victuallers' associations.
While few Irish immigrants arrived in Melbourne in the interwar years, and while the source of immigration appeared to have swung to the northern, more Protestant, counties, it was during these decades that the most overt displays of an organised Irish identity could be noticed in Melbourne. After the involvement of Archbishop Daniel Mannix in the Anti-conscription Campaign and through his support of the rebels who had staged the 1916 Easter Rebellion, secular parliamentary nationalists in the Celtic Club were outflanked by a radicalised Australian-Irish network, based in the voluntary associations of inner-city Catholic parishes. With Archbishop Mannix as its key figure, the Melbourne St Patrick's Day march became a massive and politicised display of Catholicised nationalism, superficially Irish, decidedly Australian, and somewhat American.
During the early years of Archbishop Daniel Mannix's long stay in Melbourne, schools and parishes adopted a more aggressive Irish identity, with priests and lay leaders eventually supporting Mannix's stand on Irish republicanism. In the aftermath of the 1916 Irish Uprising, the rise of Sinn Fein and under the guidance of Mannix, the Christian Brothers founded St Kevin's College. Structured as a central matriculation college in East Melbourne in 1918, St Kevin's was staffed with the Order's best teachers, so as to prepare the sons of Irish Catholic working-class families for scholarship examinations, entry to the University of Melbourne law, medical or engineering schools and careers in the professional ranks of the Melbourne-based Commonwealth public service.
Catholic boys' schools like St Kevin's prided themselves not only on their success in transforming the sons of Irish workers into public servants and lawyers, but on the prowess of their ex-students in football: Phonse Kyne, legendary Collingwood Football Club coach, was a St Kevin's graduate. Dan Minogue, Collingwood champion and later Richmond Football Club captain-coach, was strongly identified with Irish-Australian Melbourne. Their fame was overshadowed in the 1990s by that of Jim Stynes, the Irish Gaelic footballer recruited by the Melbourne Football Club and winner of the 1991 Brownlow Medal. The leading Catholic girls' colleges in Melbourne have relied on French teaching orders rather than on Irish nuns, and so allowed the daughters of a Catholic middle class to more easily cast off the Irish mantle which covered male social life until well beyond World War II.
The revived conflict in Ireland in the 1960s coincided with a transformation of Catholic Melbourne through the death of Mannix in 1963 and challenges, inspired by the Second Vatican Council, to the authoritarianism, anti-communism and puritanism of his political intrigues. After Mannix's death, a few Catholics married the radicalism of the 1960s to an Irish nostalgia and took up the cause of Civil Rights in Northern Ireland.
Renewed immigration, especially after 1960, has been fundamental in reviving and altering Irish cultural life in Melbourne. Recent immigrants have come from Ulster and from urbanised Ireland. Men have found work in the building trades, women as health professionals. Taken together they are distinguished by a much stronger array of skills than earlier waves of immigrants. The Celtic Club today is much more an Irish social organisation than a political grouping. Several hotels, best known among them the Dan O'Connell in Carlton, now cater to an Irish and Irish-Australian clientele, and the St Patrick's Day march has become the centrepiece of a three-day annual celebration of Irish communal identity, rather than of combative Catholicism.
Some recent immigrants have maintained active ties with Sinn Fein. Others have found grounds for common purpose with older members of the Orange Lodge and supported Loyalist reaction in the North. An even smaller minority sustained short-lived ties with the 'official' IRA and its dream of a euro-communist solution to the 'troubles'. More consistently, postwar Irish settlers have revived a cultural rather than a political identity, especially in Irish music, dance, sports and language classes. These win greater respect from the wider Irish-Australian community and from Melburnians in general than does the mire of nationalist and loyalist 'politics'.
Tellingly, at St Patrick's Cathedral in East Melbourne, the statue of Daniel O'Connell, the Irish Liberator, which stood prominently in the forecourt for more than a century, was moved in the 1990s to a side courtyard, making way for a new statue of Mannix. At O'Connell's feet a plaque proclaims him no longer an Irish Nationalist but a campaigner for universal human rights. A memorial to the 'Orphan Girls' of the 1850s wave of immigration, and completed to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Irish Famine, has been unveiled at Williamstown. The inscription on it gives equal emphasis to the dispossession of Aboriginal Australians as to the exile of these Irish women in Australia, and emphasises the universal human tragedy of hunger. Irish Melbourne is at last being absorbed into a cosmopolitan and an anti-sectarian humanism.