Analysis: Irish diplomats in Australia had to regularly challenge perceptions about the country and its people down under

By Kate O'Malley, RIA

‘I must stress that I am reminded, almost daily, in the more popular – and more yellow press – how far we have to go. But, on the whole, the more literate media treat Ireland much better and more seriously than in 1963.’ Irish ambassador Eoin MacWhite reporting from Canberra, 2 December 1965.

Representing Ireland in Australia, then, had its complications. There has been Irish diplomatic representation in Canberra since 1946, when Tommy (T.J.) Kiernan was appointed Ireland's first Minister Plenipotentiary to Australia as part of a post-war expansion of the diplomatic service. The Irish mission there initially prioritised connecting with the Irish diaspora, but it also became a listening post on wider Asian issues in the post-war period and provided Dublin with its first direct insights into Japan and Asia more generally.

Significant too were Ireland’s links with Australia as a fellow dominion in the British empire, though this would change in 1949 when Ireland formally left the Commonwealth. A long-lasting dispute with Australia, the more loyal Commonwealth member, would then begin over the form of the new credentials for Irish ambassadors, with Canberra not accepting the title ‘President of Ireland’. As a result, Ireland was represented in Australia by a chargé d’affaires, as opposed to an ambassador, until 1964, when the stalemate ended. The first official Irish Ambassador to Australia was MacWhite, who, as we can see from the quote above, still encountered challenges about the perceptions of Ireland ‘down under’.

It wasn't unusual to see 'Protestants preferred’ in job ads in Australian newspapers in place of the earlier stipulation of ‘No Irish Need Apply’

Ireland’s departure from the Commonwealth was not the cause of this anti-Irish mindset. Historic anti-Catholic sentiment in Australia had been driven by the significance that Protestantism played in British colonial and Commonwealth identity, and by the emerging white colonial hierarchy in Australia itself, from which the Irish Catholic immigrant poor often stood apart. By the turn of the 20th century, it wasn’t unusual to see ‘Protestants preferred’ in job advertisements posted in Australian newspapers in place of the earlier and more blatant stipulation of ‘No Irish Need Apply’.

The tide had not fully turned by the 1960s. A memorandum for the Government in 1964 on ‘Representation in Australia’ stated how Irish achievements tended to be ignored in the Australian press:

There also tends to be a distortion of Irish news or disproportionate prominence to unfavourable items. This attitude is not new the position was even worse when Dr Kiernan first went to Australia but he worked hard to improve it… the fact that the existing climate of opinion is unfavourable makes it all the more necessary that the Head of our Mission there should have Ambassadorial rank in order to gain access to the right quarters…. Improvement in the publicity about Ireland is very important from the point of view of the 25 per cent of Australia’s population which are of Irish descent and for our trade prospects in that country.

Bord Fáilte head to Australia with a brick

MacWhite hoped his 1964 elevation to ambassador would coincide with a more positive image of Ireland gaining traction in Australia, and the beginning of a new focus by the Irish embassy on promoting trade and tourism. In 1965, the most important event in his calendar was facilitating a Bord Fáilte mission to Australia in September. Their official gift was a brick from the courtyard of Kilmainham Gaol where the 1916 leaders had been executed.

An editorial in the Irish Examiner told readers that 'trade promotion is a two-way business. Recently this country entertained a delegation from Australia, and now a group of Irish tourist promoters has gone ‘down under' to sell this country’s charms there.’

Ireland's Mike Gibson in action against New South Wales during the team's 1967 tour of Australia. Photo: Golding/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

The cost and rationale behind the mission was questioned in a letter to the editor in the same paper the following month: Sir it was mentioned in the papers recently that 16 representatives of Irish tourist agencies, headed by Dr O'Driscoll of Bord Fáilte, were in Australia 'promoting’ Irish holidays. Australia, of all places! Will someone explain this far-flung scheme and, perhaps, say who is paying the bill for this group’s travel. (Signed Watch Dog, 2 October 1965).

However, MacWhite’s reports home indicate that the trip was, in fact, a resounding success. ‘The press coverage was extensive’, he said ‘especially in Victoria, and the radio and TV coverage included the most important programmes in the country. The very existence of the Mission of this size (16 persons) came as a shock to Australians and forced them to take us more seriously. If the impact was limited in Sydney, it was enormous in Melbourne, where its members were invited as guests of the Committee of the Victoria Racing Club to the Saturday Races.’

READ: Why Ireland sought to stop US airlines landing at Dublin Airport in the 1960s

If further evidence were needed of the trip’s success, MacWhite told the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs how ‘During Cup Week in Melbourne, I got, even through the noise made over "the Shrimp", the most favourable echoes of the Bord Fáilte visit, which, apart from doing its own business, was a very solid contribution to improving the Irish image in Australia.’ This was a reference to British fashion model Jean Shrimpton who created a global sensation at Derby Day at the Melbourne Races by wearing a white shift dress cut well above the knee, a striking contrast to the more conservative attire generally worn by women to the event.

Although MacWhite had moved on to the Netherlands by 1967, one of his notable achievements in Canberra was to facilitate the establishment of a Department of Celtic studies at the Australian National University, and trade and tourism relations between the two countries flourished on the back of the Bord Fáilte trip. March 1968 saw the first official visit of an Irish minister to Australia with George Colley, then Minister for Industry and Commerce.

Australian prime minister, John Gorton (L),with Minister for Industry and Commerce, George Colley in 1968. Photo credit: National Archives of Australia A1200, 11196636

In advance of this trip, MacWhite, who had clearly become fully familiar Australian culture and customs, passed on some top tips to the minister. He advised that: ‘a light touch to replies to questions in Australia goes down best and that wherever possible a slight joke might be introduced.’

Interestingly, he also suggested ‘not to overdo the Irish connections which represent only 25% of the population but to emphasise the new Ireland and to aim at 100% of the population. On any tricky political matters the Minister should take the line that he is Minister for Industry and Commerce and came to Australia to discuss business rather than all sorts of political matters.’

While it’s unknown if Colley took on the advice, it's clear is the minister thought it ‘was one of the most satisfactory trips’ he had made, with trade (amounting in 1968 to £1m only) expected to more than quadruple by 1970. Cultural and trade relations between Ireland and Australia were on the up and have flourished since.

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Vol. XIII, 1965-1969, will be published by the Royal Irish Academy in November

Kate O'Malley is Assistant Editor of the RIA's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP) series. DIFP publishes archival material relating to Ireland’s foreign relations since 1919 and is a partnership between the Royal Irish Academy, the National Archives and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ