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Irish settlement and identity in South Africa before 1910

  • Donal P. McCracken (a1)


Although there has been a continuous Irish presence at the Cape of Good Hope since the late eighteenth century, the chroniclers of the Irish diaspora have until the late 1980s ignored the continent of Africa. This was in part because relatively few Irish migrants ventured to Africa, but it is also the consequence of two other factors. The vast majority of Irish immigrants to Africa in the nineteenth century went to South Africa, a region which, with some exceptions, has been academically isolated for a generation. Then within South Africa there is much still to be learnt about the nature of English-speaking society in the region. While the meticulous analysis of black and Afrikaner history and society, and of related economic history, has dominated South African historiography for some two decades, professional academics have too often left the field of South African English-speaking studies to the amateur historian and the antiquarian. Thus what in Canada or Australia would be regarded as mainline historical research has in South Africa been sidelined in the name of historical relevancy. In fact an analysis of Irish settlement in southern Africa fills an important gap in the general survey of Irish emigration to the empire and reveals a pattern of Irish settlement very different from other regions of Irish migration.



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1 The first recorded Irish person in South Africa was Brigadier-General Thomas Conway (1733-C.1800), who arrived in the Cape in 1781 with his Pondicherry regiment in the service of Louis XVI of France. The principal reference volumes for prominent in South African Irish are: Dictionary of South African Biography (Cape Town & Johannesburg, 1968- ), 5 vols, continuing; Men of the times: old colonists of the Cape Colony and Orange River Colony (Johannesburg, Cape Town & London, 1906); Men of the times: pioneers of the Transvaal and glimpses of South Africa (Johannesburg, 1905); Philip, Peter, British residents at the Cape, 1795–1819 (Cape Town, 1981).

2 Aylward, Alfred, The Transvaal of today: war, witchcraft, sport and spoils in South Africa (Edinburgh & London, 1878), p. 346.

3 Results of a census of the Colony of the Cape of Good Hope … 5 April 1891 (Cape Town, 1892), pp xii, xvii. Though the British had ruled the Cape continuously for eighty-five years, in 1891 the English-speaking element constituted only a third of the white population.

4 Blue book for the Colony of Natal, 1890–91, T4.

5 Table contained in the introduction to McCracken, Donal P. (ed.), The Irish in southern Africa, 1795–1910, published as Southern African-Irish Studies, ii (1992). This volume contains essays on the Irish in South Africa and Rhodesia in the colonial era.

6 Akenson, Donald H., Occasional papers on the Irish in South Africa (Grahamstown, 1991), pp 42, 66. These studies look at the Irish diaspora in general and include useful statistical information on Irish migration to South Africa. Unlike other volumes on the subject of the Irish in South Africa, this also surveys the post-colonial era. See also idem, Small differences: Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants (Kingston & Montreal, 1988), ch. 3. To what extent second- or third-generation Irish in South Africa regarded themselves as Irish is a matter of conjecture. Certainly the term ‘colonial Irish’ was used for these people. In the 1920s the interesting term ‘Irish Africanderdom’ was in vogue (see The Irish in South Africa, 1920–21 (Cape Town, n.d.), p. iv).

7 The 83rd Foot served at the Cape from 1806 to 1818. Of these, 35 became settlers. In addition, a fair number of colonial passes were issued to discharged soldiers with Irish names such as Delaney, McNamara and O’Brien who had served in non-Irish regiments. See Philip, Peter, ‘Discharged soldiers and sailors who were granted permission to remain at the Cape: 1815–1824’ in Supplementa ad Familia (South Africa), xvi, no. 3 (1989); idem, British residents, p. 246.

8 For the Irish settlers of 1820 see Cory, G. E., The rise of South Africa (London, 1913), ii, 27 ; Dickason, G. B., Irish settlers to the Cape: a history of the Clanwilliam 1820 settlers from Cork harbour (Cape Town, 1973); Forgrave, W. J., ‘The 1820 Irish settlement at Clanwilliam’ in McCracken, (ed.), The Irish in southern Africa, ch. 2, sect. 1; Hockly, H. E., The story of the British settlers of 1820 in South Africa (Cape Town, 1957), pp 41, 54n.; Nash, M. D., The settler handbook: a new list of the 1820 settlers (Cape Town, 1987); Theal, George, History of South Africa, 1795–1872 (Cape Town, 1915-20), ii, 462 ; idem, Records of the Cape Colony, 1793–1827 (Cape Town, 1897–1905), xvii, 4 (1824); xviii, 144 (1824); xix, 133 (1824–5); xxi, 135–6 (1825).

9 Copies of William Parker’s pamphlets Jesuits unmasked (London, 1823) and Proofs of the delusion of His Majesty’s representatives at the Cape (Cork, 1826) are housed in the South African Library in Cape Town.

10 Theal, , Records, xxi, 452 (1825). For details of the Ingram settler party see also idem, History of South Africa, ii, 462; idem, Records, xviii, 186–8, 199, 256 (1824); xxi, 262, 435 (1825); xxvi, 316, 363, 421 (1826).

11 Tankard, K. P. T., ‘The Kennaway girls’ in The Coelacanth: the Journal of the Border Historical Society, xxv, no. 1 (June 1987), pp 3350 ; see also idem, ‘The Lady Kennaway girls’ in McCracken (ed.), The Irish in southern Africa, ch. 11, sect. 3.

12 Bull, Esmé, ‘Irish immigration to the Cape, 1823–1900’ in McCracken, (ed.), The Irish in southern Africa, ch. 11, sect. 2.

13 The Porter speeches (Cape Town, 1886), pp xli–xliv; T. T. Kelly to Colonial Secretary (Natal), 14 Oct. 1857 (Natal Archival Depot, Ladysmith magistrate letter-book, 1854–1962, 1/LDS, 3/1/1/4). For Porter see McCracken, J. L., New light at the Cape of Good Hope: William Porter, the father of Cape liberalism (Belfast, 1992).

14 Akenson, Occasional papers, pp 54, 56.

15 Kilpin, Ralph, The romance of a colonial parliament (London, 1930), pp 6970 ; Transportation of convicts to the Cape of Good Hope, pp 49–52, H.C. 1849 (217), xliii, 53–6; Despatches relative to the reception of convicts at the Cape of Good Hope [1138], H.C. 1850, xxxviii, 223–391.

16 Cape Town Daily News, 2 Feb. 1876.

17 An extensive literature on Aylward exists. This includes: McCracken, D. P., ‘Alfred Ayl ward: Fenian editor of the Natal Witness’ in Journal of Natal and Zulu History, iv (1981), pp 49-1; McCracken, Eileen M., ‘Alfred Aylward: a Fenian in South Africa’ in Ir. Sword, xii, no. 49 (1976), pp 261-9; Smith, Ken, Alfred Aylward: the tireless agitator (Johannesburg, 1983); Smalberger, J. M., ‘Alfred Aylward, the continuing rebel: early days on the diamond fields’ in South African Historical Journal, vii (Nov. 1975), pp 261-9. No academic work has been done on the murder by Patrick O’Donnell of the Invincible informer James Carey on board a ship off the coast of South Africa in July 1883. Reference is made to this bizarre story in D. P. McCracken, ‘The insurgents and adventurers, 1806–99’ in idem (ed.), The Irish in southern Africa, ch. 2, sect. 1; O’Connor, T. P., Memoirs of an old parliamentarian (London, 1929), i, 258-71; see also Cape Argus, 31 July, 1 Aug 1883; Cape Times, 31 July 1883; Eastern Province Herald, 30 July 1883.

18 Dictionary of South African Biography (Cape Town & Johannesburg, 1972), ii, 606.

19 Remarks on the demoralising influence of slavery by a resident of the Cape of Good Hope (London, 1828), pp 7–8.

20 Brain, J. B. (ed.), The Cape diary of Bishop Patrick Raymond Griffith for the years 1837 to 1839 (South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Mariannhill, 1988), p. 160.

21 For the Irish contribution to the Catholic church in South Africa see Brain, J. B., ‘The Roman Catholic church’ in McCracken, (ed.), The Irish in southern Africa, ch. 6, sect. 1; and Doyle, F. B., ‘South Africa’ in Corish, Patrick J. (ed.), A history of Irish Catholicism, vi, ch. 4 (Dublin, 1971).

22 For the Canadian example see Akenson, D. H., The Irish in Ontario: a study in rural history (Kingston & Montreal, 1984).

23 Henderson, R. H., An Ulsterman in Africa (Cape Town, 1944; 2nd ed., 1945), pp 16, 23.

24 McCracken, D. P., ‘The Irish in South Africa: the police, a case study’ in Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review, ii, no. 7 (1991), pp 4046 . The papers of the Cape Mounted Police are housed in 161 boxes in the Cape Archival Depot, reference C.M.P.

25 Seton, M. C., ‘Irishmen in South Africa’ in The Gael, Jan. 1990, p. 21.

26 Brown, John, ‘Orangeism in South Africa’ in McCracken, (ed.), The Irish in southern Africa, ch. 5. When South Africa became a republic in 1961, surviving Orangemen in the country burnt most of the Orange records.

27 Little is known of the Irish National Foresters in South Africa. Reference to the organisation occasionally appeared in the Argus Annual and South African Directory.

28 Standard and Diggers’ News, 28 Sept. 1899. The newspaper was then edited by an Irishman, and there were also Irish reporters on the staff. It concentrated on reporting the activities of Irish nationalists on the Rand, at the expense of other uitlander groups.

29 South African Commercial Advertiser, 6 June 1829.

30 For two boisterous Irish functions see the dramatic accounts which appeared in the Standard and Transvaal Mining Chronicle (Supplement), 19 Mar. 1899, and in the Transvaal Mining Argus, 18 Mar. 1888. For a discussion of quasi-political Irish nationalist organisations see Daniel, T. K., ‘Faith and fatherland: Irish South African networks in the Cape Colony and Natal, 1871–1914, and the home rule movement in Ireland’ in McCracken, (ed.), The Irish in southern Africa, ch. 3.

31 Theal, , History of South Africa, 1795–1872, i, 222; idem, Records, vi, 392–5, 408–44.

32 Bulpin, T. V., Storm over the Transvaal (Cape Town, 1955), pp 42-5; Ronan, Barry, Forty South African years (London, 1919), pp 110-23.

33 See United Irishman, 26 Aug., 2, 9, 16 Sept. 1899.

34 McCracken, Eileen M., ‘The growth and distribution of white population in South Africa from the second British occupation (1806) until 1951’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Queen’s University, Belfast, 1962), p. 382 ; Census of the … Cape … 1891, p. xxiv.

35 Becker, Charles J., Guide to the Transvaal (Dublin, 1878). This guide was published by J. Dollard of Dame Street. H. W. Donnelly of 30 College Green, Dublin, acted for the Transvaal Land Agency in Great Britain and Ireland. The financial institution used by the agency was the Hibernian Bank. On clandestine links at this time between advanced Irish nationalism and the Transvaal Republic see SirAnderson, Robert, Sidelights on the home rule movement (London, 1906), pp 113n, 159–60; Hansard 3, cclvii, 1152–3 (21 Jan. 1881); Caron, Henri Le, Twenty-five years in the secret service (London, 1893), pp 169-70; O’Donnell, F. H., The history of the Irish Parliamentary Party, 1870–1892 (New York, 1910), i, 220.

36 The surviving papers of the Natal Mounted Police are contained in 16 volumes of manuscript material in the Natal Archival Depot.

37 Pama, C., Wagon road to Wynberg (Cape Town, 1979), pp 7, 66.

38 B. J. van de Sandt, Cape of Good Hope Almanac and Annual Register, 1847, p. 472; ibid., 1848, p. 448.

39 Wicklow People, 7 Nov. 1908; Murphy, H., The Kynoch era in Arklow, 1895–1918 (pamphlet, n.p., n.d.).

40 Rapport van den census directeur: census, 15 July 1896 (Johannesburg, 1896), pp 54–5.

41 For an attack on Solomon Gillingham see The great Transvaal Irish conspiracy (anonymous pamphlet, n.p., c. 1899).

42 Monick, S., Shamrock and springbok: the Irish impact on South African military history, 1689–1914 (Johannesburg, 1989), pp 198315.

43 For details of Irish governors see Hunt, K. S., Sir Lowry Cole (Durban, 1974); McCracken, J. L., ‘Irishmen in government in South Africa’ in McCracken, (ed.), The Irish in southern Africa, ch. 1; Picard, Hymen W. J., Lords of Stalplein: biographical miniatures of the British governors of the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town, 1974).

44 McCracken, J. L., ‘Irishmen in South African colonial parliaments’ in Southern African-Irish Studies, i (1991), pp 7382.

45 McCracken, P. A., ‘Shaping the times: Irish journalists’ in McCracken, (ed.), The Irish in southern Africa, ch. 7.

46 Natal Mercury, 25 Jan. 1882.

47 Southey, N. D., ‘Dogged entrepreneurs: some prominent Irish retailers’ in McCracken, (ed.), The Irish in southern Africa, ch. 8.

48 Colum, Pádraic, Arthur Griffith (Dublin, 1959), p. 33.

49 David Fitzpatrick, Irish emigration, 1801–1921, Irish Economic and Social History pamphlet, no. 1 (Dublin, 1984), p. 7; see also idem, ‘Irish emigration in the later nineteenth century’ in I.H.S., xxii, no. 86 (Sept. 1980), p. 137.

50 For the Rhodesian Irish see Lowry, D. W., ‘The Irish in Rhodesia’ in McCracken, (ed.), The Irish in southern Africa, ch. 10, sect. 5; Hickman, A. S., ‘The Mashonaland Irish’ in Rhodesiana, v (1960), pp 16.

51 Colum, Arthur Griffith, p. 32.

52 The pioneer conservationist, Dubliner Lt-Col. James Stevenson-Hamilton, known to the Africans as ‘Skukuza’ (‘he who turns everything upside down’), became the first curator of the Kruger National Park (see Pringle, John, The conversationists and the killers (Cape Town, 1982), pp 86108).

53 McCracken, D. P., The Irish pro-Boers, 1877–1902 (Johannesburg, 1989), pp 2234 ; idem, ‘Parnell and the South African connection’ in Donal McCartney (ed.), Parnell: the politics of power (Dublin, 1990), pp 125–36.

54 Swift MacNeill, J. G., What I have seen and heard (London, 1925), p. 263.

55 Ibid., p. 269.

56 Papers relating to the visit of John Redmond to Cape Town in 1894 (N.L.I., Redmond papers, MSS 15235/1-2). For O’Hea see Men of the times (Johannesburg, 1905), pp 282–3.

57 T.C.D., Dillon papers, MS 6851a.

58 Mallon to Harrel, 14 Jan. 1897 (S.P.O., Crime Branch Special papers, S/13020). It was Mallon who had dispatched Aylward and Carey to South Africa.

59 Shan Van Vocht, i, no. 1 (7 Feb. 1896); The Star, 4 Jan. 1896.

60 T.C.D., Dillon papers, MS 685 la/3; Proceedings of the Irish Race Convention (Dublin, 1896), p. 8; Freeman’s Journal, 24 Oct. 1899.

61 McCracken, D. P., ‘Insurgents and adventurers, 1806–99’ in McCracken, (ed.) The Irish in southern Africa, ch. 2, sect. 1.

62 Standard and Diggers’ News, 10 Oct. 1899.

63 McCracken, D. P., ‘The Irish Transvaal Brigades’ in McCracken, (ed.), The Irish in southern Africa, ch. 2, sect. 2. This volume also contains a section which lists the names of 167 Irish recruits. See also Ruda, Richard, ‘The Irish Transvaal Brigades’ in Ir. Sword, xi, no. 45 (1974), pp 201-11. The manifesto of the first brigade appeared in the Standard and Diggers’ News, 28 Sept. 1899.

64 Both brigade leaders later wrote highly dramatic accounts of their time in South Africa. Neither account is particularly reliable. See J. Y. F. Blake, , A West Pointer with the Boers (Boston, 1903); Lynch, Arthur, My life story (London, 1924). A colourful account of the activities of Blake’s commando was written by John MacBride and published in the Freeman’s Journal, 13, 20, 27 Oct., 10, 17 Nov., 1, 12 Dec. 1906, 5, 12 Jan., 9 Feb., 2 Apr., 29 July 1907.

65 The strength of the first Irish Transvaal Brigade dropped to under 100 after the siege of Ladysmith (see Davitt, Michael, The Boer fight for freedom (New York & London, 1902), p. 322 ; McCracken, The Irish pro-Boers, p. 143).

66 Later in the war Blake’s commando was joined by a 40-strong Chicago Irish-American ‘ambulance’ corps under Capt. Patrick O’Connor (see Davitt, Boer fight for freedom, pp 325–7).

67 McCracken, The Irish pro-Boers, pp 123–7; see also Chadwick, G. A., The role of the Fifth (Irish) Brigade in the battles of Colenso and Tugela Heights (pamphlet, Durban, 1990).

68 Foster’s, R. F. Modern Ireland, 1600–1972 (London, 1988) is the first general Irish history textbook to identify the important impact of the Anglo-Boer War on Irish politics.

69 It was not only soldiers who came to South Africa from Ireland during the Anglo-Boer War. For the role of the Royal Irish Constabulary hospital corps in the conflict see The Royal Irish Constabulary Magazine, i, no. 9 (July 1912), ii, no. 1 (Nov. 1912), no. 2 (Dec 1912), no. 4 (Feb. 1913), no. 5 (Mar. 1913), no. 6 (Apr. 1913).

70 Eileen M. McCracken, ‘The growth … of white population’, p. 305.

71 Akenson, Occasional papers, p. 61.

72 Daniel, T. K., ‘Erin’s green veldt: the Irish Republican Association of South Africa, 1920–22’ in Journal of the University of Durban-Westville, n.s., iii (1986), pp 8998 ; idem, ‘The scholars and the saboteurs: the wrecking of a South African Irish scheme, Paris, 1922’ in Southern African-Irish Studies, i (1991), pp 162–75.

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Irish settlement and identity in South Africa before 1910

  • Donal P. McCracken (a1)


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