The Irish are widely considered to be the only country with the majority of its population living outside its borders. This goes some way to explain why St Patrick’s Day is one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world.

Irish people were among the first migrants to Australia – arriving as convicts and free settlers initially and continuing to contribute in many ways to the country’s history right up to the present day. At the most recent census in 2021, almost 10 per cent of the population identified as being Irish-born or having Irish ancestry.

Australia is home to so many rich and fascinating Irish histories, but their role in the Australian armed forces is one of the lesser-known stories. According to The Irish Emigration Museum’s records, around 6,600 Irish born migrants enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, which then banded with New Zealand forces to become the Australian New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs). In addition, thousands of Australians of Irish descent also enlisted.

What motived them to join is unclear, though its widely thought it was to fulfill a patriotic urge to align with the British Forces against Germany, despite the turbulent history between Ireland and Britain. Catholicism was said to play a large part, with faith, and aspirations for unity the motivating factors. “To the Australian Irish who were Catholics, the war also presented an opportunity to rid Australia of its sectarian divide. By sharing in the blood sacrifice, they hoped the wider community would come to accept them for whom they were.” Details like these come from a fascinating research paper Irish Anzacs: the contribution of the Australian Irish to the Anzac tradition by historian Jeff Kildea, an Honorary Professor in Irish Studies at the University of NSW.

Jeff’s work discovered that almost a thousand Irish ANZACs were killed at Gallipoli, and their stories are a definitive part of the ANZAC history. Additionally, of the 64 Australians awarded the Victoria Cross up to WWI, one was Irish born soldier Martin O’Meara of Lorrha, County Tipperary, while others were first, second and third generation Irish – their surnames instantly recognisable on the honour roll.

Faith has been a great companion to many on the battlefields throughout history so no doubt the Irish held St Patrick close to their hearts in the dark times. Although many celebrate the day, few know the origin story – that it commemorates the death of the man who brought Christianity to Ireland.

St Patrick was an aristocratic Englishman who, for reasons that are unclear, was sent away to Ireland to work as a slave. While tending sheep in the cold bleak mountain regions Patrick’s suffering led him to find religion and on returning home to his family, he had the revelation that bringing Christianity to Ireland was his destiny. Patrick was subsequently ordained and would use the Shamrock as a way of explaining the holy trinity of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit to the Irish. This is why the Shamrock is so often associated with Ireland, when in fact these small three-leafed plants can be found all over the world. Much like the Irish.

Irish veterans in Australia can connect with United Irish Ex-Services Association of Australia, an Association of former servicemen and women, who served.