Michael Ryan and the Female Immigration Board in South Australia

By Steiner, Marie | Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview

Michael Ryan and the Female Immigration Board in South Australia


Steiner, Marie, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society


Michael Ryan was the priest who accompanied Francis Murphy, the first South Australian Catholic Bishop, to Adelaide in October 1844. For twenty odd years he served the Catholic community, travelling extensively and often over the colony to visit isolated parishioners. He acted as Vicar General for several periods and, during the absence of the Bishop, administered the diocese and was the Catholic spokesman on political issues such as the Marriage Act and Ordinance, the Grant-in-aid scheme and the Education Act. He was appointed to the newly established Destitute Board in 1849 as the Catholic representative along with clergy from other denominations. No doubt it was his experience on this Board which resulted in his selection by Governor Richard MacDonnell to be appointed to the Female Immigration Board (FIB) six years later For six months he worked closely with a small group with vastly different social, religious and political views to provide for the 'excessive female immigration' which created enormous problems for the colony in 1855 and led to a Parliamentary Enquiry in 1856. (1)

In this study I examine his role on this Female Immigration Board and his role in the events which led to its establishment. An illustration of the social welfare role of the clergy in early colonial days is thus provided. An attempt is made to assess how effective Michael Ryan was in providing care for the newly arrived, predominantly Irish, servant girls in 1855. What influence did he have on the decisions of the Board?

Michael Ryan to 1855

There is little information available about Michael Ryan's personal background. He was born in Galway and arrived in Australia in 1838, presumably in his mid-twenties. Archbishop Polding of NSW transferred him from Penrith to accompany Bishop Murphy to Adelaide and to assist for a year. After the year had expired Michael Ryan applied for permission to remain in Adelaide from the Archbishop of Tuam, in Ireland, to whom he was still responsible. (2) He was reputedly a poor speaker but an excellent horse-rider. (3)

As a clergyman in a very new colony with few resources Ryan was involved in a wide variety of activities. He constantly travelled, mostly on horseback, sometimes by boat, on missionary expeditions to the most remote settlements in the colony, from Armagh north of Clare to the lower South-East. He became, therefore, very familiar with all the areas of the colony where Female Immigration Depots or Servants Depots, were to be established. When Bishop Murphy and Michael Ryan first arrived, the Catholic population of Adelaide was poor and scattered. The Census of 1855, the last census in which it was compulsory to state religious affiliation, recorded 8,335 Roman Catholics in the colony, less than ten percent of the population of 85,821. Ryan was adept at raising money in very small working class communities for the building of churches, the first being completed at Morphett Vale, less than nine months after he had arrived. By 1855 there were churches and parish priests in all but two (Robe and Encounter Bay) of the towns with Servants Depots. (4) He spent several months at the Victorian gold diggings in 1852 and collected over 2,000 [pounds sterling], having been sent by Bishop Murphy to raise money to repay diocesan debt. (5)

In 1851 elections were held for the Legislative Council. One of the key issues contested was that of state aid to religion-the continuation of the payment of stipends and the allocation of grants for the building of churches. Michael Ryan spent all day at the newly created polling place at Salisbury in the district of Yatala, trying to convince people to vote for the candidate supporting the Grant-in-Aid scheme, no doubt with the approval of his Bishop. At this time Michael Ryan must have been reasonably well-known, not only as a Catholic priest but also as a member of the Destitute Board. The unsuccessful candidate, George Alexander Anstey, interpreted his activity as exercising 'undue influence'. …

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