IGAS Members Login

AIS Karoke Night 2008

Watch an Irish classical trio performing in Singapore on 19th February. Visit the Irish Embassy or the Arts House for more details.

Appalachian Trail

Amy will give IGAS a talk and presentation when she launches her book on her Appalachian Trail adventure in 2008.

Irish People in Singapore

Irish People in Singapore

By Rosemary Lim


As with most histories, that of the Irish in Singapore will never be complete. Although many Irish people contributed to Singapore’s economic, social and cultural development, few made it into the annals with anything more than a name mentioned in passing.

For a few who reached the pinnacle of their chosen careers, however, enough information is available to fill several books. Below is a short report on some of these exceptional Irish people.

Builders and Architects

The most exceptional Irishman with a Singapore connection is George Coleman, born in Drogheda in 1795. Coleman first arrived in Singapore in 1822 for a short stay but returned in 1825 and remained for nearly 20 years. He set about making his mark on the small settlement with elegant buildings, most of which have disappeared, and a street grid that is still in place today from Telok Ayer to Stamford Road. Three of Coleman’s buildings survive as national monuments: the Old Parliament House (1826), the Armenian Church of St Gregory the Illuminator (1835), and Caldwell House (1840) at CHIJMES.

Two more national monuments that were the work of Irishmen are the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, designed in 1843 by Dennis McSwiney, and the Sultan Mosque, designed by Cork man Denis Santry in 1925.

Street Names

In the early days of Singapore many roads were named after the owner of a prominent house, which is how Oxley Road and its adjacent streets were named after Dr Thomas Oxley, born in Dublin in 1805. Braddell Road and Maxwell Road were named after prominent families with four generations of Singapore connections. The patriarchs of both families were born in Ireland, Peter Benson Maxwell (1816—1893) of Birdstown in Co. Derry and Thomas Braddell (1823—1891) of Rahingrany, Co. Wicklow.

Also in the town area are Cuscaden Road and Cuscaden Walk named for William Cuscaden who became Inspector General of Police in 1905. Further out from the town area is Bartley Road, named after Belfast-man John Bartley (born 1885), Commissioner of Lands in the 1930s. Bartley Road runs off Upper Serangoon Road. One other series of roads has an Irish connection because of St Patrick’s school, founded by Irish De La Salle Brothers in the east of Singapore in 1933.

The most recently named street is McNally Street, named after Brother Joseph McNally, a De La Salle brother who arrived in Singapore in 1946 and spent his life here dedicated to education and art, setting up the La Salle College of the Arts after he retired from teaching. The college’s address is One McNally Street.


Many countries would have to dedicate a large portion of their educational history to Irish teaching missionaries. Singapore is no exception. Irish missionaries played an important role in Singapore’s educational development.

The first two arrived in 1852 when St Joseph’s Institution was founded. Brother Gregory Connelly from Derry and Brother Switbert Doyle from Carlow began a long history of Irish De La Salle Brothers in Singapore.
The Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus was founded in 1854 by French Sisters but was served by many Irish, especially in the 20th century. These Sisters were pioneers in girls’ education, not only persuading parents to educate their daughters in the early years, but advocating the teaching of science and other ‘masculine’ subjects. Sister Elizabeth Browne was instrumental in bringing science subjects on to the curriculum.

Two sisters, Sister Dolores Healy and Sister Josephine Healy, spent over 50 years in Singapore and were featured in the Straits Times in 2001 when they finally retired back to Ireland. Sister Deirdre O’Loan from Cork and Sister Rosario Egan are the only two Irish IJ Sisters left in Singapore, with over 100 years of service between them.

Marymount Convent was founded in 1939 by Irish Sisters of the Good Shepherd Sisters led by Mother Liguori Bourke. Sister Ita Cleere, who is 90 years old, is the last of many Irish Good Shepherd Sisters to serve in Singapore.

There is a small mention in the book One Hundred Years of Singapore of Misses MacMahon and Lecky, who helped with the Presbyterian mission in the late 1800s but no other information has been found about these ladies. One prominent Presbyterian missionary was Benjamin Purdy from Dublin who arrived in Singapore in 1920 after 32 years in Kuala Lumpur. He worked for the British and Foreign Bible Society and helped to found Kuala’s Lumpur’s first Presbyterian church in 1918.

In more recent years Irishmen and women served with the Overseas Mission Fellowship (OMF) in both Singapore and Malaysia. John Miller from St Augustine’s Church in Londonderry arrived in Malaysia in 1970 with his wife Sheila and their son Jonathan. Mr Miller became International Director of OMF in 1982 and served until 1994 when he returned to Ireland. From 1988 to 1998 Dr Grace Pettigrew from Belfast was OMF International Medical Adviser based in Singapore.

Currently Beverlea Parkhill from Co. Antrim is the only Irish person at OMF International. Mrs Karen McConnell from Belfast worked at the Singapore Bible College for over five years until her untimely death in 2006.
Irish Jesuits founded St Ignatius Church in 1961.

Rev. Thomas O’Neill is still serving in the parish. Father Tom Curran, a Carmelite Friar, spent many years in Africa before arriving in Singapore in the 1990s to run the Carmelite Seminary in Ponggol.

Other churches in Singapore served by Irish ministers include Katong Church School (Rev. Rev Samuel John Hanna with his wife Joan,1982—1985 and 1987—1988) Orchard Road Presbyterian Church (Rev. Ian Hart with his wife Pat 1985—1992), St James Church (Rev. Cecil Mc Sparron and his wife Mary in the 1980s).


Dr Oxley was the first Irish doctor to practise in Singapore and was made Senior Surgeon of the Straits Settlement in 1844. Although there must have been other Irish doctors in the Settlement in the 19th century research has yet to reveal their names.

In the early 20th century most doctors in Singapore were recruited by the Colonial Service, among them UCD graduate Dr Michael O’Connor (b. 1898) and TCD graduate Dr Richard Fitzgerald (b. 1885). They worked in Singapore in the early 20th century.

Dr Grove-White from Dublin (a past-president of the St Patrick’s Society of Singapore) was one of only six people from the Irish Free State to be interned by the Japanese, as most Irish citizens were neutral. Dr Henry McGladdery from Bangor, Co. Down was also interned as a British citizen. Both continued to work in Singapore after the war.

Two other doctors have been president of the St Patrick’s Society, Dr Ronald Bland (b. 1904) and Dr C. B. Wilson, who was Director of Medical Services in Singapore from 1960 to 1963.

Apart from teaching and opening an orphanage, the Infant Jesus Sisters worked as nurses in the Singapore General Hospital for a short period in the 1890s. Although the arrangement did not last they were in fact Singapore’s first nurses.

In March 1961 Mount Alvernia Hospital on Thomson Road was officially opened by the Nursing Order of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood (FMDM). Several Irish Sisters arrived in Singapore in 1949 at the request of the Chief Medical Officer of the time to help with the chronic shortage of nurses at Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s tuberculosis ward.
Mrs Nora Irvin (née Conway) from Newcastle West in Co.

Limerick, first arrived in Singapore in 1945 after the Japanese surrender. She spent almost 50 years working in the nursing profession, helping to recruit Singapore women into the profession and training them as nurses for Singapore hospitals.

Administrative Services

British Colonial Service records provide some useful leads on the Irish who served in Malaya (the Federated Malayan States and the Unfederated Malayan States) and the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore. The records only begin in the early 20th century so earlier information is difficult to come by.

Singapore’s Anglican Cathedral, St Andrew’s, hosts a commemorative plaque to two Irish friends, Mr Houghton and Mr O’Brien, who died within a few months of each other in 1897. Both were in the Straits Settlements Civil Service. Few others have received such public immortality.

The St Patrick’s Society of Singapore’s Shillelagh of Office, however, lists H.P. Bryson as its first president in 1947. Hugh Paterson Bryson was born in Portadown, Co. Armagh in 1898 and after serving in the First World War decided that his family’s linen business was not for him so he joined the Colonial Service.  At one time he was Acting Colonial Secretary of Singapore before his retirement in 1950. Percy McNeice is recorded on the shellelagh as T.P.F. McNeice.

Sir Percy, as he was later known,  under the Chinese Protectorate made many positive contributions to Singapore in his work with the City Municipality, ending his career as President of the Municipality and a knighthood. He was succeeded by Mr James Rea from Northern Ireland who, despite being a POW of the Japanese, lived to the age of 93, passing away in Clough, Co. Down in 2001.


The Straits Settlements’ first Chief Justice was an Irishman, Sir Peter Maxwell. Prior to that the position was known as the Recorder of Singapore (from 1855) and before that Recorder of the Straits Settlements. Irishman Sir William Jeffcott held the position from 1850—1855 and was succeeded by Sir Richard McCausland, whose farewell party on St Patrick’s Day 1866 is the first recorded St Patrick’s Day Dinner. Sir Peter Maxwell followed McCausland and was in office when the post was re-titled Chief Justice.

The following have all been Chief Justices: Sir Edward Loughlin O’Malley, grandson of Charles O’Malley from County Mayo (1890—1892), Sir Walter Clarence Huggard from Milltown, Co. Kerry (1933—1936), and Sir Percy Alexander McElwaine from Roscommon (1936—1946).

Both Walter Huggard and Percy McElwaine were Chief Justices of Singapore and prior to that Attorney General of Singapore from 1929—1933 and 1933—1936 respectively. The first Attorney General in 1867 was Thomas Braddell. His son, Thomas de Multon Lee Braddell held the post from 1911—1913.


Deeper research will no doubt reveal more information about the Irish of Singapore, in particular the Eurasian families with names such as O’Hara, Ryan and Scully, to name a few.

Long-term Irish residents of Singapore also include Irish women, such as Sheila Lim, Sheila Wee, Eileen Wong, Julie Bogaars and Ellen Khoo, who, though married to Singaporeans and living half a world away, maintain strong Irish identities and connections with Ireland, passing these on to their Singaporean-Irish children.

Singapore’s small share of the Irish diaspora has yet to gain full recognition, something that will hopefully be rectified in the not-to-distant future.

Rosemary Lim
November 2007