Australian Echoes of Imperial Tensions: Government Surveillance of Irish- Australians

Stephanie James

Perceptions of Irish-Australians, the nation’s largest ethnic minority group, shifted during the First World War from an acknowledged irritant to a perceived threat to the British-Australian way of life. In a largely Protestant Australia, the majority of Irish-Australians were Catholic, and thus some intergroup tensions were always apparent. But the war contributed to more explicit friction in a number of ways. For the majority of Australians, the 1916 Easter Rising demonstrated Ireland’s treachery, the conscription plebiscites in Australia highlighted Irish-Catholic imperial disloyalty, and the intensifying personal antagonism between the Irish- Australian, and avowedly anti-war, Archbishop Daniel Mannix and Prime Minister William (Billy) Hughes meant the Irish in Australia were increasingly associated with opposition to the war, and increasingly became the focus of Hughes’ ire.1 The mid-1918 arrest of seven Irish National Association (INA) members in three states proved that Irish-Australians were willing to support groups that were demonstrably anti-British. British Australia learnt that many Irish-Australians held very different views about Britain, and about Australia’s place within the British [1]

Empire. These revelations provide firm evidence of how international events during this global war affected Australia.

The magnitude of the Irish-Australian threat during the First World War awaits comprehensive investigation. While Patrick O’Farrell, the eminent historian of Irish Australia whose research first fully revealed the INA story, acknowledges their potential disloyalty, he argues that “nothing much came of it... [it was] at best a remote and muffled echo of big events elsewhere.”2 Frank Cain, in his investigation of Australia’s surveillance history, similarly contends that “Irish nationalism never threatened Australian society” and that in the “surveillance world” (Special Intelligence Bureau or SIB and the post-war Commonwealth Investigation Branch or CIB) “the fear of Irish nationalism was not widely spread... even during the war years.”3 However, wartime commentators such as the prominent Melbourne businessman Herbert Brookes and his colleagues, who pushed for increased security monitoring of Irish-Australians, and the anonymous editor of Adelaide’s All British Sentinel, published between 1917 and 1921, were certain of the danger Irish- Australians posed. Using O’Farrell and Cain’s frameworks, this chapter draws on evidence in the SIB files at the National Archives of Australia (NAA) to assess the veracity of claims made by people like Herbert Brookes. The chapter suggests that Irish-Australians were a greater wartime threat than has previously been recognised. While the loyalty of the Irish-Australian community was doubted from 1914, and events in Ireland and Australia in 1915 and 1916 compounded such doubts, the surveillance regime from late 1917 onwards provided more certainty of the disloyalty of Irish-Australians by exposing INA sedition and identifying other, less high-profile individuals who were willing to circumvent wartime controls in their commitment to justice for Ireland.

  • [1] James (*) Flinders University, Adelaide, SA, Australiae-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it © The Author(s) 2017 K. Ariotti, J.E. Bennett (eds.), Australians and the First World War,DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-51520-5_8
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