Growing Suspicion of the Irish-Australian Community

The Irish-Australian community initially supported the war. Their support stemmed firstly from the continuing celebration of the long-awaited Home Rule for Ireland after legislation finally passed through Westminster late in May 1914.4 Huge public demonstrations were held across the country: 45,000 people attended the Melbourne celebration on 4 May, and 10,000 on 1 June in Adelaide—representing an astonishing five percent of the population in that least Irish of cities—while reports from Sydney’s 12 June gathering also cited thousands of attendees. Australia’s politicians also attended the demonstrations in large numbers.6 Federal Opposition Leader Andrew Fisher and (at that time) Shadow


Attorney General, Billy Hughes, both moved resolutions in support of Home Rule in Melbourne. The second factor that influenced Irish- Australian support for the war was Britain’s decision to enter the war to defend Catholic Belgium following its invasion by Germany. Together, these issues persuaded most Irish-Australians to support the war, and Irish-Catholic newspapers across Australia celebrated their young men’s enlistment and emphasised Catholic contributions to patriotic funds.7

On the surface Australian society appeared united in its pro-war (and thus pro-Britain) stance, but by October 1914 hairline cracks had begun to appear. Claims of inadequate Irish-Australian enlistment figures fuelled whispers of disloyalty.8 Addressing an Adelaide Christian Brothers Old Boys gathering, Father Byrne regretted that:

It seemed strange that again and again it was dinned in their ears that Catholics could not be loyal subjects and good citizens, and that their allegiance was divided between the church and the land they lived in... When the [military] call came... there was a prompt response from... the Christian Brothers Old Collegians Association.9

The priest’s comments suggest early awareness of informal ‘loyalty monitoring’ of the Irish-Australian community. The atmosphere became more heated as Australian troops were involved in the Gallipoli campaign. Publication of successive lists of the dead and wounded brought a painful understanding of war’s realities, and intensified suspicion of groups judged as insufficiently patriotic or British. In August, Melbourne’s Catholic Coadjutor, Archbishop Mannix, replied to attacks on Catholic spending priorities when blessing a new presbytery:

These critics [of Catholic spending] said that Catholics should spend all their money on the war, on the Red Cross and other war funds. Well, he ... could tell those people that Catholics had done and were doing their share ... they had given their lives at the front and their money in Victoria ... it did not lie in the power of any man to say that they had not also done their duty to their country.10

Mannix maintained such insistent defence of the Irish-Catholic position throughout the war, which contributed to loyalist perceptions of Irish untrustworthiness. Official instructions from the Minister of Defence to censors in December 1915 reflected evidence of increasing domestic sensitivities regarding Irish-Australians. Censors were asked to minimise “harmful agitation and resentment among our people of Irish descent,” while the press was requested to “refrain from comment and the publication of any matter... calculated in any way to reflect on the loyalty of our Irish fellow subjects.”11

In 1916, however, such generous sentiments evaporated. On Easter Monday in Dublin, a small group of armed Irish nationalists marched on the General Post Office (GPO) and other key locations and proclaimed an Irish Republic. The Easter Rising led to six days of military engagement between the Irish rebels and a much larger British force. The British—preoccupied with the war on the Western Front—viewed the Rising as an act of Irish treachery and crushed the self-proclaimed republic. In the aftermath, they imposed executions, internment, and martial law on the Irish. While local evidence demonstrates initial Irish-Australian horror about the Easter Rising, the severity of Britain’s reprisals began to reverse this community’s judgement.12 The defeat of the first conscription plebiscite later that year—which was in part blamed on the Irish-Catholic ‘No’ vote—provided further evidence to loyalist Australians that all Irish, be they in Ireland or Australia, were disloyal.

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