The Irish National Association and the Irish Republican Brotherhood
One consequence of increased perceptions of possible disloyalty was increased government surveillance of the Irish-Australian community. A key target was the INA. This group was established in Sydney in mid- 1915 by Albert Dryer, an Australian of Irish descent, who was motivated by Britain’s delay in granting Ireland Home Rule after the outbreak of war in 1914. The association focused on all aspects of Irish culture and history, and Dryer ensured its members were kept informed about Ireland’s progress.13 In a reflection of the number of Irish-Australians adopting more radical positions in relation to Ireland, branches of the INA were subsequently established in both Brisbane and Melbourne.
Close links between MI5 in Britain and the SIB led to the sharing of information about supposedly suspect Irish-Australians, including INA members.14 In November 1916, MI5 intercepted a letter revealing details of Australian money involved in buying American arms for Irish revolu- tionaries.15 This interception precipitated a circular from the SIB director, who warned all his inspectors that “Sinn Fein ... [existed] in a serious form [and] it will be well to watch closely all persons known to be connected to the organisation.”16 Individuals thought to be associated with the Irish Republican movement were to be monitored “without distinction,” and the creation and use of a card index of suspects and their details was soon mandated.17 Raids on targeted Irish-Australian groups by security officers in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane followed in March 1918 and material obtained during these searches facilitated further raids in May. In June 1918, in what appeared to prove loyalist suspicions of Irish-Australian treachery, seven INA members were arrested.
SIB surveillance of the INA, and the arrest of seven of its members, also exposed the existence within its ranks of the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s (IRB) “Australian Division.” The IRB had a shadowy history with Fenian roots, and from the late 1860s it “led a rather submerged existence seeking opportunities to exploit.”18 Any situation where British vulnerability could be exploited to further Ireland’s interests encouraged IRB interest. There were early Australian connections. In 1877, according to O’Farrell, an international revolutionary directory intended to coordinate the IRB and Irish-American radical groups had one Australian member.19 After Sinn Fein was founded in Ireland in 1905, another generation of radicals provided republicans with wartime opportunities. The IRB’s Supreme Council was largely responsible for the 1916 Easter Rising. One study of the 1,770 Irish witness statements collected between 1947 and 1957 from participants of the Rising demonstrated IRB connections, and showed “the importance of the IRB, not only in Ireland, but also in the countries where thousands of Irish emigrants sought a livelihood.”20 Although this evidence was collated some decades after the Rising—potentially raising questions about its reliability—it is important to note that participant statements about IRB membership and involvement were generally consistent.
The IRB’s history of international extremism and violence against Britain led to significant official anxiety about the discovery of IRB connections in Melbourne and Sydney during 1917 and 1918. But a government-initiated judicial enquiry of August 1918 into the detention of the INA-affiliated internees uncovered few additional details about their IRB association. As O’Farrell states, the accused gave no evidence at the enquiry to either defend or explain their activities.21 This defence strategy cleverly evaded significant issues. Crown charges were presented as absurd and unproven by the evidence, and the internees were described as operating out of “purely Irish imagination.”22 Significant incriminating factors—such as the presence of a military-style training camp at Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains, the backgrounds of the internees, and processes of sending letters overseas—failed to emerge. Justice Harvey, who conducted the enquiry, confirmed the need for ongoing detention of the seven men, concluding that although they had no links to enemy residents in Australia:
their IRB membership established: hostile associations through German agencies in America. They collected moneys in Australia for the purpose of assisting armed rebellion in Ireland against the British Government on the first available opportunity.
While Justice Harvey emphasised that the internees had used the INA “to further their aims,” he added that most “ rank and file” members were unaware of any German links. Justice Harvey’s deliberately careful concluding language suggests reservations:
the evidence tendered... was almost entirely documentary... [t]he only really material matter... assisted by evidence ... was the identity of John Doran [the Irish-American who established the Melbourne and Sydney IRB groups] and the nature of his employment in Melbourne between 1909 and 1916.23
In other words, his findings were limited, the judicial process in some ways subverted by the defence strategy and internee silence.
The exact membership numbers of Australia’s secret IRB Division remain unclear. Cain and O’Farrell suggest a figure of either thirty or fifty members in Sydney, respectively, with more spread across the nation.24 The presence of a significant IRB core in Australia challenges claims suggesting that after the Rising, “a reluctant and indifferent [Australian] Catholic laity [was] forced to cope with the accidental and misleading prominence of Ireland.”25 NAA files relating to Sinn Fein in Australia reveal numbers of individuals involved in small and large actions demonstrating the opposite—that committed Irish-Australians were ready to promote the Irish cause in whatever ways were possible. What became of the seven interned men was documented, however the fates of their associates are less well known.