Bob Gould, 2000

Race, nationality and religion in Australia
The Irish Catholics, the labour movement and the working class in the 19th and 20th centuries

Source: Self-published pamphlet, January 3, 2000
Mark-up: by Steve Painter

The influence of the Catholic Irish on the emergence of a radical Australian national consciousness has been relatively neglected in general histories of Australia, including leftist ones. For instance, in No Paradise for Workers, 1988, by Ken Buckley and Ted Wheelwright, the impact of the Irish Catholics on the labour movement is presented, without evidence, as essentially conservative.

Miriam Dixson, the one-time leftist labour historian, now turned conservative populist, focussed a major part of her book, The Real Matildas on the allegation that “backward” Irish women retarded women’s rights in Australia, and she has now, in The Imaginary Australian located the Irish influence as the major source of undesirable negativity towards her artificially reconstructed Anglophile version of Australian identity.

The often missing presence of the Irish Catholic dimension has flawed a lot of liberal and leftist Australian historiography, including much labour history. This absence or understatement of the influence of Irish Catholics makes many histories of Australia in the 19th century mysterious and sometimes almost unintelligible.

A current example of this is Stuart Macintyre’s Concise History of Australia, in which the Irish Catholics are almost invisible. This makes Macintyre’s short history considerably inferior to the short histories of Manning Clark and Russell Ward, with which it will inevitably be compared.

The neglect by many historians of the critically oppositional role of the Irish Catholics in Australian society lays the way open for ahistorical concepts such as the one developed by Miriam Dixson, in which she celebrates retrospectively her imaginary hegemonic “Anglo-Celtic core culture” in the 19th century.

In reality, that was a period of sharp conflict between an underclass consisting of the Irish Catholics and the other oppressed social groups, on the one hand, and ruling class British Australia on the other. Further to this point, it is not really possible to get an accurate fix on class formation in 19th century Australia without fully understanding the oppositional role of the Irish Catholics, which contributed constantly to democratic upheavals and fed into the emergence of a distinctive Australian working class, and late in the century, the Labor industrial and political movement.

The “debate on class” among labour historians can’t be illuminated or resolved in any rounded way without reference to the considerable social and political influence and impact of Irish Catholics in Australia, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which has so far been neglected or obliterated by some historians, of whom Macintyre is representative.

The older liberal and Marxist labour historians, Manning Clark, Ian Turner, Brian Fitzpatrick, Russell Ward and Rupert Lockwood, are much more comprehensive and accurate in their coverage of the role of the Irish than the later, “new left” historians, such as Humphrey McQueen and Stuart Macintyre.

Right-wing historians, such as Geoffrey Blainey, Allan Atkinson and Miriam Dixson either neglect the influence of the Irish or are positively hostile to them. For that reason, when Robert Hughes’ groundbreaking The Fatal Shore was published, one striking aspect of it was a healthy correction to this neglect of the Irish. Hughes’ book has been the most popular work about Australian history ever, which of course has not endeared him or his book to some dreary professional historians, whose narrowly focused institutional histories often suffer badly by comparison with such robust social history.

One academic of the arid postmodernist sort that passes for Marxism in academe nowadays attacked Hughes in an academic journal for being not “historically materialist” enough, whatever that may mean.

The high-profile right-wing populist Paul Sheehan obviously dislikes The Fatal Shore intensely. In my view, Hughes’ book (along with Eris O’Brien’s The Foundation of Australia) is the necessary starting point for any overview of the origins of Australia. In the last 15 years there has been a development of a specific discipline of Irish Australian studies by people like Oliver McDonagh, Keith Amos, Colm Kiernan, Patrick O’Farrell and now Tom Keneally, located in Australia and Ireland, and we are indebted greatly to the work of this school.

Although this discipline of Irish-Australian cultural studies has not yet been comprehensively incorporated into general Australian history, it has provided a large and growing body of work, which will inevitably contribute to the development of a balanced, liberal, leftist, Marxist Australian historiography, into which the Irish Catholics and their enormous political, social and cultural influence will be properly incorporated.

One of the first things to understand about Australian history, national consciousness and the labour movement in the 19th century is the demographics of Australian population growth. This, of course, can’t be separated from the more traditional Marxist approach, which deals with the development of the economy and the emergence of the capitalist class and the working class, but those areas have been studied extensively, while the religious and ethnic make-up of 19th century and early 20th century Australia has been largely overlooked.

The indefatigable demographer, Charles Price, and his computer, have thrown a lot of light on the numerical significance of the Irish.

The convict period

The raw statistics of the convict era are illuminating: 168,000 people were deported to Australia as convicts, of whom 28,000 were women, about 22 per cent were Irish Catholics, and possibly even more had been because of the large number of convicts who did not state a religion. The more significant figure, however, is the breakdown among the women. A massive 47 per cent of the convict women were Irish Catholics, a figure that has only been noted by historians in recent years, particularly by Kay Daniels and those who put together the Atlas and Statistics volume of the 1988 Australians, A Historical Atlas published by Fairfax, Syme and Weldon.

This statistic for convict women is of great significance, for instance, for anyone engaged in the current practice of family history who manages to locate a convict in their ancestry. There are about three chances out of five, statistically, that their convict ancestor, male or female, was an Irish Catholic.

In another chapter, I advance the proposition that anyone who had ancestors here before the gold rush that began in the 1840s has a high statistical probability of having some Aboriginal ancestry as well. The most oppressed, the Irish and the Aboriginals, contributed enormous amounts to the gene pool of White Australia before the gold rushes.

In a book that is very important to this inquiry, The Irish Emigrant Experience in Australia edited by John O’Brien and Patrick Travers, 1991, there is an extremely useful chapter by Jakelin Troy, in which the author, in describing the origins of “NSW pidgin”, the beginnings of the distinct Australian dialect, documents in great detail the constant contact with, and interaction between, Irish convicts and Aboriginals on the expanding edge of European settlement in NSW.

Pre-Gold-Rrush convict Australia was mainly an open-air prison outpost of British imperialism. In the early years the British ruling caste feared and hated their convict slaves, particularly the Irish, and the rulers of the colony were in considerable fear for many years of Irish revolts, one of which took place in 1804 at Castle Hill.

The military and civilian dictatorship of the British deprived the Irish Catholics for 30 years of the consolations of their religion, and tried to enforce conformity to the established Anglican Church, but these efforts were totally unsuccessful. The Irish would have nothing to do with the religion of the English oppressor and, indeed, most English, Scottish and Welsh convicts would have nothing to do with the Anglican Church of the English ruling class either. The church parades and the flogging parsons, who doubled as brutal magistrates in convict society, were part of the established order, which was the obvious enemy of all the oppressed: Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh.

The battle of the Irish Catholics for religious freedom in Britain’s penal colony, military dictatorship, early NSW

The colony commenced as a harsh military dictatorship. Eris O’Brien’s important book, Foundation of Catholicism in Australia (two volumes, Angus and Robertson, 1922) has this to say about the religious arrangements in the new colony:

At Phillip’s departure from it in 1792, it has been reckoned, the population of the convict settlements at Sydney and at Norfolk Island was 4414; of these one-third were Catholics.

It was not merely the absence of their priests that made the lot of Catholics hard, but the fact that they were compelled to attend Protestant religious services, against which they had ever held conscientious objections. On November 9, 1791, Phillip issued the following regulation: “Every person will regularly attend divine worship … The Commissary is directed to stop 2lbs of meat from every overseer, and 1.5lbs from every convict, male or female, who does not attend divine worship.”

Governor Hunter, his successor, had similar ideas. In his evidence before the Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1812, he stated that he had given a general order that he expected the people to attend divine service, sent constables around the town with directions that, if they found anyone idling during the time of divine service, they were to put them in gaol and settle the point next morning.

Governor King acted in like manner until in 1803 certain instructions came from England; then he judged it expedient to grant unto the Revd. Mr Dixon a conditional emancipation to enable him to exercise his clerical functions as a Roman Catholic priest … which permission shall remain in full force and effect as long as he, the said Mr Dixon (and no other priest), shall strictly adhere to the rules and regulations which he has this day bound himself by oath to observe.”

These regulations are worth quoting insofar as they give a picture of the times and of Catholic disabilities, which otherwise could not be so well described:

“Regulations to be observed by the Rev. Mr Dixon and the Catholic congregations of this colony

“1st. They will observe, with all becoming gratitude, that this extension of liberal toleration proceeds from the piety and benevolence of our most gracious Sovereign …

“3rd. As Mr Dixon will be allowed to perform his clerical functions once in three weeks at the settlements of Sydney, Parramatta, and Hawkesbury, in rotation, the magistrates are strictly forbid suffering those Catholics who reside at the places where service is not performing from resorting to the settlement and district at which the priest officiates for the day.

“6th. And to the end that strict decorum may be observed, a certain number of the police will be stationed at and about the places appointed during the service.

“7th. Every person throughout the colony will observe that the law has sufficiently provided for the punishment of those who may disquiet or disturb any assembly of religious worship whatever, or misuse any priest or teacher of any tolerated sect.”

The regulations emphasisd the fact that tolerated sects should be grateful for small mercies. But even this toleration was of short duration. Fathers Dixon and Harold, who had been deported as persons implicated in the Irish rebellion, reached Sydney in 1800, and Father O’Neil in 1801; but their status as convicts prevented the carrying out of their priestly functions.

Father Dixon celebrated the first public Mass in Australia on May 15, 1803, probably in the house of James Meehan; but his work was officially brought to a close in 1804 by an order withdrawing the privileges previously granted, probably because he was suspected of connivance at the disturbances of that year. He may, however, have continued to minister privately to his people until his departure in 1808. The period of suffering and privation then began anew, and continued until the arrival of Fathers Conolly and Therry in 1820.

During those 12 years the plight of the Catholic convicts and people was deplorable. A hint of the state of public opinion on the relative positions of the Anglican and Catholic Churches is given in Judge Burton’s book dealing with this period: “Wherever the British flag is planted, there, by that very fact, the Protestant church becomes the national and established fact.” In many Protestant minds this mistaken idea admitted of no qualification; and there is no reason, in most cases, to doubt their sincerity. It will be necessary, then, to enter the atmosphere in which they lived, and to credit them with all the honesty that they can claim. But it is difficult to justify, even according to their ways of thinking, the unmitigated savagery and severity with which they punished those who claimed conscientious exemption from Church of England services. James Bonwick, a Protestant writer on early Australian history, draws a startling picture of Catholic disabilities. “New South Wales in the beginning,” he writes, “was regarded as England over the way, and absolutely attached to the Church of England, and Catholics could expect no favour. All had to go to church; they were driven as sheep to the fold, and whatever their scruples, they had to go … If a man humbly entreated to stay behind because he was a Presbyterian, he incurred the danger of a flogging. It is said that upon a similar appeal from another who exclaimed: “I am a Catholic,” he was silenced by the cry of a clerical magistrate, “Go to church or be flogged”.

Roger Therry paints a similar picture. Writing of facts that were familiar to him, he says: “the local Government of New South Wales promulgated a regulation that the whole prison population indiscriminately should attend the Church of England, under penalty of 25 lashes for the first refusal, 50 for the second, and transportation to a penal settlement for the third refusal. Regulations made by Macquarie, enforcing attendance at church on all convicts — and even on ticket-of-leave men — will be found in vol. vii of the Historical Records of New South Wales

This condition of affairs continued until the arrival of the Very Rev. Jeremiah O’Flynn in 1817, when for a few brief months the Catholic faith was taught surreptitiously by a priest whose admittance to the colony was unsanctioned.

Because he had not asked permission to come to the colony, and persisted in ministering to his Irish flock without authority, Governor Macquarie, after a few months, summarily deported Father O’Flynn.

Macquarie’s regulations. The magistrate had to be informed of the location of Sunday Mass so police could be present to monitor sedition

In 1820, when London finally gave permission for Fathers Therry and Connolly to come to the colony, they were given a stipend of a hundred pounds per annum, which was insultingly only a third of that paid to the Anglican chaplains. Macquarie also presented them with a set of regulations, some of which make fascinating reading.

I shall now advert to some points, which are more of necessary local arrangement and political expediency in this colony, than what I have already dwelt on, and shall preface them by observing to you that the melancholy effects lately produced in England by large popular meetings under the itinerant political demagogues, long practised in the arts of faction, and ripe for anarchy and confusion, having made the enactment of certain laws, in regard to future assemblages of people, a matter of absolute necessity in order to restrain the excesses to which they were becoming every day more and more dupes, it will be incumbent on the Government to tread in the steps of those of the mother country, in order to avert the evils arising out of such popular meetings. In order, therefore, to guard against large meetings taking place under any pretence whatever, unless when called together by the proper legal authority, it will be expected and required of you:

1st. — That, when you shall have fixed on certain stations whereat you propose to celebrate service, at regular periods, you transmit to me, or the Governor for the time being, a return of the places you shall have so determined on, whereby I shall be enabled to judge of their fitness, and when approved by me, I shall transmit authority to the magistrates to permit the assemblage of your congregation at those particular places. But no meeting or assemblage of Roman Catholics, consisting of more than five persons, for the celebration of the rites or service of your Church, is to be convened or held at any other place or places than those approved in the foregoing manner unless leave for their special purposes shall have been first had and obtained from the magistrate residing nearest to the proposed place of assemblage, and notice of the time, at which the intended meeting may be proposed to be held shall also be given to the said magistrate, whose permission must be obtained before such meeting or congregation shall be assembled.

There it all was. If you didn’t front for the Anglican Church parade in the first 30 years of the colony, you could be starved or flogged, and often were. The extract from the regulations of the relatively liberal Governor Macquarie indicates clearly the deep-rooted political fears of the danger of “sedition” associated with political freedom for the Catholics.

Eris O’Brien’s bald account of the British military-religious dictatorship in early NSW is rather rivetting to a modern eye. It goes a long way towards explaining the animosity of Catholics and the secular working class and other nonconforming religious groups towards the Anglican Church, which has persisted into modern times. (This extract also underlines the insulting and cavalier way in which Stuart Macintyre treats this question of religious persecution in early NSW in his Concise History of Australia, considerably understating its importance and failing to even name the deported priest.)

Allan Grocott has written a very detailed and thorough account of religion in convict society, Convicts, Clergymen and Churches. Attitudes of convicts and ex-convicts towards the churches and clergy in New South Wales from 1788 to 1851. This 300-page book thoroughly documents from diaries, memoirs and eyewitness accounts the attitude of convict and ex-convict and native-born “currency” Australia, to religion.

The Catholics, by and large, although little schooled in their religion because of the absence of priests in the first 30 years, hung on doggedly to their connection with the church because it was part of their national identity in opposition to British imperialism. The non-Irish section of the convicts loathed and distrusted the Anglican Church because of its association with the ruling classes, but they didn’t have the same hostility to Catholic priests and the Catholic religion, because the Catholic Church didn’t have those ruling-class associations.

The extraordinarily greedy, brutal and sanctimonious flogging parson-magistrate Samuel Marsden epitomised the upper-class religion that the convicts hated.

A curious phenomenon that Grocott documents again and again is the attitude to religious consolation of convicts about to be executed, of whom there were hundreds over the period. They frequently rejected the Anglican parsons, and they would make their peace with God, if they so wished, to a Catholic priest, even if they weren’t Catholic.

Those who verbalised their reasons for this said they believed that the priests, being bound by the secrecy of the Catholic confessional, would keep their secrets, whereas the Anglican parsons, being servants of the state, would treat their confessed secrets like a policeman would if he were to hear their confession.

Manning Clark on convict Australia

Since Manning Clark’s death, there have been a series of vindictive attacks on him, supplemented by the bizarre, vicious and totally eccentric proposition that he was a KGB agent. In fact, Clark was a complex, serious historian, whose historical inquiry produced in him a number of interests in conflict and tension.

As a historian, he was fascinated by Lenin and the Russian Revolution, but he also had great interest in and respect for the contribution of Irish Catholics and the Catholic Church to Australian society. In 1956, well before he was famous, he published two groundbreaking articles on the origins of the convicts transported to eastern Australia between 1787 and 1852.

The following extracts from the second of these articles (Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, November 1956), are of enormous intrinsic value to the thrust of this investigation. In these articles, one sees the first development of Clark’s views on the role of the Irish Catholics in Austalia, and their significance in the development of the labour movement, a theme that later ran through the whole of Clark’s groundbreaking six-volume Australian history.

Much of the animosity to Clark from conservative historians is a product of their hostility to the entirely accurate picture Clark draws in his history of the historical importance of the development of the labour movement in Australia, including the contribution of the Irish Catholic strand to it. The following extract also does considerable damage to the notion of Clark as some sort of KGB agent.

Ireland was to export to Australia something more than the human wrecks of grinding poverty, and the rebels against the foreign oppressor. The Irish brought with them the values of men who had fought for centuries to preserve their religion, their culture and their material resources against the Anglo-Saxon. The town thief in Great Britain, as we have seen, was contemptuous of the laws against theft, and proud of his criminal record, but opposition did not extend beyond his own narrow experience of the law. Neither by temperament nor by experience did he feel the necessity to extend his criticism from the law of theft to the law in general. The Irish contempt for the law had no such limitations. The laws, which were designed to restrain the lawless habits were treated with ridicule. The sanctity of an oath was disregarded to protect the guilty from punishments disproportionate to their crimes. Evasion or trampling upon laws treating poverty as a crime was held to be a meritorious act. So in Ireland necessity created and sanctified lawlessness. Transportation did not purge their minds of such sentiments. The Irish were the leaders of the ill-fated convict rebellion in 1801; they played a major role in bushranging, stamped it as the Irish equivalent of the agrarian riot, and thus encouraged the idea that all methods were justifiable provided the motive was to take down the mighty from their seat, and send the rich empty away.

It is true that economic security in Australia gradually weaned the Irish from the use of violence for political and social purposes, that they came to accept the hustings and the ballot box as political methods rather than the faggot, the knife and the gun. However in their long fight with the laws of the Anglo-Saxons the Irish had a loyal ally, and that was the Roman Catholic Church. This close association between the Church and the grievances of the Irish was the germ of its alliance with radical politics in the history of Australia. In Ireland the Church was almost entirely dependent on the peasants for its income, and the essential condition for the approval of the peasantry was opposition to the English domination. “The priest”, as a Protestant observed at the end of the 18th century, “must follow the impulse of the popular wave, or be left behind on the beach to perish”. The convicts were the cause of the transplanting of this association from Ireland to Australia. Father Therry protected the convicts from excessive punishments, and rescued them from the clutches of sadistic masters. Father Polding went further; he condemned the convict system because it was creating an aristocracy of wealth, “the worst of all tyrannies”, he said, and one in which “the children grow up with all the degraded propensities of slave holders”. So during the transportation period the priests of the Church had shown an active sympathy with the underdog, and had criticised the foundations of that society. Fifty years later, in 1891, a prince of the Church, Cardinal Moran, justified the use of the strike by the workers to secure wages which would enable them to live in comfort and respectability. Thus the priest has been at the side of the workers in the main phases of their history in Australia — mitigating their suffering in the dark days of discipline by the lash, castigating the iniquities of excessive economic inequality, and supporting desperate methods to increase their mite of material well-being. Incidentally it would be interesting to examine how far the Church’s teaching has persuaded its followers not to expect too much from human endeavours, and imprinted on the Labor movement through its renegades apocalyptic notions of human regeneration. Such speculations are however outside the scope of this inquiry. We must be content with noting that the convict system was the occasion for the transplanting from Ireland of the alliance between the Church and radical politics, and this surely had a far greater influence on the history of Australia than the Scottish martyrs, the Dorchester labourers, or any of those few convicts whom sudden economic disaster had driven to petty crime. Indeed the enforced association between the town convicts, with their twist to the ideals of social equality and fraternity, and their contempt for the laws of property, and the Irish convicts, with their irreverence for all the laws of the Anglo-Saxon and their long-standing alliance with the Church of Rome in their struggle against poverty — this was the seed from which great and mighty trees were to grow in our history.

The man who wrote the above, Manning Clark as a young historian, a KGB agent? What a heap of rubbish. On the evidence above, he was more likely to have been an agent of the Vatican! Perhaps the loopy investigators who have been looking for his Order of Lenin, should start digging for his Papal Knighthood. In fact, secular humanist, liberal and labour movement historians of Protestant background, of the old school, like Manning Clark and Russel Ward, got on very well with, and were in fact influenced by, the Catholic historian Dr Eris O’Brien, who ended up Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn, and whose pioneering and seminal work on the convict era, The Foundation of Australia, first published in 1937, was the original source book on the brutal British imperialist origins of convict Australia.

The almost complete secularisation of the non-Catholic section of the Australian working class commenced quite decisively in convict times, and the later development of the labour movement is very much the story of the alliance between the Irish Catholic section of the proletariat and the irreligious bulk of the working class.

The British government introduces assisted migration to the Australian colonies, and the immigration schemes are swamped by the land-hungry, famine-driven Catholic Irish, including some of my troublesome ancestors

Before, during and after the gold rushes, the British capitalist authorities, in their desire to develop Australia, invested in and organised the immigration of workers to develop the country and produce profits for the capitalist class.

To encourage immigration they organised a wide variety of sponsored migration schemes, starting with the Wakefield scheme for orderly settlement of South Australia. This development of sponsored migration happened to coincide with the crisis in Ireland and its explosive population growth, which peaked at about 8.2 million at the time of the disastrous famine caused in the 1840s by Britain's notorious Corn Laws.

The problem and paradox for the imperialist development of British Australia was that, due to the Victorian boom in England, it was often hard to get migrants from there, even with the economic incentive of cheap passage, but the starving, land-hungry and politically disaffected Irish were clamouring to come to Australia.

Reading the threatened racist responses of the British-Australian ruling class to the mass Irish immigration of the 19th century is very like reading Pauline Hanson, Geoffrey Blainey or Paul Sheehan writing about Asian migration in the 20th century.

A constant theme, throughout the mid-19th century until about 1880, was the very tangible fear of many of the upper class representatives of British-Australia of the flood of Irish Catholics to the Australian colonies via the assisted migration schemes. For instance, John Dunmore Lang’s fascinating pamphlet, republished in 1978 by the Library of Australian History, called The Fatal Mistake is an almost comical assault on the practical result of the Wakefield scheme, which was that the Irish Catholics were pouring in because the immigration agents in England, who worked on commission, found them easier to get.

John Dunmore Lang is famous for frequent outbursts about how the “Papists” were swamping the colony, whenever he travelled in southern NSW around Young, Booroowa or Goulburn, places like that, which in the 1860s and the 1870s got to be almost 50 per cent Irish Catholic.

British imperialism and the invention of the “white race”

There is a very useful book called The Invention of the White Race by Theodore W. Allen, published by Verso in 1994. It is a detailed Marxist study of how the British developed an ideology of racial supremacy and manufactured the notion of the “British White Race”, in the course of conquering Ireland and dispossessing the native Irish of their land, particularly in Ulster.

The notion of the “British Race” manufactured in the course of this conquest went on to be the model for notions of the “White Race” in the United States, and the “British White Race” in Australia. This deliberate manufacture of the idea of the “British White Race”, carried on during the whole period of the colonisation of Australia, underlies the conflict between the British ruling class, on the one hand, and on the other, the Irish, the original Aboriginal population and the Chinese.

A striking expression of this British-Australian racism in evolution is evident in the person of Bishop Broughton, the first Anglican Bishop of Sydney and Primate of Australia. In internal Anglican Church politics he was a moderate high churchman, bit he was also a rabid anti-Irish, anti-Papist like John Dunmore Lang, and he repeatedly agitated against the “Irish Catholics taking over the colony”.

He was also the initiator, the chairman and the driving force for a number of years of the first committee, composed of important members of the Sydney British establishment, campaigning against Chinese immigration to Australia in the 1850s.

The rabid racism of the local rulers of British Australia was constantly reinforced by pressure from the Colonial Office, where, from 1813 to 1847, as permanent secretary, Sir James Stephen, a member of the Clapham sect of evangelicals, was the dominant personality.

In a major study of Stephen's private papers in 1964, Rupert Lockwood discovered a constant preoccupation with keeping out the Chinese from the Australian colonies, keeping out other Europeans and severely limiting the Irish, in favour of developing the colonies for the divinely selected and sanctioned “British race”. This prejudice was systematically implemented by Stephen in his long tenure at the Colonial Office.

John Dunmore Lang and Caroline Chisholm

Caroline Chisholm, the lady whose image for a long time was on the currency, was a competent middle-class Englishwoman, a convert to the Catholic Church, who emigrated to Australia from India with her army officer husband in the 1830s. Being energetic, with philanthropic interests, she initiated a program of assisting migrants to the Australian colonies, getting them work, ensuring them initial accommodation, etc, from which she extended her activities to organising assisted emigration from Britain to Australia.

Later in life, she also campaigned against the squatters in favour of free selection, and for universal suffrage, vote by ballot, and payment of members of parliament, all the most radical demands of the day. She was an effective and persuasive public speaker, which was a very rare accomplishment for a woman in the mid-19th century.

She strenuously defended the rights of Chinese and Indians to migrate to Australia. Unfortunately for her, the social circumstances of the period ensured that the majority of assisted emigrants were Irish Catholics and, being a civilised human being, she did not discriminate against her co-religionists. All unbiased observers said that she was completely impartial in matters of religion.

Nevertheless, her personal adherence to the Catholic religion provoked the bigot John Dunmore Lang into a series of quite extraordinary attacks on her immigration activities, which he continued for many years. The flavour of these attacks can be seen from the following extract of Lang’s words from Margaret Kiddle’s excellent biography of Chisholm.

Mrs Chisholm is a Roman Catholic, of no common caste, a perfect devotee of the Papacy. In all her efforts on behalf of emigration she is completely identified with the Romish priesthood of New South Wales … her whole and sole object is to Romanize that Great Colony and by means of a second and, if possible, still greater land-flood of Irish Popery under the guise of a great scheme of National Emigration, to present it in one time to God, the Virgin Mary and the Pope, purified, or at least in the fair way of speedily becoming so, from the foul and pestilential heresy of Protestantism!

This opinion, he declared, was held by some of the most influential colonists of New South Wales.

Dunmore Lang’s sectarian religious animosity to Caroline Chisholm is echoed in the 20th century in a “leftist” and “feminist” hostility to Chisholm, of which the following venomous extract from Stuart Macintyre’s A Concise History of Australia (the only reference to Chisholm in the book) is typical:

The family was one such device. In 1841 Caroline Chisholm, the wife of an army officer, established a female immigrants’ home in Sydney to rescue single women from the mortal sin to which they were so perilously exposed. She accompanied them into rural areas and placed them in domestic employment under suitable masters in the hope that matrimony would follow. To end the “monstrous disparity” between the sexes and rescue the colonies from “the demoralising state of bachelorism” was her aim, so that “civilisation and religion will advance, until the spire of the churches will guide the stranger from hamlet to hamlet, and the shepherds’ huts become homes for happy men and virtuous women”. In this scheme of “family colonisation” the women were to serve the men as wives and mothers in order to reclaim them to Christian virtue; or, as she put it, they were pressed into service as “God’s police”.

Macintyre once considered himself a Marxist. Karl Marx’s favourite historical aphorism was “history is whole cloth”. No whole cloth here for Macintyre. Chisholm is slandered because her activities assisting the immigration of tens of thousands of poor, single women, mainly from Ireland, to a much better life in the Australian colonies, and fighting hard for their welfare when they got here, were conducted within the then dominant social and cultural situation, in which she inevitably had to operate.

In 1990 an enthusiast in Brisbane reprinted Chisholm’s short novel, Little Joe, from its serialisation in the Empire newspaper of the 1860s. This further reveals just how progressive Caroline Chisholm was. Among the other radical causes listed above, she was also in favour of the total withdrawal of government financial support for all religion, including her own Catholic Church.

The best piece about Chisholm by far is the chapter on her in Strength of Spirit. Pioneering Women of Achievement, by Susanna De Vries, published by Millennium Books in 1995. This chapter goes into intelligent and sympathetic detail about Chisholm’s radical activities, and the strong support given to them by her husband, Archie Chisholm.

Macintyre’s barbed paragraph about Chisholm in his Concise History even has a smidgeon of the religious bigotry of Dunmore Lang, without spelling it out too explicitly, in the nasty reference to mortal sin and Christian virtue. Macintyre deliberately avoids direct reference to Chisholm’s Catholicism, but he gets it in anyway. Her many other popular and democratic activities, which were widely commented on at the time, don’t get a mention. Some Marxist!

“The monstrous regiment of women.” The dangers presented by Irish Catholic women migrants, from the point of view of Imperial British Australia

Demographically the most significant aspect of this mass migration of Irish Catholics related to the women. A sub-section of the general assisted migration scheme was several special schemes for single women to correct the sexual imbalance in the colonies from the convict period and the gold rush.

To find single women for these schemes it was necessary to scour the workhouses of England and Ireland, and after the famine even the English workhouses were crowded with single Irish women who were anxious to migrate to the colonies. As a result, something like 85 per cent of the single women brought out under these schemes turned out to be Irish Catholics. The comical, racist and bigoted attitude of the British-Australian ruling class to these women is expressed in the following extracts, again from the wonderfully useful book, The Irish Emigrant Experience in Australia:

But not everyone was impressed by their looks. An Anglican clergyman who saw them at Plymouth said they were very strong, short, with a thick-set frame of body and stout-limbed. “They certainly, poor things, could not boast of much beauty or personal attractions … On the whole I would say they were better calculated for milking cows and undergoing the drudgery of a farm servant’s life than to perform the office of lady’s maid.” (page 38)

It was decided that the Irish workhouse girls should be allocated to separate ships, as the Emigration Commissioners were of the opinion that “their habits and manners make them very unacceptable companions to English emigrants”. (page 38)

A charge that the matrons and Mr Moorhouse, the Protector of Aborigines, had called the orphans “Irish Brutes” was denied, but they admitted to addressing them “under certain provocation”, as “dirty brutes”. (page 53) (The Irish female emigrants were automatically placed under the control of the Protector of Aborigines.)

The really vehement attacks came from the Melbourne Argus, with charges such as this: “… it is downright robbery to withhold our funds and lavish it upon a set of ignorant creatures, whose whole knowledge of household duty barely reaches to distinguish the inside from the outside of a potato, and whose chief employment hitherto has consisted of some such intellectual occupation as occasionally trotting across a bog to fetch back a runaway pig.” When the Irish rallied to defend their own the Argus scoffed: “but Paddy, dear funny Pat … boldly takes his stand by his thick-waisted orphan, and rashly risks the character of the whole body of the bright-eyed daughters of Erin, upon his success in proving the dumpy darling a Venus de Medici in personal beauty, a Lucretia in purity and propriety of conduct, and a Mrs Rundell in housekepping and culinary skill.” (page 57)

The real fear of the Argus was that “the orphan’s main aim was to marry and convert “irreligious” bushmen with the result that “the mother will dictate religion to the family and every one of those girls will some day be the centre of a Roman Catholic circle.” (page 57)

Well, it wasn’t quite the elaborate conspiracy that the Argus proclaimed, but the very large sponsored female migration of Catholic Irish women in the 19th century did have some of the effects that they feared.

It is bizarre that the two modern books by Miriam Dixson, The Real Matildas and The Imaginary Australian reproduce a very similar view of the influence of Irish Catholic women in Australia to the reactionary outlook of the British triumphalist Argus in the 19th century, quoted above.

Multiculturalism started in Australia with European settlement in 1788. The Irish Catholics were the first ethnic minority, and Aboriginal Australians were rapidly reduced to an ethnic minority in their own land.

Once again, I am obliged to refer to the work of Charles Price and his redoubtable computer. Doing a breakdown, in his inimitible way, trying to track the ethnic makeup of Australia in 1978, from all the past censuses and migration records, he came up with the following figure, of about 3 million “full equivalents” of people descended from Irish Catholics on their mother’s side and 2.25 million on the father’s side. This notion of “full equivalents” of people, of course, understates the cultural impact, because, throughout the 19th and indeed the 20th century, the products of mixed marriages usually came to identify with the Irish Catholic “other” in the Australian culture.

The late 19th century was also the period leading up to the Ni Temere Decree of the Catholic Church, which insisted that the children of mixed marriages be brought up Catholic. By and large, the secular working class partners in mixed marriages didn’t mind this too much. As I have indicated above, the Catholic Church wasn’t seen as the enemy in the same way as the Anglican and other Protestant Churches were, and this, of course, explains the large number of members of the Catholic community, both prominent and humble, with English or Scottish names.

There’s almost no Catholic family that doesn’t have a significant non-Irish component from these circumstances, and this contributed massively to an increase in the weight of the Irish Catholic community in Australian life. An interesting feature of the 19th century was that Irish Protestants often married Irish Catholics because they had national origins and experience in common.

The majority of Irish Protestants were British loyalists, but a significant minority of them were republican nationalists, and even several of the Fenian prisoners deported to Western Australia were Protestants.

Towards the end of the 1880s and the start of the 1890s, Catholics were about 30 per cent of the population, a proportion they didn’t reach again until the past 10 years or so. This recent rise in the Catholic proportion of the population is, once again, from mass migration over the past 40 years from countries other than Ireland.

Land hunger and the Irish

The constant migration of the Irish to Australia in the latter half of the 19th century was closely linked to the desire for land. It was chain migration from certain districts and regions in Ireland, fuelled again and again by the possibility of acquiring land and setting up as a small farmer in the new country.

Patrick O’Farrell has done useful research into the letters from the Irish in Australia to their families at home, documenting the land hunger in Ireland and the possibility of satisfying this desire for land in Australia, which constantly stimulated the chain migration. O’Farrell has also established that most Irish migrants to Australia came either from the south-western counties of Clare, Tipperary and Cork, or from Ulster.

In Australia the constant agitation of the democratic interest to break the grip of the pastoralists over land, came significantly from the Irish. In the 1860s the democratic agitation for access to land culminated in the Robertson Land Act in NSW and similar acts in other colonies, allowing “free selection” of small farms within large pastoral holdings.

In the subsequent rush of free selectors to get a bit of land, and the land wars with the pastoralists that ensued, the Irish figured very prominently, and were probably a majority of the free selectors. The Irish who didn’t manage to get land, or who failed as farmers, became a very large proportion of the growing urban proletariat in the developing colonial cities.

The spectacular way Irish immigrants began to dominate certain areas in rural NSW is described and analysed in an important recent book, The Kingdom of the Ryans by Malcolm Campbell. He studies particularly the area around Young and Booroowa, where the population of Irish background got up to about 50 per cent of the population.

The whole south-west slopes area of NSW had a much higher Catholic and Irish population than the average, as did the Bathurst area, the Mudgee area, the Dubbo area and the Forbes, Wilcannia, Bourke region, among others. An interesting demographic feature of NSW is that all those rural or provincial areas of high Irish Catholic concentration in the 19th century still have a significantly higher proportion of Catholics than the average in the state. Those regions have also been the main regions in rural NSW where, from time to time, in various electoral upsurges, the Labor Party has won rural seats.

In the Historical Studies of Australia and New Zealand First Series, published in 1964, a quiet Marxist historian, D.W.A. Baker, who taught most of his life at the ANU, published the best article on the Robertson Act, The Origins of Robertson’s Lands Acts. This shortish article is a gem, but one paragraph is in particular worth quoting.

Again, pointing to the land laws as the reason, the same paper [the People's Advocate] observed that “the working man here has no chance; a labourer he is, and a labourer he must continue”. A correspondent of the same paper who signed himself “AN IRISH LABOURER AND REPUBLICAN” put the same idea in more forcible language:

“Fellow-Workmen, there can no longer be a doubt that the mushroom aristocracy of this colony, the men who have battened upon convict labour, and who have heretofore sent more of their fellow beings to the gibbet and the triangles than the most abominable slaveholders of the West India Islands, or of the Carolinas — have formed a vast conspiracy to defraud you of the proceeds of your labour, and to reduce you to a state of vassalage worse even than that of the miserable Coolies, with whom Towns and Company are about to deluge the land … you have been compelled to fly from your native lands to escape the galling yoke of a merciless despotism in the shape of monarchy, and its blasphemous attendant an Aristocracy. And when you expect to find a new home in this new land, capable of supporting millions of your fellow men, you can no more secure an acre of land unless at 50 to 100 times its value, than you can secure it in the domain of the Duke of Norfolk, Devonshire or Northumberland, in order that a few cormorant squatters may monopolise the whole of it …

Shirley Fitzgerald on the Irish in Sydney

In 1987 Shirley Fitzgerald, who is now the Sydney City Historian, published her quite extraordinary book Rising Damp: Sydney 1870-90, which is by far the best and most ingenious historical and sociological study of the early development of Sydney.

Quite a bit of this book is a study of the Irish in Sydney because they were such a large and socially mobile part of the population. Fitzgerald has made excellent use of all the documentary material available to chart their social movement and activity, because what happened to the Irish in Sydney tells you a great deal about the city as a whole.

First of all, Irish Catholics were about a quarter of the population. They were heavily concentrated in the inner suburbs and the city, and there were many fewer of them in the middle-class outer suburbs, but there was a fairly high concentration of Irish servant women in the very rich suburbs, where they were domestics in the homes of the upper classes. A study of marriage records and rate books shows that the Irish men were already noticeably socially mobile up the occupational ladder, a process that has continued until the present time.

Many of the Irish in Sydney had started their immigrant experience in Australia in the bush, but moved to Sydney, obviously because of the greater opportunities in the city. The marriage records show a certain social mobility “downwards” on the part of Irish women.

Shirley Fitzgerald’s explanation for this is that the very large surplus of marriageable Irish women over Irish men in the colony limited their marriage prospects, and the racist prejudice of the English middle class against the Irish limited their marriage opportunities as well.

Another obvious phenomenon noted by Fitzgerald is the much larger number of Irish Catholic women than men who married non-Catholics, which gets us back to Charles Price’s statistic about the 3 million Australians descended from Irish women, as against the 2.25 million descended from Irish men.

Shirley Fitzgerald’s very useful and original work is supplemented greatly by a new book of history and archaeology, Inside the Rocks by Grace Karskens, who demonstrates from the archaeological and historical record of The Rocks the considerable influence of the Irish there, particularly Irish women. Many of the Irish women married seamen and ex-seamen from the four corners of the globe and the children of these unions contributed to the growth of a vigorous, independent-minded, trade-union-oriented, largely Catholic proletarian community in Australia’s oldest locality.

The Irish national question in Australia

The 19th century was a time of constant struggle for national independence in Ireland. First of all, the struggle for Catholic emancipation, which succeeded in 1829. Secondly, the national rising in 1848. Thirdly, the Fenian agitation from the 1860s to the 1880s. And finally, the land war led by Michael Davitt and the Land League in the 1880s, followed immediately by the parliamentary campaign for Home Rule, led by the charismatic Charles Stuart Parnell.

The Irish who came to Australia were profoundly involved in, and affected by, each of these stages in the national struggle in Ireland. Australia was also a place of deportation for Irish rebels, starting with the convicts from the rebellion of 1798, continuing with the young Irelanders like John Mitchell, exiled to Tasmania in 1848, and culminating in the Fenian prisoners deported to Western Australia on the Rougemont, the very last convict ship in 1867.

In the Catholic Church in Australia, as it got organised, there was a conflict between the English and Irish interests, but by the middle of the century the Irish interest had won out, and from then on Irish priests and bishops predominated.

Initially, the Irish hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Australia was a bit ambiguous concerning the Irish national struggle, and a number of the bishops reflected the ultra-conservative strand of the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland, which came to be associated in the public mind in Ireland and Australia with Cardinal Paul Cullen.

This strand of the Irish hierarchy was rather hostile to the national movement, particularly to the Fenians, but the masses of Catholic Irish, in both Ireland and Australia, while in religious matters they were loyal to the church, often tended to ignore the Cullenites in matters of politics. The constant Fenian mobilisation from the 1860s to the 1890s became a mass movement in Ireland despite the opposition of Cardinal Cullen, and it strongly influenced the Irish in Australia.

The definitive work on this is The Fenians in Australia by Keith Amos (UNSW 1988). The spectre of Fenianism in Australia reached fever pitch in 1868, when a deranged Irishman called O’Farrell, who appears to have been a rather nutty lone wolf with no connection to the Fenians, tried to assassinate Queen Victoria’s younger son, Prince Alfred, during the first royal tour of Australia.

That old humbug, Henry Parkes, the dominant NSW politician in 1868, immediately launched an amazing sectarian witchhunt against the Irish for his own political purposes, the poor deranged O’Farrell was hanged, and Parkes milked an alleged Fenian conspiracy for all he could get politically, for the next 10 years. (Parkes’ demagogy is well studied in Robert Travers’ excellent deconstruction called The Grand Old Man.)

A curious by-product of this event was the foundation of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Camperdown, Sydney. When the Duke was wounded, the authorities suddenly discovered that there wasn’t a hospital suitable for “someone of quality” like the Duke, and as a result the rich and famous of Sydney raised money to start a hospital of sufficient prestige, and they called it Royal Prince Alfred. It’s one of the delicious ironies of history that RPAH has grown into the main metropolitan and rather proletarian hospital in the inner city and has for many years been a stormy centre of trade union activity in the health system in NSW, particularly in the nursing profession.

In the 1980s, at the time of the 100th anniversary of RPAH, a curious correspondence took place between the hospital's administration and the office of the governor of NSW. On seeking a copy for exhibition of the official document making RPAH a Royal hospital, the RPA administrators got the embarrassing response from the governor’s office that no trace of any permission could be found, but that, nevertheless, as RPAH was a good institution, it could now be confirmed as Royal. This raises the culturally significant but rather academic point as to how many of the hospitals and other institutions that claim to be Royal actually have the letters patent to justify the title.

The real Fenians in Australia

Irish men and women who sympathised with the Fenians had nothing to do with O’Farrell’s assassination attempt, but there was a large number of them, and despite periods of proscription of Fenianism by the Catholic hierarchy, they were quite active. For a start, a number of the civilian Fenian leaders who were deported to Western Australia were pardoned in the early 1870s, on condition they didn’t return to Ireland, and many stayed in the Australian colonies.

A couple of them even acquired a stone quarry in Petersham, Sydney. The great Irish cause in Ireland, Britain, the United States and Australasia in the 1870s was the campaign to liberate the military Fenian prisoners still held in durance vile in Western Australia. They had committed the unforgiveable crime, from the point of view of the British ruling class of organising a very nearly successful 15,000-strong Fenian military conspiracy inside the British Army in Ireland.

One of the military Fenians, John Boyle O’Reilly, an early socialist, had, after a saga of extraordinary adventure, escaped on an American whaler to the United States, where he settled in Boston, became the editor of a Catholic paper, The Boston Pilot, and became a major leader of the Irish national movement in the US. Along with that other extraordinary military Fenian leader, John Devoy, who had become the leader of the “legal front” for Fenianism in the United States, the Clann Na Gael, O’Reilly set about organising the rescue and escape of the rest of the military Fenians still convicts in Fremantle.

The story of this escape is recounted in Amos’s book, in other books, and in a recent biography of John Boyle O’Reilly, called Fanatic Heart, by A.G. Evans, published by the University of W.A. Press. Also published in November last year was The Great Shame, Tom Keneally’s magisterial and comprehensive, although rather slow-moving, coverage of these events and of Irish immigration to Australia, which has deservedly become an instant bestseller.

O’Reilly, Devoy and the Clann Na Gael bought themselves a sturdy Boston whaler, the Catalpa and hired themselves an upright Yankee whaler captain from New Bedford, Captain George Anthony, and a crew. They sent agents under assumed names to Western Australia via Sydney, who, in a chapter of amazing incident, made contact with the Sydney Fenians who owned the stone quarry, and who had also been collecting money in Australia and New Zealand to rescue the military Fenians, which they immediately handed over to the agent of the Clann Na Gael, Martin Breslin, who went on to Western Australia to organise the escape.

Breslin made contact with Fenian sympathisers in Perth and Fremantle, including several Catholic priests, particularly the “Fenian priest”, Father John O’Reilly, and the redoubtable Father McCabe, who had helped organise the earlier escape of John Boyle O’Reilly. The chaplain to the Fremantle convict prison, Father J. Carreras, a Spaniard, was the go-between with the prisoners in the jail.

There were many adventures and problems, including a confrontation between the Catalpa and a British gunboat, during which Captain Anthony pointed out that if they shelled the American flag on the high seas, a war might be started. In the face of this prospect, the gunboat gave up, the rescue was completed, and the rescued prisoners settled in the United States.

It’s recorded that Irish were celebrating throughout the world, at the release of the Fenian prisoners, even as far away as the streets of Omaha, Nebraska. In the course of organising this rescue, some Fenians even cut the undersea telegraph cable north of Darwin, as a result of which the vindictive British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was actually speaking in the British parliament to successfully defeat a bill moved by Irish nationalists for the release of the Fenians after they had been rescued, and he didn’t know about it because the cable had been cut.

The amazing thing about the Catalpa Fenian conspiracy, was that it involved hundreds of people in Australasia, the United States, Ireland and Britain, and yet it was not leaked to the British authorities. Such was the rebel sentiment of the Irish in Australasia in the 19th century.

I have a theory that the Catalpa incident would make the greatest adventure film of all time. It would sell in every market in the English-speaking world. It has Australians, Irish, vicious British ruling class characters, upright Yankee captains, sea adventure and whaling — one hell of a film script!

Constant sectarian turmoil in the 19th century

Throughout the 19th century, from the gold rushes onward, when mass migration from Ireland really got going, there was constant sectarian turmoil in the Australian colonies, initiated by Protestant bigots. In these conflicts, the Catholic Irish often gave as good as they got, for instance in the sectarian riots in Melbourne in the early 1840s.

Politicians like Parkes soon learned to wield the sectarian issue against the Irish Catholics for their electoral purposes. But the Irish Catholics soon learned to mobilise Irish votes in their own interests, and the sectarian issue see-sawed in elections to the various colonial parliaments.

The Irish Catholics, broadly speaking, were in the forefront, and at the cutting edge, of every democratic agitation in the colonies, and in two quite extraordinary incidents of physical rebellion, first of all the Eureka Stockade, which defined Australian national sentiment ever afterwards, and then the Kelly outbreak, an allegedly criminal explosion which, however, had a pronounced Irish republican tinge.

Michael Roe’s important book, Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-1851, published by the ANU Press in 1965, was based on his thesis, which was supervised by Manning Clark. A major part of this pioneering work of intellectual history is a detailed description of the location of the Catholic religious community, largely on the leftist democratic side, in the conflicts of the time.

By contrast, Protestant religious groups were by and large solidly on the side of the conservative squatting interests, the powerful influence of which Roe powerfully describes. Another important book that describes the democratic turmoil in the Catholic Church in that period is Hierarchy and Democracy in Australia 1788-1870 by T.L. Suttor, which is sympathetic to the English Benedictines rather than the Irish clerics, and gives a very detailed account of the developments.

Within the Catholic community itself there was a fair amount of factionalism and turmoil, with the laity often asserting their rights and interests against the clergy. In the 1860s and the 1870s there was a fairly constant anti-clerical mood anytime the local Catholic clergy set their faces against a new forward development of the national movement in Ireland.

The Irish Catholics in Australia, while generally identifying closely with Catholicism as one of the symbols of their national identity, were anything but putty in the hands of their priests. Some Irish Catholic bishops in Australia were ultra-conservative, like the extraordinarily greedy and avaricious Archbishop Goold of Melbourne, and Archbishop Quinn of Brisbane, who after starting in a more progressive way became an ultra-conservative authoritarian in old age.

Bishops like Goold and Quinn faced a constant turmoil of vigorous and often colourful opposition from their flock, and usually lost out in the end in these conflicts. Over time, the radical sentiment of the Irish Catholic rank and file, stemming both from convict experiences in Australia, and experiences in Ireland, had a profoundly radicalising and democratising impact on their clergy. It soon became a feature of Catholicism in Australia that the clergy did not often move too far away from the Irish and Australian nationalist and democratic sentiments of their flock.

Archdeacon John McEncroe

The transitional leader in the Australian Catholic community between the English Benedictines and Cardinal Moran was Archdeacon John McEncroe. After his ordination in Ireland, McEncroe went to the United States for a number of years. In early life, as a priest, he suffered a bit from the occupational hazard of the celibate Irish Catholic clergy, becoming an alcoholic. After a number of years of alcoholism, he recovered, took the pledge and made a new start in his priesthood in Sydney, becoming the senior Catholic cleric in Australasia.

Not unlike many recovered alcoholics, he showed enormous energy in his leadership of the Catholic community. He was an occasionally autocratic and irascible kind of man, but his Irish Australian flock idolised him and understood him well. His basic instincts were leftist and democratic in the context of the time, and he made fairly long-lived political interventions in the Australian colonies on the democratic side.

He was a vocal and public opponent of transportation and of Wentworth’s self-interested scheme for a “bunyip aristocracy”, to the defeat of which he was a major contributor. At the mass meetings in Sydney called to discuss Wentworth’s proposals, the most damaging speech, which was decisive in drowning Wentworth’s proposal in ridicule, was made by the silver-tongued young Catholic lawyer, Daniel Deniehy, who in an hour-long address made the devastating quip about a “bunyip aristocracy”.

McEncroe encouraged several leading Catholic laymen, including Deniehy, to stand for the colonial legislature, which upset the Protestant ascendancy in NSW no end. He even lent discreet support to the campaign of the Catholic laity for greater say in church affairs. His interesting life is well described in the book, John McEncroe, Colonial Democrat by Sister Delia Birchley, published in 1986. Deniehy’s fascinating life is described in a very fine biography by Cyril Pearl, published a few years ago.

Throughout the 19th century and up to the conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917 there were quite a few urban disturbances of one sort or another. They often took the form of Irish Catholic and secular non-Catholic republicans and others disrupting public events associated with the ethos of the British ruling class.

The classic example of this were the so-called Republican Riots in Sydney in 1887, when public meetings to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee were taken over by the large radical section of the population of Sydney who carried motions at these meetings condemning the British monarchy as of no value to the democratic interest in Australia. Another example was the activities of the “Active Service Brigade”, angry urban unemployed workers organised by Arthur Desmond during the slump of the 1890s, who disrupted Parliament and Protestant church services.

Cardinal Moran comes to Sydney and turns the Catholic community into a powerful political force

This process reached its culmination in the 1880s when Patrick Moran, the nephew of Cardinal Cullen, was appointed to the See of Sydney, and made a Cardinal, the first Australian Cardinal. Like his uncle, Cullen, Moran had spent a lot of time in Rome at the Irish College and in other capacities, and had become a shrewd Vatican diplomat. However, even before he had been translated (moved) to Australia he had been somewhat to the left of his reactionary uncle on the Irish national question. (When he made a return trip to Ireland and Rome in 1888, he submitted to the Vatican an angry secret report on conditions in Ireland, defending Irish national rights and interests, and pointing out, quite realistically, that further Vatican support for British imperialist rule in Ireland would endanger the interests of the Catholic Church in Ireland.)

In Australia, Moran was further radicalised by the democratic spirit of his flock, and he contributed his own feisty intelligence and wit to the government of the Catholic Church in Australia and the defence of the interests of the Catholic community. A man of some erudition, he rather deliberately inflamed the already existing sectarian atmosphere of the time, obviously with an eye to consolidating the Irish Catholic tribe around his leadership.

To the embarrassment of some later Catholic historians, he several times made quite amusing, but brutal, verbal attacks on Protestant missionaries in the Pacific Islands. He obviously had strong memories of the notorious incident in Irish history “Dermot King of Leinster and the Foreigners”, in which an Irish king had made an unwise and historically fatal alliance with the first English invaders of Ireland.

Moran pointed out that many of the Protestant missionaries in the South Pacific were gunrunners who had bribed Fijian and Samoan chiefs to convert to their church by providing them with guns to make war against their tribal opponents (or even members of their own tribe), and that this had been backed up by British diplomacy and the British navy, a case of the British flag following the missionaries, a very common phenomenon in the 19th century.

All of this was true and many people knew it, and Moran returned to this theme three or four times over 30 years during his episcopate in Sydney. Every time Moran made these attacks on the Protestant missionaries, he aroused British imperial and Protestant anger, and several protest meetings were held against Moran on this topic in the Town Hall, attended by 40 or 50 Protestant ministers, and angry middle-class Protestants of the Primrose League and the Orange Lodges.

Moran’s outbursts, however, had the effect he obviously desired, and both Irish Catholic and secular democratic, particularly working class, opinion rallied to the side of the assertive and colourful Catholic prelate.

Cardinal Moran ticks off Bill MacNamara

Moran’s period as Cardinal Archbishop of Sydney, 1882-1911, coincided with the foundation and development of the Labor Party from 1891 on. In the strikes of the early 1890s, the Cardinal, while offering to mediate, generally defended the trade union side, and he quite deliberately recognised and endorsed the reality, which was that when the Labor Party was formed the Irish Catholic interest generally moved to it and supported it electorally.

Being, in the final analysis, a shrewd, Rome-oriented Irish Catholic prelate, somewhat in the mold of his uncle, Cardinal Cullen, he tried to restrain what he regarded as extremist elements in the labour movement, and he occasionally ticked them off, particularly extremists who were backsliders from his own flock.

In 1892 W.H. (Bill) McNamara, later the proprietor of McNamara’s Bookshop which, for 30 years was the famous centre of labour movement and socialist politics in Sydney, and whose two step-daughters married Henry Lawson and Jack Lang respectively, and whose son became the leader of the Socialisation Units in the ALP in the Lang epoch in the 1930s, was the secretary of the Sydney Unemployed Group organised by the Australian Socialist League. To quote from Father Patrick Ford’s book Cardinal Moran and the ALP:

On 8 March, the Unemployed Executive Committee met there and unanimously resolved: “That this meeting is of opinion that it is the duty of the heads of the churches to make a powerful appeal to the wealthy members of their congregations to relieve the ghastly poverty and destitution existing among hundreds of men, women and children who are on the verge of starvation and suffer great privations. Unless the clergy do this they fail to carry out the principles of true Christianity”. The resolution was forwarded to Cardinal Moran in a letter from McNamara under the address Leigh House. Moran’s reply was firm, and charged with a severity its author would probably have curbed had he foreseen that McNamara was to publish it. It read:

“Sir, In reply to your communication, forwarded as you state, on the part of the executive of the unemployed, I beg to state that I have the sincerest sympathy with the labouring classes, ministering with devotedness to their wants, spiritual and temporal. I can attest that there is at present, and there has been for some time past, a great deal of poverty and destitution among the working families and small shopkeepers, owing to the general depression of the times. We have done whatever little lay within our power to alleviate the prevalent distress. A good many diocesan works were carried out last year. During the past few weeks other works have been begun, such as additions to St Vincent’s Hospital, the presbytery at Camperdown, a new church at Blacktown, and a new school at Balmain. Should any sums be placed at my disposal, I will be only too happy to distribute them as faithfully as I can among the truly deserving destitute families.

“Allow me to remark, however, that there is another class with whom I have no sympathy. There are the professional unemployed the aim of whose leaders is to bring discredit on the cause of honest labour, and whose endeavour it is, by political intrigue, to sow dissensions and to stir up evil passions among our citizens. It was hard enough in times past to cope with mercenary and trading unemployed. Such men are styled in France “chevaliers d’industrie” — ie, men ready to have a hand in anything except work. They are a disgrace to the honest working class, and they are an insuperable difficulty in the path of those who devote their energies to uphold the advance of the best interests of the labour cause.

“As regards yourself personally, permit me to add one word. There is an individual bearing your name whose blatant impiety I see referred to from time to time in the public press. I trust that you are not this person. In writing these lines I have given you the benefit of the doubt. But should you happen to be that individual, I consider that it would not be wise for any honest citizen to hold correspondence with men of such folly and delusions.”

Your faithful servant,


Cardinal Moran shifts to the left

During the 1890s, Moran made some public interventions opposing what he called the Continental Socialists in the Labor Party, but saying that Australian socialism was okay, and generally endorsing the overwhelming tendency of his flock to support the new party, while, as the above exchange with McNamara highlights, trying to protect his flock against cultural contamination that might flow from the necessary political alliance with Labor.

He was not very successful in drawing lines between his flock and the more secular sections of the labour movement, and by the early years of the new century he shifted to the left himself and gave up polemicising against the left in the labour movement, in favour of general defence of the movement against its opponents, thereby recognising the reality of the deepening involvement of most of his flock with the new labour movement and its aspirations.

The final stage of Moran’s radicalisation, driven by the radicalisation of his flock, is described by A.E. Cahill, in the Journal of Religious History for December 1989.

When Cardinal Moran died in Sydney in 1911 his funeral drew more than a quarter of a million people to the area around St Mary’s cathedral. It was an appropriately spectacular ending for his 27-year “reign”. In his Catholic institutional context he had became a unique figure: head of the local hierarchy but also Apostolic Delegate, the Pope’s representative in dealing with that hierarchy.

He had exercised a formative, if sometimes unintentional, influence on the making of a distinctive Australian Catholic culture — a culture all the stronger for the fact that, unlike the Catholics of the United States, the Australian Catholics were overwhelmingly homogenous in Irish ethnic origin. In the last decade of his life he was often hailed on Irish occasions as “the greatest living Irishman”.

Still, much of the population of the newly independent Commonwealth remained emotionally dependent on the continuing British cultural empire, and Moran’s Catholics were, in the words of one of the most articulate of them, “like a substance held in suspension, but never quite in solution.” …

The results of Moran’s public career, in church and society, were — and remain — ambivalent. The journalists’ sense of loss was certainly not universal, even among Catholics. A few days after the funeral one of Sydney’s few really wealthy Catholics, Thomas Donovan, wrote to an English Catholic prelate, who was himself soon to be made a cardinal: “Cardinal Moran is dead, and relief has come to many a sore heart”. Distressed especially by Moran’s public advocacy of Irish nationalist and Labor causes, Donovan wanted outside help to ensure that Moran’s politics, the politics of a “firebrand”, would be buried with him as far as the Catholic Church in Australia was concerned. Donovan knew — and bitterly resented the fact — that Moran had in recent weeks been host to “envoys” of the Irish Parliamentary Party, “out here now scouring the country for gold”. But his sore heart would have been even more relieved by Moran’s death if he had known about less public events. In the third-last week of his life, Moran had helped the first New South Wales Labor government survive a major parliamentary crisis. In the last week of July 1911 Acting Premier W.A. Holman, having already lost his working majority when two Labor members resigned over land policy, was threatened with the resignation of a third Labor member, Peter McGarry, a Catholic. On the night of 28 July one of Holman’s ministers, Acting Treasurer A.C. Carmichael, went to see the Cardinal at St Mary’s presbytery, accompanied by another Catholic Labor member, P.J. Minahan. Moran agreed to see McGarry the following morning and, in his own laconic account: “Very few words sufficed to set him right. I told him he would be known as Judas all his life, if he betrayed his party at such a crisis”. McGarry went back to pledge loyalty to the McGowen-Holman government and to convey Moran’s “congratulations to Mr Holman on the singular ability of which he had given proof”. The Labor Party increased its strength at the next elections and remained in government for another five years. At Moran’s funeral Minahan was the “organiser of mourning arrangements”, Carmichael was one of the leading mourners, and Holman paid tribute to Moran’s public defence of Labor, declaring that he was more impressed with the “sagacity of Moran than with that of any other public thinker in the Commonwealth”.

Earlier in the year Moran received wide publicity for one of the most controversial examples of his advocacy of radical political causes. In a referendum held in April 1911 the new federal Labor government — formed in April 1910, six months before its New South Wales counterpart — sought increased power to deal with industry and with commercial and financial corporations and, specifically, power to nationalise monopolies. Moran gave strong public support for the Yes campaign, in NSW circumstances, where the majority of state Labor ministers (including Holman) were opponents of the proposals. It was in response to speeches (including one by Holman) that suggested the proposals were incompatible with the idea of Home Rule that Moran made his most forthright intervention. But within days of his first pro-Yes statement — a statement in line with the trend of his thinking for more than a decade — he received anxious inquiries from Cardinal Gibbons, the senior member of the American Catholic hierarchy (and a man with whom Moran was bracketed in Rome as “the two democratic cardinals”) and from John Ireland, archbishop of St Paul, Minnesota, a friend of presidents and industrialists and an enthusiastic advocate of the American way, for Catholicism as for everything else.

American industrialists and financiers had become alarmed by the possibility that Australian constitutional precedents, especially federal government action against monopolies, might be followed in the United States. Gibbons, with characteristic caution, referred to American press reports that the party behind the referendum proposals, the Labor Party, drew the majority of its members “from the ranks of the Socialists” and yet received “the bulk of the Roman Catholic vote”: “It is this alliance of the Roman Catholics of Australia with the party of the Socialists which has caused the surprise here.” A puzzled Gibbons asked his fellow member of the Roman College of Cardinals — in which they were both veterans, ranking second and third in seniority — to provide an explanation that would allay American fears. Ireland, with candour equally characteristic, explained that he was writing from Washington “under an urgent request from representatives of large American industries”. Whereas Gibbons had hinted at concern about government intervention in industrial relations, Ireland stressed local alarm about possible anti-monopoly legislation, which would exclude from Australia “American commerce and American enterprise” and “create a wide breach between this country and yours”. Moran waited for referendum results before replying that the alarm was premature: “the result was a triumphant vote of No” — in fact, a 61 per cent No vote in a very low poll. He gave no indication, however, that he had himself been a very prominent public supporter of the “socialistic” proposals, which he continued to advocate. In his last newspaper interview the geographic context was different but the message was similar:

“If imperialism were to have its way tomorrow, subordinating the interests of Australia to the capitalists of London, Australia would never develop, as she must develop, to be a great nation, and a great benefactor, in her future destiny, to all the Eastern world.”

The irreligious proletariat, small farmers and Irish Catholics get together to form a Labor Party

The formation and development of the Labor Party in all the Australian colonies was the culmination of the practical alliance that had been developing since the convict era between the secularised non-Catholic proletariat, small farmers, and the Irish Catholic tribe. A mate of mine, Tony Laffan, has published a wonderful little piece of local history about the Newcastle area called The Freethinker’s Picnic. Newcastle’s Secular Hall of Science 1884-1893 (Toiler Editions, Singleton, 1998).

Two other extraordinarily useful books about the religious and cultural aspects of the foundation and development of the Labor Party, and the conservative mobilisation against it, are Treasure in Earthen Vessels: Protestant Christianity in NSW Society 1900-1914, by Richard Broome (UQP 1980) and The Better Time To Be: Attitudes to Society Among Sydney Anglicans 1885 to 1914, by William James Lawton. These three books between them, along with the Parkes biography mentioned above, describe the social and cultural factors that culminated in the formation of the Labor Party.

Tony Laffan’s book is a little gem. Using as a case study the Newcastle area, in which he lives, Laffan describes the popular mobilisation that culminated in the formation of the ALP in the 1890s. In the 1880s the old demagogue Parkes developed a system of kicking the Catholic can, so to speak, and mobilising Protestant opinion any time he was in trouble with numbers in the state Parliament.

A secular lecturer from England came to Sydney and was due to give a Sunday night lecture there, as was the practice of the quite widespread and popular Sydney secularism. To curry favour for electoral reasons with the evangelical Protestant interest, who were infuriated by the prospect of an athiest lecture on the “Lord’s day”, Parkes pushed through the house a very harsh Sunday observance law to preserve the Protestant religious “British Sunday”, laws for which the evangelical Anglicans in Sydney had been campaigning for a while, as described in Lawton’s book.

The secular lecturer, prevented by the new laws from hiring a hall, ended up holding his anti-God meeting in Moore Park and, incidentally, got a crowd of 10,000, which indicates the mood of the times, but unfortunately, the dismal Protestant Sunday was inflicted on NSW for a whole epoch.

In the Newcastle area, as Laffan describes, the new law had totally unintended consequences. There were proportionately fewer Catholics in Newcastle than in other areas of NSW. The Hunter region was settled largely from the 1860s to the 1890s by Protestant miners from different British fields, but mainly from Northumberland, who brought with them from Britain a mixed baggage of cultural practices, ideas and religious beliefs.

They were often trade unionists, but their trade union branches were called lodges, many of them belonged to dissenting Protestant religious groups like the Primitive Methodists and the Congregationalists, and some thousands of them were members of institutions like the Royal Orange Lodge. They also carried with them, however, from Britain a long tradition of Sunday relaxation, Sunday sport, pigeon racing and, for many of them, going to the pub on Sunday.

There was already a minority secularist and socialist current among them, of people who had moved over from Primitive Methodists and dissenting Protestant origins to Secularism and Rationalism of the George Jacob Holyoake and Charles Bradlaugh sort. The enforcement of Sunday observance irritated the miners of the Newcastle area intensely.

Hundreds of them sent back their “warrants” to the Royal Orange Lodges and resigned, and many of them left their dissenting Protestant churches over the issue. Rationalism and secularism spread like wildfire in the area, culminating in the foundation of the Newcastle Secular Hall of Science, which existed for 15 years, and the history of which is of extraordinary cultural interest.

Several secularists, one a former Protestant minister, were elected to Parliament from the Newcastle area and took part in the formation of the new Labor Party. Some other Newcastle MPs shifted over to the Labor Party, and a durable alliance was formed between the Newcastle section of the non-Catholic proletariat, more recently arrived from Britain, and the Sydney metropolitan and country non-Catholic and ex-Catholic proletariat, secularised since the convict days, along with the Irish Catholic tribe, in the new Party of Labor.

Thus did the attempt to enforce the Protestant Sunday unintentionally contribute to the final breaking of the grip of Protestant religion on the whole of the Australian working class, a circumstance that has continued to this day.

For the first few years of the Labor Party’s existence, while the tendency existed from the start for many Catholics to shift over to the new Labor Party, this did not happen all at once. Many Catholics and Irish people were at the start well entrenched in the Protectionist Party, previously the most radical group in the parliament, and for the first 10 or 15 years of the Labor Party’s existence the allegiance of Catholics was divided between Labor and the Protectionists.

Initially the Catholics weren’t very influential in the Labor Party, although working class Catholics tended to support Labor from the start. From about 1901, however, the constant conservative mobilisation against Labor, which more and more assumed an anti-Catholic character, focussing on such issues as liquor and Sunday sport, tended to reinforce the shift of the Catholic population to support of Labor and intervention in the Labor Party.

The number of Catholics representing Labor in Parliament, minuscule initially, rapidly increased, particularly from the time of the election of the first Labor government in NSW in 1910. From that year on, the electoral map of NSW, particularly in country areas, started to show a strong correlation between areas of above average Catholic population, and Labor parliamentary representation.

For the next 50 years Australian conservatives mobilised against “Rum, Romanism, Socialism and Gambling” as expressed in the ALP.

From the 1890s on, for the next 50 years, from 1891 to the end of the 1930s, there was, with various ebbs and flows, a more or less constant sectarian Protestant mobilisation against the Labor Party. One high point of this mobilisation was the 1904 election in NSW.

Carruthers, a conservative Premier, conducted a bitterly sectarian campaign against the Catholics and mobilised Protestant opinion in favour of banning liquor, gambling and Sunday sport, including even banning art unions and raffles, which were regarded as the devil's way of financing the Catholic Church, the “whore of Rome”, as sectarian Protestants put it. Carruthers won the election, but in 1907, despite a similar Protestant mobilisation, he almost lost in the last election before the first Labor government was elected in 1910.

In Richard Broome’s words:

The Carruthers ministry was narrowly returned, but with a reduced majority, which the “Methodist” claimed was due to the combined forces of “Rum, Romanism, Socialism and Gambling”. The Liberal-Protestant alliance had held, but it had lost some of the impetus of 1904. No doubt Carruthers’s deflationary fiscal policy and his piecemeal reformism had lost votes, and on the other hand Labour was becoming more of a viable alternative. Even the Sydney Morning Herald admitted after the election that the suspicion and dislike of Labour was disappearing and “it is gaining the allegiance and the help of temperate, thoughtful men”. Also the Liquor Trade Defence Union and the Sporting League, which both supported Labour and virulently opposed Carruthers and the wowsers, had fought hard in some electorates. These two groups claimed to have caused the defeat of some of the militant Protestant Liberals, namely, Booth, Law, Jessep, Anderson and Bruntnell, who had been voted into the previous parliament by temperance and Protestant support.

It was ever thus for the next 40 years. The labour movement was a loose alliance of non-religious working class people, socialists, rationalists and secularists, the very large tribe of Irish Catholics, the trade unions and also liquor, gambling and sporting interests. It was opposed by the squatting interest, the metropolitan capitalist interest, finance capital and the British investment interests, whico mobilised around conservative parties with the reactionary British-Australia rhetoric, and with the support of most Protestant churches.

Irish Catholics: a major force in the development of trade unionism

If you read carefully the 100 or so histories of Australian trade unions or memoirs of trade union activity, the participation of Irish Catholics at all levels in Australian trade unionism is immediately striking. This arose from the class position of the Irish Catholic population at the bottom of the social pyramid in 19th and early 20th century Australia.

This is strikingly the case in the more unskilled unions, “the new unions”. An unusual, but in a way, typical example of this is revealed in Alleyn Best's absorbing and well-illustrated history of the Tobacco Workers Union, published in 1988 by the union just before its amalgamation with the Miscellaneous Workers Union. It describes the battles of the Female Branch of the union — whose members were the most super-exploited female wage slaves of all — for equal wages and equal treatment in the union, which went on for many years.

This battle was led by Maud O’Connell, who worked for 25 years at British Australia Tobacco in Melbourne and was the leading personality in the constant battle of the Female Branch for improvements. After 15 years of trade union and labour movement activity, between the turn of the century and 1915, she became a nun and founded the Grey Sisters, a new order, caring for mothers and children in the slum areas of Melbourne.

Nuns in Australian life

Maud O’Connell’s interesting and unusual life impinges on another feature of Catholic life in Australia — the explosion of new orders of Catholic nuns founded in Australia, or Irish orders of nuns that set up in Australia. It is not widely known, but the development of orders of nuns in the 19th century was a new phenomenon in Ireland as well as Australia.

During the 300 years of the penal laws against the Catholic church in Ireland (only repealed in the early part of the 19th century) religious orders were suppressed by the British government. The very rapid development of religious orders of nuns in both Ireland and Australia in the latter part of the 19th century, therefore, drew momentum both from the fact that it was now finally legal to become a nun, and that, to a lot of spirited, independent-minded women who were kept down in the misogynist male society in Great Britain and Australia in the 19th century, being part of independently organised orders of women involved in useful social work like nursing in hospitals and teaching, had a certain appeal, despite the pledge of celibacy.

The tough, confident and vigorous nuns who gave many of us Irish Australians our initial education were in a very real sense, early feminists. Anne Henderson’s important recent book, Mary MacKillop’s Sisters. A Life Unveiled, captures and describes very eloquently the significance of the largest order of nuns, the Brown Josephs, in Australian life.

Catholic schools gave their students an alternative view of the British Empire

Irish historians, both supporters and critics of Irish nationalism, all say that the Christian Brothers schools of the 19th and early 20th centuries were hothouses of Irish nationalism and the Irish revolution, and helped to give birth to the Rising of 1916 and the partly successful Revolution of 1921.

The Christian Brothers and other Catholic schools in Australia had a very similar function. They educated their students in a radically different, more hostile view of British imperialism and the British Empire, than did the state schools. As a student at a Christian Brothers school in Sydney in the 1950s I vividly remember the alternative anti-British imperialist slant on Australian and world history that we were taught during religion lessons as an antidote to the British imperialist views of Stephen Roberts’ History of Modern Europe that we had to study for the external exams. The very useful book, Australian Popular Culture, edited by Spearitt and Walker, Unwin 1979, has a wonderul chapter From Empire Day to Cracker Night by Stewart Firth and Jeanette Horne.

This chapter describes the ideological indoctrination in the public school system associated with the introduction in 1905 of “Empire Day”, which eventually became “Cracker Night”, and the fierce ideological resistance of the Catholic School system to Empire Day. A few extracts from this amusing chapter are worth quoting.

At the first Catholic Educational Conference of NSW, held at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney in January 1911, teaching brothers and nuns from all over the state voted to make 24 May “Australia Day” in their schools. Empire Day, said Moran, was discredited and “even the public schools had a difficulty in allowing flags to be unfurled”; many of its supporters were “avowed enemies of the Catholic Church”. Father M.J. O’Reilly of St Stanislaus College, Bathurst, thought it was unfortunate that patriotism in Australia seemed to be identified with the British Empire League, which taught children to love England instead of Australia, and pointed out that “everything that was best and noblest in Australia was Irish” … On the first Australia Day, 24 May 1911, St Mary’s Cathedral flew the flags of Ireland and Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald chose the headline “NO UNION JACK FLOWN” and reported Father O’Reilly’s appreciation of the Empire builders: … “They are the men who cruelly oppressed their fellow subjects in Ireland for the sake of an alien oligarchy. They are the land sharks of the world … Australia not England is our motherland, the flag of Australia comes first with us.” …On May Day 1921, 1000 trade unionists marched to the Domain. A few of them tore up a Union Jack and burnt it. Those who destroyed the flag, said Sir George Fuller, were part of “the same organisation that had been endeavouring to defeat the British Empire, right from the days of the Armada”. Empire Day speeches three weeks later were thick with denunciation of the incident, and the State Government was petitioned to counter the insult done to Britain’s flag by making school children salute it every morning. The change was duly made, and saluting was made mandatory in NSW state schools, together with the recitation of the pledge: “I honour my God, I serve my King, I salute the flag”. The NSW Trades and Labour Council urged all unionists to instruct their children not to attend the ceremony. It was now disloyal, commented the Catholic Freeman’s Journal, to raise the Australian flag “and as for speaking on behalf of the oppressed — well the rack and gibbet for men capable of such infamy”. On 24 May Catholic children continued to salute the Australian flag and to sing Advance Australia fair.

Between the wars Empire Day was celebrated in State and Protestant schools but not in Catholic schools. While State school children learnt that they were part of the greatest empire the world had ever known, Catholic children were taught that May was the month of Mary and 24 May, far from being Empire Day, was Mary’s Feast Day under the title Help of Christians, also known as Australasia Day. In the opinion of the Catholic Federation of NSW, K.R. Cramp’s Story of the English People, a widely used textbook, was “nothing more that a manual of shameless jingo propaganda” and the section on Men who Made the Empire was in fact about “raiders, buccaneers and land-grabbers”.

Miriam Dixson’s prejudiced Anglophile construction about Irish Catholics, particularly Irish Catholic women

As one works through the physical, cultural, religious, ideological and political development of the Irish Catholic community in Australia in the 19th century, it becomes easier to judge the curious construction about the Irish advanced by Miriam Dixson in The Real Matildas and The Imaginary Australian.

The actual development and evolution of the Irish Catholic community in all its aspects as revealed in major recent historical works, sharply contradicts Dixson’s construction. The Irish women, who she regards as such a retarding influence, are actually revealed by the records as mainly a vibrant, democratic force, and Irish men and women are apparent as strong supporters of democratic social movements in the Australian colonies.

Dixson’s rather unpleasant construction is actually a kind of prejudice based on her already existing theoretical view of the Catholic Irish, rather than any empirical inquiry into their real social influence in Australia. It is another version of a postmodernist approach to history in which so called “theory” is given greater weight than empirical historical evidence. Karl Marx’s view of history as “whole cloth” is much more useful than Dixson’s “theory” concerning the history of the Irish in Australia.

Daniel Mannix comes to Melbourne

In 1913 the most influential rebel Irish Catholic prelate in Australian history arrived in Victoria to become Coajutor Archbishop of Melbourne to Archbishop Carr, and in 1916, after Carr died, he became the Archbishop.

Mannix was born in North Cork, in the heart of the Cork-Tipperary-Limerick area, from which many of the Irish immigrants to Australia in the 19th century came, and which was later the heart of the agrarian military rising organised by the IRA in the early 1920s, which succeeded in winning the beginnings of Irish independence. Before he came to Australia, he had a distinguished career as the President of St Patricks College, Maynooth, the main Irish seminary for training priests, and at Maynooth he had conformed fairly carefully to the rather conservative mold of Cardinal Cullen.

As president of Maynooth he had even represented the Cullen interest in a conflict with Dr Hickey using the Irish language in the seminary. Mannix was a distinguished, tall scholarly man with, like Moran before him, a considerable Irish wit, and like Moran before him, he rapidly radicalised in Australia under the influence of the strong democratic rebel Labor and Irish nationalist spirit that was pervasive among his flock.

On arrival he adopted, as his official Latin motto (an ancient custom amongst Catholic archbishops) the same motto that had served for Cardinal Moran, “Omnia Omnibus” or in English “All things to all men,” thus taking up symbolically the torch of leadership laid down by Moran on his death.

Mannix’s first political activity in Australia was to step up a campaign for the traditional Catholic demand for some state aid for Catholic schools. After toying with the idea of a separate Catholic party, he rapidly came to understand the Australian reality that his flock were far too deeply involved in the labour movement to be easily separated from it, and he very soon shifted his emphasis to mobilising Catholics in the Labor Party for state aid, with at that stage only limited success.

In 1914 the first great imperialist war broke out. Initially, even the labour movement and the Catholic community were drawn into the war hysteria of British imperialism, although even at the start there were some dissenters, particularly the IWW in socialist circles, and quite a few Irish nationalists in the Catholic community, (and some who were both).

As the war dragged on, however, war weariness set in, both in the labour movement and in the Catholic community. In 1916 the rabidly pro-British right-wing Labor leader, Billy Hughes, precipitated a split in the labour movement by trying to impose conscription on a reluctant Australia.

Mannix, Irish Australia and the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland

Mannix has been treated rather unfairly in Australian literature. The best-known piece of Mannix literature is Barry Oakley’s rather funny play, The Feet of Daniel Mannix, but this is a very crude caricature, and a basically inaccurate view of Mannix’s ideas and role. On the other hand, the portrait of Mannix in Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory, while critical and a bit acid, is much fairer and actually captures quite sympathetically the influence that Mannix and his activities had in the Australian labour movement during and after the battles over conscription.

There are two major biographies of Mannix, one by Niall Brennan and the other by B.A. Santamaria. Santamaria's suffers from the author's tendency to remold Mannix to fit his own political outlook at the time he was writing in the early 1980s.

Santamaria leaves out the major high points of Mannix’s political radicalisation in response to Australian politics during and after the conscription referendum, and he blurs over Mannix’s intransigent republicanism during the Irish Civil War in the 1920s. Mannix was the only Irish Catholic bishop in the world who belligerently supported the republican side against the free-staters in the Civil War.

The best thing Santamaria wrote about Mannix was a 1978 monograph based on his speech to the Melbourne Newman Society, which spelt out the fact that Mannix, like Moran before him, was a follower of the Irish bishops like Thomas Croke of Cashel and John McHale, “the lion of Tuam”, who strongly supported the Irish national movement and the Land League in the 19th century, and an opponent of both the pro-British “Castle” bishops such as Bishop Moriarty and Cardinal McCabe, and of the Cullen position, which was, to quote Santamaria, “to canalise the Nationalist impetus of the Irish to ecclesiastical and Roman rather than political and Irish purposes”. By far the most useful and revealing book about Mannix was published in 1984 by Colm Kiernan, Daniel Mannix and Ireland. To quote Kiernan, in chapter 6 of this book:

The 1916 Irish rebellion was an episode in Mannix’s progressive radicalisation, not its cause. In Ireland Mannix would not have supported the rebellion or the subsequent achievement by force of Irish independence. He would have backed the Irish hierarchy as he always had before; and it supported the forces of the law and order, not those of rebellion and revolution in Ireland. Unlike Mannix, the hierarchy in Ireland did not see the rebellion as Catholic emancipation: they saw it as a resort to force by a minority group.

Alienated from the Irish hierarchy in distant Melbourne and not involved with the horrors of the rebellion, Mannix was ready and willing to see things differently, “There was an old Irishman who used to work at the West Melbourne presbytery where Dr Mannix lived, and one evening after the rising Daniel Mannix went into the old man’s room. He threw the evening paper on to the old man’s bed. ‘Michael’, he said, with tears in his eyes, ‘they’ve shot some of them.” He could no longer be identified with the Catholic Church establishment in Ireland.

Mannix strikes out independently of the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland

Keirnan continues:

What was at issue in Ireland was the logic of rebellion compared with the logic of continuity. In supporting the rebellion, Mannix signalled his disillusion with the Irish and with the Irish hierarchy, which had so mismanaged the O’Hickey affair that not only O’Hickey, but Mannix too suffered. Mannix’s rhetoric in supporting the rebellion of 1916 was similar to O’Hickey’s language in supporting his own rebellion in 1909.In his Statement to the Rota, O’Hickey commented: “I regret nothing that I have written in my pamphlet; I withdraw nothing; I apologise for nothing. It is all true”. Mannix’s equivalent statement was, “I do not retract one word that I have spoken. I take back nothing; I regret nothing; I am unchanged and impenitant”. Although O’Hickey was dead, he was transmuted into Mannix, who carried on a rebellion against an establishment that had rejected them both.

Mannix knew nothing of plans being made for the Irish rebellion before Easter Monday 24 April 1916, when Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of the Republic from in front of the General Post Office in Dublin. Irish historians now date “the call to arms” at the earliest to Eoin MacNeill’s The North Began in An Claidhemh Soluis of 1 November 1913, by which time Mannix had left Ireland.

The formation of the Irish volunteers who made the rebellion, and the reformation of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and even Pearse’s membership of that body, all took place after Mannix’s departure. It was to be expected that Mannix was taken by surprise with the rebellion. It surprised not only the British Government in Ireland; it came as a shock to Irishmen in Ireland and abroad.

Mannix’s immediate reaction was to criticise the rebellion, referring to “the misguided leaders of this movement”. The savage treatment meted out to the leaders of the abortive rising convinced Mannix that there was no hope for Home Rule. By court martialing the leaders of the rebel movement in secret and then shooting them, the British Government exhausted much Irish goodwill and convinced Mannix that the issue of Home Rule had moved from the constitutional arena to the military one …

As already mentioned, when news of the “outbreak in Dublin” reached Melbourne, the immediate reaction was to denounce the rebellion. Mannix commented that “this outbreak is truly deplorable”. He was in line with other leaders of the Catholic community in Melbourne such as Archbishop Carr and Dr M.N. O’Donnell, president of the Victorian United Irish League. Unlike the others, Mannix immediately qualified his condemnation, holding the British Government chiefly responsible. He claimed that, by allowing the Ulster Volunteers to arm and in trying to suppress a similar movement in Dublin, it had fomented rebellion, “Before condemning the misguided leaders of this movement to be shot, they should remember that leaders of another movement were taken into the Cabinet”. This reference was to the Sir Edward Carson who was instrumental in forming the Ulster Volunteers and was taken into Lloyd George’s Cabinet. The shooting of the leaders hardened Mannix’s attitude, “There was no sign of sober restraint in the punishment meted out to Irishmen in the recent uprising”. He commented bitterly that “these outrages will rankle in the minds of men, and they are not likely to bring a blessing upon the British arms” …

Mannix’s commitment to anti-conscription and his support of the Irish rebellion came at the same time. They were to be mutually supportive. Each was to subserve his most fundamental commitment, which was the achievement of state aid through the ALP, and each would draw him further away from the establishment in Ireland and from its Australian equivalent.

The more Mannix thought about the three issues of the war, Ireland and the education issue, the more they merged in his mind; and the more he dealt with the Catholic working classes in Melbourne the more radical his politics became.

Opening a fair at the Albert Hall in Clifton Hill Parish, on 16 September 1916, Mannix first publicly expressed his opposition to conscription, “I hope and believe that peace can be secured without conscription. For conscription is a hateful thing, and it is almost certain to bring evil in its train.” He claimed that conscription would result in the escalation of war in Europe. Most significantly, he proposed that Australia had done enough, “Australia has done her full share — I am inclined to say even more than her fair share — in this war.” As the war dragged on, this argument would be increasingly telling. Finally, he proposed that “Australians … are a peaceloving people. They will not easily give conscription a foothold in their country.”

Soon afterwards, at a giant rally at the Melbourne Town Hall it was announced that the Catholics of Melbourne had subscribed the substantial sum of 3700 pounds to the Irish Relief Fund. At the close of proceedings and in response to the clamours of an insistent audience, Mannix found himself on his feet. He told them that “my heart bleeds for the suffering Irish people” and for the first but not last time, he spoke in praise of “those brave men who, in the recent rising, loved Ireland, unwisely perhaps, but too well”. As the anti-conscription campaign got under way, Mannix intermixed support for the Irish rebellion with anti-conscription arguments in a way that was to baffle friend and foe alike.

Protestant churches’ overwhelming support for World War I and conscription

As we see from the above, Mannix and a considerable part of the Catholic clergy vigorously opposed conscription and were very sceptical about the war as a whole. Even the section of the Catholic hierarchy who implicitly supported the war mostly avoided any public statements in support of conscription because they had to take into account the very strong feelings of their flock, who were overwhelmingly opposed to conscription, and many to the war itself.

The Protestant hierarchy and clergy, on the other hand, were overwhelmingly jingoistic supporters of the war and conscription. Throughout the commonwealth, only three or four Protestant ministers publicly opposed conscription. The overwhelming mood in the Protestant religious community was rabid in its support of conscription and the imperialist war.

The Anglican Synods in both Sydney and Melbourne in 1916 unanimously supported the Yes case in the conscription referendum, and the Melbourne Anglican Synod even demanded the arrest and internment of “disloyalists” opposed to conscription and the war. Predictably, the Protestant jingoes focused a great deal of their pro-war agitation against the “disloyal” Archbishop Mannix.

This division over conscription obviously further increased the existing alienation of the trade union and labour movement from the Protestant religion. During the conscription referendum there were many disturbances at meetings. Anti-conscription and Labor Party meetings in middle and upper class Protestant areas were routinely broken up by upper class hoodlums.

In working class areas, pro-conscription meetings, which were well defended by the Police, were disrupted by the very effective tactic of masses of young working class women being the spearhead of the turmoil, particularly in Melbourne. The reactionary daily press constantly claimed that these young working class women were Irish Catholics from the surrounding suburbs, which was no doubt partly true.

Mannix’s leadership was decisive in the defeat of conscription

Colm Kiernan, again:

Mannix’s intervention in the anti-conscription campaign during World War I was the culminating crisis of his career. It differed from his support for state aid, which had the backing of the hierarchy in Australia. Mannix was the only Bishop of the Catholic Church in Australia in 1916 to oppose conscription. The Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Cerretti, ruled conscription a political issue and so the Catholic Church in Australia would not have a policy on it, “The members of the Catholic Church are free citizens, and as such should record their votes in accordance with the dictates of conscience. It would be altogether unreasonable to involve the Church, as a Church, on an issue which its members, as citizens, in common with others, are called on to decide …”

Hughes knew that it was the Catholic vote which would make the difference. And Mannix ensured that he did not get it. Mannix controlled two Catholic newspapers, the Advocate and Tribune, which gave the widest publicity to everything he said. This material was noted in Catholic newspapers in the other States, and influenced Catholics. It was also available to the lay press, which made interesting use of it, to represent Mannix as the leader of the anti-conscription campaign. While the voting pattern in Victoria was not as flattering to anti-conscription as it was in New South Wales and in Queensland in 1916, this reflected the fact that there were proportionately more Catholics in New South Wales and Queensland than in Victoria, and not any diminution in Catholic support for Mannix …

His greatest contribution to the defeat of the conscription referendum was to link it with state aid and the Irish question. These issues combined with his standing as Archbishop ensured that Catholics would hold firm. He dwelt on the Irish question in a way that tortured the consciences of Australian Catholics, encouraging them to give no ground. His argument was that England was putting down freedom in Ireland; and the descendants of Englishmen in Australia, by not granting state aid, were suppressing freedom of Australian Catholics; therefore Catholics should not feel bound to fight in an English war. This argument did not convince Protestant Australians but it did ring true for the consciences of Catholics. In the second referendum of 1917, Mannix would extend his argument in an attempt to appeal to non-Catholic Australians.

He extended his political argument to include the working classes. He charged the Government with not doing enough for the unemployed and thus forcing them into the armed forces. At the opening of a new Christian Brothers School at Brunswick he told his audience that, “it was time people faced this question of unemployment fairly and squarely. Unemployment in Australia was not confined to war time. It was always with them, and that, he ventured to think, was a disgrace to the Government of Australia”. He added that “one-hundredth part of the energy put into the war would in the last 25 years have made Australia a very different land from what it was today”.

Mannix’s opposition to conscription gave a lead to Catholics to hold firm against powerful government propaganda. Catholics were predisposed to oppose conscription not just because of the British suppression of the Irish rebellion, but because they did not have the same feeling for England as “the mother country” that many other Australians experienced. After the defeat of the first conscription referendum, at the silver jubilee celebration of Convent of Mercy nuns in Melbourne, Mannix made it clear that the defeat of the referendum and his interest in Ireland were related when he commented that, “I have lately become a better Irishman”.

Mannix’s deep and wide knowledge of Irish history and the national struggle is beautifully expressed in this very subtle assertion of having become a “better Irishman”. He is obviously referring to the situation in the 1870s when the most reactionary “Castle” bishops brutally opposed Fenianism.

The response of Charles J. Kickham, a very important Fenian leader (later chairman of the Irish Republican Brotherhood), to these clerical traitors to the national cause, was as follows, and I quote from the wonderful book by English Marxist T.A. (Tommy) Jackson on the Irish national struggle, Ireland Her Own. In regard to clericalism, Charles J. Kickham, himself an ardent Catholic, wrote:

Nothing would please us better than to keep clear of the vexed question of priests in politics … But the question was forced upon us. We saw that the people must be taught to distinguish between the priest as a minister of religion and the priest as a politician before they could advance one step on the road to emancipation … Our only hope is in revolution, but most bishops and many of the clergy are opposed to revolution … When priests turn the altar into a platform: when it is pronounced a “mortal sin” to read the Irish People a “mortal sin” to even wish that Ireland should be free; when priests call upon the people to turn informers … When, in a word, bishops and priests are doing the work of the enemy, we believe it is our duty to tell the people that bishops and priests may be bad politicians and worse Irishmen.

Mannix obviously had this widely publicised and effective attack on the anti-national Irish bishops in mind when he said he had become a “better Irishman”.

Colm Kiernan, continues:

His opposition to conscription was especially important after 4 November 1916, when Prime Minister Hughes and 23 supporters walked out of a meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Labor Party to form a new Nationalist Party. They supported conscription against an opposition of 41 ALP members, most of whom were Catholics and who opposed conscription. Charges of disloyalty were made. Mannix’s backing was important at the time when no major public figure opposed conscription.

Sectarianism was introduced into the campaign and Mannix’s participation was significant “in winning the non-Labor Catholic vote for anti-conscription”, and ensuring that the Catholic Labor vote held firm. What emerged was a Commonwealth Parliamentary Labor Party with a strong Catholic component. If it came to power it would probably introduce state aid. What was needed was to put the Party into power. Conscription was an issue which, if it took the centre of the stage, could bring non-Catholic as well as Catholic support to the ALP. It was in these circumstances that Mannix began to shape a more radical political commitment aimed at seizing the opportunity to put the Commonwealth Parliamentary Labor Party into power and so secure state aid. Mannix was raising the issue of the rights of a minority in a democracy. In this instance, a minority which did not believe World War I to be a “just” war. For them, if conscription became law, they would be required to fight. Most of those with conscientious objections to the war were Catholics, but the issue of the rights of a minority in a democracy were of more fundamental significance. Mannix was convinced that World War I was anything but a “just” war. As far as he was concerned, the waste of money and life in the war was morally wrong.

The famous “sordid trade war” speech

In a speech at Brunswick, Mannix told his audience that “when all was said and all concessions made, the war was like most wars — just an ordinary trade war”. He stressed the point, that “it was just a truism that the war was a trade war”. Prime Minister Hughes was not challenged a year before when he said that “it was a struggle for industrial and commercial supremacy” and that “he considered the struggle for commercial supremacy to be one of the primary causes of the war”.

To make matters worse for Mannix, his “trade war” speech was edited in the version published in the Argus, to read a “sordid trade war”. The difference between Hughes and Mannix on this point was that Hughes thought “industrial and commercial supremacy” worth fighting for, while Mannix did not think them sufficiently important to warrant a policy of conscription.

Mannix’s intervention in the election campaign was critical. A combination of the labour movement, the Irish Catholics and the fact that many farmers didn’t want their surviving children conscripted off their farms, combined to give the anti-conscription side a slim majority, and a majority in three states. In this defeat of conscription the stand taken by Mannix and the Catholic vote that it mobilised was absolutely crucial and everybody, for or against conscription, recognised Mannix’s pivotal role in the result.

An interesting demographic fact about this referendum result was that Mannix’s impact was a bit greater in NSW, where there were significantly more Catholics as a proportion of the population, and where the fact that the Catholic newspapers reprinted Mannix’s views on conscription obviously had greater resonance with the Catholic population than the muted pro-war stance of Sydney’s Archbishop Kelly.

The critical thing to the defeat of the referendum was its failure by the narrowest of margins in NSW. In the second referendum, in 1917, Victoria became the fourth state to join the No side, once again by a slim margin. The following year, 1917 was the year of the Russian Revolution, and a general radicalisation of the labour movement and of the Irish Catholic community proceeded rapidly.

This centred on the anti-conscription struggle in Australia and Ireland, and a general strike in Australia in 1917. The general weariness with the imperialist war, which was the direct cause of the Russian Revolution, spread everywhere in the capitalist world, including Germany, France, Britain, Australia and Ireland.

Daniel Mannix’s most radical phase, the 1917 winter lectures

In 1917, Hughes had another bite at a conscription referendum, and he was defeated by an even larger margin. In winter 1917, Mannix, at the height of his intellectual powers and his pivotal role as a public figure, held a series of public lectures on economic and political questions, in which he spelt out his developing political outlook on the world.

Thousands attended these lectures, and the final one attracted a crowd of 20,000 people who had to be addressed outside because the hall overflowed. Once again, it’s worth quoting from Colm Kiernan’s book about these lectures (page 108):

Mannix’s first innovation as Archbishop of Melbourne was to inaugurate a series of winter lectures in the Cathedral Hall, Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. In the course of the lectures, he developed a radical statement of the relationship of religion and politics, of the priest and the people. His forthright stance increased his popularity.

The lectures were given by speakers invited by Mannix. After each paper, Mannix summed up. After the second lecture he asked, “Is it or not a fact that we want the priests in politics? … We come from the people, we belong to the people, and the people own us body and soul”. He was willing, if he “could do anything for the toilers”.

By the fifth lecture, Mannix was elaborating a system of radical economics, “The profits of capitalists would have to be clipped very considerably; there was no other solution of the question. If capitalists were not prepared to surrender excessive profits, they must be made by law to surrender them”. He defended the rights of workers, adding that “the rights of men and of workers were even more sacred than the rights of property”. He went on to claim that “profit-sharing and the nationalisation of certain industries would go a long way to improve the condition of the workers”.

Shortly after his succession to the See of Melbourne, Mannix was installed at Raheen, a large two-storey brick house in Studley Park Road, Kew, where he lived for the rest of his life. From there he walked to and from St Patrick’s Cathedral. By doing this he achieved a relationship with the people of Collingwood and of Melbourne. Over the years this became increasingly friendly. The effect of his increasing contact was to extend his sympathy and to radicalise his politics.

By the sixth winter lecture, Mannix was assuring his enthusiastic audience that “it is the bounden duty of the State to provide against unemployment and to find work for men who are ready and willing to work”. He was jubilant, for he had found a cause. He hoped to lead the Catholics of Melbourne out of a ghetto into the promised land, away from subordination, to equality of status with their more fortunate Australian brethren. The means to hand was the ballot box. He told his audience in the Cathedral Hall: “Now, I claim to be one of the people, to be a democrat, and a believer in the people.”

Mannix believed that before anything could be done at all, the war had to be brought to a speedy end. He told his audience at Newport that “after three years of a cruel and disastrous war it is quite time to know what all the fighting is about”. He proposed that the war was made by capitalists, competing for greater shares of the market, so that business interests in Australia simply backed the British capitalist system in a search for greater spheres of influence, from which they had all hoped to profit.

At the eighth lecture, Mannix told his audience that “wars are made by capitalists and … this one is no exception. If it were not for the capitalists, I believe there would be no war. If the capitalists were put in their proper place, there would be an end to war for the future”. Unlike the capitalists, the people wanted peace. He told his audience at Newport that “if the people were now consulted there would be peace tomorrow”.

While there was war abroad, there was conflict also at home, between employers, many of whom supported the war and their workers, some of whom did not. Mannix put it that, “there is a cruel war raging — it is virtually a civil war — between the workers and the employers”. The only good thing that the war abroad might achieve would be to awaken people to their plight. At the eighth lecture, Mannix conceded that, “the war is teaching its own grim, useful lessons. The workers are awakened”. Before anything could be done to improve the lot of the working classes, peace would have to be restored. While disclaiming socialism, Mannix said, “I must say this for the socialists, that from the beginning of the war, the socialists and the Pope were the most strenuous and consistent advocates of peace” …

Throughout 1917, Mannix continued to condemn the war; and attempts to conscript Australians for war. He predicted that the majority against conscription in the second referendum would exceed the first, which it did. What he feared most was that, having lost the referendum, business interests would take the law into their own hands, “I fear that some of them, having failed at the referendum, are now endeavouring to enforce economic conscription by dismissing men from employment for no other purpose than to force them to the front”. What was most galling was that Catholics would be victimised, “I greatly fear, however, that economic conscription is being worked in various quarters, and I am afraid it is true, also, that the first men thrown out of employment are those belonging to the Catholic Church”.

More than 20,000 people rally to hear Mannix at the final lecture

Mannix defended his intervention on conscription, “Now I may claim to know something about the Catholic Church, and I know that the countries in which the Church has failed most disastrously are those countries in which ecclesiastics kept within the sacristies, and took no interest in the temporal concerns of their people or in public affairs.”

Mannix felt morally obliged to intervene, outraged by the Irish rebellion, convinced as he was that conscription of Australian Catholics to fight in England’s war would morally be a worse fate for them than the discrimination they appeared to him to suffer in the slums of Melbourne. In the outcome, he found himself opposing conscription, which was the policy of the ALP.

Due to the growing numbers of those attending, it was decided to hold the final winter lecture in 1917 in the Melbourne Town Hall. Even then, 20,000 people were unable to gain admission to the Town Hall. They blocked the streets around to catch a sight of the Archbishop, or to hear a few words that might be passed from mouth to mouth. Mannix was touched by this massive response. He told his audience: “I assure and promise you that as long as I live I shall remember you, and so long as I have health and strength I shall fight for you.” He went out on to the balconies overlooking Swanston and Collins Streets and shouted the same words to the audience below, which were italicised when they were printed in the Advocate: “I ASSURE AND PROMISE YOU THAT AS LONG AS I LIVE I SHALL REMEMBER YOU, AND SO LONG AS I HAVE HEALTH AND STRENGTH, I SHALL FIGHT FOR YOU”. He had reached the highest moment of his career: conscription was defeated and the future looked bright with promise.

Standing on the stage of the Melbourne Town Hall, straight, aloof, covered in his long black cape, which reached down to his silver buckled shoes, surmounted by a pink biretta, Mannix had achieved a remarkable radical political synthesis, more radical than that of any contemporary prelate. He opposed conscription and the war, wanting better conditions for the workers, full employment and a redistribution of wealth. He looked on religion not as a conservative influence, but as establishing the dignity of man, “When I read what is written sometimes by the capitalist press … I seem to discover that we have many who value religion mainly — perhaps solely — for the purpose of keeping the proletariat quiet.” He had achieved the status of a leading figure in Australia.

The bitter struggle over conscription and Mannix’s courageous and intelligent political leadership role, both in the Catholic community and in the wider Australian society, was the high point of the radicalisation of the Catholic community in Australia, and the effects of this struggle persisted for the next 20 years in the Irish Catholic community and the labour movement.

One feature of Mannix’s activity in this period was the strenuous way he defended the German Lutheran community in Australia, particularly in South Australia, against the British jingoism characteristic of the World War I. Mannix was both an Australian nationalist and Irish nationalist, but also a Catholic Church internationalist in these matters, and he became particularly vocal when the jingoism culminated in the deportation of Fr Jerger, who had the misfortune, for those times, of being German-born. (He was an Australian citizen, and his parents had brought him with them at the age of two, when they migrated to Australia. He was 50 when deported from Australia.)

Fr Jerger, a Sydney parish priest at Marrickville, had been interned towards the end of the war as an enemy alien after being accused of giving an antiwar sermon at Sunday Mass. After protracted legal battles by the Catholic community on his behalf, which were lost, he was finally deported a bit after the end of the war. Mannix was particularly colourful and angry in attacking the prejudice involved in this deportation, and passionate in defending Fr Jerger.

It is easy for historians to overlook one feature of Mannix’s role in Australian, Catholic and labour history. The question of the role of the individual in history is an old and important issue in Marxist historiography. The broad economic and social circumstances create the conditions for great social movements and changes, but individuals do play an important role within that historical framework.

Trotsky used to doggedly reassert the proposition that without Lenin’s powerful personal activity there would have been no Russian socialist revolution, despite the ripeness of the objective conditions. In the case of Mannix, he came from Ireland and began to play a leadership role in the Catholic Church at a time when the most Catholics of Irish origin were now native-born Australians.

The mass migration from Ireland that had been so demographically decisive in Australia from the 1840s to the 1890s almost ceased in the early 1890s. By 1910 the native-born children of this Irish mass migration were beginning to forget, just a little, the ancient wrongs suffered by the Irish, although they were steadily acquiring a new, more modern sense of grievance and class consciousness that stemmed from becoming part of an emerging proletariat, then in boisterous and vigorous development in Australia.

The magic of Mannix’s leadership in the conscription agitation, and immediately thereafter, was that he brought sharply into the Australian Catholic community a new consciousness of the Irish national question, then at its most intense and revolutionary point of development in Ireland, and combined this with the social, economic and political demands generated by Australian circumstances, expressed in the struggles of the labour movement. Under Mannix’s inspired leadership, this combination of Irish and Australian issues produced a powerful political chemistry, and it had a radicalising impact on both the labour movement and the Catholic community. No wonder the British-Australian bourgeoisie loathed Mannix with such an abiding hatred. No other single individual ever contributed so much to a broad radicalisation of the Australian population, except possibly NSW Labor Premier J.T. Lang in his most populist phase.

Mannix announces publicly that he votes Labor

It was at Echuca that Mannix committed himself, “Dr Mannix said he would tell them how he intended voting. He was going to vote against Mr Hughes and his party” because “he knew that the profiteers were going to vote for Mr Hughes”. He had another reason: “He would vote against Mr Hughes and his party because all the sectarians were on his side — the ‘Critchley’ Parker gang were there, every one of them.” Then he delivered his most stinging blow: “Ranged on Mr Hughes’ side were those who waved Union Jacks … at their celebrations rather than the Australian flag … He was going to vote with those not ashamed of Australia’s flag.” Finally, “he was not going to vote for those who had always been against the workers”. Previously, he had commented, “I made up my mind early not to vote with the profiteers. They are going to vote one way, I am going to vote in the other.” As the election day drew nearer, he further simplified: “For there are some people — I do not suppose there are many here — who prefer to vote with the profiteers rather than vote with Catholics.”

The result of the split of the conscriptionists from the ALP was that the proportion of Catholics doubled in the parliamentary Labor Party and in leadership positions in unions and labour councils. The labour movement throughout Australia was radicalised by these events, and by the impact of the Russian Revolution and the postwar revolutionary upsurge in Europe and Ireland.

Broadly speaking, the alliance between the Catholic section and the secular section of the labour movement was deepened and strengthened, the culmination of which, in one sense, was the adoption of the socialisation objective by the ALP in 1921. In the debate at the decisive federal Labor conference, most of the Catholics were on the side in favour of adopting the socialisation objective.

The division between Catholics and the secular socialist left of the labour movement became very blurred. At this stage quite a number of major figures of Catholic background who later became Labor leaders or prime ministers, like James Scullin, John Curtin and Arthur Calwell, also belonged to the more or less Marxist and considerably secular Victorian Socialist Party, and this did not seem to interfere in the slightest with their close personal connections with the Archbishop.

Mannix also had very good personal relations with such non-Catholic leaders of the left as Bob Ross and the redoubtable Frank Anstey MHR. Mannix himself claimed that during the conscription battle many humble people converted to the Catholic Church, and that the Catholic community had consolidated its friendship and links with what he described as the “democratic element” among non-Catholics.

In the early 1920s, the Victorian bourgeoisie, led in this instance by Tory politician Herbert Brooks, mounted a vicious mobilisation against the labour movement, of a bigoted British and Protestant character, focussed mainly against Mannix, Catholics, and the IWW. At the height of this sectarian mobilisation they attempted to ban the St Patricks Day procession.

This attempted ban became a political disaster for the Tories. The sporting millionaire John Wren, an ally of Mannix, mobilised a contingent of 10 Victoria Cross winners to head the procession on white chargers, and the Tories were forced to cave in and allow the St Patricks Day procession on condition that there was a British flag at the front.

As described by Frank Hardy with great good humour in Power Without Glory, Wren arranged for a rather decrepit derelict to be suitably paid to walk comfortably ahead of the procession, with a toy British flag, which made the 100,000 people who watched that St Patricks Day march laugh uproriously, and infuriated Sir Herbert Brooks and his associates beyond belief.

In 1923, Australia had its only complete police stoppage of work, when the Melbourne Police went on strike. His Eminence Archbishop Mannix spoke at a rally in support of the police strikers, in the Treasury Gardens, on the same platform as Tom Walsh, the secretary of the Seamen’s Union, at that time a well-known member of the Communist Party. It is hard to overestimate the political courage required for Mannix to speak at a rally in support of the striking police, given the enormous public turmoil in Melbourne produced by that strike. (This is well covered in the recent book Days of Violence by Gavin Brown and Robert Haldane, 1998.)

Several NSW elections in the early and middle 1920s were marked by a ferocious Protestant sectarian mobilisation behind the conservative parties, and against Labor and particularly J.T. Lang. The main organising genius of this sectarian anti-Labor mobilisation was the Bible-bashing wowser T.J. Ley, who later committed at least one bizarre murder and possibly several others.

This polarisation of Australian society between the two nations, so to speak, the labour movement nation including the Irish Catholics, and the conservatives of British Australia, was deeply entrenched as the dominant feature of Australian politics for the next 30 years.

In the early 1930s, during the Depression, Mannix concentrated his main oratory against the crimes of the capitalist system, and while not endorsing socialism he pointed out that the masses of the world might turn to it as a result of the world economic crisis.

For their part, the military jingoes of the old guard, the New Guard, and the White Army in NSW and Victoria, who mobilised militarily during the crisis years, had an interesting mix of targets for their hostility. They based their planning on a program of locking up all the trade union leaders, labour leaders, communist and socialist leaders and Catholic leaders.

Michael Cathcart, has in his entertaining little book, Defending the National Tuck Shop, studied the activities in Victoria of the extraordinary semi-fascist military organisation led by General Blamey in Victoria, called the White Army. In winter 1931 the White Army mobilised all over rural Victoria with a plan to arrest all trade union, labour, communist and Catholic leaders, and occupy all the trade union headquaters, convents and Catholic churches. In many rural areas, on one particular night, the order was given for this mobilisation to proceed, although luckily for all concerned this was countermanded before it could be carried out.

Mannix and the left part company in the 1930s

The breach between a large part of the Catholic community and most of the left came towards the end of the 1930s, and was triggered by the Catholic hierarchy’s support of Franco’s side in the civil war in Spain, the development of Stalinism in Russia, and the increasing aggressiveness of the Communist faction in the labour movement.

Nevertheless, echoes of the earlier alliance persisted even after this far-reaching split. Rupert Lockwood, once editor of Tribune, the Communist newspaper, later reminisced about an occasion on which he simply referred to Archbishop Mannix as “Mannix” in Tribune. The Stalinist leader, Lance Sharkey (a former Catholic himself, who had grown up during the stirring Conscription period) ticked off Lockwood severely for that, and said to him, “Any time you refer to his Eminence in Tribune, you give him his full and proper title. That is what he is entitled to.”

For his part, Mannix, for reasons of global Catholic politics, threw his full weight and considerable inventiveness behind B.A. Santamaria’s anti-communist Movement. Nevertheless, he parted company quite decisively with Santamaria over the move to legally suppress the Communist Party in 1951.

As Santamaria recounts, in his autobiography, Against the Tide, Mannix said he didn’t mind Santamaria taking his own view and supporting the ban on the Communist Party, but for himself Mannix was opposed to banning anybody for their political views, even the Communists. Mannix then went forward in his old, quite unambiguous, style to make known his opposition to the ban.

Once again, he influenced the outcome of a referendum. Everyone acknowledged that Mannix’s opposition to the ban and that of J.T. Lang, by then another veteran anti-communist, were decisive elements in the narrow defeat of the referendum, particularly in Victoria, where Mannix lived.

James Griffin’s attack on Mannix in The Australian Dictionary of Biography

Jim Griffin is a quirky and interesting Catholic Australian popular historian. He often comes up with entertaining, unusual and useful pieces of historical research, like his well known articles establishing the long-standing, and previously rather well-concealed, political link between federal Labor opposition leader Herbert Vere Evatt and the powerful Melbourne gambling identity John Wren.

Unfortunately, Griffin has rather a set against Daniel Mannix, which is sad in a popular historian whose work is otherwise so useful. In 1986 James Griffin’s entry on Mannix in The Australian Dictionary of Biography caused considerable controversy. He attacked Mannix for, in his view, not being politically consistent, and questioned his scholarship and political judgment. Some critics of Mannix claim that he was not a very knowledgable theologian. This criticism seems bizarre, if one considers, for instance, the careful way he framed his support for de Valera and the opponents of the Treaty in Ireland in the 1920s, and the careful advice and support he gave to de Valera later, on the theological implications of taking the oath to the Queen in the Free State parliament.

Mannix was a considerable and well-formed Catholic theologian, with, however, strong Irish nationalist and democratic sentiments, and he tried to balance all those things within the framework of Catholic theology as he understood it. In a response to Griffin published in 1991 in Quadrant, George Pell, now Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, described Griffin’s ADB entry as “jaundiced, snide and unworthy”. I am inclined to agree with Pell.

His Eminence Archbishop Mannix’s intervention decided the outcome of the three referendums that were decisive for the preservation of the Australian democratic spirit. The life and times of Daniel Mannix encompassed the high tide of Irish Catholic influence on the development of a radical democratic Australian cultural tradition.

If any individual was decisive in the development of the basic democratic tradition in Australian politics, it was that extraordinary figure, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel Mannix.

Jack Lang, Langism, Catholics and the left in the NSW Labor Party in the 1920s and 1930s

Another high point of the new cultural landscape of the labour movement after the conscription split was the emergence of Langism in the ALP in NSW in the 1920s. J.T. Lang, an unusual Labor politician, of Catholic background although not religious, had considerable aspirations to Labor leadership. When he became state parliamentary leader by a whisker, he consolidated his initially bitterly contested leadership by the shrewd Bonapartist tactic of balancing between various labour movement factions, leaning a bit to the left and carrying out a number of the wishes of the trade unions in his first period of government in the 1920s.

One notable example of this was the establishment of child endowment paid directly to the mothers of children. In internal ALP politics he thus initially acquired both the solid support of the left, the “Trades Hall Reds”, and the radicalised Catholic ALP membership who had become much more powerful in the party after the conscription split.

A number of his closest colleagues and supporters were people like Jack Beasley and Eddie Ward, both of Catholic background and, at the same time, on the hard left of the Labor Party. (Beasley, from the Electrical Trade Union, was for a time president of the Labor Council led by its, then Communist, secretary, Jock Garden.) Both Beasley and Ward went on to be ministers in the wartime governments of Curtin and Chifley.

The striking thing about the populist Langite movement that rallied behind Lang was its politically radical mood and the great weight of Catholics in it, at both leadership and rank-and-file levels.

When the world Depression burst on Australia, Lang’s second state government was elected in NSW, in very adverse conditions for a Labor government. Lang responded to the economic and political crisis by riding the wave of popular bitterness and anger at the Depression, adopting a deliberate and spectacular populist stance.

He refused to endorse the Premiers’ Plan involving massive wage cuts for most of the working class and public servants, and he advanced his own scheme, immediately dubbed the Lang Plan, involving a moratorium on interest payments to the London banks, and the creation of government-backed credit, not unlike the measures proposed by J.M. Keynes later in the decade.

Faced with a hostile Upper House and pressure from the Scullin federal Labor government to accept the Premiers’ Plan, he stalled and resisted. When finally dismissed from office by Governor Game, who was clearly carrying out the orders of the London banks, Lang baulked at the idea of the social revolution required if the consequences of the Depression for the working class were to be rolled back.

He acquiesced in the resulting loaded electoral process and was beaten in the election. Nevertheless, this election campaign witnessed the biggest popular mobilisations in Australia up to that time, including the enormous meeting in Moore Park attended by about half the adult population of Sydney, just before the election.

In some respects, Sydney is a small town. As a young man, J.T. Lang, growing up in the labour movement in the city, hung around McNamara’s Bookshop, which was owned and run by the same socialist, Bill McNamara, who had ealier collided with Cardinal Moran.

Lang married McNamara’s step-daughter, Hilda Bredt. Henry Lawson married the other step-daughter. McNamara’s son, also named Bill McNamara, Lang’s brother-in-law, became active in the ALP and in the 1930s he became the main leader of the Socialisation Units, which mushroomed as a movement at the height of the crisis and exerted pressure on Lang from the left.

The members of the Socialisation Units were mainly indigenous ALP leftists, many of them Catholics. The Socialisation Units were caught, unfortunately, in a bit of a crossfire. Supporters of the Communist Party, led by Tom Payne, joined them, and tried to wreck them, carrying out the ultra-Stalinist Third Period strategy of the Communist Party at the time, which involved labelling the indigenous ALP social democrats as “social fascists”, and left social democrats like McNamara as the worst “social fascists” of all.

On the other hand, the Lang “inner group” was embarrassed by the “socialism in our time” resolution carried by the ALP conference in 1933, spearheaded by the Socialisation Units and McNamara. Jock Garden, by then out of the Communist Party, and one of Lang’s chief lieutenants in the ALP, persuaded the conference to reverse this resolution, using, among other rhetoric, the throwaway remark that “Lang is greater then Lenin”, which was immediately seized upon in a demagogic way by the bourgeois press.

The Lang faction and Lang adopted a line of “the socialisation of credit” as an alternative to “socialism in our time”, and the Langite majority at the 1933 conference elected a new Langite leadership for the Socialisation Units, which emphasised the “socialisation of credit” and wound down the units.

My father, Steve Gould, who was at that stage of his life a dogged Lang loyalist, and something of a pundit on the “socialisation of credit” was one of the Langites elected to leadership of the Socialisation Units at the 1933 Conference. Steve Gould wrote many articles in the Labor Daily, Lang’s daily newspaper, under the pen name Demos, on the “socialisation of credit”.

My father was elected to the ALP state executive at the conference in 1935, and was defeated along with the rest of the Lang executive, at the “Unity” Conference at Newtown in 1939.

Even after the 1932 election defeat, and the gradual exposure of Lang’s limitations as a leader in such revolutionary times, the Lang movement remained dominant in the ALP in NSW for the next seven or eight years until it was overthrown at the Newtown conference.

A major feature of the Langite populist movement, in both its high tide and later decline, was the large Catholic participation in it at all levels. Parliamentary figures like Beasley, Ward, Tony Luchetti, Dan Minogue, Dan Mulcahy, Joe Lomaro, R. Stuart Robertson and many other of Lang’s parliamentary supporters were of Catholic background. So were many of Lang’s internal party machine men such as Harry O’Regan (ALP returning officer, called by his enemies “Harry O’Riggin”), Harold and Norman McCauley, Jim Ormonde, Jimmy Graves, Plugger Martin, Paddy Keller, A.C. Paddison, my father Steve Gould, and many others. These Langite machine men were popularly dubbed the “Inner Group” after a Lang caucus that was reported to always meet on a Friday night before ALP executive meetings. After the event, very many more old Langites claimed to have been members of the “Inner Group” than could possibly have been the case.

After the ultimate defeat of the Langites at the Newtown “Unity Conference”, the rather diminished Langite popular movement continued, and in the federal election in 1940, in which there was a three-way Labor electoral split, between Official Labor, Lang Labor, and the State Labor Party controlled by the Communist Party, the Langites polled a respectable 30 per cent of the Labor vote, compared with 60 per cent for Official Labor, and 10 per cent for the State Labor Party. Four Langites, including Jack Beasley and Dan Mulcahy, won federal seats, but they immediately rejoined the Official Labor caucus.

Even after this, the Lang breakaway movement recommenced in 1943, after Lang’s final expulsion from the ALP, still led by Lang who held both the state seat of Auburn and later the federal seat of Reid, as Lang Labor. Lillian Fowler and Mary Quirk, both Catholics, were elected as independent Lang Labor members in the state House, for Newtown and Balmain respectively.

Some of the Catholics in the Lang movement swung further to the left in disillusionment with Lang and joined the Communist Party, such as Bruce Millis, father of the novelist Roger Millis. Most of the Catholics drifted back to the official ALP, and Eddie Ward, in particular, became the most intelligent, determined and courageous leader of the Labor left in the federal parliament until his untimely death in 1962.

Some of the other Langites shifted to the right in the ALP and helped establish the Industrial Group Movement led by Bob Santamaria as a force in the Labor Party in NSW.

Typical of these people was the colourful Bill O’Neill, the Langite leader in the Australian Railways Union, and one of the most spectacular and demagogic floor leaders of the Grouper “Mountain” at ALP conferences in the 1950s. On the other hand, Lang’s own paper, Century, played an important role in the defeat of the Groupers in the battles of the 1950s. Lang, who had obviously come to dislike the Santamaria movement, allowed Jim Ormonde, one of his old internal ALP machine men, who emerged as a major Catholic anti-Grouper in the ALP in the mid-1950s, along with the redoubtable journalist Les Haylen MHR, to use Century for wonderful and colourful articles exposing and campaigning against the Grouper movement.

Lang’s Century, along with the Stalinist Tribune, became the major public source of information about internal ALP machinations in the 1950s. Useful books about the Lang movement are Lang’s memoirs, I Remember and The Great Bust, Bede Nairn’s useful biography The Big Fella (which, though implacably hostile to Lang from the point of view of subsequent ALP orthodoxy, is a mine of fascinating detail and information) Miriam Dixson’s fascinating book about the Trades Hall Reds, Greater than Lenin, Bob Cooksey’s book on the Socialisation Units and, in other veins, the memoir material about his father in Roger Milliss’s The Serpent’s Tooth, and the important book about the fall of the Scullin federal Labor overnment and the Langites’ role in these events, Caucus Crisis by Warren Denning.

War between Catholics and communists in the labour movement in the 1940s and 1950s

The two factions in this 30-year war shared a number of basic assumptions. Both the Catholic “moderate” faction and the left faction over which the Communist party had hegemony were way to the left of any major mass current in the labour movement today on the broad social and political questions of the time.

They shared the view that a major primary function of trade unions was to struggle for incremental improvements in wages, conditions and living standards for the working class, along with whatever other aims the unions might pursue. Both factions, for instance, supported the nationalisation of banking, a very radical proposition indeed by the standards of the labour movement today.

In particular, it is important historically to absorb just how relatively leftist was the basic outlook of the Catholic grouping, as crystalised in the activities of the Movement, relative to Australian politics at the end of the millennium.

A good example of the ideology of the Catholic faction is the book Australia: The Catholic Chapter, by James Murtagh, published by Sheed and Ward in 1946. Another example is the Catholic Worker book, Design for Democrats, and another example is the collection of Catholic Church Social Justice Sunday statements between 1940 and 1966, titled Justice Now, many of which were written by B.A. Santamaria, as edited by Michael Hogan for the Sydney University Department of Government, 1990.

Murtagh’s book, which purports to be a general history of Catholicism in Australia, is actually two-thirds taken up by a celebration of the politically and socially radical role of Catholics in Australian life. Murtagh goes out of his way to point out that the Catholic hierarchy in Australia had consistently said Australian socialism was all right, “not like Continental socialism”, and that they had consistently defended the participation of their flock in the labour movement, often on the left.

The battle between the Communists and the Groupers was for political hegemony in the labour movement, and the fortunes of war fluctuated, as I describe elsewhere. However, the dominant context, in the 1930s, the World War II period and the immediate postwar years, was the general rejection by the working class and the lower middle class in Australia of the aspects of capitalism represented by the Depression and the war and the deep-rooted common desire for a new order, a view equally strongly held by both secular leftists and Catholics.

The Communist Party, on its side, was deeply deformed by Stalinism, which was the major factor in its ultimate demise 30 years or so later. However, the Australian Stalinist movement was, by the standards of international Stalinism, pretty deeply leftist, and took more easily to periods of sharp class struggle than it did to the Popular Front period.

The Catholic wing was, in its own way, deformed by the whole history of the Catholic Church internationally, if you view the church in a historical materialist and non-religious way, as I do. The Catholic Church, in most countries was, at that time, a deeply reactionary, politically almost medieval institution.

The exceptionalism of the Australian Catholic Church in political matters, expressed particularly in its deep-rooted implantation in the labour movement, often on the left, was striking internationally.

In this period, the Catholics and the Communists had quite a lot in common on some questions, on the negative side. For instance, both groups were deeply moralistic on matters such as homosexuality, American comics, censorship and other complex social issues.

The ultimate split in the Labor Party in the 1950s led to the defeat and marginalisation of the part of the Catholic strand led by B.A. Santamaria, which became the National Civic Council, and this group’s subsequent 25-year tactical electoral alliance with the Liberals further accentuated its sharp separation from the labour movement.

A split took place between the Santamaria group and the main right-wing Catholic group in NSW, which stayed in the ALP. Even further down the track, the Santamaria group itself, the NCC, split into two wings and ultimately the right-wing Catholic trade union forces drifted back into the Labor Party.

On another front, the Grouper split aided the transition of an upwardly mobile segment of the Catholic middle class to the Liberal side in politics. A bellicose and quite powerful example of this group is the current Liberal minister, Tony Abbott. The rump of the NCC is now mainly a pressure group campaigning to push the Catholic Church to the right internally, and for ultraconservative social practices in the community at large.

These recent developments, however, while they are of considerable significance, should not be allowed to blur or eliminate the history of the progressive, democratic effect of the very important Catholic strand in the Australian labour movement.

The most important books about the Labor Party split of the 1950s are The Split by Bob Murray, a small Communist Party pamphlet, Catholic Action and Australian Labor by Paul Mortier, the recent biography of Clyde Cameron by Bill Guy, Bob Santamaria’s own reminiscences, Against the Tide, Gerard Henderson's Mr Santamaria and the Bishops and the small book of papers from the 1994 Seminar on the Split organised by the Sydney Labour History Society, called The Great Labor Movement Split. Inside Stories.

Two important trade union histories that illuminate the industrial side of the Split are The Ironworkers by Robert Murray, and In Women’s Hands by Bradon Ellem, the history of the Clothing Trades Union.

The impact of Irish Catholics on the labour movement, Australian national identity and life

The Pauline Hanson-Paul Sheehan school of Australian historiography shares one vital construct with some ostensible opponents, such as the Ghassan Hage-Jon Stratton postmodernist “high-theory” cultural critics of multiculturalism. Both these groups define 19th and early 20th century Australian history in terms of a unified national and political culture that they describe as Anglo-Celtic. Sheehan and company say it was wonderful and Hage and company view it as irredeemably white racist. Nevertheless, both standpoints are essentially the same.

This Ghassan Hage postmodernist merging of the whole of Australian society as a “White Nation”, a homogenous Anglo-Celtic whole, ignoring the deep conflicts in the past between the two nations in Australia, is particularly pernicious nonsense, both historically and from the point of view of current leftist political tactics.

The practical political consequence of this ahistorical approach is that Hage and company can find no cultural opening at all for the development of any effective, populist, anti-racist, working-class political strategy.

The facts I have presented above demonstrate something quite different to the historical construction presented by Sheehan, Miriam Dixson, Ghassan Hage and Stuart Macintyre. Nineteenth-entury Australia was, in fact, not one, but two nations, divided by religion, politics and culture, with the Catholic community and the secular proletariat on one side and the British-dentified upper class and Protestant upper middle class on the other. Humanising, radicalising and civilisng influences came mainly from the widening of this alliance of the Catholic community and the secular proletariat to include other groups, such as indigenous Australians and successive waves of non-British migrants, first of all Europeans and subsequently Asians and people from the South Pacific.

The steady extension of this alliance has been the critical factor in all the progressive changes in Australian society in the past 40 years. The general social and cultural influence of the Irish Catholic community, understood in its broadest sense to include the many hundreds of thousands who are no longer religious, has been a critical civilising influence in opposition to arrogant, imperial, Eurocentric British-Australia.

Quite a lot has changed in Australia since the 19th century. One small aspect of this change is the emergence of a group of Janissaries, of some people of Irish Catholic background with names like Paul Sheehan, Tim Flannery, Tony Abbott, Michael Duffy, Padraic Pearse McGuiness, Mark O’Connor, Frank and Miranda Devine, Brendan Nelson, who have crossed over to the reactionary side in politics, or in the case of Flannery and O’Connor, become ferocious opponents of the immigration process that brought our land-hungry Irish ancestors to these shores.

The Janissaries were the elite military ruling caste of the Ottoman Empire. They were recruited by kidnapping children of Christian subject peoples, such as Georgians, Greeks, Serbs or Bulgarians, and raising them as Muslims in an elite military caste, which effectively ran the Ottoman Empire in the interests of its Turkish Muslim rulers.

They were usually zealous and fanatical in the pursuit of the interests of their newly acquired Islamic religion and Ottoman Turkish patriotism. The above public intellectuals, who defend so strenuously the interests of conservative establishment Australia, are very like the Janissaries of the Turkish Empire.

The political, cultural and social impact of the Irish Catholics in Australian life should never be underestimated, and becomes even more important in the context of modern Australia, which is now, demographically, ethnically and culturally, a new country.

Our 19 million people now break down roughly as follows.

The first 10.5 million, in combination with the secular working class and middle class section of the 8.5 million, are a clear and increasing cultural majority in Australia. About half of the seven million non-British, Asian and Pacific people are also of Catholic background, and many of them have gone through the Catholic school system, established initially by the Irish Catholics, and tend to merge in with the Irish Catholics culturally.

The combined impact of this enlarged cultural stream, both its residually religious, and its secular components, is now probably the dominant demographic force in Australian life. In this sense, the current anguish of exponents of a mythical “Anglo-Celtic core culture” like Miriam Dixson, Stuart Macintyre etc, can be more readily understood.

There are really several strands in the Irish Catholic tradition in Australia: those who retain a Catholic religious allegiance, and those with origins in the Irish Catholic community who are no longer religious. For the 50 years when the Communist Party and other leftists were a major force in Australian society, it was a sort of jocular truism in left-wing circles that the overwhelming majority of left-wingers were ex-Catholics or Catholics (or sometimes Jews) and pretty much the same cultural tradition prevails among younger leftist groups nowadays, the different socialist sects, and even the Greens.

Everywhere you go on the left of Australian society, you encounter Irish names, some still religious Catholics and some not. It was by no means accidental that the Sydney Morning Herald could meticulously analyse, for instance, the then High Court majority that adopted the epoch-making, civilising Mabo decision, in terms of its Catholic ethnicity. (Three practicing, three non-practicing.)

People of Catholic background are still not very much represented across the top echelons of the financial ruling class, and among the business elite, if you go by the record of billionaires published from time to time in Business Review Weekly. However, the descendants of the poverty-striken 19th-century Irish Catholics, who arrived here either in chains or as assisted migrants, at the bottom of the vicious caste system of British-Australia, are now ubiquitous in the middle echelons of Australian society, the public service, teaching, nursing, the law, journalism and broadcasting, dentistry, the medical profession, small business, trade unions and the labour movement.

One of us has even made it to the august position of Her Royal Majesty’s vice-regal representative, as governor general. This very notable Irish Catholic Australian, Sir William Deane, once the NSW president of the DLP, very much a practicing Catholic, has stretched the envelope of his office by deliberately and carefully taking a humane, leftist and progressive public stance on many current questions.

He has done this with such natural poise and grace and with such consumnate lawyer’s political skill and judgment that he has won the hearts of most civilised Australians, and reduced many conservatives to a state of incoherent apoplexy.

The social and cultural impact of the Irish Catholic current in Australian life, including its very large secular, leftist non-religious diaspora, has been generally progressive, and that is still the case as the cultural alliance between the Irish Catholics, the secular proletariat, and some progressive sections of the Anglo middle class has widened to include other groups, ie, indigenous Australasians and migrants, both European and non-European.

Any real politics of progressive change in Australia has to start from a determined strategy of broadening this kind of alliance to maximise its inclusiveness. Speaking as someone who has come mainly out of the Irish Catholic cultural environment, as a young man out of its religious wing, and later in life, after the loss of religious beliefs, in its secular non-religious leftist diaspora, I take considerable pride in its contribution to Australian society.

In my view, anyone with an even partial claim to the Irish Catholic cultural tradition should proclaim and celebrate it proudly, with a sharply critical eye as to its defects, but with substantial pride in its achievements.