Monthly Archives: June 2016

67. Ireland, Empire and Irish-Australians

From the beginning of the War, Australia’s involvement was seen through the lens of the British Empire. The British cause was just; the political, economic, social and cultural links between Australia and the Mother Country were seamless; and it lay in Australia’s strategic interest to defend the Empire. Yet, historically, this ‘defence of the Empire’ rationale would not have sat comfortably with the significant Irish-Australian minority, precisely because the Empire was seen as the source of Ireland’s problems. For the Irish-Australians there needed to be a circuit breaker that would enable them to embrace the Empire. It came in the form of Home Rule: the promise of political autonomy for an Ireland that, with its own Irish Parliament, would continue to function within the Empire.

Notwithstanding several hundred years of occupation, dispossession and persecution, political relations between Irish nationalists and Great Britain at the outbreak of WW1 were, apparently, positive. There was general agreement that the promise of Home Rule and the political influence of the Irish Nationalists in the British Parliament had shifted the balance of power in Ireland’s favour. Indeed, the general level of trust and mutual dependence were strong enough for Ireland to support Great Britain and the Empire in the war against Germany. In the first 12 months of WW1, 80,000 Irish volunteered, with equal numbers coming from Ulster and nationalist Ireland. In all, approximately 140,000 men enlisted in Ireland during the War. Added to this number were the thousands of Irish men already serving in the British army before the War began. The total number of Irish soldiers in the British army is disputed but it appears to have been approximately 200,000. (1)

Redmond, the leader of the Nationalist Party, and the person likely to become the first Prime Minister of the new Irish Parliament under Home Rule, actively campaigned for Irish recruits to join the British army. Incredibly, in September (25/9/14), the English PM, Asquith, addressed a recruiting meeting in Dublin itself. Speaking at the same meeting, Redmond was quoted as declaring:

Having been conceded autonomy, Ireland was in honour bound to take her place with the other autonomous portions of the Empire. He said to the people of England, “You kept faith with Ireland. Ireland will keep faith with you.”

Germany had become the common enemy, and the defeat of Germany the political priority. Ireland had to join the fight against the tyranny of Germany. As Asquith put it at the same meeting:

How could Ireland, hearing the cry of smaller nations, delay to help them in their struggle for freedom?

All this was reflected in Australia, right down to the local level – in this case the Shire of Alberton. Indeed, the 2 quotes above are taken from an article in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative dated 30/9/14 and headed, Mr Asquith In Dublin. Appeal To Irishmen.

However, not all nationalists in Ireland were prepared to support Redmond’s call for Irish volunteers to join the British army. At the end of September 1914, Sinn Fein issued a manifesto repudiating Redmond and his call for volunteers for the British army. The general response to such a call was dismissive. This was the case both in Ireland and in Australia. Again, as an example of how this played out at the local level – the Shire of Alberton, Gippsland – the following letter to the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (30/9/14) was written by the local Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Patrick Sterling, Yarram:

Sir – No importance is to be attached to the cables that have appeared in the press about the Sinn Fein manifesto in Ireland. Sinn Fein means “Ourselves,”  and the Sinn Fein movement was a breaking away by hot young bloods from the slow constitutional methods of the Irish Parliamentary Party. It was simply a toy revolution and was killed by ridicule. The Sinn Feiners cooly ignored British rule in Ireland, printing their own postage stamps, establishing their own Courts of Justice, appointing their own magistrates, etc. The boycott of all foreign manufactures was about the only sensible plank in their platform. In their young days (about six years ago) they ran a daily paper, which soon was reduced to a weekly, and this soon died. They ran a candidate for Parliament, but he was ignominiously defeated. At present the Sinn Feiners are a negligible quantity and only capable of making noises. Nationalist Ireland is to a man behind Redmond, and prepared to do and die for the Empire. No one has any need to be alarmed at the manifesto of the Sinn Fein tailors of Tooley street.

It is an incredible letter. As leader – spiritual, and in this particular case also political – of the local Catholic community, Fr Sterling was determined to trivialise and dismiss Sinn Fein, and re-pledge loyalty to the Empire. The fact that he felt the need to make the case, suggests that the local community – both Protestant and Catholic – were very aware that events in Ireland were watched closely in Australia. People knew that such events could influence attitudes and actions on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide in Australia. What happened in Ireland was of more than just passing interest.

But history was to show that Sinn Fein was neither spent nor impotent as a political force. Sinn Fein, in fact, was just one part of a wider, ongoing threat to Irish politics that sat uncomfortably behind the promise of Home Rule and the reassurances of support from Irish nationalists for the British Empire.

It is often argued (2) that in the immediate lead-up to WW1 Britain was distracted from what was unfolding in Europe by the threat of civil war in Ireland. This gives some indication of how significant the Irish problem was in British politics at the time. It also suggests that the spirit of co-operation that emerged very quickly when fighting broke out in early August was based more on conviction than realpolitik. In fact, the reality was that even then the promise of Home Rule was seriously flawed. Everything was to be placed ‘on hold’ for the course of the War. Ulster would almost certainly have to be excluded.  The Conservative Party in the British Parliament was passionately opposed to Home Rule. The Protestants in Ulster had formed a large, organised, trained and armed paramilitary force to oppose Home Rule, an arrangement they characterised as ‘Rome Rule’. Irish Nationalists were busy creating an equivalent force. And, arguably most significantly, the British army in Ireland had made it clear to the Liberal Government in Britain that its support could not be relied on, particularly if there was the chance of military conflict with the Protestant forces in Ulster. Against this background, the calls from Irish nationalists for support for the Empire were always compromised. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the most striking feature of Irish-British politics at the time was the desperation that characterised efforts to avoid armed conflict in Ireland. In terms of this desperation, it is significant that Asquith when addressing the recruiting meeting in Dublin – referred to above – was reported thus:

He did not wish to touch on controversial ground, but there are two things which become unthinkable – first that one section of Irishmen is going to fight another; and second that Great Britain is going to fight either. (Cheers). … The old animosities between us are dead and scattered like autumn leaves.

But at Easter 1916 the dreaded conflict did arise.

The initial Irish response to the Easter Rebellion in Australia was one of shock and outrage. On 5/5/16 the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative published, in detail, Bishop Phelan’s response to the events under the heading, The Disturbance In Ireland.  Views Of The Bishop Of Sale. Phelan was highly critical of those involved. He claimed that they had been duped by German agents. Their actions threatened all the gains that Redmond and his supporters had won. But he concluded that it was also a ‘blessing in disguise’ that the plot had been suppressed in its infancy because the rest of Ireland would now redouble its support for Britain in the War:

… the outrage in Dublin will increase the resolve of the Nationalists, the overwhelming majority of the people, to contribute the last man in support of the flag [Union Jack] now defending the independence of Ireland, as of Australia.

Earlier, the Age (28/4/16) had carried Archbishop Carr’s response. Under the heading “An Outburst Of Madness.”, Carr had similarly claimed that the rebels had been the victims of German intrigue, supported by Irish-American extremists; and that the plot was designed to undermine Redmond’s power as much as it was to defeat the British. He also claimed that … there can be no doubt about the loyalty of the great mass of the Irish people. Carr finished by attacking the rebellion:

From every point of view I regard it as an outburst of madness, an anachronism and a crime.

The Age (28/4/16) also featured a series of telegrams from Irish groups in Australia to Redmond. The sense of condemnation was universal:

New South Wales Home Rule Executive – Sectional pro-German rioting disgusts Home Rulers here. Take heart. Our race is with you and your gallant countrymen at the front.

Celtic Club, Melbourne – Celtic Club views with abhorrence attempts of traitors to destroy good name of Ireland. Be assured of our lasting sympathy in your efforts for Home Rule and empire…

It is clear that at least to Easter 1916, in both Ireland and Australia, there was a shared understanding that Britain’s commitment to Home Rule would be repaid with Irish support for the War effort. This arrangement marked a new high point in Irish-British relations and promised a less contested future. In Australia, it also meant that support for Irish autonomy did not have to mean opposition to the Empire. At least in the first part of WW1, the Irish Question did not have to compromise patriotism. Individual power brokers in the local community, such as Fr Sterling, were determined that this new direction in Irish politics was to be encouraged and protected.

However, in the period immediately after the Easter Rebellion the promised future began to unravel. The tipping point came with the series of executions – 15 in total – of the leaders of the uprising. To some extent the criticism that those supporting Home Rule directed at the rebels encouraged the harsh treatment handed out by the military authorities in Dublin, acting under martial law. Certainly, as we have seen, there was little support for the rebels. Moreover, they had colluded with the enemy.

Very quickly, opinion in Australia turned dramatically and the behaviour of the British army in Ireland became as important as the uprising itself. The following telegram was sent by (Roman Catholic) Archbishop Duhig of Brisbane to the President of the United Irish League of Melbourne. The president had himself sent a cable to Redmond urging clemency for the rebels and it is clear that Archbishop Duhig is of the same opinion. The Archbishop also saw what the longer term consequences were to be. The report was in the Age of 11/5/16 (p.7) under the heading: The Appeal For Clemency

Congratulate you [President, United Irish League of Melbourne] on cable to Redmond urging clemency to Sinn Fein and other rebels. Assure you that Irish Queenslanders who have loyally and generously supported the cause of Empire and its Allies are grievously disappointed and saddened by hasty executions. Imperial Government should know we believe that General Maxwell’s execution policy is ill advised, and calculated to do immense injury to recruiting at a most critical time, and is sure to be used for enemy propaganda purposes. People are already contrasting the wholesale death sentences passed on the Irish revolutionary leaders with the clemency extended to rebels and mutineers elsewhere in the Empire.

In the Age 16/5/16 (p.7), Archbishop Carr of Melbourne – Mannix did not become Archbishop of Melbourne until 1917 – was also reported as deploring the executions. He warned that, once again, the British Government was misreading Irish history. Referring to the … lamentable state of things in Ireland, he stated:

I have not concealed my opinion of the criminal folly of the uprising. It has led, as every friend of Ireland at a distance could see, to a dreadful loss of life and destruction of property. Instead of advancing the cause of Ireland it has, I fear, thrown it back considerably. But while we deplore the act of rebellion and its sad consequences, we feel called on to deprecate the continued executions that are taking place in England and Ireland. There are some who advocate that the utmost severity of the law should be put in force against the captured rebels. They imagine that by this straining of the law the fear of punishment will prevent further insurrection. It is the old cry of vae victis – ‘woe to the vanquished.’ But these advocates of merciless punishment must have misread Irish history. In no other country has punishment been more ruthlessly resorted to, and in no country has it produced more unexpected and undesirable effects.

For Irish-Australians, the British Empire was proving, yet again, to be the oppressor of Ireland. Loyalty to the same Empire from mid 1916 was to become more problematic. Irish-Australian politics moved into a far more nuanced and ambiguous framework. It still had to be possible to support the War against Germany and it certainly had to be possible to support all those thousands of Irish-Australians who had volunteered. Inevitably, such support was increasingly filtered not through the lens of Empire but rather the lens of Australian Nationalism. The shift would open up a highly divisive fault line in Australian society.

As an illustration of this significant shift, consider the following report from the Gippsland Standard and Albertan Shire Representative (28/7/16) which covered the remarks made by Fr P Sterling at the welcome home at Yarram for Trooper William Sweeney. Sweeney, a Roman Catholic, and one of 3 brothers who enlisted, had been one the earliest volunteers. He had been badly wounded at Gallipoli and was repatriated to Australia for a medical discharge. It is questionable to read too much into comments like this made 100 years ago, but at the same time whereas other speakers would typically labour the themes of Empire, Sterling does appear to be deliberately identifying both himself and Sweeney as Australian. The ‘joke ‘ about the Irishman preferring to be shot could also have been a dark aside on the recent executions.

Rev. Father Stirling [sic] said trooper Sweeney had come back as one of the men who had found a new name, symbolic of greatness, the name of Anzac. We often read about the war, and stand dazed, not being able to realise that the men who did such deeds were from our own country. An Englishman, a Scotchman [sic] and an Irishman once met, and the Englishman said he would like to be a Scotchman, the Scotchman said he would like to be an Englishman, giving their reasons, but the Irishman said if he could not be an Irishman he would like to be shot. (Laughter). He (the speaker) happened to be an Irishman [Sterling was born at Nenagh, Co. Tipperary], and if not he would rather be an Australian. (Applause). Trooper Sweeney had returned practically a wreck. It is up to the people of Australia to see that the returned soldiers do not go in need. (Applause).



(1) For an overview of Irish enlistment numbers see Irish Soldiers in the First World War( Somme), Department of the Taoiseach

(2) See for example:

Hochschild, A 2011, To End All Wars: A Story Of Protest And Patriotism In The First World War, Pan Books, London. Chapter 6, On The Eve

J Connor, P Stanley, P Yule, 2015, The War At Home: Vol 4 The Centenary History of Australia And The Great War, Oxford University Press, Melbourne. Chapter 11, The Outbreak Of War And The 1914 Election.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire representative


Of current interest:

State Library Victoria:

The Irish Rising: ‘A terrible beauty is born’  17 March to 31 July 2016

Honest History:

‘Across the sea to Ireland: Australians and the Easter Rising 1916 – highlights reel’