Category Archives: The Irish Question

154. The start of the 1918 school year and yet more division

This post continues to explore themes raised in earlier posts, particularly Post 84 and Post 68.

At the start of 1918 there were 2 very significant developments in the provision of schooling in the local community. At the Yarram State School, higher primary grades commenced and, nearby, the new Catholic primary school – St Mary’s – was opened.

The local community had been calling for a higher primary top to the local state primary school – even a separate high school – for several years. Just days after the outbreak of War, the Director of Education (F Tate) visited Yarram (10/8/14) at the invitation of the local school board to consider the provision of higher primary/higher elementary schooling. The basic agreement reached was that continuing classes – to Intermediate level – could be set up in (new) buildings on the existing primary school site, with the local community agreeing to contribute an amount of £350. In theory, the money was to be raised by the local council setting a special levy. But then the reality of the War intervened.

By late 1917, the push for the higher elementary school picked up again after the Victorian Government set aside funds (£2,000) for a higher elementary school in Yarram. Again, the local community was expected to contribute financially. The amount was now £400, over 4 years. This time the money was to be raised by subscriptions, not a special levy via the council. Tate visited Yarram again in January 1918 and by the end of February, 60 students were enrolled. Initially they were accommodated in existing buildings on the site but new buildings, specifically for the higher primary years, were planned in mid 1918 and officially opened in April 1919.

The provision of higher primary or higher elementary schooling was very significant. Students could now pursue formal education beyond the primary level, without having to leave the district. Other neighbouring towns – Sale, Warragul and Leongatha – had already established equivalent, and in some case even more impressive, post primary schooling. The establishment of the higher primary school – on the grounds of the Yarram Primary School – was proof of civic worth and status. When Tate had first visited in August 1914, he was reported – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 12/8/14 – as stating that he believed that Yarram warranted the higher primary school and that the community could well afford it. He had observed the … substantial appearance of Yarram with its fine hotels and other buildings.

The overall success of the initiative was qualified in one critical way. At the speech night at the end of 1918 – reported in the local paper on 24/12/18 – there was an urgent appeal for a ‘hostel’ to be set up in Yarram to accommodate students from ‘outside parts’ over the school week – Monday to Friday. Such a facility had been established at Leongatha and it was recognised that an equivalent boarding facility was required in Yarram if students from other townships and settlements in the Shire were to be able to take advantage of the improved schooling. In the same speech, it was noted that while there were 42 students from Yarram attending the new higher primary school, there was only an individual student – or in a few cases 2 or 3 students – coming from Balook (3), Wonyip (2), West Alberton (3), Jack River (1), North Devon (1), Womerah (1), Tarraville (1), Lower Bulga (2) and Welshpool (2). Clearly, the benefits of higher primary schooling were largely restricted to those living in Yarram. Families with sufficient finances who were keen for their children to have a complete secondary education – generally with a view to pursuing a degree at Melbourne University – had traditionally sent their children to a boarding school (college) in one of the larger rural towns – e.g., Geelong (Geelong Grammar School), Ballarat (St. Patrick’s College) – or Melbourne. This pattern continued after the extension of primary schooling at Yarram.

The opening of the Catholic primary school – St. Mary’s – for the start of the 1918 school year was a very pressured business. The building had only just been completed and the accommodation for the Sisters of St Joseph – the teaching order to run the school – was only finalised in the week leading up to the opening. The frantic pace was captured in an editorial in the local paper – 1/2/18 – which also praised the determination of Bishop Phelan:

The Catholic community in this district has accomplished a great deal. They built and opened a large brick church – an ornament to the town – built a school, and have now purchased Mr. Brennan’s property for the comfortable housing of the teaching nuns. When Bishop Phelan gets to work things move apace.

Phelan had made it clear to the Catholic community that he expected a Catholic primary school to be established and that it was to serve not just Yarram but the surrounding district, with students, initially at least, boarding at the convent. But Phelan had also made it clear that the school had to come after the new church had been built and after suitable accommodation had been arranged for the nuns. The church, the convent and the school were all to stand as proof of the strength and social status of the local Catholic community in the district.

Interestingly, much was made of the new teaching order of nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph. From the late 19 C, a French order of nuns – Sisters of Our lady of Sion – at the invitation of Bishop Corbett, had been operating schools in Gippsland – at Sale, Bairnsdale and Warragul. But for the new school at Yarram, Bishop Phelan had been successful in securing ‘local’ nuns. The following appeared in the local paper on 6/2/18. The claim of Scottish ancestry was, presumably, for the benefit of the large Scottish demographic:

With regard to this particular order of teaching sisters, the branch now established at Yarram is purely Australian. The Mother Foundress of this Order, Mother Mary McKillop, is of Scotch descent, and was born in Brunswick St., Fitzroy. So that the sisters of the Oder which she established are for the most part Australians. They have houses, schools, orphanages from West Australia to New Zealand.

Both these significant developments in the provision of local education took place at the start of the fifth year of the War and, as been argued in previous posts, at a time when, in theory, all fundraising was focused on the War effort. The issue is whether either or both of these initiatives attracted any criticism.

In the case of the local state school there was certainly no criticism. The commitment to establish a higher primary top to the primary school at Yarram had been there well before the War. The community had always been strongly behind the proposal. The Victorian Government had placed the proposal on hold because of the War and the local community had, patriotically, accepted this decision. But now, at the start of 1918, the Government had found funds for the proposal to proceed, accepting that the local community also contributed. Further, the local committee appointed to secure the £400 of local contribution was heavily representative of local Imperial Loyalists. Three members of the small committee stood out: A J Rossiter, the editor of the local paper; Rev C J Walklate, the local Methodist clergyman; and A E Paige, the head teacher of the Yarram SS. These 3 high profile figures would have provided an effective ‘guarantee’ of the appropriateness of the fundraising. Additionally, many of the most generous contributors to the public subscription – names were published in the local paper – were also high profile Imperial Loyalists. The lists included people like B P Johnson (£5), T G McKenzie (£10) and Dr Rutter (£10). Importantly, the change from a Shire-imposed rate increase to a voluntary subscription must have also reduced the potential for conflict. Additionally, the change avoided conflict with the Catholic community who could have argued that they were being forced to contribute, through increased rates, to a school system that they would not use, or even – from the perspective of Catholic faith – could not use. The Catholic Church already argued, on the broader scale, that this was the case with State taxation to support state schools. It appears that subscriptions to raise the £400 came overwhelmingly from Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians. The records, published in the local paper, are incomplete but it appears that Catholics were under-represented, notwithstanding a large contribution (£5) from Michael O’Callaghan, a Catholic grazier from Jack River.

Overall, there was very strong support for the higher primary schooling at Yarram SS and there was no evidence of any opposition to the fundraising associated with it. The situation in relation to the new Catholic primary school at Yarram was a more complex affair.

Ironically, there was an immediate and very significant positive associated with the opening of the Catholic primary school. The forty or so enrolments in the new school reduced the numbers at the state primary school and this meant that the new higher primary students could be accommodated in the existing facilities at the school. The need to build new classrooms was not immediately pressing.

However, such an immediate benefit hardly compensated for the major fault line which was revealed by the opening of the Catholic primary school.

On the surface at least, there did not appear to be any overt hostility directed at the fundraising associated with the new Catholic school. No one appears to have used the local paper to attack these particular fundraising efforts. Indeed, as noted, editorials at the time were complimentary of the Catholics’ efforts. However, there must have been un-reported opposition to the Catholics’ church and school building projects over the course of the War. Bishop Phelan himself made this point, explicitly, in a talk he gave on the visit of the Apostolic Delegate to Sale in April 1918. His address was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 26/4/18. Talking about all the difficulties he had faced in his ambitious building program post March 1915, Phelan noted:

But the greatest difficulty experienced was the wall of prejudice raised by narrow-minded people who endeavored to howl down every movement for raising funds except for Red Cross or Imperial purposes. But the stirling Catholics of Gippsland, like their fighting brothers at the front, did their duty towards all the demands of the Empire, and broke through every barrier that prejudice and bigotry would raise between them and their own field of labour.

He specifically cited the school at Yarram in the same speech; and he used the same emotion-charged language:

Already two convents and two schools, Leongatha and Yarram, have been added to our brave army fighting the battle of Catholic education.

But if fundraising for the Catholic primary school was not a major public concern at the time, there was still considerable controversy associated with its opening.

The new school – with the exception of a brief interlude for an earlier version of St Mary’s primary school, Yarram (1885-1890) – marked the first time that the Catholic community of the Shire of Alberton had withdrawn their children from the local state school(s). Effectively, all the young, local Catholic men who enlisted from 1914 had been educated at the local state school(s). Even though their family background, for the most part, was Irish-Australian, they had been schooled, via the state system, in absolute loyalty to Britain and the Empire. Now, in the fifth year of the War, and with 2 failed referenda on conscription – with much of the ‘blame’ for the failure sheeted home to Catholics – the local Catholics were withdrawing from the state school.

The significance of the opening of the school at that point – the start of 1918 – also needs to be seen in the context of the continuing conflict between Catholic and Protestant over the issue of scripture lessons in state schools. The conflict over scripture ‘readings’ or ‘lessons’ was a constant and while it might seem by our standards, 100 years on, as minor and even trivial, it went to the core of the Protestant – Catholic divide. It was a passionate debate, for while the Protestants argued that any form of state aid to support the independent Catholic sector would be in complete breach of the principles of the ’Free’, ‘Compulsory’ and ‘Secular’ education acts of the 1870s – and only further entrench the Catholic tendency to separation and exclusivity – the Catholic Church argued that any ‘non-dogmatic’ scripture lessons, taught by ‘non-sectarian’ mainstream teachers was nothing but a brazen attempt to incorporate Protestantism in the state school systems and would therefore also be in breach of the same principles. The politics of the day meant that neither side could prevail; but each could antagonise and frustrate the other.

The conflict over scripture lessons was hardly new. For example, for an insight on the complexity and centrality of the issue, consider this account of the 1913 debate – Catholic Educational Claims – held in Melbourne where the proposition was – That the Roman Catholic claims for financial aid from the State treasury toward their denominational schools are not just, and would be destructive of our State system. Speaking for the proposition was Rev J Nicholson, spokesperson for the Scripture Campaign Council, the body representing the Protestant Churches pushing for scripture lessons in state schools. Speaking for the negative was Thomas C Brennan of the recently formed Australian Catholic Federation. The debate was in front of an audience of approximately 1,000 people and while the proceedings were civil it certainly exposed the stark differences between Catholic and Protestant at the time.

The division over the push for scripture lessons in state schools – there were attempts to have referenda on the issue put to the Victorian people – was certainly evident in the Shire of Alberton. In fact, the issue was raised, very publicly, in the lead-up to the opening of the Catholic primary school. In mid September 1917, Bishop Phelan gave a sermon in Yarram. It was reported, in detail, in the local paper on 12/9/17. In brief, Phelan instructed his congregation that in the upcoming state elections they could not vote for any candidate who supported the call for a referendum on the introduction of the scripture lessons in state schools. He saw this referendum as an attempt by the Protestant majority to … crush the Catholic minority.

Phelan must have provided a copy of his sermon to the editor of the local paper because the reporting of the sermon is so detailed. There is an entire section on the Virgin Mary. Citing Luke’s Gospel, Phelan went into great detail outlining the centrality of Mary to Catholic faith, teaching and veneration. The intention behind this specific focus on Mary was to highlight the chasm, between Catholic and Protestant, on the issue of ‘Bible reading’. Phelan pointed out that, irrespective of what the Bible said, Catholic teaching on the role of Mary, and devotion to her, were both anathema to Protestants. He reminded his congregation that up to the very recent past, British monarchs had had to … declare before receiving the crown that “the adoration of the Virgin Mary and the sacrifice of the Mass, as they were used in the Church of Rome are superstitious and idolatrous” . Prior to the Accession Declaration Act of 1910 – in time for the coronation of George V – the wording of the new monarch’s ’declaration’ had been, in part:

… I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper there is not any Transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever: and that the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other Saint, and the Sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous.

The declaration also denied the authority of the Pope.

In the face of such diametrically opposed positions – based in large part on Bible reading – Phelan argued that the idea of a ‘non-sectarian’ lesson of Bible reading – conducted by mainstream teachers in state schools – was a myth. For him, the idea of a ’non-dogmatic’ Christian faith was a nonsense. For him, there could never be, as it were, a ‘generic’ Christianity. For the Catholic, the Bible was to be read and interpreted through a person’s faith, which itself had been formed by the teaching of the Church. But from the time of the Reformation, Protestantism had had a very different take on the relationship between the Bible and the individual. The Catholic Church saw the bible lessons in state schools, within the promise of ‘non-dogmatic’ and ‘non-sectarian’ scripture readings, as a thinly disguised attempt to proselytise in the name of Protestantism. It would never accept it.

It would be a mistake to see this particular dispute merely in terms of differences in religious dogma between Catholic and Protestant. Other references in Phelan’s sermon that day show how the tension of the difficult history between England and Ireland was ever present. It coloured everything. Speaking of the efforts of the Irish in England from mid 19C to fight for their faith and the provision of Catholic schooling, Phelan made this extended reference:

The men and women who fought for Christian education in the land of the Saxon were the sons and daughters of Ireland driven from the home of their fathers in the middle of last century by a trinity of evils, the awful visitation of Providence, the famine of ’47, the worst landlord system that ever cursed a nation, and a Government whose policy at that crisis can only be described as diabolical. When Lord John Russell was asked for ships to bring food across the Irish Channel to a starving nation he peremptorily refused, declaring that “such a use of Her Majesty’s navy would interfere with the legitimate freights of the shipping industry of Great Britain.” And the London “Times” spoke enthusiastically of the good time coming when “a Catholic would be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as a red Indian on the banks of the Manhattan.”

The not very subtle sub-text was that the persecution of Irish Catholics at the hands of English Protestants was both historical and ongoing.

Not surprisingly, Phelan’s sermon prompted a vigorous response. The first letter appeared one week later (19/9/17). It was from Joseph Nicholson, Superintendent of the Scripture Campaign, the body driving the push for a referendum on the issue of bible reading in state schools. Nicholson was arguably the most high profile advocate for the cause. He had appeared in the 1913 public debate referred to above. Nicholson argued that it was possible to have (scriptural) lessons of ‘absolutely unsectarian character’. He emphasised what he saw as the Catholic Church’s reluctance to have its followers read the Bible:

It is no doubt difficult for a non-Romanist to understand the fears of the Roman Catholic clergy concerning the effect of Bible reading by their people.

Further, he insisted, even if the Catholic clergy were that terrified about their members reading the Bible – by themselves – the lessons in the state school were not to be compulsory:

While we do not share the fears of the Roman Catholic clergy concerning the disasters that are likely to follow from Scripture reading, yet, in our scrupulous desire to protect Roman Catholic children from what they disapprove, we insist on their absolute freedom from Scripture lessons, and make provision for secular studies instead.

This letter was followed by one from Father Stirling which was published on 21/9/17. Stirling made claims about the misrepresentation of the Catholic position but overall his letter read more like an attempt to defuse the situation. This letter was responded to, again by Rev Nichoslosn, who dismissed Fr Sterling’s ‘feeble comments’. The letter was published on 26/9/17. There were more claims of misrepresentation amid pointed claims that … this infallible church is not uniform in its teachings. Nicholson argued that the arrangements for ‘non-sectarian’ bible reading lessons in Victorian state schools for which the Scripture Campaign was advocating, were in place in other education jurisdictions, both in Australia (NSW) and overseas. Nicholson chose to represent the dispute in terms of the rights and responsibilities of the 2 parties, one the minority and the other the majority. As he saw it, the Catholic minority was at fault:

The Roman Catholic opposition to “unsectarian” Scripture lessons is … intensely selfish in seeking to interfere with the Protestant majority that is tenderly considerate of the Romanist minority. We give them safeguarded liberty, but refuse Romanist domination of Protestant liberties.

This particular iteration of the struggle over the teaching of ‘non-sectarian’ or ‘unsectarian’ or ‘non-dogmatic’ scripture lessons disappeared from the local paper by the start of October 1918. However, as we will see, the issue itself certainly did not disappear. Throughout 1918, Catholics continued to block this Protestant proposal. For their part, the Protestants maintained their absolute rejection of any ‘state-aid’ for Catholic schools.

Leaving aside the symbolism of the local Catholic community establishing its own primary school and withdrawing its children from the local state school, at the very time Imperial Loyalists were calling for a single, united and focused War effort – and also at the very time that the community as a whole was trying to extend the range of post-primary state schooling throughout the district – it is clear that Bishop Phelan’s unrelenting focus on Catholic education during WW1 served to heighten division within the broader community. Effectively, he forced the Catholic community in Gippsland as a whole, and not just in the Shire of Alberton, to assert their separate identity and status through education. The problem was that this identity was overlaid with so many religious, cultural, social and political associations that the loyalty of this minority, at that particular time of National crisis, would inevitably be called into question by the Protestant majority. As much as locals wanted to downplay or ignore the division, it was always there. Equally, while their opposition to conscription is routinely presented as the distinctive behaviour of the Catholic minority in WW1, it is clear that considerably more than this single issue was at play. Indeed, as an immediate example of just how complex the issues were, Thomas Brennan – referred to above as the key Catholic spokesperson in the 1913 education debate and also the first president of the Australian Catholic Federation – supported conscription and was an outspoken critic of Mannix on the issue. Bishop Phelan was said to be neutral on the same issue. In short, the Catholic question went well beyond the issue of conscription.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Synan, T 2003, A Journey in Faith: A History of Catholic Education in Gippsland 1850-1981, David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne

Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria

150. The second conscription referendum (Dec 20, 1917)

In its Christmas Day edition (Tuesday 25/12/17), the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative featured only limited coverage of the second conscription referendum, held just a few days earlier on Thursday 20/12/17. It limited the coverage to a breakdown of the vote and a short, local anecdote.

The voting returns, to that point, showed that whereas the No vote had succeeded in Victoria, the Yes vote in the Yarram poll had come in at 67% which was essentially the figure achieved in the first referendum. Both the Shire of Alberton, and Gippsland, retained their status as amongst the strongest supporters of conscription. The anecdote that the paper made a point of including was clearly intended to stand as an editorial comment on the failure of the referendum:

An incident worthy of notice occurred at the Yarram polling booth on Thursday. A lady voter, Mrs. Hamilton, second eldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Bland, was borne in on a stretcher, having only a few days previously undergone an operation for appendicitis. It will be remembered that Mrs. Hamilton lost her husband at Gallipoli, and with true Anzac spirit, at all events was determined to have revenge in an effort to send “more men.’” Unfortunately the Commonwealth has decided that our boys at the front shall not be relieved.

Essentially, the anecdote was intended to serve as a lesson in moral failure. Once again, beyond all expectation, understanding and exhortation, the Australian Nation had suffered a moral failure.

For the local Imperial Loyalists, the conviction that there was a lack of moral integrity abroad had been expressed regularly in the months leading to the second referendum. The constant claim was that people refused to accept their obligations in terms of the War effort. Three years of War had compromised their sense of responsibility and their inherent selfishness had come to the fore. At a poorly attended welcome home for a soldier (F J Card) in late September 1917, B P Johnson was reported – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 3/101/7 – as stating:

The war had been on three years and some people had got tired of saying good-bye, or wish (sic) a welcome to the men returning or to say “thank you, old chap.” It showed a tremendous want of feeling or thought. It seemed to be the same all over Australia. They heard people say Australia had done enough. The 320,000 gone had made a name throughout the world. Those men deserved credit. Other men would not go, nor even give those returning a shake of the hand. He felt very strongly about it. They did not realise the protection they had from the British Empire, and did not care how the boys felt.

While the vote in the Shire of Alberton in the 2 referenda was substantially the same, the second referendum was characterised by a far more visible level of division and antagonism within the community. Such discord was set to worsen in 1918. Its most obvious manifestation would take the form of increasingly bitter sectarianism.

Anti-conscription meetings

Reports in the local press indicate that there were 3 public anti-conscription meetings in the shire in the lead up to the referendum. The first of these was held in Port Albert, on the reserve, in the afternoon of Sunday 2/12/17. The key speaker was Mr McGowan, an ALP candidate for St Kilda in the recent state election. Substantially, this meeting was similar to the single anti-conscription meeting held during the first referendum (Post 91): the speaker was someone from outside the local district, there was no indication that any locals were involved in running or even setting up the meeting, and the reception was overtly hostile.

There were about 100 present at the meeting and they had come to disrupt it. The report in the local paper (5/12/17) noted:

In anticipation of some fun, a number of visitors went to Port Albert on Sunday afternoon, to hear Messrs McGowan and Taylor, billed to speak on the reserve on Anti-Conscription. Mr. McGowan was heckled from first to last.

That afternoon, over the abuse and hectoring, McGowan attempted to argue that the Government could not be trusted on the issue of the number of reinforcements required. He maintained the Government was not able to give an accurate number of how many ‘eligible’ men there were nor how many reinforcements were required. Further, it had given conflicting figures. McGowan cited his version of the numbers to prove that compared to others – Canada and the US – Australia had done more than its share. McGowan also pressed the issue of the lack of support for returned soldiers. He told the crowd that invalided soldiers’ pensions were being reduced, those returning could not find work, and their dependents were facing hardship. McGowan actually proposed a collection for returned soldiers but the crowd voted it down.

The next night (3/12/17) McGowan spoke in the Mechanics’ Hall in Yarram. It was a full house.  In the previous week, he had spoken at both Wonthaggi and Leongatha. The report in the press indicated that McGowan received a better hearing at this meeting but there was no indication at all of any support for his position.

McGowan was critical of the wording of the referendum – Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Australian Imperial Force overseas? – as manifestly biased in favour the Yes vote. He argued that some Nationalists – William Irvine was the most prominent – were directly advocating the introduction of conscription by legislation and Hughes’ pledge to introduce it only through a referendum was therefore compromised. He also claimed that the vote of married men had been bought at the expense of young, single men who did not even have the vote. He accused the Hughes Government of using wild claims about the IWW and Sinn Fein to create division in society.

At the meeting, McGowan shared the stage with 3 returned soldiers. The advertisement for the meeting had declared that these men would present … the views of the Returned Soldiers’ Anti-Conscription League of Australia. The criticism of the men was that the Government had not looked after the men who returned from the War either wounded, suffering from illness or medically disabled in some way. It was a critical issue. More and more men were returning home and, while welcomed as heroes, they faced all manner of problems. Moreover, the casualty rates were increasing. The second half of 1917 had been a disaster for the AIF and the level of casualties from September had been one of the very reasons Hughes had decided on the referendum. However, the clear implication was that the Government had not provided adequate care and support for those men returning and therefore had no moral right to compulsorily send even more. McGowan’s claim that Australia must do much more for her returned men and their dependents was met with applause.

J R Boucher, one the soldiers present, claimed:

In this country the returned men were promised this and that; brass bands played – but not for them. He referred to a returned soldier, named Divett, whose pension, he said, had been reduced to 15/- a week – a man pronounced by the doctors to be incurable.

One of the other soldiers there introduced the issues of class and wealth:

Returned soldier W Taylor stated he was a committeeman of the Returned Soldiers’ “No” Conscription League, 1500 strong, and every man of them has heard shots fired. He contended that while soldiers offered their lives, wealth should lend money free of interest instead of pocketing 4 1/2 per cent.

McGowan and the soldiers also argued that the unions were not disloyal, working people’s conditions and wages had been reduced and, following the Great Strike, unionists had been persecuted and discriminated against. All this while the promises of jobs for the returning men were not being honoured.

The report of the meeting in the paper makes it clear that the soldiers on the stage were challenged and hectored and the fact that none of them were local returned men would not have helped their cause. However, the issue of repatriation was a key one and, as already noted – Post 148 – it was already creating tension in the local community. There was real concern over the issue. Indeed, at the meeting that night a collection for returned men in need was organised on the spot, and it raised £6.

The meeting at Yarram would have been a difficult one for McGowan and the returned men, but at least they got a hearing. As mentioned, McGowan had spoken the previous week at Wonthaggi, a mining town. His reception there had been very different from the one at Yarram. According to the report in the local paper at Wonthaggi – Powlett Express and Victorian State Coalfields Advertiser, 30/11/17 – the meeting was a clear success for McGowan, and at the end of the meeting the following motion was passed unanimously:

That we the citizens of Wonthaggi will endeavour to do all that lays in our power to secure a No vote on December 20 .

The report also notes that McGowan again stressed the lack of Government support for returned men. Given the more like-minded audience he also made more of the threat conscription posed to Australian unionism and the conditions and employment of Australian workers generally. He also argued that in the UK where the union movement had actively supported the government, working conditions had declined. He pushed the claim that conscription, by its very nature, was an attack on the working class and the union movement.

There was a third anti-conscription meeting held on Tuesday 11/12/17. It was reported, briefly, in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on Friday 14/12/17. This particular meeting was originally scheduled for the day before (Monday 10/12/17) and a large crowd turned up but there were no speakers and no indication of what had happened to them and why the meeting did not proceed. Once again, there was no mention of local people involved in the planning of the meeting. It was, apparently, a completely ‘outside’ affair. The crowd broke up with no one knowing what was going on. The paper (14/12/17) even suggested that the cancellation that night and the rescheduling the next day were part of a ploy to keep the Yes people away, particularly those from Alberton and Port Albert. The disruption of meetings, on both sides, was certainly commonplace. Indeed the same edition of the local paper reported on how local men were even going to Melbourne to break up meetings:

Returned soldiers in the metropolitan area, on the affirmative side, have adopted tactics to break up “anti” meetings. They speak for a while as “No” men, and receive the applause of the audience, but when they make known their true views the air is rent with boo-hoos, and the order of the meeting is gone. Sergeant Newland, of Yarram, was one of these speakers at St. Kilda the other evening, gained his purpose in creating disorder, and was lost in the crowd outside.

The third Yarram anti-conscription meeting did go ahead the next night. It was held in Thompson’s Hall and did not finish until 11.00 pm. Once again, there was a large crowd. The key speaker was Mr Guido Barrachi. The chair was occupied by another returned soldier but, again, he was not a local. Apologies were given for the cancellation of the meeting the day before. Bad roads were given as the reason.

As indicated there was little detail in the local press about the second Yarram meeting. However we do know something about Barrachi and we also know that earlier that day Barrachi and another key anti-conscriptionist, the Rev Frederick Sinclair, had addressed a meeting at Mirboo North. That particular meeting was a very rowdy affair and … at times it looked as if serious trouble would brew. (The Argus, 12/12/17). Part of the problem at Mirboo North was the statement by Sinclair that he wanted to talk to the young people, not the ‘bald headed’ ones.

Both Rev Sinclair and Guido Barrachi were avowed socialists. Not long before he appeared in Yarram, Barrachi had given a lecture on ’Socialism as an Economic System’ as part of a series of free public lectures chaired by Archbishop Mannix. Barrachi was a law student from Melbourne University. He was very involved in the anti-conscription movement and appeared at many meetings. For example, in the week after his appearances in Gippsland he was in Geelong where he appeared at street corner meetings with Vida Goldstein. Baracchi would eventually be prosecuted under the War Precautions Act – both Sinclair and McGowan were also prosecuted – and imprisoned for 3 months.

There was no report on the detail of what was said at the meeting in Yarram, but Barrachi’s opposition to conscription, from a socialist perspective, would have been, arguably, the most strident anti-War sentiment the people of Yarram ever heard. As an example of his position, in July 1917 he had clashed with the board of Melbourne University for publishing the following in the university’s student publication:

The war, whatever the jingoes and junkers may tell us, is not primarily our affair. Essentially it is a European war, fought by the Allies against Germany to maintain the balance of European power. And Australia is not Europe. This is the true explanation of our recruiting figures; the exact index of the nation’s war interest. Nevertheless, through a connection with the British Empire, on the whole rather tragic, the Commonwealth is deeply involved in the European cataclysm, and the event is for us, and for the rest of the world, well nigh as significant as the fall of Lucifer. (Labor Call, 19/7/17)

Pro-conscription meetings

There were 2 major pro-conscriptions meetings in Yarram in the lead up to the referendum. Both were reported extensively in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. The first was held on Saturday 7/12/17 in the Shire Hall and reported on 12/12/17. The second was held on Thursday 13/12/17 and reported on 19/12/17. Both meetings were advertised in advance, attracted large, supportive audiences, involved outside speakers as well as prominent local backers of conscription and both passed, overwhelmingly, resolutions in favour of the Yes vote.

The first meeting was chaired by the Shire President – Cr McGalliard – and proceedings opened with the National Anthem, “God Bless Our Splendid Men”, “Rule Britannia” and ‘other patriotic airs’. At the end of the meeting the following resolution was passed:

That we, the citizens of Yarram and district, express our determination to wholeheartedly support the Government in adequately reinforcing the men at the front, and to that end pledge ourselves to work for a huge “Yes’ majority.

In opening the meeting, the Shire President praised Hughes for honouring his commitment not to introduce conscription without a referendum. He also noted that Australia was the only place where conscription had not simply been legislated for, as many wished. However, he continued, the stakes were much higher now than in 1916. Critically, Russia had effectively left the War. The threat from Germany was greater than ever. McGalliard also warned that if the referendum was defeated, Hughes, to honour his pledge, would resign and the nation would be thrown into chaos. Finally, he appealed to the Catholic voters. Italy and Belgium, 2 of the strongest Catholic countries in Europe, were fighting with the allies. People had to put the issue of sectarianism aside and face the greater threat of Germany.

Cr. Embling (Herbert Arthur Embling, Mayor of Prahran) as the invited speaker, took the high moral ground, reminding everyone that Australia had pledged support to the last man and last shilling. Further, the setbacks in Europe – Russia was out of the War and Italy had been badly set back – justified conscription. Without reinforcements the Australian divisions would continue to reduce in number. The UK had stood by Australia, even buying the wool and wheat it had no hope of transporting back to England. It proved the UK stood by Australia. There was also praise for the UK unions and workers who were totally behind their government.

B P Johnson, in introducing the motion of support for conscription, spent time attacking the claims made by McGowan at the earlier anti-conscription meeting. He also claimed that the local returned soldiers would not support the claims made at that meeting by the soldiers on the platform with McGowan. Johnson was keen to remind everyone of the last referendum:

Yarram gave a magnificent “Yes” vote at the last referendum, and it was to be hoped that a bigger majority would be given this time. (Applause)

Rev Cyril John Walklate began by detailing his own unsuccessful attempts to enlist. He declared that he would never hide behind either his marriage or his calling as a clergyman. He recounted how he had only recently been rejected on medical grounds. Further, in a barely disguised attack on Fr Sterling, he claimed that if he had been able to enlist as a chaplain he would have insisted on serving the men in the front line and not by taking the role of chaplain on a troopship. This public attempt to belittle Fr Sterling’s efforts as a chaplain was to continue through at least 1918.

Walklate disputed all the figures that the antis had cited in their claims that Australia had done enough. In his mind, the arguments about numbers and ‘share’ was a false one. The real issue was loyalty to the Empire. What he wanted was equality of sacrifice from families, not colonies. Given his audience, he had no compunction in stating that not only had conscription been introduced in the UK but .. the labor of the working man had also been conscripted as well (Applause). His claim – ironically, one of the key fears of the Australian labour movement – was in line with the overall argument about shared sacrifice.

Walklate tended to make the most extreme claims in these public meetings. He made a range of claims about Germans, including that … the children were fed scientifically on raw meat. Further, if … a woman happened to get in front of a military officer in Germany she was thrown aside, and should her husband interfere he would be slashed with the sword.

Walklate also referred to the recent death of his brother at the front: Captain Harold Vernon Walklate, 14 B kia 22/10/17.

Finally, as reported, Rev Walklate gave a somewhat convoluted reason to explain why so many soldiers had voted no in the 1916 referendum.

At the last referendum tens of thousands of soldiers voted no because they had never seen the firing line.

The general consensus amongst historians is that in 1916 the troops in training in the UK and on the troopships tended to vote Yes, precisely because they had not experienced the western front.

It was also somewhat odd that Walklate laboured the number of desertions from the AIF – principally in Australia, prior to embarkation – at the meeting. He was trying to argue that the figure of total enlistments used by those opposing conscription, had to be adjusted to take into account the 67,000 men who had deserted. While this made some sense from a statistical perspective, the audience could hardly have warmed to such a claim. Certainly, it did not fit with the popular image of the AIF.

The second Yes meeting saw many of the same claims repeated. G H Wise, the local federal member and the guest speaker, again hailed Hughes as an honourable person who had determined to keep his word and not introduce conscription without a referendum. This was despite all those, including some in Hughes’ government, who argued that the Government should use its numbers and legislate for conscription. But where Hughes was honourable, Wise claimed that those opposing him were not. They were insincere and blindly following the (ALP) party line:

He knew from his own knowledge that those men’s speeches are not sincere, and that they are only spoken from order and not from the heart. (Applause.)

Wise also stressed that the current situation was dire, far worse than in 1916: The position is blacker today than it has been since the war started. He noted that Russia was effectively out of the War, Italy was struggling and … Roumania is down and out.

In a stretch of logic, Wise argued that the reinforcements were not required because of the casualty levels but to give the men at the front a rest.

Again there was the contrast to the labour movement in the UK. In Britain labour stood behind the Government but in Australia the ALP … are the only ones not standing behind their Government. And there was the rhetorical question on what would happen if the referendum was lost and Hughes, to honour his word, resigned. He warned of the chaos to follow.

The first local speaker that night was W G Pope. He presented the motion to be put to the meeting:

That this meeting of the citizens of Yarram and district pledges itself to support the Government in this national crisis, and to use very effort to secure an overwhelming majority for “Yes” in the coming referendum.

Pope warned how real the threat of the German conquest of Australia was. Then he launched into an idiosyncratic claim that those enlisting only stood a 1 in 20 chance of being killed. It is difficult to know what those in the audience would have made of it, particularly as there was no equivalent figure for the odds of being wounded, having your health ruined or being left disabled for the rest of your life. Many would have found his claim inappropriate or misleading and certainly counter-productive:

Life Insurance companies say that they may safely insure men going to the front at a premium of 5 per cent above that of civilians. That means that after a careful investigation of all the figures, the added risk of men being killed at the war is 1 in 20, and about 80 per cent. may be expected to return.

On the question of death rates, Pope felt compelled to argue that, ultimately, it didn’t matter. What mattered was not the degree of sacrifice but the integrity of the sacrifice:

If Australia gave her last man and her last shilling she would not have done too much.

The motion, which was of course passed overwhelmingly, was seconded by Rev C J Walklate. He obviously knew he was speaking to the converted:

The thing that stood out in his [Walklate’s] mind was that the “Yes” platform is a statement of facts, and the anti platform a concoction of lies. (Loud Applause.)

Extraordinarily, Walklate justified one of the key arguments employed by those opposed to conscription: the threat it posed to the maintenance of the White Australia Policy. As far as Walklate was concerned, even the risk of undermining this policy was not enough to break the sacred promise to the men at the front:

If we are going to deplete Australia, and colored labor comes here, is that any reason why we should break our promise and leave the soldiers there to die?

He finished with an analogy about married men and bolting horses. Again, it could not have meant much to the audience, particularly given that under the conscription proposal married men were to be protected:

If a team of horses bolted up the road, and a man’s life were in danger, and married men looked on and said because they were married men they could not risk their lives to save that man, what would you call them? (A voice: Cowards.)

Essentially, the 2 pro-conscription meetings held at Yarram were set pieces. Their key purpose was to demonstrate the strength of support for the Yes vote in the local community. The arguments put forward for the second vote were the ones that had been promoted at other public meetings – farewells, welcomes, recruiting drives, religious memorial services – for most of 1917.

In addition to the large, formal meetings held at Yarram, there were at least 2 public meetings held in local townships. One was at Hiawatha (Fairview) on Friday 14/12/17 and the other at Binginwarri on Monday 17/12/17.

The meeting at Hiawatha was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 19/12/17. It was addressed by speakers for the Yes vote: Rev Walklate and E T Benson, the secretary of the local branch of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia. The report noted that it was the first ever public meeting on the issue of conscription held at Hiawatha. The meeting was peaceful. There were some interjections but overall … the meeting was very orderly and no doubt educational. While there was no formal motion of support for the Yes vote, the audience closed the meeting with God Save the King. Overall, it was uneventful. In fact, the key point raised in the report was the delight that the car load of speakers had been able to mange the drive, at night, to Hiawatha. It was cited as proof that Hiawatha was not as isolated as some locals believed.

The meeting at Binginwarri was very different. It was reported in the edition of 19/12/17.

The report suggested that the speakers knew there was gong to to be trouble. It noted how fortunate it was that Senior Constable McLeod accompanied the speakers that night. It was again a pro-conscription meeting and the first 2 speakers – W G Pope and B P Johnson – ‘got a good hearing’. However when Rev Walklate spoke ‘at length’ the mood changed significantly.

Walklate attacked the views of Dr Mannix and claimed that in fact other Catholic clergy supported conscription. Walklate then stressed that Mannix’s opposition to conscription was because he, as an Irishman, blamed the British for Ireland’s problems.

Presumably, the Catholics in the audience did not appreciate being lectured by a local Protestant minister on either the nature of the Catholic position on conscription or the political situation in Ireland and its relevance to them as Irish-Australians. Perhaps Walklate had been determined to provoke a response.

The meeting became very lively. The report noted that people got up and walked out and eggs started flying. At the meeting’s end, a tense stand-off followed outside the hall – it was near midnight – and as the car of speakers left it was pelted with eggs:

As they moved off the party were pelted, obviously intended for Mr. Walklate, whose strong utterances aroused the ire of “No” voters.

Walklate himself was convinced that he was being singled out because of his views on conscription. In an editorial in the local paper on 12/12/17 there was a claim by Walklate that, in an earlier incident, his dog had been shot – not fatally – because of his outspoken comments in favour of conscription. However, the editorial noted… but it is more than likely that his canine was amongst a flock of sheep and got a charge of shot.

The report of the trouble at Binginwarri is the only substantive report in the local paper of sectarian conflict as a feature of the referendum. However, previous posts have tracked the significant divisions – cultural, religious and political – between the Protestant and Catholic communities in the Shire of Alberton. Conscription brought the division to a head but it itself was only one aspect of a very complex picture. Moreover, there had been real efforts to moderate the divisions and strive for a common approach to support the War effort, at least to the end of 1917. Following the defeat of the second referendum, sectarianism became far more public in the community.

There was one additional source of tension for the local Catholic community in the political landscape that existed post the 1916 referendum. In late September 1917 the Hughes Government passed its so-called ‘Bachelor Tax’. Essentially, single men who had not enlisted were hit with a levy. It was specifically intended to promote enlistments and raise money for the repatriation of those who had served in the AIF. However, the Catholic Church took great exception to the law and saw it as an attack on its priesthood and male religious orders. Celibacy was a central plank of the religious life and therefore, unlike other religions where the clergy could marry, the Catholic Church argued that it was being singled out.

Catholic opposition to the legislation was significant. One outspoken critic was Bishop Phelan of Gippsland. At a function in Maffra in mid November 1917, Bishop Phelan not only condemned the ‘bachelor tax’ but directed his congregation to … Refuse to contribute to every patriotic appeal when that appeal is in the interests of the Government which framed this iniquitous law. This was all reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 23/11/17, in the lead up to the referendum. For patriots and Imperial Loyalists this was further proof that Catholic support for the War was, at best, highly qualified and compromised. For Catholics, the legislation was further proof that the Hughes Government was targeting them. Importantly, even though the point was not made specifically, the following directive from Bishop Phelan, in the context of the impending vote on conscription, could have been interpreted as a more general call to withdraw all support for the Government:

To the Catholics of Gippsland I say, follow the example of your pastor, to very demand made on you for Red Cross, Repatriation Fund etc, say: – We have to pay a bachelor tax for our priests, and as long as that law remains unrepealed we refuse to help the Federal Government. The Win-the-War Party may then see that their ill-considered action has helped to dry up a source which was the glory of Australia, namely the tens of thousands contributed by voluntary offerings.

The farmers’ vote

The tone of formal appeals to farmers to vote Yes in the referendum became almost hysterical. The editorial in the local paper on 30/11/17 featured a detailed appeal from the Reinforcements Referendum Council. It began:

The farmers’ vote will be the decisive one on December 20th. If the farmers unite and work to secure a “Yes” vote the Commonwealth Government’s scheme will be carried. If they hang back, if they are indifferent as to the result, if they lack enthusiasm, and if they accept the view that one vote more or less does not matter, the the referendum will be defeated.

The language sharpened considerably as the appeal continued:

If the farmers, who have responded so generously to the call of Empire, and who have aided so liberally the cause of the democracy, fail to exert the whole of their strength on this occasion, they will be acting as traitors to their relatives and friends in the trenches. They will be acting, moreover, as enemies of their country.

In this particular appeal the true enemy was the IWW which had caused so much damage in the recent industrial unrest and which played with the incredulity of the working class:

The memory of the great hold-up in August and September is still fresh in the minds of every man on the land. The I.W.W. play upon the credulity of the big mass of the working class, and they used the deluded workers as an instrument to crush and despoil the farmer.

The formal appeal to the farmers from Hughes was published in the local paper on 14/12/17. In it, Hughes gave the IWW and Sinn Fein as the 2 forces behind the No vote. He depicted the IWW as the natural and historical enemy of the farmer. He warned the farmers:

If you by your vote defeat the Government’s proposals, then you hand over the reins of government to extremists, the I.W.W. and the Sinn Fein. That is the responsibility that rests upon you.

Most of Hughes’ appeal sought to counter the claim that conscription would deny the farmers workers. Clearly, for Hughes the constant claims and counter claims over numbers in the referendum debate was having a negative effect. He stressed that the number of 7,000 men per month was the maximum that would ever be required under the conscription proposals. However, in the same equation that sought to reassure the farmers that there would be no labour shortage, Hughes stated that of those soldiers returning to Australia – those repatriated and discharged on medical grounds – 50% would take up their former occupations and another 25% would be fit for ‘light work’. In other words, the low target of 7,000 per month was in part based on the assumption that 75% of those members of the AIF being repatriated would slot back into the workforce. This claim would not have matched the actual experience of farmers in the Shire of Alberton, or other farming areas. They saw with their own eyes that many of those returning would never work again. Moreover, statistical claims about labour availability meant very little if the direct experiences of farmers confirmed that there was a labour shortage. If anything, statistical arguments tended to confirm the weakness of Hughes’ position.

The returned soldiers’ vote

As indicated earlier, returned soldiers were present at anti-conscription meetings in Yarram, and they claimed to be members of the Returned Soldiers’ Anti-Conscription League of Australia. But these men were dismissed as ‘outsiders’.

The official position of the local branch of the RSSILA was published in the local paper on 30/11/17.

Mr. W. A. Newland, hon. secretary of the Yarram sub-branch of the Returned Soldiers’ Association (sic), has received the following letter from headquarters, which is deeply interested in the reinforcement referendum campaign.

The position was:

That knowing the urgent need for reinforcing our comrades at the front, this committee of the Victorian branch of the R.S.S.I.L.A. urgently appeals to our members and to the public to vote in favour of the proposals to be submitted on the 20th Dec. next.

The position of the local paper

The final editorial published in the local paper on 19/12/17, the day before the referendum was also very telling on the issue of statistics. A J Rossiter, who signed the particular editorial, noted

Much twisting of figures has been perpetrated by the “Antis” in an endeavour to make it seem that there are ample men and that Australia has done enough.

He then attempted to debunk some of the claims. However, the reality was that by that point. figures did not mean a great deal, either to those who believed that Australia had done enough and the cost had just become too great or to those who believed that, ultimately, no sacrifice was too great.

Rossiter wanted to claim the high moral ground:

To-morrow Australia will decide whether reinforcements are to be sent to our brave men in the firing line. We cannot conceive that any right-thinking man will have been so influenced by anti clap-trap to record “No” at the polling booth – tantamount to signing the death warrant of thousands of our boys in the trenches.

As indicated, the vote in the Shire of Alberton was overwhelmingly in favour of conscription. The Shire had not been affected by the ‘clap-trap’ of the ‘Antis’; and its moral compass and unswerving loyalty to the Empire remained true. It could start 1918 confident that it was one of the few places in Australia that had remained ‘loyal’.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Australian Dictionary of Biography

Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria

104. Hughes and Mannix, late 1916 – early 1917: the national and local scenes

Even though he had lost the support of his own party and his referendum on conscription was defeated, PM Hughes continued to drive the political landscape in the 6 months from the end of October 1916 through to the overwhelming success of the Nationalists at the federal election in May 1917. By the end of this period, Hughes had re-established himself as, apparently, the only one who could provide the necessary war-time leadership. He had triumphed, while the ALP itself had been broken and defeated.

Over the same period, Archbishop Mannix emerged as the most high-profile, outspoken critic of the War. He became the focus of Hughes’ anger and frustration. Hughes and his supporters saw Mannix as undermining the War effort. And Mannix’s politics and status raised the fundamental issue of where the Catholic Church stood.

As well as playing out at the national level, the same tension and conflict began to emerge at the local level in the Shire of Alberton.

The national scene

The formal end to the ongoing division within the ALP over the conscription referendum and Hughes’ leadership came on 14/11/16 when Hughes broke away, dramatically, with 23 of the 64 members of the federal caucus. The breakaway group took for itself the name ‘National Labor Party’.

Hughes managed to retain his position as PM when, with support from the Liberals, he survived a no confidence motion in the House of Representatives on 29/11/16. Over the next 2 months he was able to establish the new National Party, as an alliance between his National Labor Party and the Liberals, under Cook. Even though his numbers were smaller, Hughes remained as PM in the new party and he even managed, against much opposition, to retain Pearce as his Defence Minister.

In March 1917, Hughes was forced to a federal election. His National Party won the election (5/5/17) with majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Clearly, Hughes was the driving force in Australian politics. His success at the time was in large part due to the image he had established of himself as the ‘natural’ war-time leader. In 1916 in the UK he had been feted in the press – both in the UK and back in Australia – as a no-nonsense, tireless, inspirational and decisive leader. He was closely identified with the AIF. He was an Imperialist of the highest order. He was also a survivor of consummate political skill and he promised a safe pair of political hands. His political messages were simple and consistent.

Hughes also retained the powerful support and backing of the media, business and the Protestant churches which he had enjoyed in the conscription referendum. Hughes and his backers found it relatively easy to portray the old ALP – the ‘Official’ ALP – as confused and contradictory in both its commitment and policies to pursue the War. It was also portrayed as ‘unrepresentative’ and driven by the industrial rather than than the parliamentary wing. It was claimed to be more interested in pursuing and destroying Hughes and settling factional disputes than it was in forming a national unity government. It was said to have become more ‘radical’ and ‘socialist’ than the original ALP and it was unduly influenced by ‘outsiders’, even Americans. Against the apparently enormous political risk the Official ALP presented, Hughes and the Nationalists promised a unity government that had risen above party politics and was committed to the single-minded  pursuit of victory. Hughes also pledged to honour the results of the referendum; but he also made it clear that he had not given up on the idea of conscription. The deal he made with the electorate was that it would never be introduced without a (successful) referendum.

In the reductionist politics of the time, with Hughes presented as the single person who best represented Australia’ s commitment to the Empire and the War, the arch-villain of the popular press had firmed as Archbishop Mannix.

With Mannix, the critical episode appeared to be the report of his speech at the opening of a Catholic school at Brunswick on 28 January 1917. The speech was reported the next day in The Age (29/1/17 p 7) under headline: Cause Of The War. Archbishop’s Remarkable Utterance. ‘An Ordinary, Sordid Trade War’. As reported, Mannix’s assessment of the War’s cause was bound to stir outrage:

They had heard much during the progress of the war of how the war came about and how they were fighting for the rights of little nations. They could believe as much of this as they liked, but as a matter of fact this was a trade war – simply an ordinary, sordid trade war.

The response was both predictable and immediate. The papers were full of denunciations and demands for Mannix’s prosecution under the War Precautions Act. And it was not just Imperialists and Protestants. Many of the letters to the editor attacking his claim was signed by the likes of  ‘Loyal Catholic’ or ‘Irish Catholic’ or ‘Australian Native’ or ‘Catholic Loyalty’. Similarly, individual members of Catholic associations denounced his views as unrepresentative of Catholic views and sentiment.

Not surprisingly, Mannix was damned even more when his position was supported by the Socialists. The Argus (1/2/17 p 9) reported, under the headline Archbishop Mannix. Socialists Approve:

At a meeting of the Socialist party held last night, the following resolution was moved by Miss Adele Pankhurst (organiser), seconded by Mr. R. S. Ross (secretary), and carried unanimously: –
“That this meeting of the Socialist party of Victoria expresses its warm admiration of Archbishop Mannix for his recent bold and clarifying utterances on the nature of the terrible European war, and deems it its duty to put on record its appreciation of Dr. Mannix’s splendid courage especially on account of the malicious abuse and misrepresentation to which he has been subjected…. “

At the time Mannix’s claim was clearly incendiary. It stripped bare the dominant narrative of the War. His simple phrase of ‘sordid trade war’ denied the official narrative of the War as the monumental and defining conflict between democracy and civilised society on one hand and German militarism and barbarity on the other. The comment undercut the high ideals of ‘supreme sacrifice’, ‘Christian love and duty’, ‘liberty and justice’ and ‘Imperial loyalty and patriotism’. Mannix had definitely crossed a line; and his opponents demanded that the Government prosecute him. Mannix at this point was still only the Co-adjutor Bishop of Melbourne – he did not become Archbishop of Melbourne till Carr’s death in May 1917 – and he had only been in Australia for 4 years. However, as far as Hughes was concerned, Mannix’s role in the referendum had been the deciding factor that led to the success of the No vote. Now, not only was Mannix anti-conscription, he was also challenging the very nature of the Empire’s struggle against Germany.

Hughes himself addressed Mannix’s claim a few days later in an address at Ballarat East. It was reported in The Age (31/1/17 p7). Remarkably, as reported, Hughes’ claims actually appear to support Mannix’s observation on trade as the root cause of the War.

People had been told the other day that the war was a trade war, a mere sordid struggle for self, but the causes of this war were not to be sought in the effort to obtain trade. Germany had already secured trade during times of peace to an extent that her claws were in our very vitals. Had Germany’s competition continued in peace for another ten years Germany would have got the kernel of the world’s trade, leaving us and others the shrivelled husk. Germany had fought the American millionaire in trade on his own dunghill and beaten him. Australian trade and commerce before the war was finding its way by devious channels into the maw of Germany. This was not a trade war. It was a war that sprang out of Germany’s lust of world empire.

In the same speech, Hughes also decried the news reports from Germany that represented the defeat of conscription as proof that Australians were ‘against the war’ or at the least ‘war weary’. He urged the people there to show that, even though the referendum had been lost, they still supported ‘the continuation of the war’ and they were prepared to ‘lay aside party feeling, and fight as a united nation’.

As far as Hughes was concerned, the War was now to be waged not just against Germany but also, at home, against public indifference, political infighting and the deliberate sabotage of the likes of Mannix.

The local scene

The sense of disappointment in the Shire of Alberton following the referendum defeat has been covered in Post 93. The common belief was that patriotic and loyal regions such as Gippsland had been betrayed by the voters in Melbourne. There was also a sense of disillusion which translated to a withdrawal of support. For example, by  the end of December 1916 the local recruiting committee had disbanded. Correspondence from the Shire Secretary ( G W Black) dated 5/12/16 noted that while he was still prepared to assist with recruiting on a personal basis, the local recruiting committee itself ‘has ceased to exist’. On 18/12/16, the Shire President (Charles Nightingale) called a public meeting to set up a replacement recruiting committee but, as reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative ( 20/12/16), There were not half-a-dozen present, and the meeting had to be abandoned.  The paper also reported (15/12/16) the views of Cr Barlow – a prominent member of the previous recruiting committee – expressed at the December council meeting. Barlow believed that … the men whom the country could ill-afford to lose would join the colors now, while the shirkers and cold-footers would still remain behind, as nothing had been done to make them go.  He stated that while he was still prepared to help, he … would not take the same interest in recruiting as before. The local recruiting committee would eventually be re-established in late April 1917; but in the immediate aftermath of the referendum defeat there was considerable anger, and support for conscription remained as strong as ever in the Shire.

As indicated in earlier posts – see for example Post 91 –  there was not even any organised support for the No vote in the Shire of Alberton in the first conscription referendum. Also, while there were significant differences over religious belief and, importantly, schooling, and also obvious tension over Ireland, Catholic loyalty and support for the War had not been questioned.  Fr Sterling, the local parish priest had only recently (October 1916) joined the AIF as Captain Chaplain.

The St Patrick’s Sports offered further proof of Catholic loyalty. As has been mentioned previously, local sports competitions were very important in the local community. Such sports competitions – involving athletics, wood chopping, bike races, horse competitions, novelty events  …. – were held annually at locations including Yarram, Carrajung, Won Wron, Madalya, Fairview (Hiawatha), West Alberton and Goodwood. Of all of them, the most important was the St Patrick’s Sports at Yarram, held round the time of the feast day. It was a major Shire event and while it was run by the Catholic parish it was so large that its organizing committee and the judges and officials were drawn from a much wider circle than just the local Catholic community.

The sports carnivals were also important local fund raisers. Typically, the smaller ones at places like Madalya would return approximately £20, while the St Patrick’s carnival at Yarram would bring in £100. In 1914, St Patrick’s raised £94 for the Catholic parish and in 1915 the amount was £100. Then, as explained in Post 84 , in 1916 the Catholic parish donated the funds raised to 2 charities – the Victorian Sick and Wounded Soldiers’ Fund and the Red Cross – related to the War. The amount raised and donated (approximately £700) was very significant and, in fact, would have represented the largest donation raised at a single event in the Shire over the course of the War. It was yet further evidence that the local Catholic community was behind the War effort.

At the same time, the 1916 arrangement was intended as a one-off, and in 1917 the profits from the St Patrick’s Sports were directed once again back to the Catholic parish. Approximately £200 was raised, and the money went to pay off the debt associated with the construction of the new St Mary’s church.

Against this background, the following letter which appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 19/1/17 is not as innocent as its author implies. It came immediately prior to the first meeting of the organising committee for the 1917 St Patrick’s Sports. It was written by Rev Francis Tamagno, the local Presbyterian minister.

Through the co-operation of many agencies last St. Patrick’s day a handsome sum was raised for the Red Cross and the Australian Soldiers’ Fund. I hope that somebody at the meeting next Monday night  will suggest that the money raised this year by St. Patrick’s sports be given to the Belgian Fund. Belgium has given many lives for Australians and her sacrifice demands and requires our sincerest sympathy. Belgium is pronouncedly a Catholic country.

While local Catholics would have found the letter patronising and the accusations thinly-veiled, others in the community would have agreed with its sentiment: now was not the time for Catholics, of all people, to be raising money from the local community for their own sectional interests.

The claim that local Catholics had a particular responsibility to Catholic Belgium was a common theme. An editorial in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 30/3/17 focused on a pastoral letter to the Belgians written by Cardinal Mercier. Mercier was an outspoken critic of the Germans, many of his priests had been killed and he himself had been imprisoned. The theme of the pastoral letter covered the need to speak the truth about the evil of the German occupation. It began:

The truth must be above all, for sincerity is the most essential of all duties. We cannot without cowardice allow untruth to run unencountered. We have protested against violence….

and it ended:

We have made our voice heard for the safeguarding of the liberty of home and labor, demanded the respect due to the dignity of man; and you have stood faithful by our side. We bless God for having made you understand your duty so well. It is nothing less than the fulfilling of the fundamental law of Christianity.

At this point, Rossiter, as editor, added:

Australian Catholics with others of military age will fulfill that law by enlisting.

Again, the local Catholic community was being singled out and, effectively, preached at. Also, the focus on German ruthlessness and atrocities undercut Mannix’s apparently simplistic assertions about a ‘sordid trade war’.

While the 2 examples raised here appear low level, it is the very deliberate way that they have been fed into community discourse that is telling.

By the end of the period under review (May 1917), the antagonism towards and suspicion of Catholics had become far more apparent for the local community.

Reporting on Anzac Day commemorations at Port Albert, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (27/4/17) stated that Rev Tamagno praised Hughes and the ‘Nationalists’ for their non-partisan approach to the urgent challenges facing the nation, and publicly denounced Mannix as a ‘missioner of mischieviousness since he has come to our land.’ Rev Walklate attacked the backers of the No vote for not supporting the soldiers and praised the Anzacs as ‘descended form British stock.’ Both clergymen attacked those who refused to enlist. They wanted them shamed and punished. It was as if the conscription campaign was still running.

A week earlier, GH Wise, local member of the federal parliament, had addressed a packed meeting at Yarram. There was a very detailed report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 20/4/17. Wise was an outspoken supporter of Hughes. According to Wise, Hughes had proved himself in the UK in 1916 when he had been … ‘admitted to the secret counsels of the Empire’. Hughes had returned aware that conscription was required to maintain the AIF in France but he had been blocked by the ALP platform. After the defeat of the referendum Hughes had risen above the party politics of the day and created a genuine National Government. And it was only the National Government led by Hughes that could win the War.

Mannix is not mentioned in Wise’s panegyric of Hughes but it is very evident that Wise promotes the War as a moral struggle of the highest order. It was certainly not some ‘sordid trade war’. He gave a striking – even bizarre – anecdote to establish German evil:

They had read recently of the trial of an outraged French girl for the murder of her child. She did not speak till the trial, when she said she strangled her child because its father was a German, and she was acquitted. Could anyone who had any thought for the women and children and for the aged, not realise the horrors of a German invasion without resolving to do all in his power to keep the war 12,000 miles from Australia? Did they not realise that it was time to throw party politics aside, and make a united effort to win the war in the name of civilization. (Applause.)

Mannix had been mentioned in another report that appeared 2 days earlier in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (18/4/17). It was headed Dr. Mannix and the War. and it detailed a Presbyterian meeting at Bendigo on 10/4/17 by Rev F A Hagenauer. The meeting passed, unanimously, a motion … the effect of which was that the Presbytery of Bendigo, believing that the whole energy of the nation ought to be directed towards winning the war, was of the opinion that Dr. Mannix should be prosecuted for his recent statements. [sordid trade war].

However, the focus was broadening beyond Mannix, for the same meeting explicitly called into question the loyalty of Catholics generally. Hagenauer noted that it had become … necessary to discuss the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church. He presented 2 scenarios: the Catholic Church agreed with Mannix … or might disagree, but be impotent to silence him. Even though he acknowledged that many individual Catholics had criticised Mannix, Hagenauer was inclined to believe that Mannix’s views were supported by the Church:

What evidence was there that the church as a whole agreed? There was the silence which representative Catholic bodies and societies had maintained and the approving receptions given to Dr. Mannix.

He added that Mannix … claimed that he spoke expressing the views of the Catholic Church, and was applauded.

For good measure, he also refererenced the ‘official’ view that … the Irish vote killed conscription in Australia.

The threat that the Catholic Church now posed to the successful pursuit of the War was being made very public in the local press:

If the Catholic Church did agree with Dr. Mannix, it was a menace to our liberties, second only to the menace of German militarism. If it disagreed with him but was impotent to silence him, the position was almost as serious, for the influence of the Roman Catholic clergy upon the laity was admittedly great.

By the end of April 1917, local Catholics in the Shire of Alberton were reading in their local press that their Church was being charged with disloyalty. Increasingly, they were being forced to choose between the 2 extremely polarising figures of Mannix and Hughes. The ambiguity and respected – and respectful – differences that had characterised past community relations were under extreme pressure. This was the local community that Fr Sterling returned to on 17/4/17 when his appointment as Captain Chaplain in the AIF finished.

References

The Age

The Argus

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Archives, Shire of Alberton
(viewed 2014)

The activities of the 1916 Yarram Recruiting Committee came from:
Shire of Alberton
Archive One
File Number 703B
“Recruiting & Enlisted men”
Bundle headed “Defence Department, Enlisting Recruits 1914-15-16”

For a detailed account and assessment of Mannix’s speech at Brunswick see: Brunswick Coburg Anti-Conscription Centenary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

91. Conscription Referendum 1916: the (public) No vote

On the strength of the meeting held for the No vote at Yarram on 12/10/16, there was little evidence of any public support for the anti-conscription case in the Shire of Alberton. This was in sharp contrast to the high level of support for conscription evident in the very public, organised and ongoing campaign for the Yes vote, as detailed in earlier posts.

The meeting on 12/10/16 was written up, in great detail, in both the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (18/10/16) and the South Gippsland Chronicle (18/10/16). The sole speaker for the No case that night was Senator Blakey, one of the Victorian team of ALP senators. Blakey was on a tour of Gippsland and he knew that he was in for a tough time. He had tried to speak at a similar public meeting at Leongatha 2 days earlier (10/10/16) but, according to the report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 13/10/16, he had not even managed to make himself heard:

The largest public meeting ever held at Leongatha took place last Tuesday night. Senator Blakey attempted to deliver an address against conscription, but he was hooted, and as soon as he rose to speak the audience stood up and sang the National Anthem. As Senator Blakey tried to make himself heard a cabbage thrown at his head inflicted a cut in his forehead. … He was on the platform for about an hour and a half, but he was not allowed to give expression to his views.

Two days later at Yarram things were only marginally better. While nothing was thrown at him and he did manage to deliver his speech – albeit with a barrage of interruptions – the reports make it clear that the very rowdy and antagonistic audience was not on his side. The meeting started on a negative note when Cr Buckley, introducing Senator Blakey, made the point that while he was prepared to introduce Senator Buckley as a guest speaker he wanted to  make it clear to everyone in the audience that he personally intended to vote Yes. The clear message was that the Shire council was decent enough to support Blakey’s right to speak but they certainly did not support his position.

Not surprisingly, Senator Blakey’s opening remarks were a plea for a fair hearing. He hoped that there would be no … repetition of of the drunken orgy at Leongatha …  because the … matter was too great to treat in a spirit of levity and hoodlumism. But the interruptions were constant. Blakey struggled to get his argument across in any coherent, planned way. Finally, at the end of the meeting, in an obvious attempt to hijack proceedings and make Blakey look foolish, the following resolution was put:

That, in view of the voluntary recruiting not being sufficient to meet the requirements of our army and reinforcement of men at the front, this meeting pledges itself to vote “Yes” at the coming referendum.

The resolution was seconded and put, but the vote in the end was indecisive, with only a handful voting either way. The newspaper report suggested people were either confused or annoyed that the motion had been put. Even the avowedly pro-conscription Rev Walklate … protested against a speech advocating “Yes” being made at a meeting in a hall paid for by those advocating “No”. Such niceties aside, it was abundantly clear that the meeting would never have been able to pass any resolution in favour of the No vote. Further, the reports make it clear that Senator Blakey was by himself. There were no references to other individuals or groups supporting him, either on the stage or in the audience; and most of those who asked questions at the meeting – Rev Tamagno, Rev Walklate, R E H Newberry, J Bett, F C Grano – have already been identified in earlier posts as backing conscription. Blakey would have cut a lonely figure. As a formal attempt to galvanise the No vote in the local community the public meeting was a complete failure.

There are no references in either of the local papers to any other meetings for the No vote held in either Yarram or the shire as a whole. Similarly, there are no references over the period August to October 1916 to the formation of a committee to promote the No vote. Nor is there even reference to specific individuals in the local community advocating the No vote. In short, there is no evidence that there was an organised, public – or even visible – No vote campaign in the Shire of Alberton for the 1916 referendum.

It is also worth looking briefly at the arguments presented at the meeting, both by Blakey himself and his opponents. Blakey argued that conscription per se was morally indefensible. He claimed that Hughes himself had gone back on his word, given in 1915, to not introduce conscription. He held that Australia had done its ‘fair share’ and that the cost of introducing conscription and committing to an even greater sacrifice was beyond the nation’s capacity. He criticised the metropolitan papers – the The Age and The Argus – as shamelessly biased.  He raised the fear that even married men would be conscripted, and there was the usual aside on the fear of cheap ‘yellow’ labour. There were also claims that Hughes was using the censorship laws to stifle the No campaign. For those opposed to Blakey, the major issue was that the AIF had to be reinforced and supported – it was the clearest example of national duty – and conscription was the only way this end could be achieved.

Importantly, none of these arguments were tied specifically to the Shire of Alberton. Blakey could just as well have been addressing an audience In Melbourne. There was no local dimension to the debate.  Nor was the audience divided on any ‘partisan’ basis. Most significantly, there was no mention of any organised Catholic presence at the meeting. In fact, there is no reference to Catholics at all in the extensive reporting of the meeting.

Interestingly, in his history of the Shire, Adams (1990 p186) presumes that the Catholics in the community did represent a bloc opposed to conscription.

Conscription became an important issue late in 1916 and a committee was formed in Yarram with B.P. Johnson as President to forward the movement. When the conscription referendum was held in November [sic] 1916, Yarram voted 1144 to 573. There was a strong Catholic “no” vote reflected in this result.

[Adams’ figures give the Yes vote 67% and the No 33%.]

However this argument appears too simplistic. Certainly for the 1916 referendum, there is no evidence of a Catholic bloc opposed to conscription; and it is too easy to assume that Catholics were the ones who voted against conscription.

The Catholic question was complex. We have already seen that the Catholics enlisted in numbers that generally matched their place in the Shire’s demographics. The argument of the pro-conscriptionists that the men at the front could not be abandoned – this appeared to be the strongest argument in the community – would have been as appealing to the Catholic families of men who had enlisted as any other group. Moroever, the most recent high-profile Catholic enlistment at the time was Fr Sterling, the parish priest, who had enlisted as recently as 21/10/16 as a Captain Chaplain. His enlistment would have been seen as a very public demonstration of loyalty and duty.

There is no evidence that the local Catholic community campaigned against the 1916 conscription referendum. Moreover, previous posts have shown that the local Catholics had actively supported the War effort over the preceding 2 years. It is also relevant, closer to the 1916 referendum, that the assistant priest – Fr W H O’Connor – who arrived in June 1916 to support Fr Sterling, was keen to lend his voice to support for the War effort. In fact, unlike Fr Sterling, Fr O’Connor was even prepared to speak on the same platform as some of the most outspoken patriots – and also pro-conscriptionists – in the community. For example, as reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 9/8/16 Fr O’Connor was one of the key speakers at a public meeting to celebrate the second anniversary of the War. The others on the platform with him were the Shire President, Cr Bland, B P Johnson, Rev Tamagno and the Federal MHR, G Wise. Fr O’Connor spoke at length in favour of the Allied efforts and against German tyranny. He spoke about the local men who had … made the sacrifice and who died nobly and well and who … had offered up their lives for the cause. And he made it clear that in his previous parishes he had called on members of his faith to enlist:

In other parts it was my lot to encourage men to enlist, and [ I ] need only to tell them of their duty and they would go forth and do it. The young men from this district have done likewise and responded to the “Coo-ee” call for assistance.

At the same time, Catholic support for the War was not as unqualified as that of the local Protestants. Bishop Phelan’s position, for example, that the Catholic Church was ‘neutral’ on the matter of conscription, and his significant qualification that the individual citizen’s vote should be shaped by an informed conscience, was at great odds with the very public and uncritical support for conscription from the Protestant churches. Moreover, previous posts have pointed out how fundamental differences in areas such as schooling encouraged sectarianism in the community over the War years. Additionally, events in Ireland post Easter 1916 definitely saw many Irish Catholics question the Australian Government’s total support for the Empire. They also, inevitably, chose to see the AIF not as a component of the British (Empire) Army but as as a distinctive, independent and truly nationalist Australian force, which meant it was possible to support the AIF – and to a lesser extent continue to justify the War – and be anti-Imperialist. But none of these important shifts were on public view in the Shire of Alberton in the lead up to the 1916 referendum.

Overall, there is no hard evidence that for the 1916 referendum, in the Shire of Alberton, there was an organised, public campaign amongst the local Catholics for the No vote. It is possible that Catholics followed Bishop Phelan’s advice and voted according to their conscience. But if they did so it was a private choice made via secret ballot. In any case, given the appeal of the dominant political argument of the day, it makes more sense to believe that the Catholic families would vote Yes, to support the reinforcement of their men at the front.

While it is not possible to identify a Catholic bloc publicly supporting the No vote, there was even less chance that there was an organised and visible bloc of ‘industrialists’, radical unionists, IWW agitators or even just ALP supporters campaigning for the No vote. Most of the rural workers had enlisted and, in any case, there had never been an organised labour movement in the Shire. Individual ALP voters might have opposed conscription and voted No, but, again, it was via secret ballot. It was a politically conservative community. The local papers were full of anti-union stories. They reported how the ‘machine’ of the industrial wing of the ALP was undermining PM Hughes’ authority and destroying the party itself. There were regular stories of how unions generally were undermining the War effort. Unionists were described as ‘traitors’ and ‘shirkers’. But all this was happening in Melbourne and the other capital cities.

Overall, there is no evidence that there was a public, anti-conscription campaign in the Shire of Alberton in the lead up to the 1916 referendum. Instead, we need to look at the reality of the private No vote in the Shire. On Adams’ figures above, it was one-third of the voters. In a community where there was no public campaign for the No vote and, instead, apparently overwhelming support for the Yes side, it was a significant private vote.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria

 

 

84. Schooling, religion & Imperialism, Part B: Secularism

Post 68. Schooling, religion & Imperialism, Part A: a natural trinity considered the extent to which the War sharpened the perception for Irish Catholics that the state school was both Protestant and Imperialist. This was particularly the case after Easter 1916.

This post looks chiefly at Catholic attempts from 1915 to establish a school in Yarram. It highlights the significant fault lines that existed in the community, and reveals how the religious division between Catholic and Protestant was exacerbated further by the desire to create a  Catholic school. Catholic opposition to the Protestant proposal to teach the Bible in state schools was another major controversy at the time. The post provides a case study of the bitter sectarianism that became a feature of Australian society and politics as the War progressed, and also in the period after the War.

The Catholic school, St. Mary’s, at Yarram  was not opened until the start of 1918. This meant that in the period leading to the War, and for most of the War, all Catholic children in the Shire of Alberton attended the local state schools. This common experience of schooling helped to reduce the level of religious difference in the local community, at least until Easter 1916. In fact, as noted in earlier posts, over the early period of the War there was little apparent conflict between Catholic and Protestant. Catholics enlisted at rates equivalent to their numbers in the local community. Importantly, the promise of Home Rule had neutralised the key political difference between Great Britain and Ireland.

Arguably, the clearest example of the unity between Catholic and Protestant in support for the War came in March 1916 with the St Patrick’s Sports Carnival. In February 1916, Fr Sterling suggested that the proceeds from the annual sports carnival should go to support wounded soldiers. St Patrick’s Sports was the biggest sports carnival held in the Shire of Alberton and it was normally used to raise funds for various Catholic charities and works. Fr Sterling’s offer was written up in both local papers: South Gippsland Chronicle (2/2/16) and Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (9/2/16). It was seen as a very generous and patriotic offer. There was a large working committee set up to manage the event and, significantly, its membership went well beyond the local Catholics and covered all sections of the community. For example, it included at least 2 members – B P Johnson and A E Paige – from the Church of England Board of Guardians. Alfred Paige was in fact the head teacher of the Yarram State School. As well, many of the committee members also served on the local recruiting committee or other groups such as the local Belgian Relief Committee. Overall, the working committee featured some of the most outspoken Imperialists in the local community.

The total profits raised by the 1916 St Patrick’s Sports Carnival was £720 and the detailed breakdown of the day’s takings were outlined in an article in the  Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 3/5/16. The profits were divided between the Red Cross and the Victorian Sick and Wounded Soldiers’ Fund. The whole day was acknowledged as a stunning success and it was easily the single, most successful fund-raising event for the War effort staged in the Shire of Alberton to that point. As the local paper put it (3/5/16) the effort … will stand for many a year as the district’s biggest effort.

However, by the time the profits were counted the Easter Uprising in Dublin had occurred and long-standing differences were building. Moreover, it is possible that the efforts of the local Catholics in supporting the War effort via the St Patrick’s Sports Carnival were at least partly driven by the sense that there was real pressure on them to prove their loyalty and demonstrate that they understood the need to make financial sacrifice for the war effort.

There was a significant local background issue. Just 2 weeks after the local Catholic community offered the St Patrick’s Sports Carnival as a fund raiser for the War effort, the newly built St Mary’s Catholic Church was blessed and opened in Yarram. The cost of the new church was £3,500 and by the time it was opened most of the funds for it had already been raised. It was a dramatic achievement by the local Catholic community to fund and build the church in only one year. So in early 1915 the Catholics had the newest and most impressive church in Yarram. However, there must have been misgivings, if not opposition, to this development, with the argument that the time was not right for such fundraising and building programs. All attention should have been focused on the War. In his history of Catholic education in the area, Synan (2003, p. 144) makes the claim directly:

In reality World War I was not a prime time for the Yarram Parish to proceed with a new church and school. Because of patriotic fervour, the wider community took a dim view of Catholics using scarce resources to build parish facilities when all the nation’s energies were being directed towards winning a war against Germany.

However, the situation was more complex than this claim. In his account (1/3/16) of the opening of the new church in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, the editor, A J Rossiter, wrote in praise of the local Catholic community and the new church. In Rossiter’s view, other religions in the community needed to follow the Catholics’ example:

The Catholics have set an example worthy to be followed by at least two other denominations in the town. As with them, wooden structures had to suffice in the times when the people were struggling, but all that is changed. People are well off comparatively, many have grown rich, and were that zeal displayed in spiritual matters which was characteristic of our fathers, there would be no wooden churches to-day in Yarram. It is a disgrace that the very worst buildings in the town are certain churches. From Sunday dates a new era in the Catholic Church in this district. There stands on an admirably adapted site a church that is an ornament to the town, and in the minds of all devout Catholics there must abide a feeling of pride and thankfulness.

It is also worth noting that a new Anglican church was also built in Yarram in WW1. The foundation  stone was laid on 6/2/18 and the new church was dedicated on 24/7/18. So the establishment of the new Catholic church was not, in itself, a direct cause of division in the local community. However, the creation of a new church school was a different matter; and from early 1915 the Catholic community was committed to such a move.

There had been a Catholic primary school (St Mary’s) in Yarram from 1885 -1890. However without access to a Catholic teaching order it had not been able to compete against the local state school. The situation changed dramatically with the appointment of Bishop Phelan to the diocese of Sale (1913-26).

Patrick Phelan was born in Kilkenny, Ireland. He was ordained in 1888 and arrived in Melbourne the same year. He was consecrated bishop in 1913. He was a keen supporter of Home Rule. As the new Bishop of Sale, he made Catholic schooling a major focus for his work. He wanted more parish primary schools across Gippsland. In the report from his ad limina visit to Rome in 1914, Phelan noted that there were twice as many Catholic children in state schools across the diocese as there were in Catholic schools (Synan, 2003 p. 138).

Specifically in relation to the Shire of Alberton, Bishop Phelan set out his plans for a Catholic school in Yarram in a visit to the parish in May 1915. The grand scheme was described in detail in a report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 5/5/15. Phelan made the initial focus that of the education of girls. He emphasised the importance of a Catholic education for girls … the future women who have the making or marring of the future. If they have the ladies – the real Catholic ladies – they sanctify the home. He spoke of a Catholic school in Yarram where families who lived out of town could send their daughters ‘as weekly boarders’.  Critical to the success of the plan was  his promise that he would attract an order of teaching nuns who would set up a convent and run the school. However, he also made it very clear that there was no chance of attracting a teaching order of nuns to the town until there was a new church. He was reported as stating:

He had spoken of a community of nuns, but for them they needed a decent church. So long as this disgraceful church stood to their credit – or discredit – there was no chance of a convent.

For Bishop Phelan the contract with the local Catholic community was that a new church had to be built before the convent and the school were established. As indicated, the church was funded and built in less than one year.

In early 1915 when Bishop Phelan set down this contract with the local Catholic community, relations between the various religions in the community were, apparently, unremarkable and, as already noted, there was certainly no difference in terms of support for the War. Yet, even then it did not take much to stir religious controversy. In his preaching that day, Phelan focused on what he saw as the evil of ‘secularism’ and he used France as his example. Secularism for Phelan equated to godlessness and religious persecution. In fact, secular schooling, as far as Bishop Phelan was concerned, was in large part the cause of France’s parlous situation. In the same sermon he was quoted as claiming:

The present state of France is due to the secular education imparted by a masonic and infidel government in the public schools to the last generation of children. … In his opinion the present awful war was in one aspect due to the iniquities in France, which are directly traceable to infidel education imparted in the schools. It was up to Almighty God to chastise that nation and bring her back to a right sense.

The risks involved with such sweeping condemnations of secularism and secular education became very quickly apparent. One week later (12/5/15)  in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative there was a very extensive letter from Francis Blanc – farmer from Alberton West – highly critical of both Bishop Phelan and his arguments. Not only did he attack Phelan for being hostile to the French, he actually made the claim that Phelan was a ‘friend’ of the Germans. He also aired the (conspiracy) theory that the Vatican was supporting the Germans. As well, based on his own experiences as a school boy in France in the 1860s in Catholic schools, he blasted the failings of the very education system that Bishop Phelan advocated.  Essentially, Blanc argued that in his personal experience the ‘learning’ in Catholic schools in France had covered not much more than religious dogma and indoctrination.  Further, he argued that the weakened state of the Catholic Church in France was the direct result of the Church’s involvement in politics and, in particular, its support for the restoration of the Bourbons. Finally, in praising the contemporary secular system of education in France, Blanc also noted that it was the same as the Victorian model of compulsory and secular schooling.

Two days later (14/5/15), Fr Sterling felt the need to defend Bishop Phelan with his own letter to the editor. Stirling did not engage in the argument on the claimed failures of secular education. Nor did he  tackle the issue of church-state relations in contemporary France. Rather, his primary intention was to defend Phelan against the charge of disloyalty;

I am in a position to know that the Bishop is thoroughly anti-German in the present war, and when in Ireland made several speeches to the Nationalist Volunteers urging them to go to the front.

Additionally, Sterling refuted the claims about the Pope supporting the German side, or, more correctly, the claim that the Vatican had not been prepared to support to the cause of Belgian relief. He also made a point of praising both France and the French, and he pointed to his own family’s close association with the country – at the time he had 3 siblings living and working in France. The letter stands as an urgent exercise in damage control.

Bishop Phelan’s views on the contemporary secular state and, more significantly, its State system of education represented one of the fundamental fault lines in early 20 C Australian society; and this particular episode showed just how much tension and division there was to draw on and how quickly the old enmity could flare up.

The Catholic position on education was that children’s religious growth and development were at least as important as their mastery of the conventional – ‘secular’ – curriculum. For Catholics, both components of education had to be delivered, preferably by a religious order, within a school that was distinctly Catholic in its culture and daily practices. Moreover, the local Catholic primary school was seen as a highly visible manifestation of the strength of the local Catholic parish. Bishop Phelan’s deeper message to the Catholics of Yarram in early 1915 was that they needed first to build a church that truly represented their standing in the wider community, and then establish a Catholic primary school that would develop the Catholic identity of the local children, strengthen Catholic families and serve as proof of the strength of the local Catholic community.

The Catholic position was commonly seen by many as divisive and exclusive. It effectively removed Catholic children from the mainstream, secular state school and denied that a common education could characterise Australian society. It also meant scarce resources were compromised. The push for the Catholic school occurred at the same time as the community was lobbying for a higher elementary school in Yarram.

But there was yet another tension in this overall picture from mid 1916. Under the Education legislation of the time, religious denominations had the option to conduct religious instruction classes in the state school. Even though the option was taken up by all denominations, including Catholics, it was certainly not the preferred option. For Catholics, it could only ever be a compromise solution until a Catholic school became available in the local area. But for Protestants it was also an unsatisfactory arrangements. Their preferred model was that the state school teachers themselves – and not the local clergy coming in to the school on an occasional basis – taught ‘bible lessons’ as part of the school curriculum. But Catholics saw this plan as an attempt to turn the state school into a Protestant institution.

The debate was a long-standing one but the War appeared to give it some additional momentum, in the same way that the temperance movement gained considerable traction. Indeed, the backers of bible instruction for (Victorian) state schools advocated a referendum on the issue at the same time as the referendum on early closing. An article in the The Argus on 28/6/16 reported that the (Victorian) Government wanted to make clear that it was not going to follow the advice of the Scripture Instruction Campaign Council on the timing of any such referendum. Indeed, Cabinet also made it clear that it understood how divisive the issue was in both parliament and the community, and that it believed that even those who favoured the idea of the referendum… did not favour it while the war was in progress, and in no circumstances would support at this time a proposal of that kind, which might cause great division among the people.

However, there clearly was lobbying at the time for the referendum for ‘scripture in schools’, and those in favour of the referendum had a very different take on the issue of the timing of the referendum during the War. Ironically, given Bishop Phelans’ earlier attack, the argument ran on the presumed evils of secular France. For example, J Nicholson, Superintendent, Scripture Council, wrote in a letter to the editor in The Argus on 29/6/16:

The plea for postponement of all efforts to honour God’s Word in our national education until after the war is singularly lacking in moral perspective. If ever there was a time for “acknowledging God” in our national “ways” it is surely now! France was the first to lead in “secular” education, and the banishment of God from national thought; but this war has done much to correct that blunder in France. May we do likewise.

Even though the proposed referendum was formally put on hold, it continued to be pushed and  this prompted the Catholic hierarchy to respond. On 2/8/16 the South Gippsland Chronicle reported in detail on a sermon delivered by Bishop Phelan in Sale. In his sermon, Phelan told Catholics that they could not vote – in State elections – for anyone who supported the proposal to conduct the referendum. For Phelan, the backers of the referendum were determined to teach the Protestant religion in state schools and have all taxpayers, including Catholics, pay for the arrangement:

To put such a question to a popular vote would be to ask the people as a whole to say, first of all, whether the State – which has no religion – should in future teach the Protestant religion in the State schools; and whether Catholics should be called on to pay equally with Protestants for the teaching of the Protestant religion.

He added an argument which was to take on far greater meaning at the end of 1916:

No man has a right to record a vote [in a referendum] to coerce the conscience of another.

Not surprisingly, Bishop Phelan’s position attracted criticism. Specifically in relation to the Shire of Alberton, it set off a series of letters-to-the-editor that ran for all of August and into September 1916, with the 2 key letter writers being Rev F Tamagno (Methodist) and Fr. P F Sterling (Catholic). Once again, Sterling was required to step in and defend his Bishop’s comments.

Rev Tamagno’s first letter in the South Gippsland Chronicle was on 4/8/16, just 2 days after Bishop Phelan’s sermon. Tamagno certainly did not back away from the idea of having the Bible … inculcated in the State school curriculum.

The State Government lately decided against a referendum on Scripture lessons in the schools. … We Protestants do not accept the Government’s decision as final. We must organise (like our Roman Catholic friends) to send men into Parliament who will endeavor to have the Bible firmly established in this State’s schools.

Rev Tamagno argued that such scripture or Bible lessons would not equate to the teaching of Protestantism and would not promote sectarianism. He also took exception to the claim made by Bishop Phelan in his letter that the Catholic schools were saving the Victorian taxpayers £300,000 pa. In his view the amount claimed was overblown and yet another of the Catholics’ ‘fanciful grievances’. Further, he held that if the Roman Catholics faced financial hardship it was because of the ‘arrogant claims on education’ made by the ‘Romish Church’. The implication appeared to be the naive and gullible Roman Catholics in Gippsland – and all of Victoria and all of Australia – were being manipulated by the autocratic Roman Pope in the Vatican. On the issue of Church-State relations, Tamagno certainly saw the weakness of the modern, secular state but he argued that Church and State needed to work together – as in the case of the referendum on scripture – and that Protestants were far better placed to do this than Roman Catholics who were ultimately answerable to the (foreign) Pope. However, as indicated, he did admire the political organisation of the Catholics and urged his side to adopt the same tactics.

Fr Sterling replied to Rev Tamagno, in the same paper, on 9/8/16. Sterling argued that Tamagno’s letter was a typical attack on Catholics. He claimed Tamagno wanted to represent Catholics as … a terrible nuisance always growling about their grievances. Sterling’s tone was sarcastic and in his attempt to reveal what he saw as Tamagno’s condescending tone, he put words into Tamagno’s mouth, literally, and had him claim:

We [Protestants] even gave them [Catholics] permission to enlist in the army and fight and die for their country and still they keep on grumbling.

Sterling was making the point, directly, that Catholics were not second-class citizens. Nor could their beliefs be ignored or simply dismissed as the product of unthinking or blind obedience to Rome. In fact, Sterling was pointedly critical of Tamagno’s language:

The church to which I have the honor to belong is known to its members and to most outsiders by the designation of the Catholic church. Officially we are styled Roman Catholics. This term is ridiculous and self-contradictory, but we tolerate it because we must. No gentlemen and no man of education, except a piebald bigot, ever uses such terms as Rome or Romish.

Fr Sterling also covered the main argument that Catholics were right to fight against the teaching of scripture – as part of the curriculum – in state schools because, in his view, this practice would in effect make the schools Protestant. Sterling saw the proposal as an attempt by the Protestants to get their religion into the state schools ‘on the cheap’.

As indicated, this controversy continued in the local press for at least 6 weeks. It would have been impossible to ignore.

The events and positions described in this post show clearly that, leaving to one side both the complexities of the broader conflict between Irish Nationalism and British Imperialism, as played out in Australia, and the divisive issue of the first conscription referendum in late 1916, there was considerable potential for suspicion, mistrust and outright enmity between Catholic and Protestant in the local community, with much of this tied to very particular interpretations of ‘secularism’, particularly in the context of education. As much as people in the local community worked to promote a sense of unity in the face of the War, the fault lines between Catholic and Protestant were very substantial and undeniable. In this particular case, the commitment by local Catholics to reject ‘secular’ education and establish their own school, and at the same time deny Protestant influence in the state school, definitely compromised the ideal of a united local community.

References

Synan, T 2003, A Journey in Faith: A History of Catholic Education in Gippsland 1850-1981, David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

The Argus

 

 

68. Schooling, religion & Imperialism, Part A: a natural trinity

The last post looked at how political events in Ireland from the very start of the War affected the Irish-Australian community.  However, the tension between Irish Catholic and British Protestant went well beyond the immediate political situation in Ireland. There were several hundred years of division and conflict to draw on. There were fundamental differences in religious faith, identity and practice that directly affected people’s everyday lives, for example, in areas such as marriage or, as it was more commonly described, the particular case of ‘mixed marriage’. Moreover, the differences in faith were overlain with differences between class and culture, with the Irish-Catholic Australians generally characterised as working class and even represented as lower-order citizens. However, notwithstanding long established enmity between Irish Catholic and British Protestant, the start of the War and the promise of Home Rule did see an attempt on both sides to play down the differences and unite against the common enemy.

This particular post is the first of two to show how sensitive relations were between these 2 dominant religious and cultural groupings in the local community. The specific focus is on education. Differences over the provision of schooling in the local community demonstrated how deep the divisions went and how apparently insurmountable they were. The War focused even more attention on these differences.

The provision of schooling in rural areas in late 19C and early 20 C Australia was always a problem. Settlements and townships were small and isolated. Schools could be created overnight and disappear as quickly. Most were one-teachers schools and many were part-time. There was competition between communities for the provision of schooling. Schools were often not set up in purpose-built buildings but in local halls with very rudimentary facilities. It was hard to attract and hold teachers. It could be difficult for students to access the school and many parents were reluctant to forego their children’s labour.

If anything, the problems faced by the Shire of Alberton in setting up schools across its district were more challenging than in other rural settings in Victoria. This was particularly true in relation to the spread of settlement into the very difficult and isolated ’hill country’ of the eastern Strzelecki Ranges from the 1880s.

Analysis of the WW1 honor rolls of the local schools reveals that students often attended more than one local state school. In part, this represented the movement of rural working-class families across the district as they followed work opportunities. But it also highlights how the schools themselves opened but then closed, shifted from full-time to part-time, relocated to another site and so on. The following extract from the standard text on the local history of the Shire of Alberton (Adams, 1990) gives some indication of the situation. It is looking at the provision of state schooling in the specific location of Darriman round the turn of the century.

At Darriman two schools were opened in the 1890s, one at Darriman, no. 3013, in the kitchen of the public hall erected on an acre of E. Kuch’s selection, and opened in 1892, and the other at Darriman West, no. 3070, off the main Sale road in a building leased from Mr. Geddie, with Charles Barchan, the first teacher. Numbers were poor and in 1893 Darriman closed to be reopened in 1896 half-time with Darriman West. The Darriman school closed again in 1907 while Darriman West school no. 3070 was worked part-time with Woodside until 1911. (p. 169)

Clearly, the difficulties facing the individual local communities in establishing, maintaining and improving schooling – and it was essentially primary-level schooling – were major and constant. And this level of difficulty related solely to the provision of state schooling. If the provision of Catholic schooling were to be added to the equation, all the difficulties would be magnified considerably. Two systems of schooling in such a rural environment had to increase inefficiency and compromise viability.

The reality was that, with one exception, following the legislation covering the provision of state schooling in Victoria in 1872, there was no Catholic school in the Shire of Alberton, at least up to the period of WW1. The exception was the short-lived (1885-1890) initial iteration of St Mary’s primary school in Yarram. And even before 1872 and the ‘free, compulsory and secular’ legislation, there had only ever been very limited Catholic schooling in the Shire. Setting up another, stand-alone school system, particularly in small townships and settlements, was not a realistic option. Moreover, local politics would certainly have discouraged such moves as being wasteful of limited resources and unnecessarily divisive for the community.

Importantly, the lack of Catholic primary schooling in the Shire of Alberton meant that all the young men who grew up in and enlisted from the Shire had shared a common experience of schooling, in the state system. That system was explicitly and unreservedly Imperialist in outlook and practice. Whatever the boys were told at home – and most of the Irish-Catholic families in the district still had very close relations with wider family back in Ireland – at school they were given the full and glorious version of the history and greatness of the British Empire. In her comprehensive account of the critically important role played by the Victorian state school system in WW1, Rosalie Triolo leaves no doubt of the Imperial outlook that shaped the Department and its schools:

Tate [ Director of Education], Long [Editor of the Education Gazette and School Paper] and most members of the Department’s community, especially at leadership levels, were imperialist. They were products of their culture, educational background and era. They were ‘militarist’ before and during the war in allowing a surfeit of war-related material in the Education Gazette and School Paper, especially on the Empire’s strengths and successes. They encouraged school boys to join the navy, and… conveyed views to their community during the war that able-bodied men should enlist. They gave three main reasons for believing that Australia should be involved in the war: the greatest Empire the world had known was protecting Australia from Asia and possibly other invaders; it ensured the continuation and development of trade between Australia and many countries; and, it ensured that Australians could continue to enjoy what they considered to be a morally, politically, economically and culturally superior standard of life grounded in British ways, systems and institutions.  (p14)

Triolo also argues that the Department effectively backed conscription. She quotes Tate, after the 1916 referendum:

I think the ‘Yes” vote on the referendum in Victoria [it was successful in Victoria] was a good deal influenced by the war work of the State Schools. (p59)

While the legislation of 1872 had ostensibly provided for free, compulsory and secular education, all 3 ideals were compromised in serious ways. In terms of the idea of ‘secular’, while state funding had been withdrawn from all denominational schooling, the prevailing tone of schooling was certainly religious. There was no suggestion whatsoever that state schooling was non or anti-religious. Every Monday morning, round the flag pole, the children would recite: I love God and my country; I honour the flag [Union Jack]; I will serve the KIng and cheerfully obey my parents, teachers and the laws. In addition to the constant presumption of a Christian God shaping all moral instruction in the school, there was provision for ministers and priests to come into the school and take religious instruction.

Within this common or ‘non-denominational’ Christian ethos in the state school system, Protestantism enjoyed one highly significant advantage. Protestantism was the established religion of England and the assumed religion of the British Empire. Apart from the fact that Protestant missionary zeal was a key force driving the Empire, and the common conviction that the very success of the Empire was proof of the inherent worth and destiny of Protestantism, the Protestant faith had naturally assumed moral and religious ownership and control of the Empire. In Australian at the time, to the extent that the state school system presented the Empire as the bedrock of political and moral belief, it accepted Protestantism as the ‘natural’ religion of the school system. This reality was not lost on Irish-Australians and, in part, it explains the ‘sectarianism’ that became so evident during and after WW1.

The extent to which the interests of Empire, Protestantism and state schooling could effectively overlap and create a trinity of purpose and direction was certainly evident in the case of Yarram SS. At the start of WW1, Yarram SS was by far the largest school in the Shire of Alberton (180+ students) and it was lobbying for the creation of a higher, post-primary level. The three-way overlap was most obvious at Empire celebrations and other patriotic activities that either focused exclusively on the state school – concerts, fund raisers, unveiling school honor rolls etc – or relied on the participation of students from the state school.

Both the composition and dynamics of the management committee of the Yarram SS highlight the three-way interchange between the state school, the local Protestant faiths – primarily the Church of England, but also the Presbyterian and Methodist churches – and Imperial loyalty.

The committee itself was relatively small and, in addition to the head teacher – A E Paige – there were only another 5 or 6 members.

One member, until he enlisted in the AIF in August 1915, was Rev George Cox (Church of England). Cox was one of the most public Imperialists in the community. He was, for example, the driving force for having the 1915 Empire Day celebrations focused on the state school when, as he alleged, the Shire Council, to its shame, was unwilling to organise an appropriate celebration. Cox himself was a member of the local Recruiting Committee and the Belgian Relief Committee. He was also very active in the temperance movement as ‘Chief Ruler’ of the local Rechabite Tent. Temperance was strongly promoted by the Empire and the Royal Family at the time. Cox was also a regular speaker on Imperialism at the school. In short, the local Church of England minister was very closely identified with the local state school.

In something of a reciprocal arrangement, Alfred Edmund Paige, the head teacher, was on the Board of Guardians for the Church of England in Yarram. He was also a member of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee, and he regularly took groups of students from Yarram SS to soldiers’ farewells at the Shire Hall. The students would form a guard of honour. More importantly, they effectively made up the numbers at such occasions when too few townspeople made the effort to attend. Poor attendance at the farewells was a constant irritation for the committee.

Another member of the school management committee was Augustus John Rossiter, the editor of the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. Coincidentally, Rossiter was also a member of the Church of England Board of Guardians. He was another outspoken Imperialist and a member of both the local Recruiting Committee and the local 1916 National Referendum Committee – local committees set up all over Australia, at the urging of PM Hughes, to promote the Yes vote in the 1916 conscription referendum. Rossiter used his paper to promote all the patriotic causes, including conscription, with which he was associated. He was a keen backer of Rev Cox.

Thomas Whitney, the chair of the school committee, was the manager of the South Gippsland Creamery and Butter Factory. He was also on the 1916 National Referendum Committee.

Another member, George E Ruby, a local land and finance agent, was on both the local Recruiting Committee and the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee. He was also a steward of the local Methodist Church. Whilst neither the local Methodist minister (Rev Walter Johns) nor the Presbyterian minister (Rev Francis Tamagno) was on the school committee, both clergymen appeared regularly at school functions and both were strong Imperialists. Rev Tamagno in particular was a leading and highly provocative Imperialist who served on the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee, the Recruiting Committee and the 1916 National Referendum Committee.

The interconnections between all the relevant committees in the local community overlapped even more than this short description suggests, and they will continue to be explored in future posts. However, it is apparent that people at the time would have seen and assumed that there were common interests and associations between the local state school, Protestantism and the ideal of Imperial loyalty. While the school was ‘secular’, its Imperial identity inevitably cast it as a Protestant-like institution and the War itself intensified this perception. Given, as argued earlier, that Protestantism was the religion of the Empire, this state of affairs would have seemed perfectly natural to all true patriots and Imperialists. However, for Irish-Australians who, post Easter 1916, were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with calls for complete and unquestioning loyalty to the Empire, the state school was viewed with increasing suspicion.

Part B will look at the moves to establish a Catholic school in Yarram during the War and the tension that this challenge to the existing arrangements created.

References

Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria

Triolo, R 2012, Our Schools and the War, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne

Synan, T 2003, A Journey in Faith: A History of Catholic Education in Gippsland 1850-1981, David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne

membership of local committees, boards etc taken from:

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

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.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire representative

Age

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’