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Easter 1916: How an Irish uprising led to an Australian uprising

Irish Australians say NO to Britain's war

Copyright John Michael Moran, 2019

England was the home of cant, humbug, and hypocrisy: With these inflammatory words Cork-born Queensland politician, Jack Fihelly, unleashed a political firestorm, which saw Australia become the first nation in history to stop its government pressing people into military service. (State Library of Queensland)

At the height of World War I, Australian Rugby Union international, Rugby League administrator and referee and Queensland Labor politician and cabinet minister, Jack Fihelly, stood up at a Brisbane Irish function and said, to loud applause:

With regard to Hughes (wartime Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes) and others who are endeavouring to force conscription of human life on the people of Australia, they should be reminded that Irish Australians were not being attracted to the recruiting station by the mailed fisted policy of Prussianism operating in Ireland.
The opinion was held by many young Irish Australians that every Irish Australian recruit meant another soldier to assist the British Government to harass the people of Ireland. Only recently he had heard an Englishman in the Queensland Parliament say: ‘Lord deliver us from cant’.
England was the home of cant, humbug, and hypocrisy.
A good deal was heard about the cases of Captain Fryatt and Nurse Cavell, accompanied by denunciation of the Germans, who after all had only done such things against alien enemies whereas England had murdered people whose compatriots were fighting for her by the hundred thousand.
It was more urgent to give to the Dublin Relief Fund than to patriotic funds here, however worthy, such as Returned Soldiers, Red Cross or other funds. (Brisbane Courier, 22/9/1916)

Suffice to say, all hell broke loose after the speech was made public:

  • the State Opposition unsuccessfully moved a no confidence motion in TJ Ryan’s government, for not acting against the utterer of these “disloyal” and “seditious” comments;

  • the Governor refused to sit in the Executive Council with Fihelly;

  • newspapers like Brisbane's Courier railed against him and the State Government;

  • Masonic and Orange Lodges and other “patriotic” organisations met and passed resolutions condemning Fihelly;

  • Protestant clergy were appalled; and

  • on and on the indignation and outrage flowed from Australia's loyal sons and daughters of the British Empire.

However, the Queensland Government’s leaders, Tom Ryan and “Red” Ted Theodore, stood by Fihelly and, with Labor splitting in other States over the issue, Queensland became a key battleground State in the first conscription plebiscite campaign then underway across the nation – and, throughout, Fihelly stood his ground. It was all just so much water of this Rugby hard-man's back.

John Arthur Fihelly was born in 1882 in Timoleague, County Cork Ireland, arriving in Queensland in August 1883 with his parents, Cornelius and Annie. He attended Brisbane's leading Christian Brothers' (Catholic) school, St. Joseph's College Gregory Terrace, in the 1890s, where he learnt Rugby. From here he went on to play one Rugby Union Test for Australia, before becoming the “father of Rugby League” - the rebel breakaway Rugby code - in Queensland.

A tough operator on and off the field: Jack Fihelly (back row in bowler hat) touring Britain with Australia's Rugby League "Kangaroos" in 1908 (with their live kangaroo mascot) - before taking to the political field, the Australian Rugby Union international joined the rebel code and helped establish Rugby League in Queensland.

The Gregory Terrace school's Brave and Game entry states: Fihelly became not only a seminal figure in both Rugby codes in the early years of the twentieth century, he went on to become a prominent and colourful individual in Queensland political and sporting life. You can say that again..

He was elected to the Queensland Parliament in 1912, as the Labor member for the inner Brisbane electorate of Paddington, becoming a minister in Tom (TJ) Ryan's Labor Government after its election in 1915. As one Queensland newspaper later recalled:

It might be reasonably said of him, ‘He had the most brilliant brain that ever functioned in Labor politics, State or Federal.' (Western Champion, 19/7/1930.)

The 1915 Allied invasion of Turkey, and World War I in general, are often described as a watershed in Australia’s national development. The reasons, though, are more varied than the patriotic ones often discussed today.

Fihelly’s 1916 speech, and the resulting political uproar, is a reminder World War I was actually a deeply traumatic, unsettling and divisive experience for many Australians at the time. Fihelly’s raw, blunt speech exposed the tensions within society, created by the war, like few other contemporary speeches.

Firstly, the Gallipoli landing 25 April 1915 was the first experience of battle for the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp (the ANZACs). The magnitude of the casualty lists and the failure of the Dardanelles campaign to achieve its primary objective, of knocking Turkey out the war, sent shock waves through Australian society and thousands of Australian homes. Day after day Australians opened their morning newspapers to find long lists of casualties. After more than 100 years, they are still difficult reading.

Then, just days after Australia held its inaugural ANZAC Day commemorations on Tuesday, 25 April 1916 (the first anniversary of the landing), initial reports of a “disturbance” in Dublin the day before – Easter Monday – were trickling through to Australia. Within a week it was a full-blown story, being eagerly followed around the country and the rest of the world.

Ireland's war-time uprising triggered an Australian uprising: Britain's over-reaction to Ireland's 1916 Easter Rising inflamed Irish Catholic sentiment in Australia so much that Irish Australians ensured the defeat of conscription proposals at two national plebiscites. (Volunteers and Irish Citizens Army members inside the Dublin General Post Office, ANZAC Day 25 April 1916: Joseph Cripps - Kilmainham Gaol Museum, KMGLM 2011.0188.)

The British Government reacted quickly to the Irish “outrage” and martial law was declared. Before long, despite the supposed heavy commitments demanded of Britain and its Empire by the war with Germany, British troops were crawling all over Ireland. Irish “rebels” were rounded up and the first executions carried out. These events were extensively reported in Australian newspapers.

Sentiment within Irish communities around the globe rapidly switched from opposition to the “unconstitutional” methods of the Easter uprising to outrage at British heavy-handedness.

Within that context the Australian Government tried to introduce conscription to lift “inadequate” voluntary enlistment numbers.

Many working people and rural selectors, from all over the United Kingdom, had come to the new world to get away from Kings, Queens, Empires and the injustices of class-based societies. Their natural tendency to oppose conscription for a European war blended with the grievances, about the ongoing treatment of their homeland, now being felt by Irish Australians.

Fihelly’s speech was not a spontaneous rant. It smacks of a calculated propaganda move by the Queensland Labor Government, which was playing an increasingly prominent role in the national campaign against conscription. The conscription supporters suspected as much also; describing it as designed to inflame the passions of the people.

This tough, nuggetty Irishman – educated at a robust Catholic boys' school and by members of an Irish religious order - was sent to do a job, amongst a key and growing section of society, and he did it with spectacular success.

Why should Irish Australians be conscripted to fight in Europe while thousands of British troops, who could otherwise be in France, are stationed in Ireland policing martial law and killing Irish people?

Australians say NO to military conscription in 1916 and again in 1917: ...a democratic precedent many political elites around the world were not happy about. (Australian War Memorial.)

The anti-conscriptionists won the October 1916 plebiscite and also won the second vote a year later in December 1917. Queensland voted against conscription on both occasions. Australians became the first people in history to use the ballot box to stop their leaders pressing them into war service. It was a democratic precedent many political elites around the world were not happy about. It was an outcome that pleased Jack Fihelly no end.

The United States and Canada, also with large Irish Catholic populations, did enforce conscription. However, Ireland itself followed the Australians and, after the second Australian NO vote in December 1917, the Irish people hit back against the London Government hard. British attempts to enforce conscription in Ireland in 1918 were dropped.

In 1922, just after the Irish War of Independence and as Ireland was descending into civil war, the Queensland Government appointed Jack Fihelly as its agent-general in, of all places, London. Someone had a sense of humour.

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