Hugh Mahon: Patriot, Pressman, Politician, Volume 2: Politician: the years from 1901 to 1931 [now published] By Jeff Kildea

Introduction from Offaly History

As a political agitator, journalist, businessman and politician, Hugh Mahon had a varied and fascinating life. Born in Offaly, he and his family migrated to America in 1869, but returned to Ireland in 1880 after their American dream failed. He was active in the Land League in County Wexford which led to his arrest and imprisonment with Parnell in 1881, and exile to Australia. As a crusading journalist he exposed corruption and became a thorn in the side of the Forrest government in Western Australia during the 1890s. He was elected to the first Commonwealth parliament in 1901 and served in four Labour ministries, rising to Minister for External Affairs during the First World War. He has the distinction of being the only person expelled from the Commonwealth parliament after he criticised British rule in Ireland.

This book, the second part of a two-volume biography of Mahon, covers the period from his election to parliament in 1901 until his death in 1931. It describes his almost 20 years as a backbencher and a minister during which he gained a reputation as one of the brainiest men in parliament as well as one of the most controversial. It provides an insight into his reluctant decision to oppose conscription in 1916 and examines in depth his commitment to Irish self-government and the circumstances of his dramatic expulsion from parliament in 1920. The volume also looks at Mahon’s career as managing director of the Catholic Church Property Insurance Co. and his intervention in Irish politics during the debate over the Anglo-Irish treaty. It is the story of a flawed genius who simultaneously evoked high praise and damning criticism.

Hugh Mahon: Patriot, Pressman, Politician, Volume 2: Politician: the years from 1901 to 1931 (ISBN 9780648061694) is published by Anchor Books Australia, Melbourne (Webpage: anchorbooksaustralia.com.au). It is available from Offaly History bookshop, Bury Quay, Tullamore beside Tullamore DEW. It will also be online for sale from 21 September at http://www.offalyhistory.com. We thank Jeff Kildea for this blog about his work on Mahon and congratulate him on the two-volume work.

Jeff Kildea writes

In 1920 Australia was rocked by a major political scandal that a century later remains unique in Australian political history. In the centre of it all was a native of County Offaly – Hugh Mahon, born in 1857 at Killurin, a village a few kilometres outside Tullamore.

–  Mahon family gathering at Charleville Castle, County Offaly during Mahon’s visit to Ireland in 1922. Mahon is circled in red (Ken Mahon)

The furore arose from a speech Mahon made on 7 November 1920 at a public meeting in Melbourne called to protest the death on hunger strike of Terence MacSwiney, the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork. In front of the 3000 people who had crowded into the Richmond Reserve, Mahon declared:

Never in Russia under the worst rule of the Czars had there been such an infamous murder as that of the late Alderman McSwiney. They were told in the papers that Alderman McSwiney’s poor widow sobbed over his coffin. If there was a just God in heaven that sob would reach round the world, and one day would shake the foundations of this bloody and accursed Empire.

Mahon’s speech was just four days before the second anniversary of the armistice that brought an end to the war in which 60,000 Australians had died fighting for ‘this bloody and accursed empire’. Public reaction was swift and brutal.

Protestant, loyalist and ex-service organisations flooded the government with telegrams, letters, and personal representations demanding Mahon’s removal from parliament. Newspaper editorials followed suit. The Melbourne Argus declared, ‘By his statements Mr. Mahon had done treason to Australia and had insulted and humiliated the overwhelming bulk of his fellow citizens.’

On Armistice Day the Australian Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, gave the baying public what they wanted. That afternoon he proposed in the House of Representatives a motion for Mahon’s expulsion from the federal parliament. After 14 hours of debate the House passed the motion on party lines, thus conferring on Mahon the odious distinction of being the only person ever to have been expelled from the Australian parliament.

The circumstances surrounding these dramatic events are described and explained in a new book, the second volume of Hugh Mahon: Patriot, Pressman, Politician, a two-volume biography that tells the fascinating life-story of this son of the county, whose relations still live in and around Tullamore.

The book’s author, Australian historian Jeff Kildea, had hoped to launch the new volume in person at Tullamore, as he did in 2017 with volume 1, but Covid-19 has prevented him from travelling overseas. Nevertheless, copies of the book are now available in Ireland.

While the first volume looked at Mahon’s early life in Ireland as a journalist and Land League activist and then in Australia as a newspaper reporter, editor and owner, the second volume examines Mahon’s political career.

Elected in 1901 to the first parliament of the newly federated Commonwealth of Australia, Mahon soon developed a reputation as an outstanding parliamentary performer whose policy interests included advocating the rights of Australia’s Aborigines decades before it became a popular cause. He served as a minister in four Labor governments, including the world’s first national labour government in 1904, and was Minister for External Affairs during the first world war.

When William Redmond visited Australia in 1904-05 he persuaded Mahon to shepherd through the parliament a resolution in support of home rule for Ireland. After successfully doing so, Mahon soon gained a reputation as the ‘go-to man’ for Irish and Catholic causes in a country where almost a quarter of the population were Catholics of Irish descent.

In 1907 Cardinal Patrick Moran invited him to deliver the St Patrick’s Day address in Sydney. In 1909 he was a key player in the St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Melbourne, addressed by the  Governor General. In July 1910 he moved a resolution in the House of Representatives requesting the new king George V to omit from the coronation oath references offensive to Catholics.

First Labour Government 1904. Mahon is in the back row on the right of the picture (National Library of Australia)

Mahon’s business interests included insurance and in 1911 the Catholic bishops approached him to establish an insurance company to provide fire and accident cover for the church’s buildings throughout Australia. The company Mahon started still exists today.

In the years preceding the outbreak of the first world war, religious sectarianism between Catholics, mostly of Irish descent, and Protestants, mostly of British descent, became acute. It had been endemic in Australia ever since the founding of the colony in 1788. But it intensified in the early twentieth century when Catholics launched a political campaign for state aid for their schools. This local conflict soon became entangled with the politics of Irish home rule, with attitudes dividing generally along ethno-religious lines. The declaration of war in August 1914, dampened these debates as Australians united in support of the war effort.

However, sectarian conflict re-emerged in 1916 following the Easter Rising and increased a few months later when the federal government called a referendum for October 1916 to determine whether Australia should introduce conscription for overseas service. The Australian Irish for the most part opposed conscription and when the referendum was defeated Prime Minister Hughes and his supporters singled them out for blame. Soon they were being labelled ‘Sinn Feiners, shirkers and pro-German’.

The governing Labor Party split over the issue and Hughes, and his supporters left the party, joining with the Liberal Party to form a new Nationalist Party government. Hugh Mahon sided with the anti-conscription side and remained with the Labor Party, which now found itself in opposition.

In the ‘khaki election’ of 1917 Mahon lost his seat. Out of office, he devoted more time to his business interests and to advancing the cause of Irish self-government. Like most Australian Catholics of Irish descent, Mahon had been a home ruler, but in the years following the Easter rising he gradually moved towards a position of supporting Irish independence. In 1919 he was elected president of the Irish-Ireland League of Victoria, a peak body that represented the growing number of organisations in that state that supported Sinn Féin. At the end of the year he won back his seat in parliament at the general election.

The Argus report of Mahon’s Melbourne speech with the fateful words: ‘this bloody and accursed Empire’ (Argus 8 November 1920, p.7)

The advent of the Irish War of Independence widened Australia’s sectarian divide and as it intensified in 1920, so too did the vicarious conflict in Australia. It was in this context that Hugh Mahon addressed the public meeting in Melbourne at which he castigated the British government and profaned the British Empire.

At the by-election for his seat, Mahon sought vindication from his constituents. But in a campaign fought mainly on empire-loyalty grounds he was narrowly defeated. Out of parliament, Mahon continued his successful business career.

In 1922 he embarked on a trip to Paris to take part in the Irish Race Convention. However, a recurrence of the respiratory ailment that plagued him all his life led to his being hospitalised near Marseilles for three months. Upon recovering he travelled to Rome where he had an audience with the new pope, Pius XI, before making a brief visit to Ireland for the first and last time since his exile 40 years before. He stayed with his nephew John Mahon, secretary of the Offaly County Council, and attended a large family reunion at Charleville Castle.

Mahon’s visit to Ireland coincided with the outbreak of the Civil War. Ever the politician, Mahon gave an interview to the press in support of the pro-treaty side, earning a rebuke from an Irish Labour newspaper for his criticism of the party’s stance over the issue.

On returning to Australia Mahon continued running the Catholic insurance company up until his death in Melbourne in 1931.

Dr Jeff Kildea, is an adjunct professor in Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales and was Keith Cameron Professor of Australian History at University College Dublin in 2014. He is the author of Tearing the Fabric: Sectarianism in Australia 1910-1925 (2002), Anzacs and Ireland (2007), Wartime Australians: Billy Hughes (2008), Hugh Mahon: Patriot, Pressman, Politician, Volume 1 Patriot and Pressman: the years from 1857 to 1901 (2017); To Foster an Irish Spirit: The Irish National Association of Australasia 1915-2015 (2020) (co-author with Richard Reid and Perry McIntyre). (Webpage: jeffkildea.com)