As the decade of centenaries draws to a close, one centenary not on the government’s list of official commemorations is the 1922 visit to Ireland of the Hon. Hugh Mahon, a former cabinet minister in the Australian government. Nevertheless, at a local level, the people of County Offaly may find more than a passing interest in this event from one hundred years ago.
Born in 1857 at Killurin, six kilometres south of Tullamore, Mahon was forced to leave his native land in 1882 and emigrate to Australia to avoid being arrested for his activities in the Land League. Forty years later he returned to Ireland for the first time, visiting family and friends in and around Tullamore. The years in between had been eventful for Mahon, leading to one of the most contentious episodes in Australia’s political history. And the return visit to his homeland also was not without controversy.
When Mahon emigrated in April 1882, Ireland was in turmoil. The Land War was in full swing. Scores of members of the Land League had been arrested and interned without trial. Facing arrest for a second time, Mahon left for Australia. When he returned in May 1922, Ireland was again in turmoil. The War of Independence had just come to an end and the country was descending into civil war.
One might be forgiven for thinking that wherever Mahon went trouble was sure to follow. And the story of his life in Australia confirms that suspicion, for it is full of instances of conflict, contention, and controversy.
When Mahon stepped ashore in Melbourne on 22 May 1882 news had just reached the colony of the murder in Phoenix Park of the newly appointed Chief Secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and the long-serving Under- Secretary, Thomas Henry Burke. The anti-Irish element in Australia was quick to link the murders with the Land League’s campaign of boycotting. Employed by the League to solicit support for the cause in the colony, Mahon soon felt the heat.
The following year Mahon helped organise John and William Redmond’s fundraising tour of Australia. Their arrival coincided with news of the hearings of the men charged with the Phoenix Park murders. Once more the anti-Irish element linked the murders with the Land League and the national struggle.
By occupation Mahon was a journalist. When he moved to Western Australia in the 1890s to start a newspaper in the goldfields, trouble again followed him: his printing press was destroyed en route, and his building burnt down. As a newspaperman he pursued stories of corruption in business and government, leading to his being tried four times for criminal libel, beating the charge each time.
In 1901 he was elected to the first parliament of the new Commonwealth of Australia. In his new profession he again became embroiled in controversy. But it was in November 1920 that he staked a unique claim to notoriety when he was expelled from the parliament. His crime was to speak out against British rule in Ireland at a public meeting called to protest the death on hunger strike of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence McSwiney.
In his speech Mahon referred to the British Empire as ‘this bloody and accursed empire’. This was just a few days before the second anniversary of the armistice which had brought an end to the war in which 60,000 Australians had died fighting for that empire. The prime minister, Billy Hughes, moved in the House of Representatives that Mahon be expelled. The motion was carried along party lines and Mahon became the first member to be expelled from the Australian parliament, a record he holds to this day.
Mahon’s visit to Ireland was to be the culmination of a trip to Europe during which he planned to visit Rome and attend the Irish Race Congress (IRC) in Paris in January 1922. Unfortunately, Mahon took ill on the journey from Australia and spent many weeks in hospital near Marseilles, missing the IRC altogether.
The congress turned out to be a hotbed of intrigue as the pro- and anti-treaty factions tried to win over the delegates of the diaspora to their cause. As an experienced politician and a patriot recognised for having suffered for Ireland’s cause, Mahon might have succeeded in mediating between the factions. We will never know.
Despite his reputation as an Irish radical – having been exiled from Ireland and then expelled from the Australian parliament for his views on Irish self-government – Mahon adopted the pro-treaty side. As far back as 1907 Mahon had anticipated Michael Collins’ stepping-stones argument when he had told a St Patrick’s Day meeting, ‘If our opinion were asked, I think we should say to Ireland: “Take the best terms you can get and make of them a lever to extract something better afterwards.”’ Before landing in Ireland, Mahon wrote home that he hoped to contribute to the Irish election campaign on behalf of Michael Collins and the treaty.
In Ireland Mahon controversially entered the treaty debate. Soon after arriving in Dublin, he had seen for himself the dreadful effect of the split when he witnessed the attack on the Four Courts.
In an interview published in the Irish Independent and Dublin’s Freeman’s Journal, Mahon launched an attack on the Irish Labour Party. Mahon, a member of the Australian Labor Party, rebuked his sister party for its criticism of the Free State government for not convening the Dáil to debate the civil war.
Mahon told the reporter in a somewhat didactic and patronising tone that it was the role of the executive government ‘to defend the nation from outside aggression or domestic revolt’:
A Government that waited until all parties in Parliament were agreed as to measures of defence, while all the time the enemy was consolidating for attack, would scarcely deserve the name of a Government at all.
He then set out the actions which he believed that Australia would adopt were that country faced with the situation in Ireland:
Australia would settle this trouble by counting heads instead of breaking them; would rely on ballots instead of bullets to overthrow a Government that had lost its confidence. This method may have its defects, but at any rate it does not entail on the country the devastation which a policy of violence has inflicted on Ireland.
The Irish Independent endorsed Mahon’s remarks in an editorial in which the editor urged: ‘Those still persisting in resistance and their supporters should ponder upon the wise and dispassionate statement by Mr Mahon’.
But not everyone was pleased with Mahon’s intervention, especially the Irish Labour Party. One of its organs, Voice of Labour, published an article entitled ‘No Daniel Come to Judgment’ in which it rebuked Mahon for his impertinence in criticising in the anti-Labour Press the party ‘of which he knows nothing’.
True to form, trouble had once more followed Hugh Mahon. While Mahon the controversialist no doubt revelled in being in the cockpit of the revolution then taking place in Ireland, it would have come as a relief to leave Dublin for Tullamore where he renewed acquaintances and rediscovered familiar places he had left behind forty years before.
Weeks before his arrival the local press had foreshadowed his return, recounting the reasons for his departure, the successes he had enjoyed in his adopted land, and the stands he had taken for Ireland. During his month-long visit to Tullamore, Mahon stayed with his nephew John Mahon, secretary of the Offaly County Council, making several trips to his old home at Killurin and calling on numerous relatives in nearby villages.
The highlight of the visit was a huge picnic at nearby Charleville Forest where a family reunion was held in August with upwards of 75 guests partaking of what the Offaly Independent described as ‘a sumptuous repast’ before a cameraman brought in from Portarlington photographed the group.
In September Mahon began his return journey to Australia. Earlier, the Free State government had sounded him out as to whether he would be willing to serve as Irish Consul-General to Australia. Although Mahon met with External Affairs Minister Desmond Fitzgerald and other members of the cabinet to discuss the appointment, in the end nothing came of it.
After returning to Australia, Mahon slipped out of public life, his name appearing only occasionally in the press. But he was far from idle. He resumed as managing director of Catholic Church Property Insurance Company, working out of its Melbourne office with a yearly visit to Sydney for the annual general meeting. It was following one such AGM that Mahon on returning to Melbourne died at his home on 28 August 1931.
When the parliament met to pass the usual condolence motion for one of its deceased members, Roland Green MP, a veteran of the First World War, broke with convention to express dissent from the motion, citing Mahon’s attack on the British Empire more than a decade before. Even in death, Hugh Mahon could not escape controversy.
Offaly History adds a report of the Mahon reunion picnic at Charleville Demesne, Tullamore, August 1922.
Mahon Family Reunion at Tullamore
As reported by the Midland Tribune, 26 August 1922 [also Offaly Independent, 19 August 1922].
The Hon Hugh Mahon who was Minister to several Governments in the Federal Parliament of Australia, while on a visit to his nephew, Mr John Mahon, Secretary, Offaly County Council, availed of the occasion to have a re-union of his numerous relatives in Offaly County. The event took the form of a picnic in Charleville Forest, and upwards of 75 guests were present, including the families of Mr James Mahon, Ballycommon; Mr Hugh Mahon, Killurin; and Mr John Mahon, secretary, County Council, his nephew; Mr James Scally, Cloneygowan, a former member of Offaly County Council, his wife, who is a nephew of the Ex-Minister, and their children; Messrs Matthew and Mark Horan, Ballinamire and, Ballycowan, and their children; Miss Mary Horan, Ballinamire; Mr Myles Shortall and family; Messrs Matt and Bryan Donnelly, Cadamstown, and the latter’s family; Mrs Quinn and family, Culleen, Durrow; Mrs T Gonoude, Holmshill; Mrs E Beahan, Currahmeela, Blueball, etc, with Dr J E Mahon, the Hon Hugh’s son. The catering was carried out by Mr Thomas English, and after a sumptuous repast the guests were photographed [by a Portarlington photographer]. Mr Mahon paid several visits to his old home at Killurin, and also visited relatives in Cloneygowan, Ballycommon, Ballinamire, Durrow. It is understood he intends to return to Australia by the end of September. He was present at President Griffith’s funeral in Dublin.
Dr Jeff Kildea is an adjunct professor in Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales. In 2014 he held the Keith Cameron Chair of Australian History at University College Dublin. He is the author of Tearing the Fabric: Sectarianism in Australia 1910-1925 (2002); Anzacs and Ireland (2007); Wartime Australians: Billy Hughes (2008), and co-author of To foster an Irish spirit: The Irish National Association of Australasia 1915-2015 (2020).
Dr Kildea is also the author of
Hugh Mahon: Patriot, Pressman, Politician, Volume 1: the years from 1857 to 1901 (ISBN 9780992467180) published by Anchor Books Australia, Melbourne in 2017 (Webpage: anchorbooksaustralia.com.au) and available from Offaly History Centre.
The second volume was published in 2020 as Hugh Mahon: Patriot, Pressman, Politician, Volume 2: Politician, The years from 1901-1931
Both books are available from Offaly History, Bury Quay and at our online shop at www.offalyhistory.com We are grateful to Dr Kildea for his generous help in preparing this article and for his work on Hugh Mahon. Mahon is one of only a few Offaly men to have a two-volume biography.
Pics, captions and report of reunion by Offaly History