John Fihelly – politician and patriot

John Fihelly’ s name is not widely known. He played an interesting role in the early 20th century in both sport and politics.  An Australian politician of Irish birth, he complemented this achievement by being an integral player in the formation of Rugby League in Australia .

John was born in Timoleague Cork in 1882, but his family soon sought better opportunities in the Great Southern Land. He arrived in Australia in September 1883, the family disembarking from the Duke of Westminster in Brisbane. John attended Petrie Terrace State School, then progressed to St Joseph’s, Gregory Terrace, a school which many other Irish born, and/or sons of immigrants attended.

As a young adult, he worked in a number of jobs in the public service. He was widely read, especially in topics about Ireland, as well as politics in general. He became a contributor to the Labor Movement paper, The Worker, from around 1906. Like many Irish Catholics of the period, he was drawn to the Australian Labor Party, seeing it as a party which was less beholden to the ideals and imagery of the British Empire, than its parliamentary opponents. His interest and involvement in the Labor movement ensured his progress in their parliamentary ranks.

He was first elected to the Queensland parliament in 1912, as the Australian Labor Party member for Paddington in the Legislative Assembly. Fihelly was close to Edward Theodore, better known as ‘Red Ted’, who was later premier of Queensland. Fihelly was a great speaker, witty and assertive in getting his message across. In parliamentary debates he was a performer of note, attacking his opponents, as well as hammering home his political message. By 1914 he became secretary of the parliamentary Caucus, becoming a minister without portfolio in the Ryan Labor Government. He was a key player in drafting early Workers’ Compensation legislation. By 1916 Fihelly was the Minister for Justice. As well as being a fine public performer he used his literary skills to write much of the party’s literature.

Though far from Ireland, he was happy to raise Irish issues in the parliament. Such was his willingness to support Irish dissidents he was often offside with the Queensland establishment. For example he found himself in a position where the Governor Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams refused to talk to him until he apologised for denouncing the British government’s actions in Ireland after the 1916 Easter uprising. Compounding this, he was suspended from the Executive Council, but he remained an outspoken critic of British rule in Ireland as well as being a vociferous opponent on the issue of conscription. Whilst acknowledging these were separate issues he saw no Chinese wall between them.

The anti-conscription campaigns of WWI were a tumultuous time in Australian history. In two plebiscites Australian voters were asked to vote on whether the Federal government had the  power to compel citizens to fight outside the Commonwealth of Australia. In the first plebiscite, voters were asked to pass their judgement on The Military Service Referendum Act of 1916. The Australia-wide voting tally was: 1,087, 332 (48.4%) voting yes to support the government’s proposal  who were narrowly defeated by those opposed to conscription with 1,158, 881 (51.6%) voters voting no. In Queensland 144,017 (47.8%) voted yes, but 157, 049 (52.2%) voted no.

The Hughes Federal Government was nothing if not persistent in their desire to conscript Australian men to fight in the charnel house of WWI. After Hughes’ victory in the federal election of  May 1917, he again sought to convince the voters to support his agenda. Just over a year later, voters returned to the booths. War weariness did not auger well for the efforts to introduce conscription. For a second time Australian voters refused to send their men folk to the bloody battle fields of Europe and the Middle East. With the background of a heavy loss of life, stalemate in the military operations and other factors such as the Easter uprising of 1916, the Russian revolution, and the dedicated work of many progressive minded people in 1916, the second plebiscite also failed. Again the Federal Government’s endeavours to conscript Australians to fight in the bloody conflict of WWI were defeated.

With the Irish uprising of Easter 1916, many associated conscription in Australia as support for British domination in Ireland. Fihelly was prominent in this. In a speech at the Queensland Irish Association on September 2 1916, he stated, ‘that every Irish Australian recruit means another soldier to assist the British Government to harass the people of Ireland.’ He was emphatic both in his support for Irish liberation, and his opposition to conscription for the war, saying,

Why should the Irishmen of Queensland care whether their motives were misconstrued and misinterpreted?

The rest of the speech continued in this vein, with its focus on supporting the people of Ireland as they sought to overthrow the English yoke.

In the Queensland government of TJ Ryan, himself of Irish descent, were two Irish born Cabinet Ministers, John Fihelly and William Lennon. A strong pro-Irish sentiment existed in the government at the time, and it was not just conscription in Australia arousing their ire. In May 1918 a well attended Brisbane public meeting saw a motion moved by Archbishop Duhig, seconded by Premier Ryan, condemning the British intention to introduce conscription into Ireland.

The pejorative term Fihellyism became the currency for conservatives to signify disloyalty to the British Empire, and  became equated with pro-German, and pro-Sinn Fein sympathies. Efforts were made to suspend him from the ministry, but Premier Ryan maintained faith in him. Fihelly continued performing well in state parliament, holding portfolios including Minister for Justice, as well as Railways and in 1920, as Acting Premier he greeted the Prince of Wales on his official visit to Queensland.

After finishing in state parliament Fihelly spent periods on the Greater Brisbane Council, while also working as a public servant. Away from the realms of politics and public service, he is famous in the sporting arena.

Fihelly was instrumental in establishing Rugby League in the North of Australia, as a founder of the Queensland Rugby Association, a predecessor of the Queensland Rugby League. He had previously played for Queensland, then Australia, in Rugby Union. With his support for professionalism in the rugby code(s), he left the world of Union, going across to League. He played seven league matches for Queensland in their inaugural season. Fihelly acted as assistant manager of the first Australian Rugby League team visiting Britain in 1909-10, and held other official postings within the world of Rugby League, including refereeing the 1910 Australia versus England match. He earned the sobriquet of the ‘Father of Rugby League’ in Queensland.

John Fihelly passed away in Brisbane on March 2 1945, and was buried in Toowong cemetery following a state funeral.

Glen Davis
Glen works as a health professional and is from an Irish background