The Darlinghurst Seven – Irish ‘Sinn Fein’ internees in Australia during WW1
By Keith Harvey
Viewed from a distance of 100 years, most Australian recollections of the years of the First World War would go naturally to pride in the accomplishments of the ANZACs. The exploits of the Australian Diggers at Gallipoli, on the Western Front and in Palestine were said, then and now, to be the making of the young nation of Australia.
Australia is united in its recognition of the performance of its soldiers during WW1. But the political and social history of Australia during the war years records a turbulent society that was far from united and in particular bitterly divided on the question of conscription of Australians to serve in a conflict that was, almost entirely, fought far from Australian shores.
In 1914, Australia was neither in law nor in fact an independent nation; rather it was a self-governing dominion of Britain and an integral part of the British Empire. It was at war with Germany and its allies because the British Empire was at war with Germany. Its armed forces were under the control of British commanders at the highest levels.
Australians initially embraced participation in the war, including those of Irish Catholic birth or heritage, who enlisted voluntarily in the same proportion as their share of the Australian population generally.
For many of Irish origin, attitudes to the war altered after the Easter Uprising of 1916. Initially, many Australian Irish associations, which had supported the policy of Home Rule, opposed the uprising but the brutal suppression of the rebellion by British authorities and its treatment of the ringleaders changed many minds.
The First World War was fought, according to the UK Government, to defend the rights of small nations, that is, Belgium. Indeed Ireland had been promised independence in return for supporting England during World War I. Many Irish began to wonder why the rights of small nations did not also apply to the small nation of Ireland.
A small number of citizens of Irish extraction decided that it was better to fight for Ireland than for the Empire:
There were, however, some Irish-Australians prepared to go further and attempt to assist the rebels. In 1916 two Irishmen residing in Melbourne – seventy-three year-old Tipperary-born miner Maurice Dalton and Drogheda-born shipwright John Doran-founded an organisation they called the’ Australian Division of the Irish Republican Brotherhood’ (IRB(A). Dalton was an IRB veteran who had fought Crown forces at Ballyhurst County Tipperary in 1867. Half a century later he still wanted ‘perfidious Albion’ to be ‘humbled to the dust’.
By 8 July 1916 Doran had left Melbourne and established an IRB(A) cell in Sydney. Members were recruited from the fiercely nationalistic Irish National Association (INA). Within months Australian IRB volunteers numbered more than fifty.
(Garrath O’Keeffe, Australia’s Irish Republican Brotherhood, JRAHS.Vol. 83 Part 2)
The Irish National Association [INA] had been formed in Sydney in July 1915 by the remarkable Albert Dryer, an Australian born person of Irish descent on his mother’s side and of German origin on his father’s side. This was a potent combination in WW1 Australia. The INA was, according to Patrick O’Farrell, ‘the only organisation whose immediate response to the [Easter] rebellion was sympathetic.’ (Patrick O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia, p 259)
More militant members of the INA formed the core of the IRB (A). This group was unable to anything of significance to fight for Irish freedom as communication with the IRB itself was virtually impossible, although contact via Irish organisations in the USA was attempted. However, the decision to form the IRB (A) was a fateful decision for seven of its members as events in 1918 were to show. The activities of this nascent organisation [and the INA] and their members soon came under scrutiny by Australia’s new intelligence agencies. Some of the records of their surveillance, including mail intercepts, can now be viewed online via the National Archives of Australia – [NAA] – [search for Irish internees and Albert Dryer and Thos Fitzgerald].
Following the horrific casualties at Gallipoli and in France, voluntary enlistment in the Australian Imperial Force [1st AIF] slowed. In response, Labor Prime Minister W M ‘Billy’ Hughes determined to introduce conscription to Australia. This decision ultimately split the Labor Party in office federally and in several States where Labor Premiers threw their lot in with Hughes and campaigned in support of conscription which was bitterly opposed by most ALP State Branches and by the union movement. Hughes himself had to form a new party the ‘National Labor’ party to retain office.
Two referenda were held by the Hughes government, in 1916 and in 1917 to seek support for conscription for overseas service. Both failed to get the support of a majority of voters in a majority of States although the popular vote overall showed only a narrow majority against conscription of about 52%. In other words, the issue split the nation down the middle as well as splitting the ALP.
It is well known that Melbourne’s Archbishop Daniel Mannix was a prominent opponent of conscription, although in the 1916 vote Victoria narrowly supported conscription (but voted the other way in 1917). One Labor Government had remained largely intact in the face of this divisive issue, that of the Premier of Queensland, T J Ryan, who was of Irish Catholic heritage. Ryan’s role in the anti-conscription campaign is perhaps less well known now than that of Mannix.
Hughes and Ryan became bitter opponents in respect to conscription. Hughes used the Federal Government’s powers under the War Precautions Act to hinder the ability of anti-conscriptionists to publicise their case.
In response in November 1917, prior to the second referendum, the Queensland Government attempted to use Parliament to air the arguments against conscription and to publish those arguments in the Queensland Parliamentary Hansard.
The Hughes Government then took the extraordinary step of using Commonwealth military forces in Brisbane to raid the offices of the Queensland Government printer and to destroy all copies of the Hansard as well as the printer’s plates.
Prime Minister Hughes was in Brisbane to campaign for conscription and personally witnessed these events. On his way back to Sydney he undertook a whistle-stop tour of Queensland and NSW towns along the railway line. His meetings were often rowdy, and in Warwick, a strongly Catholic regional town, Hughes claimed to be personally assaulted and was subject to a pelting by eggs, one of which hit his hat.
As he progressed southward, Hughes told crowds of his alleged assault which he attributed to:
The forces arrayed behind the campaign against the Government’s proposals could be divided into three sections, the Germans in Australia, the Sinn Féin and the IWW.
[D. ]. Murphy, Thirteen Minutes of National Glory, The Warwick Egg Incident, 1917]
The IWW or Industrial Workers of the World, was a militant union grouping which the Hughes Government destroyed during the war years by arrests and even execution of members on alleged murder charges.
Hughes now clearly had Irish independence supporters in his sights and was again frustrated in his desire to see conscription introduced when the second referendum was defeated just before Christmas 1917. Hughes determined to crack down on Sinn Féiners, whose mail was already being intercepted by censorship and military intelligence officers. O’Keefe says:
As O’Farrell has suggested, the immediate impetus for a government crackdown on Irish republicans appears to have been a Melbourne St Patrick’s Day procession on 16 March 1918. Mannix attended and over 60,000 lined the streets to view the parade. One group of marchers, from the Melbourne branch of the INA, defiantly paraded with banners and flags of the Sinn Féin movement….
Queensland Premier Ryan received similar mass receptions in Sydney and elsewhere. The Melbourne display reportedly outraged many loyalists who urged Hughes to take action. Accordingly, O’Keefe writes:
Within days the Nationalist government initiated measures to suppress Irish republicanism in Australia. First, efforts were made to have the most obvious Irish separatist, Mannix, recalled by the Vatican. The attempt failed and the [Hughes] Nationalists may well have appreciated that without Vatican support, it would have been impossible to act against Mannix due to his tremendous popularity in some quarters. Secondly, on 28 March 1918 the government moved against other proponents of Irish republicanism by gazetting a regulation under the War Precautions Act ‘directed against Sinn Féin and the Advocacy of the Independence of Ireland’. This authorised Australian Intelligence to search the homes of known Irish republicans. These searches uncovered caches of incriminating IRB (A) documents and led to the eventual arrests….
The searches were carried out from late March and seven prominent members of the INA/IRB(A) were arrested in June 1918. Doran who had co-founded the group in 1916 had left for the USA. Those from Queensland and Melbourne were transferred to Sydney and incarcerated in Darlinghurst Goal. O’Keefe says:
Information on the IRB(A) members is available only on Doran and the seven men eventually interned – Albert Dryer, Edmund McSweeny, William McGuinness, Michael McGing. Maurice Dalton, Frank MacKeown and Thomas Fitzgerald. All, except Dryer, were Irish-born. MacKeown and Dalton lived in Melbourne, Fitzgerald in Brisbane and the others in Sydney. McSweeny and McGuinness claimed to have been previously involved with the IRB in Ireland…
The public learned of the IRB(A) arrests on 19 June 1918 when Watt announced the internment of ‘seven of the ringleaders’ of an ‘Australian Division of the IRB’. Although in breach of fundamental principles of democracy like habeas corpus and trial by jury, cornerstones of Australia’s legal system, the internments were legal as the War Precautions Act had suspended many legal rights due to the supposed exigencies of the war. Watt concluded his announcement by saying ‘in the interests of justice’ a public inquiry would be held into the affair. [O’Keefe]
This led to another confrontation between the Federal Government and the Queensland Premier T J Ryan who again attempted to get around censorship by voicing his concerns about the treatment of the Queensland internee, Thomas Fitzgerald, in the Parliament on 23rd July. The Commonwealth censor again using military forces seized the Government Printing Office and copies of Hansard:
Throughout this time the government appears to have been extremely concerned that public unrest might occur if there was public comment on the internments. In attempting to suppress criticism, however, the government’s actions resembled those of a police state. Newspapers were censored and in July 1918, troops, led by Brigadier-General Irvine, seized the Queensland State Government Printing Office in Brisbane to prevent the publication of Hansard which contained a speech critical of the federal government’s actions. This action was certainly extraordinary and in the opinion of Premier, T J Ryan, represented ‘an intolerable violation of the sovereign rights of this State’. The Parliamentarian who made the speech against the internments, Cuthbert Butler MLA, was later prosecuted for attempting to raise the matter in a newspaper.
A copy of the Hansard has survived and the proceedings of the Queensland Parliament can today be read on the Parliament’s website.
Although the Federal Government had announced a public inquiry into the arrests, it had considerable difficulty in obtaining a judge to preside over it, all High Court judges refusing to do so. Eventually, Hughes ally NSW Premier Hollman [another ALP defector] found a NSW judge John Harvey [no relation to the author!] to do the job. The inquiry was held in public in August. Justice Harvey’s report given to the Government and released publicly in late September. Despite slim evidence at best that these men posed any threat whatsoever to Australia or the British Empire Justice Harvey found that there was reason for concern and the Federal Cabinet determined that the seven men should remained interned indefinitely.
Files and correspondence from Thomas Fitzgerald seeking the return of property seized by him in Commonwealth raids prior to his arrest can be read on the NAA website. They make poignant reading, his initial requests having been made while he was still in Darlinghurst Goal.
All of the internees remained in jail until after the Armistice was signed in November. All were released in December, except Dryer (presumably because of his German ancestry), who was not freed until February 1919. His troubles were not over.
Prior to his arrest, Dryer had been an employee of the Customs Department. On his release, he was sacked by the Department (no unfair dismissal laws were in operation evidently) and he had a number of short-lived business ventures until in the 1930s when he studied for and passed medical exams to become a doctor.
Dryer, who was born in Australia, and who never visited Ireland, remained loyal to the INA until his death. He had become engaged in 1915 but was unable to marry until 1933 because of his financial situation. He had one son and died in 1963, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. His papers, including books and photos are now in the possession of the National Library of Australia and some can be viewed on line.
Further Reading: The Darlinghurst Seven_Sources
The author notes: What is most interesting to me and not available to previous researchers perhaps is that some of the original records are now available for all and sundry to see on the National Archives website – full files in colour – marked Top Secret showing the extent of surveillance of Irish activists back in WW1. The National Library also has a collection of Albert Dryer’s materials which they bought from his descendants and lots of photos but the photo of the Darlinghurst 7 attached I got from an The Bureau of Military History, an Irish website, which has an excellent collection of materials on this matter.