Australia and Ireland in the bitter year of 1917

A Feature by Val Noone

Passchendaele: Frank Hurley’s photograph of Menin Road

This is the text of a talk given to the Irish History Circle, Celtic Club Rooms, William Street, Melbourne, 23 October 2017. Some parts have been published in The Journal, 25.2 (Mean Fomhar 2017). The talk was dedicated to the memory of Nell McGettigan, founder with Dan O’Connor, of the Irish History Circle.


My main proposition is that 1917 was a bitter year – probably the most bitter in white Australia’s history – but also one of which Irish Australians can be proud.

  1. Ireland and Australia 1917: the worst war losses

In world history 1917 was dominated by World War I and, at the end of the year, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. In terms of lives lost, 1917 was the costliest year of World War I. For example, at Passchendaele, thousands from the 16th Irish Division of mainly nationalists as well as thousands from the mainly unionist 36th Division died. The labourer and poet Francis Ledwidge died at Passchendaele on 21 July, 100 years ago. Willie Redmond died a month earlier on 7 June leading the Royal Irish Brigade to a victory at Messines Ridge, Ypres. More about him and his Australian connection later.

The media is talking up the centenary on 31 October of the victorious charge of the Australian Light Horse at Bersheba in the Negev desert, in the third British battle of Gaza against the Ottoman Empire in what was then Palestine and is now Israel. The Australians killed 500 Turks and took 1500 prisoners, and 31 Australians were killed. And the effects of the British and French carve up of conquered territories are still unresolved, underlying the conflicts in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and beyond.

On the home front in 1917, despite the propaganda about victory at Bersheba,  most families were more concerned about the Western Front. In the bloody battle of Passchendaele, Australian casualties were 38,000 including 12,000 dead. In 1917 as a whole Australian casualties totalled 76,836, nearly twice as many as in 1916, making 1917 the worst year ever in terms of the number of Australians killed and wounded in war.

This photograph by Frank Hurley shows some of the Australian wounded at Passchendaele – Hurley some of you may know as the photographer who took the famous picture of Tom Crean, the Antarctic explorer from Annascaul, County Kerry. Garry Mahon pointed out that, according to the War Memorial, soon after the photograph was taken a shell landed on top of them.

1917 was a shared experience for hundreds of thousands of people including Ireland and Australia: it was a bitter year for families, parents, wives, sweethearts. And there was more as we shall see.

  1. Ireland 1917:
    conscription averted, Dev elected for East Clare,
    death of Thomas Asche, the Convention

In 1917, John Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary Party continued to support the war but, when England introduced conscription in January, they contributed their political power to keeping conscription out of Ireland. In April 1918 nationalist and republican groups combined to defeat the English parliament’s law to conscript Irishmen.

Major William Redmond: died at Messines, June 1917

Willie Redmond, brother of John, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, showed the courage of his convictions and enlisted at the start, rose to major by 1917 and as mentioned died in June. Both Redmond brothers, as you probably know, married Australians from Orange, New South Wales – John married Johanna Dalton and William her aunt Eleanor Dalton. Willie, then member of Parliament for East Clare, and Eleanor, were in Australia for five months early in 1914 and attended the wedding in January of Sheila O’Donnell and Frank Brennan at St Mary’s, just over there in West Melbourne, bringing a gift from John on behalf of the IPP, “a beautiful tea service, skilfully wrought in Irish silver, modelled on the Ardagh Chalice, and bearing an inscription in Irish”.

As History Ireland commented in July: “To many, Willie Redmond now appears the most tragic representative of the thousands of Irish nationalists who served in 1914-18.”

Éamon de Valera in Volunteer uniform on the steps of Ennis Courthouse in the wake of his East Clare by-election victory of 10 July 1917 (NLI)

Willie Redmond had been MP for East Clare for 25 years. On 10 July 1917, in the by-election caused by his death, Éamon de Valera, with Eoin Mac Neill as his campaign assistant, surprised the commentators by defeating Patrick Lynch, Willie’s successor from the Irish Parliamentary Party, 5010 votes to 2035. Now all could see that Ireland had changed.

On 25 September Thomas Asche, commander of the Fifth Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, later known as the Fingal battalion, in the Easter Rising, died because of bungled forced feeding followed by medical neglect while on hunger strike in Mountjoy Jail. In the current issue of History Ireland Joseph Connell described him as “a fine physical specimen of manhood, courageous and high principled, a poet, painter and … somewhat impractical in military matters”. His death had a noticeable effect in increasing republican recruitment.

Looking at October, since 25 July, the British government had been running what they called the Irish Convention to consider forms of devolved rule for Ireland but also partition. 101 delegates attended under the presidency of Sir Horace Plunkett but Sinn Féin, the Dublin Trades and Labour Council and some others did not attend. The convention kept meeting until March the next year and, being based on a bankrupt British policy, ended in failure.

These snapshots give us a glimpse of the importance of 1917 in Ireland.

  1. Australia 1917: Hughes elected, food riots,
    the Great Strike, No to conscription
May: Hughes election victory

Before going further we must record what initially looks like a puzzle, namely that on 5 May 1917 Billy Hughes, former trade unionist, now leader of the conservative nationalists in the win-the-war party won a federal election. We need to remember that Hughes benefited from the split in the Labor party, he hid the full extent of losses on the Western Front and hid his plan to try again to introduced military conscription.

Bourke Street, Melbourne, 1917: Women’s Peace Army march for food and against rising prices

Women’s Peace Army, food riots

By 1917 most people in Australia could see that the war would not be over quickly. Prices rose and wages did not, wounded men returned with some of them begging at Flinders Street station, mothers and wives learned to live with the loss of loved ones or their shell-shocked state on return: people came to see that this was the same old story of empire versus empire without concern for the workers and farmers who supplied the troops. Most Australians wanted the war to end. This change is often ignored.

Meanwhile, in Brisbane in 1917, Margaret Thorp, 25, born in Liverpool and six years in Australia, a passionate member of the Quakers, reflected on the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’, and on the teachings of Jesus about loving one’s enemies. Critical of support for the war given by the mainstream churches, she linked up with Emma Miller, a veteran activist, and started a branch of the Women’s Peace Army, which had been founded earlier by Adela Pankhurst, Vida Goldstein, Cecilia Johns and others.

Margaret worked full time opposing militarism and conscription. She set out, as the slogan says, to “Love the warrior but hate the war.” She also set out to counteract the myth of heroics in war: “Personally I have a higher regard for a man who is true to his principles and stays at home”.

The Women’s Peace Army had a favourite song, which the government tried in vain to ban, namely ‘I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier’ – which we are going to hear tonight. Here are some lines from the proscribed song:

I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier,
I brought him up to be my pride and joy.
Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder,
To kill some other mother’s darling boy?

The song and the women activists stressed that it was not fear of battle that made a conscientious objector to war but fear of killing other human beings. Holders of this opinion were mocked and persecuted. On one occasion in Brisbane, Cecilia Johns, a superb contralto, sang the banned anthem of the Women’s Peace Army to a meeting of 1000, and the police did not dare arrest her.

The Great Strike

Anger at the continuing war was a contributing factor in what was known as the Great Strike of 1917. The strike began in August in the railway workshops of Eveleigh and Randwick, in Sydney, and spread to other centres including Melbourne, eventually involving some 100,000 workers. It was triggered by management’s attempts to introduced time-and-motion studies and punch cards at the workshops. Underlying the industrial issues was bitterness about the war and rising food prices

The strikers and their families held marches through the city of Sydney every Sunday and rallied in the Domain. Some estimate the crowds at 150,000. You will notice that they all wore Sunday best, coat and tie, and hats.

Class tensions had been building during the war, however, and it is necessary to look outside the railways to explain the extraordinary spread of the dispute. The Piddington Royal Commission reported in 1920 that real wages in Australia fell by approximately 30% between 1914 and 1919.

At one point Adela Pankhurst led a crowd of 20,000 to confront the police outside federal parliament in Melbourne. In Sydney, the daily rallies peaked every Sunday with crowds of up to 150,000.

No to conscription

The numbers enlisting dropped, and so, in 1917, as Britain asked for more, Prime Minister William Hughes tried a second time to introduce conscription for military service, on 20 December 1917. Australia voted No each time, and by a bigger margin in 1917.

Let us look at the role of Irish Australians in the campaign against conscription. Many Irish Australians – since 1890 the  majority Australian born – were trade unionists. In 1917, the Australian Irish were often stereotyped, somewhat like Australian Muslims today, but they were diverse.

For example, here in Melbourne, Dublin-born Canon Alexander Leeper of the Anglican Trinity College and Derry-born Rev J L Rentoul of the Presbyterian Ormond College actively encouraged enlistment, campaigned for conscription, and spoke of opponents as traitors. However, many Protestant rank-and-file trade unionists were active against conscription.

Middle-class Catholics in Melbourne such as lawyers Vincent Nolan and Frank Gavan Duffy and the Jesuit rector of Xavier College Father James O’Dwyer advocated conscription. As you know, the vast majority of Irish Australian Catholics came to oppose conscription.

A story from my family history. My Uncle Lou Noone put his age up to go to World War I, won a medal and survived while my Uncle Joe Devlin on the other side of the family said it was a trade war, refused to go and with his mates had the habit of refusing to stand at the picture theatre for the playing of God Save the King. Both Lou and Joe, however, were opposed to conscription for the war.

John Curtin, Creswick-born son of Irish immigrants, future prime minister, was a full-time organiser for the national trade union anti-conscription committee, going to jail for defying the call-up; the number of rank-and-file activists was legion. Galway-born Tom Glynn was editor of Direct Action, paper of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, and suffered four years in jail for his beliefs. Lesbia Keogh Harford, poet and activist, was against conscription. In the Women’s Peace Army, two Irish Australians were outstanding: Vida Goldstein and Bella Guerin. Guerin, born at Williamstown of Irish migrant parents, educated at Loreto Convent, Ballarat, first woman graduate of Melbourne University, a school principal in Brunswick, was jailed in Pentridge for her activism. Goldstein, founder of The Woman Voter, was the daughter of Jacob, a migrant from Cork. Irish Australians were well represented among labour and radical activists before Archbishop Daniel Mannix came to the fore.

Now, to Mannix. After living most of his life in Maynooth, four years as parish priest in the working-class suburb of West Melbourne from 1913 to 1917 had changed Mannix. Activists in the peace movement could hardly believe their eyes and ears when Archbishop Daniel Mannix, leader of the Catholic Church in Melbourne, opposed conscription and in January 1917 at the opening of a new Christian Brothers’ school at St Ambrose’s, Brunswick he declared the war to be “a trade war”. In this instance the overwhelmingly working-class flock influenced their shepherds. Influenced by his well-organised working class flock, Mannix was echoing the views of labour leaders.

Extra weight was given to Mannix’s speeches against compulsory military service by three aspects of the policies of Pope Benedict XV, who was neutral on the war; second, he declared that military conscription was an evil; and third, he used Vatican diplomats to attempt a peace negotiation during 1917.

Late in 1917, as the Irish Convention in Dublin was moving to failure and the future of Ireland became more pressing, the Young Ireland Society in Melbourne organised a mass meeting in support of Irish self-determination, no longer merely asking for Home Rule. The trustees of the Exhibition Buildings refused them its use. A famous entrepreneur by the name of John Wren offered them the use of his Richmond Racecourse. On 5 November 1917 a crowd of possibly 100,000 rallied in support of Ireland in Richmond and Archbishop Daniel Mannix delivered a fiery speech for Ireland, against the Empire and for free speech in Australia. “There is a nation whose scars are deeper than Belgium’s scars,” he said.

In 1917 Mannix was both an Irish Australian hero and a working-class hero. As Mannix himself said, some three-quarters of the huge crowds at his speeches on conscription were not Catholics.

In 1917 the establishment held an enlistment and pro-conscription meeting at Melbourne Town Hall. Outside, Mary McGowan was arrested for singing ‘God Save Ireland’.

However, I want to insist that the central factor in the No votes on conscription was the work of the organised working class organisations. The Irish factor was not the most influential: it was a catalyst with a multiplier effect.

  1. The Bolshevik revolution

On Wednesday of this week, 25 October or 7 November in the old Russian calendar, comes the centenary of the uprising in Petrograd known now as the Bolshevik Revolution, leading to the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The implications of that are enormous and still being thrashed out. We could have another session on all of that. On this occasion, without going into details, it is timely to remember that most working-class activists in Ireland and Australia, and indeed around the world, found this amazing victory a source of enormous encouragement.

Conclusion: honest remembering of 1917

In summary then, 1917 was marked in both Ireland and Australia by massive war losses. In Ireland the year included such events as de Valera being elected in Clare; the failed Convention in Dublin; Thomas Asche’s death; and the growth of republican strength. In Australia 1917 saw growing opposition to the war; the growth of the Women’s Peace Army; food riots in Melbourne; the Sydney-based Great Strike; and conscription defeated. Indeed, both countries defeated conscription – Ireland more decisively in 1918 – and both experienced the shock waves of the Bolshevik revolution.

The Australian government and the mainstream press are spending millions of dollars to remember World War I. In this presentation I have aimed to take seriously sufferings of the Anzacs while asking for an honest history of the era, one which recognises the plight of the families of workers and farmers at home, caused by the war.

1917 was for many a year of rising prices, fixed wages, food shortages, industrial action, bitter public and in some cases family divisions. However, the Australian labour and peace movement had an outstanding success when Australia voted No in the second referendum by a bigger majority.

Tens of thousands of ordinary Irish Australians like Mary McGowan played an important part in that victory for democracy, which is to this day outstanding in world history. As far as I know, that rejection of conscription was a world first, a history to be proud of and tell our children and grandchildren about. 1917 was a bitter year but also one of which Irish Australians can be proud of. Sin é mo scéal.

  • Val Noone is a Fellow of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne.