Ireland’s first diplomatic representative to the Commonwealth of Australia

To mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Australia, and the arrival of Ireland’s first diplomatic representative in Canberra, Dr Thomas Joseph Kiernan, the Canberra and District Historical Society, in association with the Embassy of Ireland, organised an afternoon of relevant presentations on 12th July 2017. Papers were presented by: Tony Eastaway on early Embassy accommodation; Dr Richard Reid on T J Kieran’s reception in Sydney; Professor Jeff Kildea on some of the early names in the Embassy Visitors’ Book; and Dr Jeff Brownrigg on Kiernan’s famous singer wife, Delia Murphy.
I have called this presentation TJ Kiernan – ‘I spent Easter Week in Sydney’ for reasons that will become obvious. This gathering is about an anniversary, the anniversary of the arrival amongst us of an independent Ireland’s first diplomatic representative to the Commonwealth of Australia, Dr Thomas Joseph Kiernan.


Image 1 T J KiernanDr Thomas Joseph Kiernan, Ireland’s first diplomatic representative in Australia between 1946 and 1954. Initially Kiernan was not styled as ‘Ambassador’ but as ‘Minister Plenipotentiary and Representative of Ireland in Australia’. (Carol Kiernan, from DFAT online exhibition ’70 Years of Diplomatic Representation’)

At the highest government level Kiernan’s appointment was but the beginning of a lengthy wrangle over diplomatic forms and titles, a wrangle chiefly carried on by the Menzies administrations of the period 1950 to 1965.

Menzies’ question was – what was Dr Kiernan exactly? Was he the representative of that portion of Ireland which, with the declaration of the Republic of Ireland in 1949 and the country’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth, now lay outside His Majesty King George VI’s realms? Was he the Ambassador for Ireland? The Irish High Commissioner?

This now ‘foreign’ country, the conservative and loyalist Australian press delighted in describing as somewhere called ‘Eire’. To them Kiernan was not the representative of the ‘Ireland’ of the six counties of that geographical entity which lay outside ‘Eire’ and which had remained loyal to His Majesty as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So Kiernan’s reception by a significant official section of the Australian population was wary, to say the least, and continued that suspicion of Ireland and the Irish exacerbated by the country’s neutrality in World War 2.

Something of the flavor of that suspicion, and the derision of the Irish to which it led, can be seen from reputed exchanges in Canberra in the Commonwealth Parliament on this issue.

Image 2 Daniel_MinogueDaniel Minogue, born Feakle, County Clare, 1893; died, Sydney, New South Wales, 1983. (Wikipedia)

The then Member for West Sydney, Daniel Minogue, who held the seat from 1949 to 1969 and spoke with the recognizable country accent of east County Clare, was wont to ask questions about the Menzies government’s refusal to appoint someone with full ambassadorial status to Dublin. Minogue’s brogue was supposedly greeted with sotto voce rumblings (from the Country Party benches no doubt) of ‘get back to the bog’.


A search of Hansard online reveals Minogue’s questions but not these unparliamentary remarks. But Kiernan’s reception from that strong, but minority element in Australian society, Catholic Australia, with its strong ancestral and ecclesiastical roots in the emigration here of the Catholic Irish throughout the 19th century, was rather different, although with a complexity to it not perhaps evident to Anglo Australia.

It is significant that Dr Kiernan and his family – wife and famous singer Delia Murphy and his youngest children, son Colm and daughter Orla – chose to finally disembark from their voyage to Australia in Melbourne on Friday 27 September 1946.

Image 3 Kiernan and Family with Mannix T J Kiernan and family with Archbishop Daniel Mannix shortly after their arrival in Melbourne in September 1946. From left to right: Orla Kiernan, T J Kiernan, Archbishop Mannix, Delia Kiernan (better known as the singer Delia Murphy), Colm Kiernan. (Carol Kiernan, from DFAT online exhibition ’70 Years of Diplomatic Representation’)

At some point before 9 October they visited the city’s most famous Irishman, Archbishop Daniel Mannix, where they were photographed for the press with the Archbishop.

According to the Canberra Times the Kiernans slipped quietly into Canberra sometime during the week beginning Monday 14 October. On 21 November they were back in Melbourne for what was advertised by the city’s leading Catholic paper The Advocate as a great ‘Catholic Welcome to Dr Kiernan’. A letter from Mannix, in his own handwriting and published on the paper’s front page, stated, in oracular fashion,

‘I am confident that the reception to Ireland’s representative will be worthy of the man and the occasion’.

Mannix Letter in Advocate  Archbishop Mannix’s letter in the Advocate on 13 November 1946 recommending the official welcome to T J Kiernan in Melbourne on 21 November. 

Reports of the actual occasion on 21st November refer to a ‘Great Night for the Irish’, one photograph revealing it to have been an overpoweringly ecclesiastically led event, the front stage a riot of biretta’s and cassocks. Birettas and Cassocks  

T J and Delia Kiernan are shown on stage, safely surrounded by the clergy, at the official welcome to Kiernan in Melbourne Town Hall on 21 November 1946 (Advocate, 27th November 1946)

Mannix made the expected speech getting straight up the noses of loyal Australia by calling Kiernan the representative of the whole of Ireland. No United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland here. It was left to the new Irish representative to say something about the Irish in Australia whose ancestors he described as ‘lumber’ ejected by events like the Great Famine (he knew little if anything of the reality of Irish/Australian 19th century emigration) but whose descendants made Australia the ‘strong and sturdy nation it was today’. Was this all there was to Australia’s Irish connections? As we will see Kiernan was soon to learn a lot more about that.

It is no surprise that Melbourne was allowed to take the lead, as it were, in welcoming the Kiernans. Ireland’s new representative had been appointed by then Irish Prime Minister (or Taoiseach) Eamon de Valera, the great republican who had, at the settlement of 1921 with Britain after the Anglo/Irish war, led the opposition to Ireland remaining in the Commonwealth.  Mannix was perhaps the only significant Irish born cleric to stick by de Valera throughout the ensuing Irish Civil War.

In 1938, when the Archbishop was completing the building of Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral by adding the great spires, de Valera, on behalf of the people of Ireland sent him a large cross to place on top of one of the spires. It’s still there, one might say, a republican Irish cross towering over Victoria’s parliament building and the central city.

What then of the so-called ‘Premier State’, New South Wales, and the mother city of the commonwealth, Sydney, in all this welcoming of the Kiernans? Sydney’s initial welcome event looks, at first glance, almost a mirror image of the one in Melbourne.

It was conducted in the presence of Australia’s premier Catholic cleric, native-born Cardinal Norman Gilroy, and on the program Gilroy’s name was prominently placed.

Image 6 Sydney's Welcome page 1

Front page of program ‘Sydney’s Welcome to His Excellency Dr. Thomas J Kiernan’, 3 February 1947. (Patrick O’Farrell Papers, Box 68, Ms 6265, National Library of Australia)
Image 7 Middle Pages Sydney's Welcome programImage 7 – Middle pages of ‘Sydney’s Welcome’ program.
Image 8 Back page Sydney's Welcome program Back page ‘Sydney’s Welcome’ program

In small print beneath were the names of the organising committee presided over by Commonwealth High Court Judge Edward ‘Eddie’ McTiernan. Both men represented the heights of Sydney Catholic respectability, and both had impeccable Celtic connections, Irish born immigrant parents. The event format, with 3,000 crowded into the Sydney Town Hall on 2 February 1947, again seemed very Melbourne like. There were ‘respectable’ Irish musical performances with standard Irish songs such as the ‘Wild Hills of Clare’, a nod perhaps in the direction of Dan Minogue who was present, and the dance the ‘Blackbird’, a dance with the same name as one of Mrs Kiernan, the famous singer Delia Murphy’s, equally well-known song, ‘The Blackbird’. Ex-students of the Sisters of Mercy, Parramatta, played Irish melodies; there were two songs from the man whose poems set to music were emblematic of Irish 19th century emigrant nostalgia, Thomas Moore; and the whole finished off with a four hand reel from the dance pupils of Sydney’s beat known Irish dance teacher, Miss Molly McCabe. McTiernan led off the speeches, followed by Irish born Monsignor William Hurley, one time administrator of St Mary’s Cathedral, then Gilroy and finally Kiernan. Gilroy’s comments referred to what Catholic Australia owed the Irish priests, nuns and brothers as the bringers of the faith.

Kiernan stressed how modern and rational Ireland was becoming, a nation that fitted his billing as a Ph.D. graduate, not of an Irish university, but the University of London, and someone and who had written a book on British wartime finances. The very representative of a modern, developing, independent country.

As Kiernan finished there occurred what looked like a completely spontaneous and unscripted finale.

A male voice from the audience called out for Mrs Kiernan, Delia Murphy, to give them a song. She proceeded to sing four, which brought the house down. As President John Kennedy said of his famous visit to France in the early 1960s, he would remain in popular memory as the President who has accompanied Jackie Kennedy to Paris. So Dr Kiernan might be remembered as the Irish diplomat who brought Delia Murphy to Sydney.

Elements of this Sydney event reveal a slightly more emphatic nod towards an independent Ireland than Mannix’s welcome in Melbourne.

The program offered the audience the words, in English, of this new Ireland’s national anthem, ‘The Soldier’s Song’, although the title of Australia’s anthem at the time, ‘God Save the King’, was clearly there in print. Even among Catholic Australian’s of Irish descent you didn’t need to print the words for ‘God Save the King’. There is no evidence from newspaper reports that ‘The Soldier’s Song’ was sung at the Melbourne welcome but without seeing the official printed program (there must surely have been one) we can’t be sure.

But, we might ask, who was responsible for organizing these two welcomes? In Melbourne the evening was listed in The Advocate under a regular column called ‘Diocesan Events’, with the official emblem of the diocese above the list. So, it was led by the clerics. To realise who was responsible for the Sydney welcome you have to look closely at the program, especially at the names of the organizing committee in small print.

While Judge McTiernan might have supplied the official face as it were on the committee the real workers were Sydney city Alderman Tony Doherty (possibly born in Ireland – the Sydney City historians can’t find an Australian birth certificate for him) and Monsignor Walter Joseph Hurley, born in Newbridge, County Kildare, parish priest at Bondi and one-time Administrator of St Mary’s Cathedral, one of the best known Irish churchmen in the city. Both men were prominent members of a Sydney organization called the Irish National Association, the INA, Doherty being its Honorary Secretary. Extant minutes of the INA show that all profits from the Sydney welcome went to that organization not to diocesan coffers.

The INA began in 1915 and, although its first committee was largely composed of immigrant Irish, the driving force behind its foundation was Australian born Albert Dryer.

Image 9 Albert DryerDr Albert Dryer, c.1940 (nla.obj-141809638, National Library of Australia – online catalogue record)

Dryer was a convert to the concept of complete Irish separatist nationalism. To put it simply, he believed that Ireland had not only been physically colonized by England but that Irish minds, and hence the minds of Australia’s Irish settlers, had been similarly colonized and Anglicised. It became his life’s work to alter this among Australians of Irish descent, to demonstrate to them their Irish heritage and open their minds to an Irish, as opposed to an Anglo, or Anglo/Australian, way of seeing the world.

And Dryer had suffered in this cause. In 1918, along with seven other men, all Irish born, he was interned in Darlinghurst Gaol under the War Precautions Regulation of 1915, Section 56 A, which authorised a person to be detained without trial where the Minister was of the opinion that, for securing the public safety and the defence of the Commonwealth, it was expedient in view of the hostile origin or associations of that person that he should be detained in military custody ( I am grateful to Professor Kildea for this precise description of the legal authorization for the detainment of the Irish Darlinghurst internees.).

Dismissed from his job at the Federal Department of Customs Dryer, led a hand-to-mouth existence until the mid-1930s when, by sheer persistence, he qualified as a medical doctor. By the mid-1940s he was again a member of the INA’s executive and one of the prime movers, along with men like Dan Minogue and Tony Doherty, behind that organisation’s significant revival at that time.

And it was Dryer who, in 1947 after the fairly low key, conventional embrace of Kieran at the Town Hall, now choreographed and produced a full-blown acknowledgement of this first representative of de Valera’s independent Ireland. It went far beyond a conventional and inoffensive program of Irish musical fun and light nostalgia into the realm of Ireland’s tragic but ultimately triumphant journey to independence exemplified by the national leaders in that centuries-old struggle, and how they had been honoured, and would continue to be honoured, in Australia.

Image 10 INA Easter Week leaflet 1Irish National Association Easter Week Program leaflet outlining events for an ‘Official Irish Welcome’ to T J Kiernan, April 1947. (INA Collection, Sydney)

This would not be a one-night-stand, so to speak, but a whole week of festivities and commemorations. More importantly, these would be held during that most significant period for modern Irish republican history, Easter Week. It was during Easter Week 1916 that the rebellion against British rule in Ireland occurred from which the modern Republic of Ireland dates its inception, the famous ‘Easter Rising’.

One of two centrepieces of this week-long series of events in Sydney was a grand concert in the Sydney Town Hall on the night of Easter Monday 1947, 31 years after the Rising. This was no occasion for yells from the audience to Mrs Kiernan for a song but a three-hour presentation of Irish history focusing on Ireland’s contribution to Christianity and the struggle for national independence. Here it was T J Kiernan who was the presiding deity, not a Catholic cleric, and, ignoring what had happened in that same Town Hall on 3 February, the concert was advertised in the Catholic press as the ‘official Irish welcome’ to this ‘Minister Plenipotentiary for Ireland’.Image 11 Easter Week Concert front page

INA Easter Week Concert program, front page. (INA Collection, Sydney)

Moreover, it was clear from the front page of the program that everything was being organized by the Irish National Association. The first two inside pages also made it clear that the special honour on this occasion was for the rebels of Easter Week 1916 and the ‘Proclamation’ they had signed declaring Irish independence. In a country used to the Anzac injunction of ‘Lest We Forget’ the program suggested words for remembering these Irish freedom fighters, men like the executed leader of the rebellion, Patrick Henry Pearse:

 They shall be remembered for ever.
They shall be alive for ever.
They shall be speaking for ever.
The people shall hear them for ever.

Image 12 INA Easter Week concert middle pages.JPG INA Easter Week program, middle pages. (INA Collection, Sydney)

The program featured eight back/drop tableaux each depicting an event in Ireland’s past – St Patrick’s lighting of the Pascal fire on the Hill of Slane on Easter Monday 433 AD; the spread of the Irish missionaries throughout the world between the 5th and 20th centuries (British Empire, what British Empire?); King Brian Boru’s defeat of the Danes at Clontarf in 1014; the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in 1169; the Flight of the Earls in 1607; the trial of Robert Emmett in 1803; the graveside panegyric of Patrick Pearse for O’Donovan Rossa in 1915; and the finale, the victory of Easter Week 1916. Accompanying the tableau was a historical commentary enlivened by music, dancing and patriotic song, songs such as ‘The Tri-Coloured Ribbon’, written by Peadar Kearney the author of the ‘Soldier’s Song’, in which a young girl recalls the death of her lover for Ireland in the Easter Rising. At the Town Hall it was rendered by Miss Jeanette Rooney:

The struggle was ended, they brought me the story
The last whispered message he sent unto me
‘I was true to my land, love, I fought for her glory
And gave up my life for to make Ireland free’.

For all around my hat I wear a tri-coloured ribbon, oh
All around my hat until death comes to me
And if anybody’s asking me why do I wear it
It’s all for my own true love I never more will see.

 Image 13 1798 Memorial Sydney.JPG1798 Memorial, Waverley Cemetery, Sydney, New South Wales (R Reid)

The emotional heart of these Easter Week activities, the first centrepiece if you like, was a ceremony at Sydney’s 1798 Memorial in Waverley Cemetery on Easter Sunday 1947. This memorial, built between 1898 and 1900, commemorated the great rebellion in Ireland of 1798 after which a large number of rebels were transported to New South Wales. Joining them in 1803, exiled but not transported, was Michael Dwyer, known as ‘The Wicklow Chief’ for his evading capture for over four years after the rebellion in the Wicklow Mountains.

Accompanying him were other Wicklow rebels, his associates also exiled, and his wife Mary Dwyer. In 1898, watched by a crowd estimated in the tens of thousands, Michael and Mary Dwyer’s remains were processed through the streets of Sydney and reburied at the site of the proposed 1798 Memorial. This elaborate memorial, with the names of many 1798 leaders engraved on its rear wall, and the bones of Michael and Mary Dwyer lying beneath its high, Celtic cross, is arguably the most elaborate structure of its kind anywhere in the world to the 1798 rebellion. From the mid-1920s the INA had been holding at Easter annual services of remembrance. On Easter Sunday 1947, after Holy Communion at St Benedict’s Church Sydney, T J and Delia Kiernan, were taken to Waverley for a solemn ceremony of remembrance for Ireland’s revolutionary heroes but more especially to the memory of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising.

In a lengthy report for the INA Dryer wrote:

The largest assemblage which has ever attended the annual Easter Week pilgrimage to the 98 Memorial at Waverley Cemetery gathered in its thousands on Easter Sunday afternoon … the names of the Easter leaders shot after the Rising were added to those of the other patriots already inscribed there and at the conclusion of the ceremony Dr Kiernan unveiled those names.

Someone we have already referred to in relation to the February Town Hall welcome in the presence of Cardinal Gilroy also addressed the crowd on this occasion, INA member and Parish Priest of Bondi, Monsignor Walter Hurley. He drew particular attention to the significance of Kiernan’s presence among them, a presence captured by a marvellous photograph published in Melbourne’s Irish paper, The Irish Review:

Image 14 Easter Ceremony Waverley 1947.JPGCeremony at 1798 Memorial, Waverley Cemetery, Sydney, 6 April 1947. T J Kiernan is fifth from the right in the front row once again flanked by clerics. (The Irish Review, 2 June 1947)

We meet in a sacred and historic place where lie the mortal remains of Michael and Mary Dwyer … Today we link this great man and those of 98 with the men of Easter Week. Their lives were not sacrificed in vain for today, at last, owing to their mighty sacrifice we enjoy freedom in 26 counties … We rejoice today in having with us Ireland’s first minister, Dr TJ Kiernan. We welcome him because he links us with our kinsmen in Ireland and because he represents an ancient and cultured nation … We are happy today to have inscribed on this monument the names of the martyrs of 1916. These names will be unveiled in a few moments by Dr Kiernan and I am sure he will be proud to do so.

 The Easter Week tableaux concert and the dedication ceremony at Waverley for the names of the leaders of the Rising  proposed a very different narrative for Australia’s historic connections with Great Britain and Ireland. Alongside the Protestant reformation, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar and such like was a parallel Irish story of resistance, rebellion and ultimate national independence. This was the story Albert Dryer, and the INA at that time, wanted to embed and have accepted in the minds of Australians of Irish origin. T J Kiernan’s arrival in 1946 offered the perfect opportunity to publicly display these connections and they made the most of it.

Was any subsequent Irish diplomatic representative in Australia ever feted like this again, made the centre of symbolic attraction, as it were, during a whole week of Irish and Irish Australian events? Were welcomes like this staged in other key locations of the Irish diaspora for the first Irish diplomats sent amongst them, in Washington, London or Ottowa? If they were so greeted we know little about those stories, and until we do we might say that T J Kiernan’s welcome to Sydney, orchestrated by Albert Dryer and the Irish National Association, rates as one of the great stories in the development of modern Ireland’s overseas diplomatic representation since the advent of an independent Ireland in 1921. They certainly went well beyond the supposedly official welcomes presided over by those stalwarts of the Australian Catholic church, Archbishop Daniel Mannix and Cardinal Norman Gilroy. As Albert Dryer wrote at the time:

The great occasion demanded that the welcome should have been made on a worthy scale. The commemoration of the Rising of 1916 provided a most appropriate setting to the salute given to the representative of the Republic which emerged from that historic event. The manner in which the Association [the INA] fulfilled its duty will render Easter Week 1947 forever memorable in the history of Irish activities in Sydney.

 Significantly, The Sydney Morning Herald didn’t even bother covering the events and The Catholic Weekly gave them fairly cursory coverage. But that is another story.

Richard Reid
Dr Richard Reid was the Senior Curator for the National Museum of Australia’s exhibition in 2011, ‘Not Just Ned, A True History of the Irish in Australia, 1788 to the present’. He is currently working on a book on Sydney’s Irish National Association with Dr Perry McIntyre and Professor Jeff Kildea.