A Feature by Rodney Sullivan and Robin Sullivan, University of Queensland
Warwick is one of Queensland’s most Irish and Catholic towns. This owes much to Brisbane’s first Catholic Bishop, James Quinn, who, in the early 1860s, organised the virtual colonisation of the Darling Downs by his compatriots. By 1911, Warwick boasted a multi-generational Irish population of some 40 per cent. Even today, with a population of 15,000, its citizens have disproportionately high Irish ancestry. In the 2016 census, eleven per cent claimed such origins, compared with the national average of seven and a half per cent.
The Irish stamp on Warwick is inescapable: its heritage-listed, gothic-revival sandstone edifices, the Cloisters (formerly Our Lady of the Assumption Convent) and St Mary’s Catholic Church dominate the townscape. A 1902 statue of Thomas Joseph Byrnes, local member of parliament and Queensland’s first Catholic Irish Australian Premier, presides over the town centre. In the main street shamrocks have been welded into the outer metal door of the 1917 Criterion Hotel. Such material legacies testify to the energy, cohesion and resources of Warwick’s first and second-generation Catholic Irish.
In 1917 Warwick achieved brief national fame, or notoriety, when Prime Minister Hughes was ‘egged’ by Catholic Irish Australians as he attempted a pro-conscription address at the railway station. Alleging complicity of local police, Hughes established a Commonwealth police force. The Warwick egg was a ubiquitous symbol in subsequent anti-Hughes propaganda.
However, the town already had a past rich in symbols. The most prominent and controversial deployed by Catholic Irish from the 1870s to 1917 was the green harp flag. Bearing a gold harp on a green field, this banner was not only aesthetically attractive, but also one of the earliest icons of Irish nationalism. It carried an emotional charge through its association with the 1798 and 1803 rebellions. This flag was displayed from at least 1872 when the Irish community celebrated St Patrick’s Day with a ball and banquet in the Masonic Hall. Subsequently, it flew from the Town Hall tower on St Patrick’s Day and for other Irish celebrations.
By the late nineteenth century Irish nationalism took an increasingly Gaelic and Catholic turn. The triumphant unfurling of green harp flags in Warwick by mainly Catholic Irish Australians contributed to a post-1911 rupture in the town’s public veneer of ethnic and denominational tolerance. The privileging of Ireland’s Gaelic and Catholic past was anathema to Ulster Protestants, who cherished their own memory and identity. The local vehicle for their expression was a pan-Protestant branch of the Orange Order.
Warwick Orange Lodge, Pioneer No. 11, was established early in 1874 and in July commemorated, with a procession, the 184th anniversary of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, which secured Protestant hegemony in Ireland. Orange memory hinged on this victory. It was interpreted as a triumph for democracy and progress and a defeat for a regressive, conspiratorial, medieval Catholic Ireland. The Catholic Hibernian Society, established in 1882, developed a sharply different commemorative tradition. It looked back to an Irish Golden Age prior to English conquest and forward to Ireland regaining, in Robert Emmett’s words from the dock, ‘her place among the nations of the earth.’
By 1914, the Home Rule crisis in Ulster rendered public display of the green harp flag intolerable to the Orange Order. In June, their members on the municipal council moved to terminate the practice of flying ethnic flags on anniversary days. On the casting vote of the Mayor, and in the face of opposition from Irish Catholic representatives, the Council banned all flags from the Town Hall, apart from the Union Jack and the Australian flag.
The militant anti-Catholicism of the Orange Lodge’s July 1914 Battle of the Boyne commemoration invited an Hibernian counter-demonstration. The opportunity appeared on Friday, 18 September, when King George V gave assent to Irish Home Rule (though its implementation was suspended for the duration of the war). The Catholic community in Warwick spent the weekend planning a celebration for Monday 21 September, an exceptional day in the history of the town. Catholic schools suspended classes; students donned Irish colours and paraded through the streets. Some Hibernians refrained from work. A number, including John McEniery, a blacksmith, entered the Town Hall and hoisted a green harp flag from its tower, flouting the council ban on ethnic flags. The spectacle polarised a town already emotionally taut after Australia’s entry to the Great War on 4 August.
After immediate protest from Orange Lodge Councillors, including the Mayor, a Council employee was instructed to remove the banner. Hibernians in the street below observed this lowering of the flag. They rushed into the Town Hall and, after a scuffle on the tower staircase, retrieved the flag and re-hoisted it. The Mayor rang the police, but they declined to act. The Hibernians frustrated further attempts by council employees to take the banner down and guarded the tower steps until nightfall.
They then took the flag through the town singing ‘God Save Ireland’. The procession ended in a paddock outside town where festivities included speeches, singing and a bonfire. The dominant emotion was jubilation at what Hibernian, Michael Brennan, termed Irish emancipation after 150 years of bondage. The celebration ended with the National Anthem and three cheers for the King.
In December 1914, the municipal council, at the urging of Irish Catholic Aldermen rescinded its ban on ethnic flags. Nevertheless, Green-Orange symbolic conflict continued into 1917.
In October 1915, Hibernians rewarded John McEniery, their most prominent flag-bearer, with a blackthorn stick, a kippeen, from Ireland. They claimed it carried a hidden history of their ancestors’ struggle for freedom. The gift was accompanied by a poem ‘To a Blackthorn Stick’, probably composed by Michael Brennan, the society’s expert on Irish history. The verse speculated on the stick’s Irish origins, and its associations with landscapes, rebellions and heroes, among whom it placed McEniery:
As long as we’re boys young and fiery/With hearts and hands strong as of yore/You’re sure to see John McEniery,/With his darling blackthorn to the fore:/When the old stick gets well into motion/If they dare to disparage the green/Such a hullabaloo and commotion/Will be made by this Irish kippeen.
The shillelagh is still a valued McEniery family heirloom encasing their Irish heritage.
That McEniery would not tolerate defilement of Irish symbols was made clear at a patriotic carnival in February 1917. Just elected president of the Hibernian Society, he objected to what he took as an ethnic slur by John Watt, the Secretary of the Orange Lodge. In an offensive inversion of an Irish icon, Watt twice paraded around the fair, dressed as a black minstrel in a multi-coloured costume, with green ribbons tied to his legs, trailing on the ground. He was broadcasting a disparaging stereotype, the negroid Irishman. The powerfully-built McEniery warned him on the first occasion that he was ‘disgracing the green’, and that such provocation should not be repeated. When Watt reappeared the next evening in the same outfit, McEniery assaulted him.
During the ensuing court case, McEniery’s solicitor, fellow-Hibernian Edgar Brennan, attempted to introduce as evidence the explicit anti-Catholicism of the Orange oath. He was ruled out of order. However, the magistrate concluded that sectarian provocation was involved, but not sufficiently to justify an assault. He fined McEniery 10 shillings with £2 8s 4d in costs.
John McEniery was a presence in St Patrick’s Day parades for the remainder of his life. In 1953, wearing Sinn Féin colours, he was near the head of the procession, with other notables, in the Hibernians’ Irish jaunting car. He died in 1961 aged 87.