The 1889 Home Rule Tour

The Chowder Bay Photograph

A Feature by Dr Tony Smith

In 2020 the National Library of Australia in Canberra accepted custodianship of a photograph I had in my possession. The photograph is of a gathering in 1889 at Chowder Bay, a popular harbourside picnic spot in Sydney. It shows three ‘Irish delegates’ who were welcomed by members of the committee of the Irish National League of New South Wales. A richer version of this photograph, with a list of those men pictured, is online at

The photograph is of historical significance for two reasons. The first is that it might be the only surviving photographic record of this event. The  second relates to the importance of the ‘Home Rule’ fundraising tour in the history of Irish Australia.

Professor Patrick O’Farrell referred to the delegates’ visit in his 1986 book The Irish in Australia. I wrote to him, mentioning that I had the photograph. He said that he had not seen a copy of sufficient quality for reproduction and so he would like to see it. Unfortunately, he did not get the opportunity. The survival of this copy is probably attributable to the fact that it was framed under glass and was kept in a hotel belonging to the Clune family.

Poet Henry Lawson was enthusiastic about the Irish delegates’ tour. Although his father was Larsen and his mother an Australian née Albury, his poem ‘To the Irish Delegates’ (Freemans Journal 1889) clearly advocated Irish independence and republicanism.

FAREWELL! The gold we send shall be a token
    Of that which in our hearts is growing strong;
You asked our sympathy, and we have spoken—
    “They wrong us who our brothers rob and wrong.” Tell Ireland—tell her in her desolation,
    That hearts within the South for her have bled—
That scalding tears of helpless indignation
    By eyes that read her cruel wrongs are shed. Helpless no more! but strong to act hereafter,
    For silenced arc the “loyal subjects” sneers—
Too long have Ireland’s wrongs been words of laughter—
    Arch-mockery to tickle British ears. Tell Ireland that they lie of us—they slander,
    Who say we care not for another’s wrong;
For we are not the men to kneel and pander
    To tyranny, because the tyrant’s strong. Take back across the waves Australia’s message,
    And say our hearts are big, and strong our hands,
Tell Ireland that for her is surest presage
    Of fate as fair as of these Southern lands.

Sentimentality characterised the Victorian era. The National Library of Scotland and Oxford University’s Bodleian Library have a similar song to Lawson’s, but of unknown provenance, beginning with ‘Ye sons and fair daughters of Erin’s Green Isle’.

The Clunes and the photograph

The photograph came to me through my paternal grandmother, Kathleen Smith (née Russell). She was proud of her Clare ancestry. Her mother Catherine Clune and her uncles James and Thomas migrated initially to Otago on the west coast of New Zealand before settling in Sydney. Catherine and Thomas held hotel licences, Catherine of Johnson’s Hotel, situated where the Seymour Centre now stands, and Thomas the Clare Castle in Parramatta Street (Broadway). Perhaps meetings of the Irish National League were held in the Clare Castle, and the photograph was subsequently kept there. James is in the photograph.

I know little else about the Clunes except that Thomas participated in the Earl Grey scheme to rescue Irish famine orphans. At least two girls were engaged at the hotel and one made a complaint of some kind about ‘the mistress’.

My grandmother visited the family cottage ‘Orda’ in Quin near Ennis in County Clare, from which the clan takes its name. I have a third cousin there still who is engaged in one of two uniquely Irish crafts, making hurleys. The other is the making of uillean pipes.

Home Rule and the Irish Parliamentary Party

Throughout the nineteenth century Irish political movements aimed to gain independence from England. Following the failure of the 1798 rebellion the Act of Union of 1800 incorporated Irish government into Westminster. The franchise was narrow.

The Act discriminated against Catholics. A ‘repeal’ movement gathered particularly around Daniel O’Connell who won representation in Clare.  Nevertheless, not all leaders of independence movements were Catholic. A ‘Young Irelander’ movement encouraged tenants to pledge their rents to a Land League rather than to absentee landlords. This issue created alarm in England and the movement was suppressed, with leaders transported.

Charles Stewart Parnell galvanised the Home Rule movement. Despite the defeat of the first Home Rule Bill in 1886, Home Rule remained a possibility under Gladstone’s Liberals. The Irish Parliamentary Party had the potential to become a government in exile. However, by late 1889 Parnell’s close friend and Liberal connection Katherine O’Shea was being sued for divorce by her husband and Parnell was involved in scandal.

The 1889 Delegates

In 1883 the Redmond Brothers visited Australia but while the tour raised awareness it was not successful financially. In 1889 three more delegates arrived. They were John Deasy, John Dillon and Sir Thomas Gratton Esmonde.

John Deasy (Irish Parliamentary Party, Cork and West Mayo) resigned in disgrace in 1893 after assaulting a servant girl. He died in 1896 aged 39. John Dillon had been imprisoned several times for land agitation and was the son of a Young Irelander. He represented Dublin and was briefly Party Leader in 1918. Sir Thomas Grattan Esmonde (IPP Dublin, Kerry and Wexford) lived until 1925 and served as an independent in Seanad Eireann in the Oireachtas.

The delegates were successful in their fundraising efforts. Estimates of the funds raised varied from 35,000 to 40,000 pounds, which would have boosted the IPP Plan of Campaign.

During their absence from Ireland Parnell was involved in scandal and he died in 1891. The party divided into factions at the 1892 election and pro-Parnellites polled poorly.

Irish emigration to Australia – convicts and famine refugees

By various estimates, the proportion of the Australian population born in Ireland hovers around 25%. In the early days of colonisation, many Irish convicts were sent to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. My earliest Irish ancestor for example, Michael Rock of County Down, arrived in 1798.

The English establishment in Australia had doubts about the loyalty of the Irish. Catholic clergy were forbidden entry or expelled and the rebellion by convicts at Vinegar Hill (Castle Hill) in 1804 was seen as an Irish uprising. There are numerous songs about Vinegar Hill, the convict experience, and about the Irish at Eureka Stockade in 1854.

Transportation to the eastern states continued until the middle of the nineteenth century when the gold rushes became the main ‘pull’ factor here and the famine became the main source of Irish emigration.

The removal of the potato from their diet drove thousands of people to starvation, death and emigration. In workhouses, people died of ‘famine fever’ and many perished on the voyage across the Atlantic in ‘coffin ships’.

Estimates vary but perhaps a million people died and another million fled to Canada, the USA, New Zealand and Australia. The population halved in the decade around 1850. By 1890 the number of Australians claiming Irish ancestry was at its highest.

The impact of the famine was greatest in the west – the Gaeltacht areas. Earl Grey’s scheme brought ‘famine orphan’ girls from Irish workhouses to Australia. Some 4000 volunteered for the scheme. Historian Trevor McClaughlin says that on the Thomas Arbuthnot arriving in 1850, there were 65 from Galway, 81 from Clare, 35 from Kerry, 2 from Cork and 1 from Limerick. Seven came from Dublin and 2 from Wicklow while one was born at sea.

Local Irish politics

There seem to have been differences in the reception provided for the delegates in New South Wales and Victoria. It is possible that the Irish diaspora in the northern colony with its convict origins was more inclined towards assimilation. It was not many years earlier that a ‘fenian’ had tried to assassinate the Prince of Wales at Clontarf, which is not so far from Chowder Bay.

Part of the ambivalence could be attributable to the attitude of the Catholic hierarchy. It was possible to identify nationalist movements in Ireland in various ways. The hierarchy might well have needed to interpret the movement for repeal of the Act of Union of 1800, for example, as a campaign to end discrimination against Catholics. Bishops might have been less attracted to a movement for agrarian reform or political liberation.

Perhaps, while retaining an emotional attachment to Ireland, many Irish people in New South Wales might have wanted to demonstrate their loyalty to the Empire in the hope of ending the prejudice against them. In Victoria the Irish community seems to have been more united in its attitude to ethnic and religious discrimination and the value of Irish heritage. A report from the Sydney Morning Herald on 30 October 1889 says

A complimentary picnic, which took the form of a harbour excursion and a banquet at Chowder Bay, one of the most beautiful of our marine resorts, was given to the Irish delegates yesterday.

The weather being fine the trip up the Parramatta and over a portion of Middle Harbour proved thoroughly enjoyable. Over 200 ladies and gentlemen sat down to the banquet, at which Mr F. B. Freehill occupied the chair and addresses were delivered by Mr John Dillon, Mr John Deaey, and Sir Thomas Grattan Esmonde. Mr Dillon’s speech was understood to be his last public utterance in New South Wale, as he leaves shortly for the old country.

The picnic

The visitors received ‘three times three’ (Hip Hip Hooray) and attendees sang some ‘patriotic’ songs such as ‘God Save Ireland’ commemorating the Manchester Martyrs who were executed in 1867 after being wrongfully convicted of terrorism.

There were numerous Irish cultural associations which varied in their activity. Most organisations depended upon the energy and enthusiasm of committed individuals. Dillon presented a gold watch to J.G. O’Connor for his work. O’Connor came to Australia with his parents at the age of three and did not return to Ireland. Sometimes fragments of diaspora retain attachments typical of earlier periods.


It is difficult to measure the impact of the 1889 tour. The funds and awareness raised by the delegates were no doubt welcomed by the Home Rule movement in Ireland. For Australians, the tour was an important occasional reminder of Irish distinctiveness. Prejudice against Catholics would persist for perhaps another 70 years.

It remains to be seen whether the photograph is unique.

Dr Tony Smith is a former academic. He now researches, writes about and performs aspects of Australian folklore.

Author’s note: While any errors are mine, I thank Trinity College Dublin historians Professor Micheal O’Siochru and Dr Ciaran O’Neill and Christopher Morash of Cambridge for assistance and Sinead NiMurchu for continual support.