Meath-born priest victim of Australian wartime censorship: the story of Fr James Timmons

By Danny Cusack (this is an edited version of a longer piece which will be published in 2021 in the Meath Historical Journal)

Fr Timmons

During the 1914-18 War strict censorship conditions prevailed in Australia. One person who fell foul of the military authorities in this regard was the Meath-born priest Fr James Timmons, then based in Victoria. Documents which I happened to stumble across in the National Library of Australia in Canberra in 2000 reveal that in March 1918 the military censor had intercepted a letter from Timmons to a friend in Melbourne, one Frank McKenna, a strategically placed public servant. With this letter Timmons had enclosed the clipping of a contemporary article from the Meath Chronicle highly critical of the behaviour of the British authorities with respect to Meath man John Daly, a soldier returned to his family ‘a raving lunatic’.

Kells native

James Timmons was born in 1886 into a staunchly Parnellite farming family at Fordstown, about five miles south of Kells, in County Meath, the eighth of nine children of Patrick Timmons and Julia Teeling. A sister Margaret (born 1880) became a nun. As Sister St George she emigrated to Melbourne where she served with the Little Sisters of the Poor at Northcote and outlived James.

James was ordained at All Hallows College Dublin in 1912 and volunteered to serve in the Ballarat diocese which covers much of the western part of the state of Victoria. He spent the remaining 48 years of his life in various parishes in this largely rural diocese, the last twelve in the town of Ararat in north western Victoria. In 1954 he was made a monsignor. He died on St Patricks Day 1960 aged 74. When I mentioned my discovery of the documents in the National Library in 2000 to the late Professor John Molony of Canberra (who had been a priest contemporary of Timmons in the Ballarat diocese) he responded ‘Oh, Jimmy Timmons, a quiet inoffensive fellow’, or words to that effect.   

Censor’s letter

Herewith is the letter from the military censor to the Australian Prime Minister of the day:



                                                                                    5th March 1918

The Right Honourable W.M. Hughes,

Prime Minister.

Dear Sir,

                                    The attached copy of a letter intercepted by the Censor, from the Rev. J. Timmons, R.C. Priest, Hamilton, Victoria, to Frank J. McKenna, 908 Lygon Street, North Carlton, is forwarded, herewith, for your information.

                                    F. J. McKenna, the addressee, is the son of Inspector Charles McKenna, Victorian Police (Fitzroy Division), and is said to be employed as a clerk in the Prime Minister’s Department.

                        The “Little Paper” referred to, in para. 4 is the “Meath Chronicle”, dated Kelles [sic], 24th November, 1917, in which an article headed “Strange behaviour of Military Authorities” appears. This article is decidedly prejudicial to recruiting, and would never have been permitted to be published in the Australian newspapers.

                        Steps are being taken to endeavour to intercept any communication by McKenna to the Rev. J. Timmons.

                                                                                                Yours faithfully,

                                                                                                GCT Steward

Major George Charles Thomas Steward was head of the Counter Espionage Bureau which he had founded in 1916. A branch of British M15, it was Australia’s first secret service. Its agents pursued International Workers of the World (IWW) and Sinn Féin activists. 

Raving Lunatic

The article referred to in the letter appeared prominently on page one of the Meath Chronicle of 24th November  1917 and is headlined STRANGE BEHAVIOUR OF MILITARY AUTHORITIES and sub-titled RATOATH SOLDIER SENT HOME TO HIS FAMILY “A RAVING LUNATIC”.

The article begins:

The following report by Dr D.J. O’Reilly, M.O., for Ratoath Dispensary District, was read at the last meeting of the Dunshaughlin Board of Guardians: – ‘I beg to report that John Daly, of Southern Ratoath, who had to be sent to the Mullingar Asylum on the 5th inst., was recently discharged from the Army, “This unfortunate man was a dangerous lunatic when he was sent home by the military authorities to his wife and child without any further notice than that he was suffering from nervous breakdown. I consider such treatment for a man who has met with affliction while fighting for his country is a perfect disgrace. I would ask the Board to have this case investigated and to use the strongest possible measures to bring the Military Authorities to a sense of their duties in such cases’.

The Chronicle then reported how Dr O’Reilly had elaborated to the meeting at some length on the Daly case, stating that Daly’s father and only two brothers were also soldiers. According to the doctor, when Daly was returned to his family from the front he was a ‘raving lunatic’ who had wanted to ‘murder his wife, the priest and him [O’Reilly].’ He attributed the man’s condition to the stress of three years of military service. O’Reilly concluded heatedly that every male person in the man’s family had served in the army only for the authorities ‘to treat him like a dog’.

Fr Timmons to Frank McKenna

Below is the offending letter with which the Meath Chronicle article had been enclosed. Father Timmons was apparently a family friend of the McKennas and had recently returned from a short visit to Melbourne – ‘Town’ as he calls it. He is writing from Hamilton, a large town in western Victoria, where he is based as parish priest.

Dear Frank,

                        I am back once more and settled down to quiet country life again. I had a good trip back on Saturday. It was pleasant and cool and an ideal day for travelling.

                        I had a good chance of a rest on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, so I am feeling none the worse for my week’s diversion in Town. I enjoyed my time in Town and I feel that the change has done me good.

                        I am sending a paper to you which contains another speech of De Valera. You will notice that he endorses the remarks of Australia’s democrat [Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne] and calls it a trade war. Some Imperialists at home try to make out that De Valera and his followers are anarchists and criminals, and want to wreck the Catholic Church, but he proves they  are  pure and high-souled  Nationalists and quotes three famous prelates who have defended them. I added Dr Mannix’s name to those of Archbishop McHale and Dr O’Dwyer, as he stood up for the Sinn Feiners in this land when all others were against them.

I hope you get this little paper safely as I am sure it will prove interesting to you and your pals in the office who are the right colour. You will see by the papers how the Military Authorities have acted with the men who fought for the Empire. He was sent home to his wife and child a raving lunatic, and he might have murdered them both. Doesn’t their action confirm the view of the man who gave the reasons why Irishmen should enlist. “Then you are a fighting hero, when you come home disabled they treat you as dirt”. No truer words were ever spoken. 

                        Again thanking all your people,

                                                                                                I am

Yours sincerely,

                                                                                                                        J. TIMMONS

At the time of Timmons’s writing to Frank McKenna the recipient was an employee of the Prime Minister’s Department  living at North Carlton, a well-known inner suburb of Melbourne, at an address in Lygon Street, a prominent thoroughfare, part of which forms the eastern boundary of the Melbourne General Cemetery.


Frank’s parents Charles Joseph McKenna (1863-1942) and Mary Teresa Cullen (1868-1942) were both born in Australia. In 1918 Charles was an inspector with the Victorian Police Force in the nearby suburb of Fitzroy. Both Frank’s paternal grandparents Charles McKenna Snr. (1830-1917) and Rose Anne Farrell (1824-1902) were born in Ireland, in County Armagh. After marrying at Tandragee in 1850 they emigrated to Melbourne three years later. Both were buried in the Melbourne General Cemetery.

The fact that Frank’s father was a police inspector and that Frank himself worked in the Prime Minister’s Department would doubtless have heightened the concerns of the authorities, alert to and suspicious of the influence of potentially disloyal Irish-Australian Catholics, especially those holding such responsible positions.

In the third paragraph of his letter Timmons endorses ‘Australia’s democrat’ [Archbishop Mannix] and the latter’s famous reference to the then current conflict as ‘an ordinary trade war’.  He links Mannix favourably with the more nationalistically-minded Irish bishops of the time –  John McHale (Tuam) and Edward O’Dwyer (Limerick).

The next paragraph contains reference to ‘you and your pals in the office who are the right colour’. This is obviously a reference to their political positions vis-á-vis the war, conscription and Irish national interests.  Since the office in question was in the Prime Minister’s Department the allusion could only have served to trigger alarm bells with the censor.

It is doubtful that the priest would have foreseen that a letter to a family friend enclosing a seemingly harmless article from an Irish newspaper would elicit such a heavy-handed response from an ever vigilant Australian censor.

Varieties of Irish-Australian Political Catholicism: Mannix and Co. v The Rest 

Timmons’s letter – and the ensuing heavy-handed response by the authorities – has to be read in the political context of Australia at the time. Under wartime conditions the increasingly authoritarian Hughes Government had become progressively less restrained in its curtailment of basic civil liberties. Furthermore, just a few months previously, in December 1917, the government had lost a second referendum for the introduction of conscription for overseas service, by an even larger margin than at a previous attempt in October 1916.

A leading and highly influential proponent of a NO vote on both occasions was the Cork-born Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Daniel Mannix (1864-1963).

During the conscription referenda campaigns it suited Hughes to proclaim the Archbishop as his nemesis because Mannix echoed the opposition to conscription of the organised labour movement. Hughes was also pandering to anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudice. In the prevailing climate of the time the Australian authorities would have been extremely sensitive to the potential influence of an obvious Mannix sympathiser as Fr Timmons, all the more so given the fact that the aforementioned letter reveals him to be both a staunch anti-imperialist and supporter of de Valera and Sinn Féin. 

Something of the sensitivity – even paranoia – of the authorities at the time may be gleaned from the fact the following month (April 1918) a letter passed between Australian security officials advising the recipient to keep the Irish Jesuit Fr Albert Power who was visiting Australia at the time  ‘under observation’. The writer commented that Power was ‘an eloquent speaker’ who had ‘great influence’ and, significantly, that ‘the object of his visit to Australia was uncertain’.

Just a year later Power would return to Australia to become rector of Newman College Melbourne, an appointment made at the instigation – even insistence – of Archbishop Mannix. Whatever about Power’s own nationalist or republican credentials any association of him in the mind of the authorities with Mannix (of whom he was a confidante) could only have served to fuel suspicions. Ironically, Power had replaced his colleague Fr James O’Dwyer SJ who had served as interim rector of Newman College for its first year and a man whose pro-imperialist sympathies would certainly have given the authorities no cause for concern.

As already intimated, Fr Timmons’s letter serves to underline the lack of homogeneity amongst the Irish in Australia – clergy included – when it came to political matters.  Rather, a diversity of opinions and outlooks was evident. Timmons and Mannix, for example, were of a strongly nationalist bent. Others such as the aforementioned Fr O’Dwyer, first rector of Newman College, were of a different breed. There was of course a multiplicity of positions in between. Many of the Catholic Irish working-class would have identified with Timmons and Mannix. Professional middle-class fellow countrymen and co-religionists would have displayed more divided loyalties; some would have identified with the likes of O’Dwyer.

The Australian authorities were at times inclined to lump all Irish-Australian Catholics together. This episode involving the censorship of correspondence demonstrates how hyper-sensitive they were in war-time to the baneful influence of the likes of Mannix and Timmons.

Postscript: John Daly, a discarded volunteer

Lest he become merely a footnote to our story, the sad case of John Daly, the subject of the ‘offending’ Meath Chronicle article, deserves some elaboration. As we have already seen, the article in the Meath Chronicle reported that he was discharged from the army in November 1917. The relevant court document confirms that amongst other things he was charged with attempting to murder his wife Elizabeth. At the time of this episode Daly was still only 32 years of age. A daughter Mary-Anne had been born to the couple just six months previously. Daly’s subsequent incarceration in the Mullingar Lunatic Asylum – for how long we do not know – may help explain why he and his wife apparently had no more children.

Daly was however discharged at some stage and sufficiently reconciled with his wife to go back to her. Given that he was able to live at home without being institutionalised we can presume that he and Elizabeth managed somehow. Almost forty years after his original confinement Daly died, aged 72 years, in March 1957 at Belgree near Dunboyne. Elizabeth survived him by almost exactly nine years and died at the same address in March 1966. We can only speculate as to whether the couple managed in later years to salvage some fragments of contentment and happiness from the ruins of their earlier lives.

Dr Danny Cusack

Danny is an Australian freelance historian who has lived and worked in Dublin and Meath for almost three decades.

One thought on “Meath-born priest victim of Australian wartime censorship: the story of Fr James Timmons

  1. A well written and engaging article. A sad but true reflection of the attitudes of those in authority in Australia during WW1. This is a very interesting and important historical record.

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