The Irish Nationalist Rising That Shaped Australia

Examining a pivotal moment in Irish history that unleashed a new, Catholic force on Australian politics.

By Eoin Hahessy
Head of Media and Public Relations
University College York

On Easter Monday 1916 nearly 2000 Irish men and women drawn from nationalist and socialist strands seized buildings across Ireland’s capital Dublin and declared an Irish republic. Britain, in the midst of World War One, scrambled to react to this test of its authority, at the very centre of the British Empire.

Ireland’s ill-prepared rebels were no match for the world’s only superpower and after six bitter days of street fighting the Irish would surrender. The swift court martial and execution of 14 leaders of the 1916 Rising bellowed Irish nationalist flames to create an independent republic, leading to the eventual formation of today’s modern Ireland.

While the 1916 Rising played a significant role in propelling Ireland towards independence, often forgotten in the narrative is the impact this had on the social and political trajectory of other nations. The most popular recounting is its inspiration for a rising in Bengal, India, yet its lasting impact in another great centre of Irish emigration, Australia, has received scant focus.

Prior to 1916 the leaders of the Irish community in Australia followed fastidiously the footprints of John Redmond’s Home Rule movement, who desired for Ireland to remain within the British Empire. This was an Irish community a generation removed from the harrows of the Irish famine. A generation that savoured a different flavour to English rule, striving in a colony where rigid social classes, while defined, could be punctured by following the social playbook of the time.

Archbishop Liam Mannix. Picture: State Library of Victoria

1916 changed the mood of the Irish-Australian community and through the Archbishop of Melbourne, Cork-born Daniel Mannix, a potent force of Irish nationalism was awakened and a Catholic force in Australian politics was unleashed that still leaves a bitter taste in a generation of Australians today.

“Michael they have shot them,” wept Archbishop Mannix to his caretaker in Melbourne after hearing of the execution of the leaders of Easter Rising. Just as the execution of these leaders helped turn the public tide of opinion back home, it stirred the leader of a slumbering Catholic flock into political action.

“Something in Daniel Mannix was released in the aftermath of the Easter Rising,” writes biographer Brenda Niall in a recent and welcomingly fresh insight of an Irish man who loomed over Australian politics for nearly 50 years. Mannix was alone in taking the side of the rebels among the Australian archbishops.

He linked the Rising with World War One and mobilised a Catholic community on a national question that tested the allegiance to the Empire of this newly-born nation.

Twice the subject of conscription was defeated in Australia, in 1916 and again in 1917, and Mannix’s colourful public duel with Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes both contributed to its defeat and led to the first split in Australia’s Labor Party.

The Irish have “killed conscription”, lamented Hughes in a cable to British Prime Minister Lloyd George. Ireland’s Easter Rising was the charge that shaped a political force on the other side of the world.

The Rising inconveniently challenged the entire concept of Empire and provoked a superpower to rash reaction. “If you tell your Empire in India, in Egypt, and all over the world that you do not got the men, the money, the pluck, the inclination and the backing to restore order in a country within twenty miles of your own shore, you may as well begin to abandon the attempt to make British rule prevail throughout the Empire at all,” warned Edward Carson in 1916 to a nervous British establishment.

This British reaction deepened the cracks in the edifice of their Empire. “Even though a rebellion in Dublin might seem relatively minor in the grand scheme of things,” says Professor of Irish Studies at Notre Dame, Declan Kiberd, “it would actually be the pin piercing the heart of the imperial giant.”

Originally published by Pursuit, University of Melbourne, 04.05.2016, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia license.