One of my thesis supervisors once said to me, to my delight, on reading a draft chapter, "I knew nothing about the subject but I soon began to trust you". This is a comment I found myself applying to Jeff Kildea's Hugh Mahon: Patriot, Pressman, Politician (Vol 1). This is a meticulously researched, properly sourced, lucidly written, accurate and insightful account of the life of this minor – but significant and influential – Irish man and his role in two political hemispheres, Ireland and Australia.
Kildea, wisely, tells us from the beginning what separated Mahon from the Australian Federal parliamentary herd, to which he belonged, with short breaks, from 1901 to 1920 – he was the only Australian Federal parliamentarian ever to be expelled from that body, his offence being “seditious and disloyal utterances”. As Kildea writes, it is for this that Mahon “is mostly remembered, if at all”.
What we are treated to in this first volume is a fascinating range of historical events and places at the centre of this wandering Irish man's experience
But there was more to Mahon’s life than that. What we are treated to in this first volume is a fascinating range of historical events and places at the centre of this wandering Irish man’s experience. The journey begins in a forgotten part of Ireland, well out of the tourist gaze: the townland of Killurin, Co Offaly, or King’s County, as it was when Mahon was born into a strong farming family there in 1857. Landlord and tenant problems provoked the family’s flight, first to Canada and then to Albany, New York, where young Hugh had an apprenticeship in Fenian-inspired Irish local politics and the printer’s trade.
The Land League years
On returning to Ireland he went into journalism in Co Wexford, not so much as a reporter of fetes, church gatherings and social doings but as an activist and supporter of the Irish nationalist cause in the early 1880s, under Charles Stewart Parnell and the Irish National Land League.
Mahon's involvement in league activities led him to a short spell in that most famous nursery of Irish nationalism, Kilmainham Gaol, where he had a brief meeting with Parnell himself. Longer incarceration might have followed but for a diagnosis of possible TB and, rather than create another national martyr, the authorities offered banishment to Australia. He arrived there in May 1882 with impeccable Irish nationalist credentials, being described in Melbourne's Irish Catholic paper, the Advocate, as "a sterling young Irishman, a victim of British tyranny", one "flung into the damp dungeons of Kilmainham".
Mahon's involvement in league activities led him to a short spell in that most famous nursery of Irish nationalism, Kilmainham Gaol, where he had a brief meeting with Parnell himself
Soon after his arrival, Mahon played a close role in a colonial event rarely if ever mentioned or described in any general Australian history: the visit of the brothers William and John Redmond to Australia to raise money for the Irish national cause of the day, home rule.
This is a section of the Mahon biography that should be read by any Australian with an Irish immigrant ancestor who was alive in the 1880s. Today there would be few Australian politicians, or overseas dignitaries, who could pull a crowd of 3,000 supporters in a small rural mining town such as Gympie, Queensland, the way John Redmond did in April 1883, accompanied by one of the colonial organisers of his tour, Mahon. Kildea’s chapter on Mahon’s involvement in this important tour is a timely reminder of the deeply divisive nature of the transnational politics of the core nations of the British empire and how this played out in the white settler colonies. Although often seen as simply an element of religious “sectarian” conflict in Australia, it was far more than that, arousing often intense emotions among British and Irish immigrants and their offspring.
From presswork in eastern Australia between 1883 and 1895, Mahon took himself to the western Australian goldfields, to more newspaper editing and attempts to enter local and colonial politics. Newspaper work was highly competitive, local municipal affairs exacting and the politics of the colony seemingly corrupt and plain nasty. Mahon had no success in breaking into the colonial parliament but secured a seat for the Labor Party in the first Federal Commonwealth elections of 1901. In terms of his political apprenticeship Mahon’s experiences on the goldfields were probably essential, but, with a young wife and family to support back in Melbourne, it all reads like a lonely and precarious time in his life as he battled to keep solvent in the harsh conditions of frontier mining towns and settlements.
Defending possible murderers
What sort of man was Mahon? Here Kildea, with little to work on apart from some letters to Mahon in Australia’s National Library, nonetheless manages some sound and telling insights. At times this was not someone of balanced, even fair judgment. In taking a strictly nationalist line in defending a group of possible murderers in a notorious incident in 1880 in Kilkenny, the Shanbogh killing, Mahon virtually ignored the fate of the innocent victim, Charles Boyd – a crown official and the son of land agent Thomas Boyd – and devoted his journalistic and rhetorical skills in defence of those accused of his fatal shooting. As Kildea concludes, in doing so he disavowed justice for Charles Boyd.
Later, in western Australia, as editor of goldfields newspapers, he often seemed to rush into hasty and intemperate remarks, in print, which brought him into court on a number of occasions for libel. Although married he emerges here hardly at all as a family man, having left his wife and children behind in Melbourne while he strove to make a name for himself in the west.
In reading about Mahon’s world, beautifully and artfully contextualised by Kildea, one might like to know a little more about the flesh and blood Mahon rather than the Mahon of the editor’s deadline and the cut and thrust of grubby goldfields politics. An earlier biographer, Jim Gibbney, praised by Kildea, has this chilling quote from another newspaper man about Mahon: “professedly … a democrat whose snobbish coldness of demeanour would make a snake shudder”. We must wait for the second volume to see if Kildea agrees.
- Dr Richard Reid, a graduate of TCD, was the senior curator for the National Museum of Australia's major temporary exhibition in 2011, Not Just Ned – A True History of the Irish in Australia, 1788 to 2011. http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/irish_in_australia/home
- This book will be launched by Richard Andrews, Australian ambassador to Ireland, at the Royal Irish Academy on April 26th; and also in Tullamore on April 27th and New Ross on April 28th