British feared Irish takeover of Australia in 1916

Loss of conscription referendum in late 1916 led to panic over ‘rebel Irish and syndicalists’

An Australian flag at a memorial to the first World War. The grievances of Australian farmers over commodity prices paid during the war were such that the country’s governor-general warned “rebel Irish and syndicalists” would come to power. File photograph: Getty Images

The British feared the Irish in Australia would take over during the first World War and install a hostile government, a conference on the Easter Rising has been told.

The grievances of Australian farmers over commodity prices paid during the war were such that the country’s governor-general Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson warned “rebel Irish and syndicalists” would come to power - and that would be “disastrous to imperial unity”.

The warning was contained in a cablegram to the then secretary of state for the colonies Andrew Bonar Law - a figure who had been hostile to Home Rule. It was sent after a referendum on conscription in Australia was lost in October 1916.

That referendum was lost by a wafer-thin margin and the British reaction to the Easter Rising is frequently cited as a factor in the hostility of Irish-Australians who then constituted a quarter of the population of the country.


Australian farmers eventually received a 20 per cent increase in the wheat price, but it was not enough to carry another referendum on conscription in 1917.

Speaking at a conference in NUI Galway which is examining the Easter Rising in a global context, Swiss academic Daniel Marc Segesser said many factors contributed to the loss of the two referendums on conscription.

Bad harvests

He suggested climatic conditions may also have been a factor as there had been bad harvests elsewhere in the world and Australian farmers had been disappointed with the price being paid for their grain by the British government.

Canadian academic Charles-Philippe Courtois stated the Irish experience had also been a factor in the Quebec conscription crisis of 1917.

Catholic Francophone nationalists in Quebec cited the opposition of Irish bishops to conscription in Ireland as an example to follow.

The conference was told the Easter Rising was an influence in the Rand Revolt of 1922 in South Africa, which started off as a strike by white miners and ended up being a rebellion against British rule. Some of the rebels described themselves as Sinn Féiners and wanted to create a "second Ireland".

Jonathan Hyslop of Colgate University in New York said the joining forces of militant labour and middle-class nationalists in South Africa during that rebellion was similar to what happened in Ireland during the Easter Rising.

Nationalists gained the upper hand in both countries over labour interests, he stated.

Proxy war

Katja Fortenbacher-Nagel of the University of Marburg in Germany said the Irish had effectively fought a proxy war against the British in South Africa during the Second Boer War through the activities of the Irish Brigade, led by Major John MacBride.

She said the Irish had placed a lot of hope in the former Boer leader Jan Smuts to negotiate a peace settlement with the British after the War of Independence.

However, Smuts had failed to secure the republic that many in Ireland had hoped for, believing instead in the Commonwealth with the British monarch as head. As a result, Smuts left Irish people disillusioned.

Ms Fortenbacher-Nagel also maintained that Ireland’s close proximity to Britain may have been a factor in why the British punished the Easter Rising leaders as severely as they did.

A similar Afrikaner rebellion against British rule in the autumn of 1914, known as the Maritz rebellion, had resulted in only one execution, while most of the leaders got just two-year jail sentences.

The conference continues.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times