Egg on face – Alison Healy on the Warwick Egg Incident

Everything was going great for Australian prime minister Billy Hughes until Paddy Brosnan hurled an egg

Did you hear the one about the Kerryman, the egg and the Australian prime minister’s hat? I’m guessing you haven’t because, although it made history down under, the story has never got the attention it richly deserves here.

I’m speaking of the legendary Warwick Egg Incident of November 1917 which resulted in the establishment of what is known today as the Australian Federal Police force.

To be accurate, there were two Kerry men involved – brothers Paddy and Bart Brosnan. Originally from Castleisland, they were living near Warwick in Queensland when Australian prime minister Billy Hughes came steaming into Warwick railway station. The first World War was raging, and he was campaigning in favour of a referendum on conscription. It was a contentious issue as an earlier referendum had been narrowly defeated.

Nestling in the crowd gathered to hear the prime minister were the Brosnans, who had thoughtfully armed themselves with pocketfuls of eggs. The police had earlier spotted the eggs and ordered Paddy Brosnan to disarm. He dropped three eggs but hid at least one more on his person.


Everything was going great for the prime minister until Paddy hurled a well-aimed egg and knocked off his hat.

The incident is recalled by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, and it shows that Paddy had a narrow escape.

According to an article on its website, the prime minister was famously explosive when roused and few incidents enraged him as much as this one. The museum’s Campbell Rhodes wrote that Billy Hughes made a beeline for the crowd, reaching inside his coat for the revolver he usually carried. Fortunately for the Brosnan brothers, he had left it on the train.

Now hopping mad, he ordered Warwick police to arrest the Brosnans under Commonwealth law. The policeman in question was Sgt Henry Kenny, also of Irish descent. Perhaps a distant relative of former taoiseach Enda Kenny, a law-abiding man who was never caught without a light on his bike? Anyway, Sgt Kenny stoutly refused to arrest the brothers, pointing out that he recognised the laws of Queensland and the men had not infringed any state law.

Another account of the event, in a book by Peter Spearritt added the juicy detail that the prime minister had been spurred to jump into the crowd after Paddy “gave him the finger”.

He wrote that Bart was rounded on by the prime minister’s supporters and punched, and Paddy was later fined 10 shillings for creating a disturbance.

The fuming prime minister left Warwick to continue his train journey and en route he sent a telegram to Queensland’s police commissioner, complaining that Sgt Kenny had refused to arrest the two men.

Within weeks, Billy Hughes had announced the formation of the Commonwealth Police Force, which was renamed the Australian Federal Police force in 1979. “Such a force had been mooted for some time, but the figurative egg on Hughes’ face was the catalyst spurring him to action,” Campbell Rhodes observed.

There was more egg on his face when the prime minister went on to lose the second conscription referendum by a bigger majority, a month after his encounter with the Kerry men.

The incident received huge coverage at the time, with the Sidney Morning Herald describing the Brosnans as “two brothers of wild Irish extraction”. According to Julie Conway, a granddaughter of the Brosnans’ cousin Hanorah, the story has everything – discrimination against the Irish, class issues, conscription and national law versus state law.

Emailing from Australia, she says there was a stigma for people carrying the Brosnan name afterwards. Some Brosnans, including her grandmother, tried to distance themselves from the stink of the egg.

“But nowadays many Brosnans I know are happy to claim the connection.”

And what became of Paddy Brosnan? History curator Seán Brosnahan, who runs a website dedicated to all Brosnan matters, unearthed an interview with him in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper in 1952. The Kerry man was 77 at that stage and was described as a retired horse trainer. Billy Hughes had just died, and he declared that he was going to send a telegram of condolence to his widow Mary.

“Billy was a great old feller,” he told the newspaper. “I would have loved to meet him, but never did. I hit him fair and square with the egg as he arrived at Warwick railway station. He just kept on going,” he said admiringly.

On the centenary of the egg-throwing incident, the little green outside Warwick railway station was named Billy Hughes Park. Ensuring that the former prime minister will never escape the Kerry men, the street that runs alongside the park is called Brosnan Crescent.