In 1905 Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin and Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond sent each other congratulatory telegrams. Deakin told Redmond the Australian people owed a debt of gratitude to the Irish Party for its support in Westminster for the Commonwealth Bill, which enabled the founding of Australia in 1901. In return Redmond sent a telegram of congratulations from Dublin to thank Deakin’s support for “the concession of home rule to Ireland”. The telegrams marked a huge change in relations after two decades ending, at least temporarily, Australian suspicion of Irish motives.
Twenty years earlier Deakin was in the Victorian colonial government, when John Redmond and brother Willie visited on their national tour in 1883. Their welcome in Melbourne, was less than hospitable from non-Irish elements. It was the same reception in Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane but despite similarities these colonies had no common government. Deakin was among the first to welcome a Federated Council of Australasia that might bring all of the colonies, including New Zealand and Fiji into one confederation.
While politicians grappled with the idea of one Australian nation, they were less welcome to Ireland’s hopes of forging its own identity, and becoming, like Australia, a separate entity under the crown. The Redmonds struggled against the weight of prejudice in three ways: the denial of facilities to meet, the refusal of the wealthy to engage, and the wrath of the popular press.
The latter cut both ways and the Redmonds gained much publicity for their cause, even if they were painted as enemies of the state. Willie Redmond’s fiery speeches sometimes justified Australian anger, but elder brother John was always balanced, measured and erudite, only occasionally getting into the gutter to sling mud back at the press.
On May 16 John left Sydney after a fundraising international handball competition, and set off for Melbourne via southern NSW. He spoke to a large crowd in Goulburn that night and heard the Irish national anthem (God Save Ireland) sung by local students the following night. Then it was on to Burrowa, Young, Murrumburrah, Cootamundra, Temora and Wagga Wagga where he delivered lectures on the Irish National League and set up branches. He arrived in Melbourne on May 29, and was presented to the audience at St Patrick’s Hall on Bourke St.
His appeal he “should not be condemned unheard and by prejudice” was rejected by the Argus newspaper. Pointing to the 1882 Phoenix Park Murders, the Argus said there was almost a state of civil war in Ireland and the Irish National League was an “unlawful and criminal association”. Anyone who gave them money, they warned, was giving “succour (to) the Queen’s enemies”. Redmond responded by letter refuting their points only to be refuted in another editorial.
Redmond delivered the first of three lectures in Melbourne on June 5 at St Patrick’s Hall, said to be an “eloquent address”. Willie Redmond revved up the crowd complaining many leading Irishmen of the colony were absent. He called them cowardly and said they hadn’t “the common manliness to stand by their side and adhere to the principles they professed to hold”. The following day John Redmond complained about the way the media reported his speech in a “bald, disjointed, unintelligible and stupid summary”. The Argus called Redmond impudent and their reports were not for him but for the public which was satisfied with their reporting.
At the second lecture two days later, judge Frank Gavan Duffy (son of Irish-Victorian premier Sir Charles) objected to Willie Redmond’s reference to cowardly Irishmen saying the younger Redmond had no idea what sacrifices colonial Irish made for the cause. Duffy may have been speaking about James Dalton and two other Irish magistrates in Orange, NSW sacked for supporting the Redmonds. The frenzied reporting of the Phoenix Park murders trial did not help. There was still a crowd of a thousand people for Redmond’s third Melbourne lecture where he denounced violence. “I would rather see Ireland always remain in her present unhappy condition than do any wrong to assist the cause I advocate,” he said.
The Redmonds followed urban meetings with rural ones. John was met by enthusiastic crowds in Echuca, Rochester and Sandhurst (now Bendigo) where he stayed at the Shamrock Hotel. Willie joined him in celebration. On July 17, while still in Australia, Willie Redmond won the by-election for his home town seat of Wexford and rejoicing Irish Australians claimed credit for his win.
Their tour rolled on despite attempts to deny them halls. Catholic English-born Charles Hamilton Bromby was also in Victoria giving talks on “the English in Ireland” saying the Irish had a right to use force to remove the English. The Argus reported his speech in Hotham as “disloyal and semi-seditious”. His booking of the Melbourne Town Hall was denied on the excuse his language was objectionable and the Redmonds would be in attendance (a charge they denied). The Argus attacked the Catholic priest who tried to book the Hall saying the priesthood “has either been passive or has worked for evil.” As Jeff Kildea wrote when analysing the 1883 Redmonds tour, the Australian press’s Anglo-centric perspective meant English wrongs in Ireland would not be mentioned to avoid ill-feeling while exposure of Irish vices were encouraged in the public interest.
The unperturbed John Redmond continued his tour, now accompanied by James Dalton who travelled from Orange. Their procession into Daylesford was booed by locals while 1200 heard him speak in Ballarat, despite being denied the town’s biggest hall. The camp moved west to Colac, Camperdown, Geelong and then Warrnambool where he received “the most enthusiastic reception since he came to Australia”.
Redmond shelved a plan to return to Ireland in October. He spoke to more big crowds in the Irish town of Koroit, as well as Sale, Seymour, Benalla and Beechworth before returning to Melbourne. The success of their tour was clouded by news from England. The steamer Pathan was en route to Australia and aboard were members of the Invincibles who carried out the Phoenix Park murders and were granted immunity from prosecution for becoming informants. The Australian press was outraged they were being sent there and demanded their citizens be quarantined from “criminal contamination”.
The three men aboard the Pathan were denied entry in Adelaide and again in Melbourne. At Sydney, the British Government resolved to send them home on a naval vessel. The Redmonds were smeared by association despite the Victorian branch of the Irish National League passing a motion of thanks to the Victorian premier James Service for denying the men access to Melbourne. The Redmonds left town in early August with a short trip to Tasmania before returning to Sydney where John found time to indulge in romance.