As white colonials completed the destruction of Aboriginal Australia in the second half of the 19th century, there was a strong push to turn the colonies into a Southern Britain. The pro-Empire jingoism of the times was passionately upheld by the colonial press. Perceived enemies were everywhere, and the numerous Irish especially were considered a nest of treasonous vipers. When a deranged Irishman attempted to kill Prince Alfred in the Sydney suburb of Clontarf in 1868, prominent politician Henry Parkes sought to turn the affair into a Fenian plot for political gain.
Sectarian tensions and distrust of the Irish was still simmering 15 years later when Empire attitudes and Irish politics collided in a major way. In 1883 two visitors, a pair of brothers, arrived in Australia looking for publicity and money for Irish “home rule”. Home rule, or a parliament distinct from London was a privilege the five eastern Australian colonies had since the 1860s, but Westminster and its Australian supporters were disinclined to offer the same privilege to Ireland. While the visitors sought to change attitudes in Australia, arguably Australia had a bigger effect on them: the brothers both married into the prominent Irish-Australian Dalton family, cementing bonds that would last a lifetime.
The Irish brothers were John and William Redmond, from a wealthy Wexford Hiberno-Norman Catholic family. Elder brother John Redmond would eventually become the most prominent Irish politician in London in the 20th century urging his people to enlist in the First World War in the cause of Home Rule, but a revolution in Dublin destroyed that hope and Redmond died a broken man in 1918. Younger brother Willie followed John into parliament and the First World War killed him too in a more direct way. He enlisted and died at Messines Ridge in June 1917, the only Westminster MP to be killed in action in the war.
The Redmonds had a long and distinguished history in Irish and British affairs. John Redmond followed his father William Archer Redmond into Westminster politics taking the seat of New Ross after his father died in 1880. William Archer Redmond was aligned with Isaac Butt’s moderate Home Rule Party and his son John became an early ally of the charismatic Charles Stewart Parnell who brought together Irish home rule and Irish land rights into the one powerful argument.
In 1882 Parnell established the Irish National League superseding the National Land League, a tenants’ rights organisation suppressed by the British. The Irish National League agitated for land reform but also had a wider aim of national self-government. Parnell wanted the support of the Irish Diaspora and the member for New Ross was given the job of explaining the new organisation to the world.
While Parnell sought a parliamentary solution, more radical Fenians wanted a clean break from Britain. That same year 1882, Fenians assassinated the two top British administrators in Ireland in what became known as the Phoenix Park murders. The Land League was not connected to the crime but there were plenty who were happy to accuse. The Redmonds arrived in Australia as the country was scandalised by the murders which Australia saw as proof Ireland was not to be trusted.
John Redmond was a pacifist and gifted orator who was appalled by the Phoenix Park murders. He was an ideal choice as ambassador for an Irish propaganda mission first to Australia and then on to America, raising funds and awareness for the Irish cause. However his younger brother Willie was far less cautious and had a reputation for fiery speeches.
John’s decision to take younger brother had ramifications as Willie suffered ill health in Naples delaying the trip. More importantly Willie had a warrant for his arrest in Ireland for a speech he made in Cork deemed seditious by British authorities. Willie became a stick for Australian newspapers to beat his elder brother.
The Redmonds arrived in Adelaide on February 5, 1883, welcomed by a thousand Irish well-wishers, Irish flags and a brass band playing “national airs”. Redmond held a meeting in Adelaide Town Hall attended by MPs and the Catholic bishop. He made a 90-minute speech criticising British rule in Ireland and he outlined the Irish National League’s agenda. Willie made a shorter but more fiery speech saying reform could only be won from the British by “fierce and threatened agitation”.
The Australian press were already suspicious of the Redmonds but these speeches incensed them. Their attitude was not helped by news from Ireland implicating the Land League in the 1882 Phoenix Park murders of two senior British diplomats in Dublin. On the day the Redmonds left Adelaide, Englishman Edward Riley hosted an “Anti-Land League lecture” which described the Redmonds as trouble-makers. Sydney’s The Evening News described the Redmonds as “men of the firebrand order, public agitators and disturbers of the public peace while their speeches were “violent, seditious, disloyal and inflammatory”.
New South Wales would also bring the Redmonds into contact with the Dalton family, which would have major personal ramifications and that will be the subject of Part 2 of this story.