The 1883 visit to Australia of Irish nationalists, John Redmond MP and brother Willie Redmond, was a massive and controversial event wherever they went including Adelaide and Sydney, but they found Queensland was busy annexing a foreign nation.
With Germany and France becoming a more visible colonising presence in the South Pacific from the early 1880s, there was alarm about the threat of their expanding power. On April 4, 1883 Queensland premier Thomas McIlwraith ordered Henry Chester, Police Magistrate on Thursday Island, to formally annex the south-eastern section of Papua New Guinea and adjacent islands in the name of the British government. The British were appalled, strongly rebuking McIlwraith for his actions and repudiating the claim, which remained popular in Queensland.
A British parliamentarian, the MP for New Ross John Redmond, was in Queensland at the time, having arrived from Sydney aboard the Derwent on March 22, 1883. Redmond was smart enough to keep his opinions on Queensland’s New Guinea adventure to himself and set about winning a new colony over to his views on Irish nationalism. The newspaper The Express said his reception in Brisbane was friendlier than Sydney but he continued to be plagued by a lack of suitable venues to make his case, as the Protestant establishment tried to derail his tour.
At a breakfast meeting the morning after his arrival, parliamentarian Kevin Izod O’Doherty introduced Redmond to the audience at Lennon’s Hotel. O’Doherty was a doctor and a Young Irelander transported to Australia for treason after the short-lived 1848 rebellion in Ireland. Later pardoned, he practiced in Brisbane and became a president of the Queensland Medical Association and a member for Brisbane in the Legislative Assembly. He retained a strong interest in Irish politics and was president of the Queensland branch of the Land League. It was Easter weekend and Redmond stayed in Brisbane as O’Doherty’s guest. On Easter Monday O’Doherty presided as Redmond spoke to 2000 people at a picnic in Goodna and set up a branch of the Irish National League.
A few days later Redmond addressed a Brisbane meeting. The Courier newspaper was impressed by Redmond’s moderate tone and approved the Queensland government’s decision to offer Redmond a free rail pass, something NSW would not do. The Courier was nuanced but explained on March 28 why Ireland could not have self-government unlike the Australian colonies. Australia was too distant from Britain to be governed by London (though it also castigated the Brisbane government for its New Guinea adventurism) while Ireland was an integral part of the UK. “It is not a mere dependency, and cannot be one while the British Empire exists,” the Courier wrote. “It is preposterous to suppose that any Englishman loyal to his country can sanction the disintegration involved in national Home Rule for Ireland”. They said a separate Ireland would impose duties on English products, raise a militia and would eventually proclaim a separate nation. While the Courier accurate predicted 20th century events, its view was staunchly Anglo-centric, never willing to put itself in Irish shoes.
Meanwhile the Redmonds split up to cover regional Queensland. Willie spoke in Brisbane and Warwick while John took a ship to Maryborough. At Gympie there was a large contingent of Irish at the goldrush and the town created Australia’s first Land League branch. John spoke to a crowd of 3000 and was presented with gold by the ladies of Gympie. In Maryborough Redmond was initially refused the use of the town hall but that decision was overturned when citizens petitioned the mayor. He went on to Rockhampton where he addressed the Hibernian Hall before departing to Brisbane.
On Friday, April 13 Redmond gave his main address at the Brisbane Theatre Royal where he explained what self-government for Ireland would look like. He wanted decentralisation not separation, and a parliament responsible for internal affairs answerable to the Queen. Westminster would continue to regulate international functions. The Courier commended Redmond’s plain-speaking but remained firmly opposed to Irish home rule.
In Toowoomba, Redmond attacked the Australian press which had accused him of being a mouthpiece of “an intolerant faction… about 100 years behind their brethren at home in intelligence and information”. There were meetings in Warwick and Stanthorpe before crossing back to NSW following in Willie’s footsteps. At Tenterfield a cavalcade of 200 people on horseback and in buggies escorted him into town. He was refused use of the hall and school of arts but spoke at the Catholic Church where he attacked anti-Irish politician Henry Parkes in his own electorate.
Parkes had asked parliament to adopt a “loyal and dutiful address” to Queen Victoria to disapprove of the “strangers” in their midst. The move failed as Premier Alexander Stuart dismissed as absurd the idea the Redmonds could undermine colonists’ loyalty. An angry Redmond called Parkes a “political charlatan” who made false allegations against him and the Irish National League.
He spoke in Inverell, Glen Innes, Tamworth and Tingha where the meeting was disrupted by “an explosion of Chinese crackers, gunpowder and cayenne pepper.” The meetings in Armidale, Maitland and Newcastle were less eventful. The gruelling northern tour ended with a short break in Sydney in early May. Willie Redmond lightened the tone with a lecture on Irish poetry at St Patrick’s Hall while John recited Longfellow’s The Golden Legend, which told of the miracles and martyrdoms of the saints. Redmond was no saint or martyr but as 1883 passed its half way mark, he remained hopeful of a miracle conversion of Australia’s press to the Irish cause.