Irish, Catholic and Labor: Patrick McGarry MLA

Danny Cusack[1]

These people are unfortunate because, in the interests of so-called civilisation, we have over-run their country and taken away their domain. We now propose to perpetrate further acts of cruelty upon them by separating the children from their parents. The mothers and fathers of these children love them just as much as the birds and animals of the bush care for their off-spring, and honourable members would not perpetrate a cruelty of this kind even upon an animal.[2]

Thus proclaimed Irish-born Labor politician Patrick McGarry in the New South Wales Parliament in January 1915 during debate on a bill to give government arbitrary powers to remove Aboriginal children from their parents. Such compassionate sentiments reflected a degree of empathy and enlightenment extraordinarily rare at the time. McGarry was one of only three members of the Legislative Assembly to oppose the legislation which passed with an overwhelming majority.

McGarry would part company with the Labor Party the following year as a consequence of a massive split within its ranks over the issue of conscription. The large bloc of Irish Catholics within the party were overwhelmingly anti-conscriptionist; they stayed, thus consolidating the Irish and Catholic influence thereafter.

A vintage photo of a person

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Patrick McGarry during his years as a politician.
Source: New South Wales Parliamentary Library

By leaving, McGarry was swimming against the prevailing Irish-Catholic Labor tide (although, as we shall see, he was not pro-conscription and his departure was not occasioned by the issue of conscription per se). He had nonetheless taken a similar path to that taken by his fellow countyman Meath-born Senator Patrick ‘Paddy’ Lynch, probably the most senior Irish-born Catholic pro-conscriptionist Laborite in Australia at the time.[3]

Meath Born and Bred
Patrick McGarry was born on New Year’s Day 1863 about 40 miles north-west of Dublin at Moyrath, Kildalkey, County Meath to farmer Bernard McGarry and wife Mary (nee Loughlin).[4] Trim would have been the nearest town. The McGarrys had farmed at this location for at least two generations. The farmhouse which was Patrick’s birthplace may still be seen just a few hundred yards outside the small village of Kildalkey. It was, however, sold by the McGarrys in 1957; there are no direct descendants to be found in the district today.

Patrick grew up the second of four boys. His childhood experience would have been fairly typical of the son of a small farmer in post-famine Meath. Although the family holding was modest enough, while Patrick was still young, the McGarrys were able to acquire a few extra acres and later to undertake substantial improvements to the family home. Patrick attended the local primary school located in the nearby village. His formal education almost certainly ended when he left school at around 12 years of age, after which he would have taken his part working the family farm.

Arrival in Australia
Little else is known of McGarry’s early life in Ireland. Economic prospects would have been limited for the second son of a small tenant farmer. In 1885, McGarry, aged 22, took the emigrant ship to the USA where he lived in Boston for four years, working in some kind of manual occupation.

Whilst in Boston he joined the Knights of Labour, a workingman’s organisation,[5] and went on to hold various offices. His experience with the Knights acted as an early introduction to labour activism, an apprenticeship that would serve him well in Australia.

In 1890, aged 27, McGarry arrived in Sydney at the height of the Great Maritime Strike and was soon involved in the organisation of seamen on the ships running between Sydney and Melbourne. For the young Irishman this was obviously another early formative experience in his career as a labour activist in Australia.

Labor Politics
The birth of the Labor Party in Australia is generally dated from 1891 when the first branches of the Political Labor League were founded in Sydney. An advocate of the foundation of a Labor Party as a new third force in Australian politics, McGarry was involved from the outset, holding several minor offices in the Political Labor League in Sydney during its first year.

He soon moved, however, to the Garangula goldfields in the Gundagai district. Here he became actively involved in promoting the Labor cause in the 1894 New South Wales elections, for which service he was presented with a gold medal. He then spent some years in the sugar country in northern New South Wales. Little is known of his time here and he was not politically active.

Around 1900, now a decade in his adopted country, McGarry returned to Sydney where he quickly threw himself into trade union and Labor Party activities. He served two years as Vice-President of the Wharf Labourers Union and on the management committee of the Campaign for an Eight Hour Week. As vice-chairman of the Balmain Labor League he took an active part in the 1901 election campaign and subsequently served on the executive of the Political Labor League of New South Wales from 1902 until 1905. His return to Sydney also occasioned another major event in his life – on 17 January 1900, just over a fortnight after his 37th birthday, McGarry married Mary Myres. The couple would have three children: Edward Bernard (born 1900), Mary Brigid (born 1903) and Kathleen Patricia (born c1905).

Member of Parliament
In 1904 McGarry’s service to the labour movement was rewarded when he was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly as Labor member for the rural seat of Murrumbidgee. Reflecting the variety of occupations to which he had managed to turn his hand, McGarry at the time of his election was separately described as ‘quarryman’ and as ‘working at fencing’.[6] He was subsequently re-elected as a Labor candidate in 1907, 1910 and 1913; then again in 1917, as an Independent Nationalist following upon his departure from the Labor Party during the conscription controversy. His parliamentary career finished, however, when he lost his seat in the 1920 election.

The election of 1910 had seen the appointment of the first ever Labor government in New South Wales. With Labor in power McGarry was able to work more effectively for the rights and welfare of workers. He had already been appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1908. McGarry was able to remain on the government benches after the Labor Split of 1916 when he followed William Holman, who had been expelled from the party yet nevertheless continued as Premier until 1920 at the head of a Nationalist government.

Carpeted by the Cardinal
Regardless of the events of 1916, McGarry’s relationship with his party was never an entirely harmonious one. His first two terms as a Labor MP 1904-10 were relatively uneventful. Tensions surfaced, however, over the following six years – so much so that he would at one stage be carpeted by his cardinal archbishop for threatening to desert his party.

Following Labor’s victory at the 1910 election McGarry had been mentioned as a possible candidate for a ministry but was ultimately unsuccessful. So too were the Catholic Labor MPs, R.D. Meagher and Clare-born P.J. ‘Paddy’ Minahan.[7] The election of the Labor government had been attributed at least in part to strong support from the Catholic community and it had been expected that Catholic MPs might be more strongly represented in the ministry than they were (although one practising and two nominal Catholics were chosen).[8]

The Labor Party had strong support from Catholics who were prominently Irish/Irish-Australian and working-class. Labor was also perceived as being more favourable to Catholic interests than its conservative opponents. In Sydney the Irish-born Cardinal Patrick Moran, who had publicly expressed his support for the workers’ cause during the maritime strikes of the early 1890s, was strongly pro-Labor.

In July 1911 two Labor members of the New South Wales Parliament resigned from the party over land policy leaving the government of Acting Premier Holman clinging tenuously to power with a majority of one. Then McGarry – for reasons which are not quite clear (thwarted political ambition?) – threatened to resign as well, placing the government in absolute peril. He was, however, summoned by Cardinal Moran, who quickly brought McGarry to heel, informing him that ‘he would be known as Judas all his life, if he betrayed his party at such a crisis’. According to the Cardinal’s own laconic account ‘very few words sufficed to set him right’. McGarry supposedly went back to pledge his loyalty to the government and to convey Moran’s congratulations to Holman on his ‘singular ability’.[9] The Labor Party would remain in office for another five years, and actually increased its majority at the next election in 1913.

A separate corroborating – albeit somewhat embellished – account of this episode was subsequently recorded by an anonymous third party – probably Monsignor J.J. McGovern, one time parish priest of Parramatta – based on information evidently gleaned from Paddy Minahan MLA.[10] It is worth quoting almost in its entirety for what it reveals about McGarry and the circumstances of the time:

It was in the first half of 1911 as far as I can remember. Holman was premier, but this was reduced to two by the defection of a member named Dunn I think. The government held on by one vote – but the Speaker was of the opposition. When things were in this condition Pat McGarry – a country member who was very poor and a Catholic and a loyal labour supporter and who was known to spend the nights before an election sticking up his bill posters with his own hands around the electorate, made trouble. Something went wrong and McGarry felt he had a grievance and determined to leave the party and vote against the government. I believe he had ‘had a few’ when he came to the party meeting, and perhaps he needed this to help buck him up to make the attack on the party he had served all his life. However the government took the matter very seriously and were much perturbed. They could do nothing with McGarry. He brushed aside all arguments and left the room.

Shortly afterwards Paddy Minahan [fellow Irish-born Catholic Labor MLA] came in and found consternation on every face. When he heard the cause he said that if they would leave it to him he would fix McGarry. They agreed and Minahan went off to look for McGarry. When he found him he took him to St Marys [cathedral presbytery]. It was about 10pm. The cardinal was not be seen but [Monsignor] Dr O’Haran [the cardinal’s secretary] interviewed them and when he heard the story said to Minahan he would speak to the cardinal in the morning.

Next morning telephones were going all over the place in endeavours to locate McGarry. When he was found he was summoned to St Marys. The Cardinal wanted him. When he got there His Eminence put Mc on the carpet – wanted to know why he was so unfaithful etc etc. to the party that was so favourable to Catholics etc etc. and told him to go back to Holman at once and tell him that he was remaining loyal. Pat who was sober by this and had no intention of cutting his own throat was only too glad to obey the commands of his spiritual lord and did what he was told and so the Holman Government was saved and through the intervention of the Cardinal …

I tell you the story as Paddy Minahan told me … [11]

Ironically, senior Sydney churchmen such as Cardinal Moran, his successor Archbishop Michael Kelly and Monsignor Denis O’Haran seemed more satisfied with the efforts of the Holman Labor government in looking after the interests and welfare of Catholics than did some Catholic members of that government.[12] The clerics believed the government needed to be given time to secure itself in power; some Catholic Labor politicians such as McGarry and Minahan were more impatient.

Catholic Federation
Despite McGarry’s humble capitulation to Moran in 1911 he continued nonetheless to be an internal critic – and, on occasion, thorn in the side – of the Labor government. In May of the following year, in a speech at a Hibernian Society banquet in Sydney, he acknowledged that, prior to the 1910 election, Labor had made certain indirect promises to Catholic institutions (for example, orphanages) that they would be granted due recognition and financial support. He was of the view that Labor had taken Catholic voters too much for granted; that they had been ‘treated like coolies’ and ‘used like Chinamen’ once the election had been won.[13]

Three months later, in August 1912, McGarry successfully presented a motion to Parliament to the effect that all hospitals open for treatment of the sick free of charge receive financial assistance from the government. Some 14 months later, in October 1913, McGarry publicly embarrassed the Premier with a probing question in the Assembly regarding the subsequent delay in delivering government subsidies to Catholic hospitals.[14]

McGarry proceeded to gain a reputation as the MP in New South Wales most prepared to advocate the Catholic interest. This is further demonstrated by his attitude to the newly-formed Catholic Federation. The Federation was founded in Melbourne in May 1912 as a lay-led non-political organisation to militantly promote the Catholic interest in the public sphere, notably in education. Although it had the approval of the Melbourne hierarchy, it met with initial resistance from Sydney church authorities. It nonetheless managed to gain the vocal support of a number of prominent clergy (notably Monsignor Maurice O’Reilly) and laymen (including some MPs) in that city. Ostensibly non-political, the Federation nevertheless posed a special threat to the Labor Party. It insistently demanded more on behalf of Catholic interests; even on occasion going so far as to direct Catholic voters away from Labor to the conservative Protestant-dominated Liberal Party. To that extent it challenged the Labor Party’s political hegemony within the Catholic community. For all that, McGarry and colleague Paddy Minahan gave strong public support to the Catholic Federation, evidenced for example by McGarry’s address to the St Josephs Old Boys Association in Sydney in March 1913.[15]

Their party colleague in Western Australia, Senator Paddy Lynch, took a somewhat different stance. Although sympathetic to the aims of the Federation, he would not support it.[16] Throughout his political career Lynch was invariably inclined to emphasise economic interests and downplay the religious issue; McGarry on the other hand was more than willing to be a spokesman for the Catholic interest. To that extent McGarry could be said to have been very much a Catholic Labor politician; Lynch by contrast was a Labor politician who happened also to be a Catholic – albeit a committed one.

Stolen Generation
As shown in the quote prefacing this article, McGarry was outspoken in his opposition to legislation introduced into the New South Wales Parliament in 1915 relating to aboriginal affairs. Although some of McGarry’s attitudes might be considered patronising by today’s standards, they were enlightened for the time. The Aborigines Protection Amending Bill provided for the empowerment of the Aboriginal Protection Board to assume full control and custody of any Aboriginal child if deemed to be in the best interest of the moral and physical welfare of the child. The board would have power to remove the child from its parents to such control and care as the board thought best.[17] The measure was primarily directed at ‘half-castes’, the children of mixed Aboriginal/white parentage (usually an Aboriginal mother and a white father).

Introducing the bill, Minister J.H. Cann concluded by stating that the board would effectively be placed in loco parentis. ‘To steal the child away from its parents!’, McGarry vehemently interjected. Therein lay the fundamental source of McGarry’s objection to the legislation: the state would take the place of the parent. Even ‘the separation of a swallow from its parents was a cruelty’. In this his attitude may well have been fashioned in no small part by the centrality of the family in Irish life, reinforced by the Catholic belief in the sanctity of the family.

Addressing the debate, McGarry stated that there was a large camp of Aborigines in his electorate in which he took a considerable interest. He objected to the fact that Aboriginal children taken away and apprenticed to local farmers were often exploited and not paid proper wages. Oftimes this involved collusion between ‘mean farmers’ and ‘mean policemen’. In the course of ‘carrying his swag outback’ some 25 years previously he had met many Aboriginal children by the roadside hounded by police or farmers.

He thought it better to let the Aborigines stay at the camps where they could be given land for agriculture and the proper training to go with it. As for the provision in the bill that parents would have a right to challenge a child’s removal in the courts, he asked rhetorically: ‘If a poor Aboriginal woman goes to court who will listen?’

One of his Labor parliamentary colleagues, John Storey, expressed admiration for McGarry’s ‘very forcible’ speech while rejecting his arguments. Although McGarry was generally accorded respect, his arguments as a whole cut little ice. In the event, the second reading of the bill was carried by 28 votes to three, only McGarry and two of his Labor colleagues voting against.[18]

This debate presaged in a way the ‘stolen generation’ controversy which would erupt in Australia nearly a century later. It would culminate in the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 making a public apology for the thousands of half-caste aboriginal children forcibly removed from their parents over a period of decades. One source has even credited McGarry with effectively inventing the term ‘stolen generation’ with his use of the phrase ‘steal[ing] the child from its parents’.[19]

Conscription Split
We noted previously that after 1911 McGarry’s relationship with his party was never an entirely harmonious one. By 1916 he would claim to have been constantly ‘stabbed in the back’ over the previous five years. He cited for example his moving of an amendment to The Rural Workers Accommodation Bill in 1912, which had led to a sustained attack on him by The Worker newspaper. Tension between the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings of the party would always be a constant theme in Labor politics. Many politicians such as McGarry constantly bridled against what they saw as the dictates of union officials in the Trades Hall. It was, however, the conscription controversy of 1916-17 which eventually led McGarry to leave the party to which he had so devoted himself for 25 years.

In New South Wales the party executive expelled pro-conscriptionist Premier Holman and 17 of his supporters. Another 18 of their colleagues ‒ declared anti-conscriptionists ‒ then reconstituted themselves as the Parliamentary Labor Party as recognised by the party executive. Of the 50 Labor parliamentarians in total, 14 did not fit readily into either camp. McGarry was one of these. He was nevertheless one of the majority of Labor parliamentarians who followed Premier Holman into a governing alliance with the conservatives. As at the national level, a rump group of anti-conscriptionist Labor MPs in NSW was left to constitute the official opposition seriously depleted in numbers.

On 7 November 1961 Ernest Durack, leader of the newly constituted (minority) Parliamentary Labor grouping in New South Wales, moved a motion of censure against Premier Holman and his re-constituted government. There followed three days of acrimonious and ill-tempered debate during which McGarry, like others, got the opportunity to declare his position.

McGarry opposed the censure motion against the Holman government. He stated at the outset his long-standing opposition on principle to conscription. He did not believe it ought to be necessary, provided that voluntary recruiting was pursued vigorously. In recent times, however, that had not been the case. He had therefore weakened in his outright opposition to conscription. Yet he refrained from explicitly endorsing it. Like most Irish-Australians he believed that the British Empire had to be defended and strongly supported the war effort. He had actively involved himself in recruiting meetings. Like the ardently pro-conscriptionist Senator Paddy Lynch, he drew a distinction between democratic Britain and despotic Germany ruled by the Kaiser.

Significantly, both McGarry and Lynch wholeheartedly supported the Empire and the war effort. This despite an ingrained loathing of British militarism. McGarry declared:

As a youth I had a horror of military despotism in the old country, and there grew up in my heart a deep detestation of military tyranny and domination. Therefore I was opposed to conscription if we could possibly carry on the war without it.[20]

For McGarry the final sticking-point was not the conscription issue per se; it was the fact of an 18-man extra-parliamentary executive dictating to the 50-man parliamentary party. The executive had sent letters to a large number of his parliamentary colleagues demanding they each declare where they stood on the conscription issue. Anyone not signing the anti-conscription pledge would be expelled from the party. As a declared anti-conscriptionist McGarry had received no such letter or demand. He was adamant nevertheless that as a point of principle parliamentary members should be free to make up their own minds and follow their consciences on the issue. McGarry revealed furthermore his pluralist conception of a broad-based Labor Party when he insisted that he had never regarded it as a purely class-based movement but as one that also included small farmers and traders.[21]

For McGarry, the only viable option in terms of securing a stable government for New South Wales was a combination of Holman Labor with the Liberal opposition. Such a National government would best guarantee recruiting and see the state through to the end of the war; it was therefore his duty to support it. As for himself, he acknowledged that he would have to go it alone politically since he was effectively excommunicating himself from his party. He very much regretted the severing of old friendships acquired during 25 years of involvement in the movement.[22]

Yet McGarry was far from being the only anti-conscriptionist in the parliamentary party to take this path. His colleague J.J. ‘Jack’ Cusack (MLA for Albury), son of a Clare-born emigrant and his Galway-born wife, immediately followed McGarry in the censure debate. A declared anti-conscriptionist, Cusack made it abundantly clear that he was objecting first and foremost to the dictates of the party executive.[23]

In the eventuality, the motion censuring Premier Holman was comfortably defeated by 52 votes to 21, a majority of Labor members – including McGarry – voting against. Holman thus remained as Premier, though as head of a National rather than a Labor government.

Renegade Irishman?
Another notable feature of the censure debate in 1916 was the way in which McGarry’s Irishness was used against him by an opponent within his own party, an Irish-Australian as it so happens. During McGarry’s speech the following exchange occurred between himself and J.J.G. ‘Greg’ McGirr MLA:

McGirr (interjecting): We do not want ‘soupers’!
McGarry: The honourable member is a disgrace to the house.
McGirr: Let renegade Irishmen go to the other side!
McGarry: I feel ashamed that McGirr’s father was an Irishman.[24]

Not only had he been labelled a ‘renegade Irishman’, McGarry had suffered the indignity of having that time-worn epithet ‘souper’ thrown at him.

Barely a couple of weeks later, Senator Paddy Lynch would suffer a similar fate. At a special Labor conference in Melbourne, called to debate the fallout from the conscription referendum, Lynch delivered a defiant speech which prompted hostile personalised responses from at least four Irish-Australian anti-conscriptionist delegates.[25]

The irony of such incidents was that Irishmen such as McGarry and Lynch were having their Irishness thrown back at them by Irish-Australians – a case of their detractors becoming more Irish than the Irish perhaps?

Political Defeat
Shortly after leaving the Labor Party, the party he had served faithfully for 25 years – 12 as a parliamentarian – McGarry turned 54 years of age. In the 1917 election, defending his seat of Murrumbidgee as a Nationalist, he comfortably defeated the Labor candidate, gaining over 57 per cent of the vote and a 9 per cent swing in his favour. Even allowing for the fact that the Nationalist government in New South Wales was itself returned with a big swing in its favour under war-time conditions, McGarry’s personal popularity in his own electorate appeared undiminished. His three years’ service on the Parliamentary Public Works Committee (1914-17) had no doubt stood him in good stead.

By 1920, however, McGarry’s political favour had dramatically declined. In the election of that year, having been replaced as the Nationalist candidate, he ran nevertheless as an Independent Nationalist. Without the backing of a party machine he had little chance. On this occasion a total of 11 candidates contested the seat of Murrumbidgee which had been converted from a single into a multi-member constituency. McGarry came in ninth, polling a paltry 2.4 per cent of the total votes cast, a far cry from the 57+ per cent he had received only three years previously. This humiliating defeat may be seen as an inevitable, albeit delayed, consequence of his leaving the Labor Party.

McGarry was by now 57 years of age. He never attempted a political comeback. Little is known of the final decade of his life. As far as can be reckoned, he never got to make a return visit to Ireland. He spent his final years at Hunters Hill in Sydney and died on 23 December 1930 – barely a week before his 68th birthday. After a funeral mass in Villa Maria Catholic Church, Australian headquarters of the Marist order, he was buried in the Northern Suburbs Cemetery.

According to one version he is ‘said to have died impoverished’[26]. According to another, however, he is supposed to have ‘made some money in suburban land deals in Sydney and become rather well-to-do’.[27] Given his residence in an affluent suburb on the North Shore the latter is likely nearer the truth. Also worth noting is the fact that he was also able to afford to send his two daughters to local Catholic colleges and on to university.

Emphasising his early impecunity nevertheless, The Australian Worker recorded his passing thus:

A rugged but picturesque personality passed out when Mr P. McGarry died in Sydney recently. Close onto 30 years ago Pat entered the N.S.W. Assembly as Labor member for Murrumbidgee – a member with bushy eyebrows, a smile that never wore off, and a richly musical brogue. Like not a few other early Labor candidates ,he travelled his future constituency on ‘Shank’s pony’ – that is to say he walked more than he rode. The campaign cost him less than £20 – a £20 which he did not possess at the time.[28]

The solidly nationalist though pro-labour Bulletin reported similarly:

Died the other day at 70 [sic], Pat McGarry the rugged and obdurate Labor candidate of 1904 who was sent to the Murrumbidgee to ’keep him quiet’, and surprised everyone by winning the seat and holding it for 16 years, the last three as a Nationalist. In the NSW Assembly he was expected to be a joke, but wasn’t, except when he wanted to be. His biggest asset was political nous.[29]

McGarry and Lynch: Parallels and Differences
The lives and political career spans of Meathmen Patrick McGarry and Patrick Lynch roughly coincided. Their lives were similar in a number of other respects: Both emigrated to Australia in the 1880s via the USA, both worked in various manual occupations (and were involved at one time or other in the maritime and mining industries), both became involved in Labor politics through the trade union movement and served as members of Parliament, both parted company with the Labor Party during the conscription split of 1916, both received a certain amount of opprobrium from Irish-Australian colleagues for the stances they adopted, and both were at various times at odds with their respective archbishops – McGarry with Cardinal Moran in Sydney and Lynch with the staunchly anti-conscriptionist Archbishop Mannix in Melbourne. Each was said to have retained his Meath ‘brogue’.[30]

Despite these obvious parallels their respective careers also differed in important respects. Lynch moved to Western Australia, McGarry stayed in the eastern states, in New South Wales. Lynch eventually resumed the occupation he had known in Ireland – farming; McGarry did not. Lynch became a substantial landholder and property owner; McGarry, notwithstanding speculation that he became relatively well-to-do in later years, never achieved the same level of material success. Lynch quickly moved from state into national politics; McGarry did not. Lynch’s parliamentary career spanned a mammoth 34 years; McGarry’s a much more modest sixteen. Lynch briefly held ministerial office (twice); McGarry did not. Lynch was expelled from the Labor Party in 1916; McGarry left of his own accord (albeit reluctantly and probably pre-empting expulsion). Lynch was a leading pro-conscriptionist from the very outset; McGarry remained an anti-conscriptionist (parting company with Labor, as we have seen, over the issue of dictation by an extra-parliamentary body).

Furthermore, although McGarry served briefly (for three years) as a Nationalist MP, he never became an entrenched figure in conservative politics as Lynch did, the Senator’s 22 years in the Nationalist ranks – eventually ending with his electoral defeat in 1938 – easily exceeding his 12 years as a Labor politician. Nor is there any evidence McGarry made a dramatic break with his political past or became anti-Labor as such; unlike Lynch, who became increasingly right-wing and conservative in his politics and vociferously anti-Labor.[31] Nor did McGarry become estranged from his former comrades in the way that Lynch did. Indeed, the obituary in The Australian Worker, alluded to earlier, spoke of McGarry in quite affectionate terms.[32] No such recognition was accorded Lynch by the labour press – either at the time of his political demise in 1937 or his death in 1944. Although a strong personality himself, McGarry was moreover never the hugely divisive figure Lynch was. He was also more enlightened on race issues.

Farmer’s son, emigrant, mariner, miner, labour activist and latter-day politician, Patrick McGarry had travelled far from his native Meath yet never eschewed his Irish roots. A firmly committed yet fiercely independent-minded servant of the cause of his fellow workers, he was in his own way a bit of a maverick and a ‘character’.

His experience was not altogether untypical of that of emigrants to Australia from rural Ireland in the late 19th century. Employment in manual occupations led naturally to an involvement in trade unionism and thence into Labor politics. It could be argued that the experience of adapting and assimilating to Australian conditions had a radicalising influence on young men from conservative farming backgrounds.

Notwithstanding the notable exception of Jim Connell (author of the socialist anthem The Red Flag)[33], the political tradition of Meath emigrants could hardly be regarded however as a radical one. In the case of McGarry – and more especially Lynch – we may discern the conservatising influence of rural Meath eventually re-asserting itself. By 1916 Lynch had moved distinctly to the right while McGarry was defining himself as a moderate Labor man rather than a doctrinaire socialist.


[1]      This is an edited and condensed version of an essay which first appeared in Ríocht na Midhe: Journal of the Meath Archaeological and Historical Society (vol. XXX, 2019).
The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Breda Potterton of Kildalkey, Co. Meath; Áine Shields of Swords, Co. Dublin; McGarry’s grand-daughters Patricia McGarry and Margaret Mary (Sr Josephine) of Rozelle, Sydney; Dr Jeff Kildea, adjunct professor in Irish Studies at the University of Sydney; the office of Paul Lynch MLA (Liverpool) and Sue Casey in the Library of the Parliament of New South Wales in the preparation of this essay.
It is dedicated to the memory of John Molony (1927-2018), Irish-Australian historian, Professor of Australian History at University College Dublin (1990-93) and emeritus Professor of History at the Australian National University who passed away in Canberra on 16 September 2018.

[2]      New South Wales Parliamentary Debates (27 January 1915), p. 1953 quoted in Robert Manne, ‘In Denial: the Stolen Generations of the Right’ in Australian Quarterly Essay (Schwartz Publications, Melbourne, 2001). The debate was on the second reading of the Aborigines Protection Amending Bill.

[3]      For Lynch’s life story see Danny Cusack, With an Olive Branch and a Shillelagh: The Life and Times of Senator Patrick Lynch (Centre for Irish Studies Murdoch University and Hesperian Press, Perth, Western Australia, 2004) based on the author’s PhD thesis completed at Murdoch University in 2002.

[4]      The Biographical Register of the New South Wales Parliament 1901-70.

[5]      The Knights of Labour were founded in Philadelphia in 1869. Their heyday was the 1880s. By 1886 the organisation was in decline and disbanded in 1917. The leader of the Knights at the time of McGarry’s involvement was the US-born Terence Vincent Powderley (1849-1924), whose father hailed from Bryanstown, Slane, Co. Meath and mother from Drogheda, Co. Louth.

[6]      Biographical Register of New South Wales Parliament 1901-70, p. 176; The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) 13 August 1904, p. 9.

[7]      Minahan was in 1919 co-founder of the Knights of the Southern Cross, a Catholic fraternal order still active in Australia.

[8]      Jeff Kildea, Tearing the Fabric: Sectarianism in Australia 1910-25 (Citadel Books, Sydney, Australia, 2002), p. 22.

[9]      Moran’s own account, dated 29 July 1911, Moran Papers, Sydney Catholic Archdiocesan Archives, quoted in A.E. Cahill ‘Cardinal Moran’s Politics’ in Journal of Religious History (Sydney, vol.15, no. 4, December 1989), p. 526.

[10]    Cahill, ibid., states that ‘a separate, corroborating account by P.J. Minahan MLA once existed in the papers of the late Mgr J.J. McGovern of Parramatta’.

[11]    Typed document in Sydney Catholic Archdiocesan Archives [SAA U2102] probably prepared by Monsignor J.J. McGovern.

[12]    The support of the Sydney hierarchy for the McGowen and Holman Governments could be said to have presaged the close relationship between Cardinal Gilroy/Archbishop Carroll in Sydney and the Labor Governments of James McGirr, J.J. ‘Jack’ Cahill and Robert Heffron during the 1950s.

[13]    Kildea, op.cit, pp.22 and 49.

[14]    Ibid., p. 83.

[15]    Ibid., p. 60

[16]    Ibid., p. 95

[17]    As summarised by Talina Drabsch in Indigenous Issues in New South Wales (Background Paper No. 2/04, NSW Parliamentary Research Service), p. 53.

[18]    New South Wales Parliamentary Debates (27 January 1915) pp. 1951-54, 1960 and 1967. Charles Fern MLA and Robert Scobie MLA were the other two to vote against.

[19]    Wikipedia entry for ‘The Stolen Generation’.

[20]    New South Wales Parliamentary Debates (9 November 1916), pp. 2638-9.

[21]    Ibid., p. 2641.

[22]    Ibid., pp.2638-42.

[23]    Cusack was an uncle of the noted Australian writer Dymphna Cusack (1902-81). He is however no relation to the present author whose Meath ancestors emigrated to Western Australia.

[24]    ‘Soupers’ was a derogatory term used to describe Catholics who had supposedly taken the Protestant soup during the Great Famine; NSWPD (9 November 1916), p. 2641. Ironically and somewhat bizarrely, McGirr’s daughter Trixie Gardner (born 1927) is currently a serving Tory member of the British House of Lords. In 1981, as Baroness Gardner of Parkes, she became the first and only Australian woman to be elevated to the peerage. One can but wonder whether the man who hurled the epithet ‘souper’ at McGarry is now rolling in his grave.

[25]    Report of the Proceedings of the Special Commonwealth Conference of the Australian Labor Party (Melbourne, 1916), pp. 7-15. The delegates were Carey, Kavanagh, Grealey and Dwyer-Gray (who was actually Irish born).

[26]       The Australian Worker (Sydney), 7 January 1931, p. 1.

[27]    The Bulletin (Sydney), 7 January 1931, p. 13.

[28]       The Australian Worker (Sydney), 7 January 1931, p. 1.

[29]    The Bulletin (Sydney), 7 January 1931, p. 13. He was in fact 67, almost 68, at time of death.

[30]    Lynch’s parliamentary speeches were peppered on occasion with colloquialisms from his rural Meath past; for example, the ‘jibbing horse’ metaphor to describe people who refused to carry any longer the burden placed upon them. Interestingly, McGarry once used the quaint biblical expression ‘I trow not’ (Luke 17:9) meaning ‘I believe not’ [New South Wales Parliamentary Debates (9 November 1916), p. 2641].

[31]    Like many self-improving upwardly mobile Irishman, Lynch’s involvement with the labour movement could be seen as a temporary aberration consequent of emigration. The same could not really be said of McGarry.

[32]    The Australian Worker (7 January 1931), p. 1. See also The Bulletin (7 January 1931), p. 13.

[33]    Cf Danny Cusack, ‘Jim Connell (1852-1929): Meathman and Author of The Red Flag’ in Arlene Crampsie and Francis Ludlow (eds), Meath: History and Society (Geography Publications, Dublin, 2015), Chapter 28. Connell emigrated to London at a young age.