Jack Fegan, Edna Stack and the Sydney Left in
the 1930s: A Memoir

Brian Fegan

John Joseph (Jack) Fegan (1908-1981) is perhaps best know to those of us who were around to watch black-and-white TV in the later 1960s as the testy Inspector Connolly from the detective show ‘Homicide’. But, as his son Brian explains in this brief memoir written late last year, Jack also had a life-long involvement in rebel and radical causes in Ireland and Australia, beginning with his boyhood involvement in the Irish Republican Army during the independence struggle after World War One. The Hummer expresses special thanks to Brian for permission to reproduce this piece, and also to Associate Professor Andrew Moore (University of Western Sydney) for making the text available to us. The memoir itself has been edited lightly.

G ‘day, Andrew,

My daughter Sasha passed to me your note and the issue of Labour History with your New Guard article which makes some mention of the early 1930s Left armed groups in Sydney.

I didn’t see in your paper any footnote to Hall Greenland’s book, Red Hot. His focus was the later 1930s Trotskyists, headed by Jack Sylvester (but my Kerry grandfather Dick Stack, Falls Road father Jack Fegan, and Annandale mother Edna Stack, were at the foundation meeting. Several of the early Trots were expellees from the Communist Party (CPA) and the Unemployed Workers Movement/Workers Defence Committee (UWM/WDC) organisations that charismatic Englishman, Jack Sylvester, had headed until he was expelled from the CPA. But it contains parts of interviews with Jack Fegan and my mother Edna Stack, her mate Dora Campbell (a friend of Governor Game’s wife from World War One women’s army stuff).

Dora was the first wife of Jack Sylvester. She gave interviews to Greenland, as did her children Joe and Leon Sylvester (named after Stalin and Trotsky – as JS’s political stance changed), Dinah Fordan and Sylvia Rolands. Some of the Sylvester siblings may still be alive. Dinah is the best informant. Greenland also got to several other survivors that I did not know. I have an illegal photocopy made by my sister of the fortnightly reports made by the NSW Special Branch policeman who had infiltrated the 10 man cell of the ‘Irish Terrorist Association’, which your paper refers to. He thought them full of wild talk but little danger of real action. I have other docs Jack Fegan dictated to
Australasian Post, etc.

My sister Kaye Dunstone, who lives in Canberra, may have more. She did archive and interview research and wrote a long original essay at ANU History Dept sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s. There are other reports of interviews with my mother and her sisters in Nadia Wheatley’s Weevils in the Flour that look at the Newtown and Bankstown evictions and the UWM/WDC role in them. I gather from my late atheist godfather, Jack Stephens, that Bob Gollan had some interest in Jack and the WDC but I’m sure you‘ve traced that through Labour History.

At Macquarie University, the father of historian George Parsons was in the Labour Army. His father‘s brother was the husband of madam Kate Leigh. There seems to have been some interest recently in the Aboriginal Eatock brothers and their formidable mother – who were UWM/WDC – and the framing of one Eatock bother for fracturing the skull of a police sergeant at a Glebe Town Hall demonstration against ‘the 42 questions’. A shearer with TB actually donged the copper. Freddy Wills ran with the baton, jumped the back fence at 117 Nelson, Street Annandale, where my grandmother, Mary Stack, was doing the washing. She burned it in her wood-fired copper and quietly buried the melted leadshot in the yard. Eatock’s framing was a cause celebre of the Left.

The WDC and the Stacks had links to leftists in the Miners Federation. Fegan met my mother Edna Stack when she received orders to stay up and follow the orders of a man with an Irish accent who would come late at night. For a young radical woman with a Kerry rebel father, who was mate of IWW Senator Donald Grant and of every radical in town, that was readymade romance. Fegan came at midnight. In the sidecar of a motorbike he delivered a half dozen Arnott’s biscuit tins packed with dynamite, a gift from the South Coast miners. He ordered her to find him a shovel, then buried the rectangular tins in the Stacks’ backyard.

The Falls Road Fianna/IRB and Irish Free State Army (then IRA) background may account for Jack’s proclivity fro collecting arms and training men for armed insurrection. He liked to quote Lenin that the Irish workers of Connolly were the only armed proletariat in the world, as well as Connolly on urban guerrilla tactics. He did a neat arms scam at Victoria barracks. Jack was plausible, always exuded an air of alpha male authority and had military training. He marched into the barracks a WDC squad in army cast-offs, conned the armoury sergeant to part with a light machine gun and a dozen rifles, plus several thousand rounds of .303 ammo “to take to Long Bay for range practice”. He marched his squad outside. The gear went on a truck, and the men dispersed on trams or foot. Jack then met up with a couple of men from the WDC soup kitchen and barracks in Trafalgar Street, Annandale. They lined the corrugated iron wall of the Stacks’ bathroom with fibro and built into the gap the one or two Brens, a dozen SMLE .303s and ammo.

I found it hard to get from Jack, Edna or others a clear account of the organisational relations between the CPA, its creation of the UWM, the WDC (that seems to have been an inner core of the UWM), and what the cops chose to call the Irish terrorists, which Edna thought was simply Jack’s armed inner core of the WDC. The CPA link seems to have changed rapidly over time, especially 1930-31. Sylvester was not an easy man to discipline from above. Nor, I guess, were the wilder insurrectionist radicals and Irish easy for him to discipline. I think of it as a kind of radical milieu with some emergent but short-lived elements of personality-based organisation.

Fegan was an accomplished shoplifter in the 1930s, expropriating the expropriators. A number of Jack Fegan’s CPA, Trot and UWM mates from back then became racketeers, and fringe crims after the war. I have in mind poker machine entrepreneur Grant Lonsdale alias Davidson, conman extraordinaire Jack Gale alias Wind, and so on. Edna said the CPA disowned and expelled the WDC for left-deviationism when some US emissary came out and was horrified at the projected scale of slaughter from the proposal to explode large quantities of dynamite in tunnels under the defended Bankstown eviction. There was not an objective revolutionary situation and such deviationists actions could harm the project of working class unity.

Certainly, the group, many with recent insurgent armed experience in Ulster and the south of Ireland who were radicalised by the depression, seem to have got together and done both left and Irish things. I append a little note from a yarn with my aunt Cassie a year or two back. Edna and Jack didn’t distinguish what the Irish were up to in the inner WDC as something separate; they were uncomfortable at having to make a distinction. Both were part of ‘the movement’.

One of Edna’s stories had Jack declared expelled as a heretic and anathema on the front page of the Workers Weekly about 1932. He and Paddy McMahon had pistols and planned to rob the post office savings bank at Johnston Street, Annandale, for movement funds, then escape by tram. Gawd! Somehow the Party got wind of it. McMahon didn’t turn up. Fegan did – but alone, and got cold feet. They were expelled and the faithful told to dissociate from them.

A Falls Road nationalist Catholic ghetto boy, born July 1908, Jack had been in the IRB’s youth wing the Fianna, ran south at age 14-15 and joined his hero Michael Collins’ Irish Free State Army, did basic training, then was on garrison duty. He was traced by his father about when the Civil War broke out and exposed as under-age, dragged by his father back to the north where his older brother Patrick was with the IRA fighting ‘the old enemy, not brother against brother’. Paddy did 10 years for robbing pawnshops. Jack became wanted for the same.

The IRA put him on a boat to Liverpool, transferred him into a lifeboat on a freighter going to ‘Boston’. He wound up nearly perishing of thirst, surrendered to the ship’s officers somewhere off West Africa, and was put ashore in Durban. There was no work for a 20 year old unskilled white in Durban. He stayed around the waterfront until a meeting with an Irish stevedore foreman got him contacts to preliminary boxing fights from whose purses he saved passage money to leave Durban, then arrived in Perth just in time for 1929.

Hall Greenland got a number of survivors together and taped a lot of interviews about 1979-80. Jack died April 1981. I asked for access to the tapes. He gave me one. Hall told me after his book was published that he had deposited the rest of the tapes and some transcripts with the Mitchell. I strongly suggest that you try to trace those as originals.

The other miner’s connection is that my mother’s sister Katherine (‘Cassie’) Stack, now 86, is the last survivor of that radical sorority (Una, Norma, Edna and Cassie Stack) which in the early 1930s controlled the Textile Worker’s Union. Cassie was a girlfriend of fellow Eureka Youth League member and then Trotskyist, Laurie Short, but married Basil Nelson, son of Charlie Nelson, president (until expelled from the CPA over denouncing the Stalin/Ribbentrop Pact) of the Miners Federation.

Norma carried away in her brassiere the pistols from the fortified and defended Newtown eviction when wiser heads decided to not use firearms. Eventually all the arms and explosives were dumped into White Bay. Una stayed with the Party. It is worth noting that the bloke who repaired, serviced and cleaned the pistols, hence always knew where the cache was secreted, outed himself to Jack some years later as a cop. Special Branch 1930s seems to have been less panicky and more worldly-wise about the difference between radical talk and action than Howard/ASIO/Mick Keelty and the Victoria and NSW political police in the last couple of weeks.

My recollections are family legend from Edna, Jack, Edna’s sisters and the Sylvesters and their mates. Their radicalism of the early 1930s was like undergraduate friendships, more vivid to them than the humdrum of struggling to bring up kids in the suburbs. To me and my sister, it was family history, too often told to us as part of our identity, picked over at gatherings of those formidable sisters. My brother closed his ears.