The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
This year marks the 160th anniversary of the birth of Hugh Mahon, a native of County Offaly, who, after a difficult start in Ireland, found fame and fortune in Australia, where he rose to high political office, serving as a Labour member of the Australian parliament for two decades and as a government minister four times.
A new book, Hugh Mahon: Patriot, Pressman, Politician tells the fascinating life-story of this son of the county, whose relations still live in and around Tullamore. The book will be launched at Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore on Thursday 27 April 2017 at a lecture to be given by the book’s author Australian historian Jeff Kildea.
Mahon family reunion at Charleville Demesne, Tullamore in 1922. Hugh Mahon circled.
In Australia, Mahon is best known for having been expelled from the Australian parliament, the only person to have suffered that fate. This happened in 1920 after he made a speech critical of British rule in Ireland, leading the prime minister Billy Hughes to accuse him of “seditious and disloyal utterances”.
But, as Dr Kildea tells it, there is much more to this intriguing Offaly man than that singular, spectacular event. In his day Mahon was both revered and reviled. One contemporary wrote, ‘He may be acclaimed as one among the best newspaper men in the Commonwealth’. Another declared, ‘He must have been nourished in his infancy on the venom of a squid’.
Born at Killurin in 1857
Born at Killurin in 1857, Hugh was the 13th of 14 children of James and Anna Mahon (née McEvoy). The Mahons of Offaly were originally from the ancient kingdom of Oriel in the north of Ireland and there are at least two versions of how and when the family arrived in the county.
Whatever the correct version, the family were well settled in the district by the 19th century, with James being a tenant farmer on a substantial holding at Killurin. The land was part of the Geashill Estate owned by Lord Digby of Dorset in England, who employed as his estate manager the efficient but often ruthless William Steuart Trench.
In 1869 James, Anna and eight of their children, including young Hugh, gave up their farm and emigrated to America, first to Ontario, Canada and then to Albany, the capital of New York state, where Hugh trained as a printer and newspaperman. Unfortunately their American dream failed and in 1880 the family returned to Ireland, where Hugh’s brother Patrick held a remnant of the family farm. Patrick’s descendants still live there today.
For Hugh, the American experience had not been pleasant. In 1929 he wrote to a niece who had moved to America, “For goodness sake, don’t become a slave to these Yankee bloodsuckers. Having suffered from them myself I am qualified to sympathise with you. They worked me – a child of 13 – 59 hours a week, from 7am to 6pm & I had to walk 3 miles each way from home to the printing office”.
But the newspaper trade was not all Hugh learnt in America. At the time, Albany was the country’s most Irish city. It had an Irish Catholic mayor years before Boston or New York. It was also a fenian stronghold. On Hugh’s return he soon found employment in County Wexford as editor and manager of the New Ross Standard and a reporter for the Wexford People. Both newspapers were owned by Edward Walsh, a prominent Irish nationalist, who in the late 1880s served three prison terms for his newspapers’ outspoken opposition to landlords.
Like his employer, Hugh was an activist as well as a journalist, using his newspaper to support the tenants during the Land War of 1879-82. He also used his printing press to print leaflets calling for boycotts of landlords. These activities brought him under police notice. Sub-Inspector Wilson reported to the government, ‘Mahon is by occupation a reporter and by inclination a rebel’.
When a landlord’s son was murdered in an ambush near New Ross, Mahon organised a defence fund to help the two men charged with the crime and used his newspaper to criticise the police and prosecution authorities, whom he accused of intimidation and sharp practices. He was also an important witness at the trial, providing an alibi for one of the accused, both of whom were acquitted.
Hugh Mahon biography, vol.i, 1857-1901 (probably the first Offaly man to get a two-vol biography)
Mahon arrested in crackdown on Land League
In October 1881 Mahon was arrested and interned without trial during the government’s crackdown on the Land League. He was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol with Parnell. After two months he was released on health grounds following a diagnosis of tuberculosis. He immediately returned to his Land League activities but after being threatened with re-arrest he took his doctor’s advice and emigrated to Australia.
On arriving in Melbourne in May 1882 Mahon was employed by the Australian branch of the Land League and travelled extensively in the sister colony of New South Wales raising funds to send back to the league in Ireland. When John and William Redmond visited Australia in 1883 to promote the league, Mahon helped to organise their tour.
He then resumed his calling in journalism as a reporter, editor and ultimately newspaper owner. In 1886 Mahon joined Sydney’s Daily Telegraph as a political reporter, rising to become chief of the Telegraph’s parliamentary staff.
Through his political contacts Mahon was appointed secretary of the Rabbit Royal Commission, set up in 1888 to administer a world-wide competition to find a cure for the rabbit plague then sweeping Australia and threatening its sheep industry. This put him at the centre of an international political storm as supporters of the German bio-chemist Robert Koch attempted to undermine the entry put forward on behalf of the Frenchman Louis Pasteur. That year Mahon married Mary Alice L’Estrange of Melbourne. They had four children.
From Land League to Parliamentarian
In 1891 Mahon attempted to enter the New South Wales parliament, but his ambition was thwarted by the skulduggery of his Free Trade faction which led to another candidate being nominated in his place. Following his disappointment he moved to Melbourne with his family, where he took a job with the Australian Mining Standard, a newspaper providing news and comment concerning mining.
There he met James MacCallum Smith, with whom he formed an investment syndicate after Smith moved to the newly-discovered goldfields of Western Australia. In 1895 the fortunes of the Mining Standard turned for the worse and Mahon left for WA at the invitation of Smith who had acquired newspapers in the goldfields.
In partnership with Smith, Mahon established the Menzies Miner in the new boom town of Menzies, 160 km north of Kalgoorlie. During his time in Menzies Mahon was elected to the inaugural town council and in 1897 unsuccessfully stood for election to the WA parliament for the seat of North Coolgardie. But he also became embroiled in a libel action in which Henry Gregory, the popular Mayor of Menzies, sued him for £5000.
Mahon as editor of the Sun
In 1898, Mahon was appointed editor of the Kalgoorlie Sun. It was a Sunday newspaper which aimed to reach the masses, to be critical of society, to expose social abuses and to promote contemporary literature by publishing reading matter of a high literary standard. Mahon quickly fitted into the role, often attacking the government of Sir John Forrest. With headlines such as “In the Clutches of Corruption/Land of Forrests, Fakes and Frauds/Some Instances of Robbery and Jobbery”, he soon gained a reputation amongst his fellow journalists as a pugnacious and racy editor.
A contemporary later wrote, “Mahon could put more venom into a stick of type than any man I ever knew. Mahon’s headlines were masterpieces of alliteration and venom”. During Mahon’s twenty months as editor of the Sun he successfully defended five libel actions, four of them prosecutions for criminal libel. But he also exposed corruption in the government railways.
Mahon’s career as a journalist effectively ended in 1901 when he was elected to the first parliament of the newly federated Commonwealth of Australia. Initially representing the seat of Coolgardie, he became the member for Kalgoorlie in 1913 following a redistribution of electoral boundaries.
During his time in parliament Mahon was an early advocate of Aboriginal rights. He served as a minister in four Labor ministries, including Postmaster-General in the first Labor government in 1904 and Minister for External Affairs during World War I. After the war his passionate campaigning in support of Irish self-determination during the War of Independence led to his expulsion from parliament.
Family photo in Charleville in 1922
In 1922 Hugh visited Ireland for the first and last time since his exile 50 years before, attending a large family reunion at Charleville Castle. On returning to Australia, he saw out the rest of his life as managing director of the Catholic Church Property Insurance Co., which he had established in 1911 at the request of the Australian bishops. He died in 1931 and his buried in Melbourne.
Book and Author details: Professor Jeff Kildea
Hugh Mahon: Patriot, Pressman, Politician, Volume 1: the years from 1857 to 1901 (ISBN 9780992467180) is published by Anchor Books Australia, Melbourne (Webpage: anchorbooksaustralia.com.au).
Dr Jeff Kildea, is an adjunct professor in Irish Studies at the University of New South Wales and was Keith Cameron Professor of Australian History at University College Dublin in 2014. He is the author of Tearing the Fabric: Sectarianism in Australia 1910-1925 (2002), Anzacs and Ireland (2007) and Wartime Australians: Billy Hughes (2008). (Webpage: jeffkildea.com)