Centenary of the 1916 Conscription Referendum

During the First World War the Australian government in 1916 and again in 1917 asked the Australian people to approve the introduction of military conscription for overseas service. On each occasion the Australian people by a narrow margin said no. The first referendum was held on 28 October 1916, just six months after the Easter rising in Dublin. It soon became the orthodox view that the Irish Catholic vote was decisive and that the Easter rising and the British government’s response to it were major factors influencing Australian Catholics of Irish descent to oppose conscription.

Soon after the result was known, the Australian prime minister, William Morris Hughes, claimed in a letter to the leader of the British Conservative Party that ‘the selfish vote, and shirker vote and the Irish vote were too much for us’. In August 1917 Hughes wrote to his British counterpart David Lloyd George, ‘The [Catholic] Church is secretly against recruiting. Its influence killed conscription’. But it was not only supporters of conscription who regarded the vote of Australian Catholics of Irish descent as decisive. The Catholic Press, which had opposed conscription, declared soon after the vote, ‘It would be futile to deny that the continuance of martial law in Ireland was perhaps the strongest factor in swelling the “no-conscription” returns’. Labor’s Frank Anstey wrote, ‘[I]f there had been no Easter Week in Ireland … there would have been no hope of defeating conscription in Australia’.

Many historians agreed. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter rising Ken Inglis wrote, ‘Had it not been for the Sinn Feiners and Sir John Maxwell [military governor in Ireland], Australian conscripts would have gone to France.’ However, subsequent research has questioned the significance of the vote of Catholics of Irish descent and the influence which the Easter rising and its aftermath had on their voting intentions.

 In a paper I gave to the Australian Catholic Historical Society on 16 October 2016, I discussed Catholic attitudes to conscription in 1916-17 and examined whether it was the Catholic Church which killed conscription, as Hughes claimed, and to what extent events in Ireland influenced the result.

Sydney Commemorates the Easter Rising



Sydney commemorates the Easter Rising: Outside Mitchell Library during a break in the screening of films on the Rising (Mike O’Flynn)

Under grey skies, reminiscent of weather in Dublin, a crowd of more than 300 gathered outside the GPO in Martin Place at 10 am on Easter Monday to hear Irish-Australian actor Maeliosa Stafford read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, first read 100 years ago outside the GPO in Dublin. The reading was part of a day of commemoration organised by the Aisling Society of Sydney to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising.

Before the proceedings began Kevin O’Connor kept the growing numbers entertained by playing Irish tunes on his fiddle. Once the GPO clock had finished striking the hour, I gave a short address on the significance of the Easter Rising for Ireland and Australia. (A longer version can be read by clicking here.) This was followed by the reading of the Proclamation, after which those fortunate enough to have secured tickets moved to the Mitchell Library for the screening of three films on the Rising: excerpts from Ireland Will Be Free (1920); the docu-drama A Terrible Beauty (2013); and the feature film Irish Destiny (1926).

In the Dixon Room of the library Indigenous elder Ken Canning gave an acknowledgement to country before Irish Consul General Jane Connolly formally opened the film screening. In between films members of the audience came forward to relate personal stories of their family’s involvement with the Rising.

Organiser of the event Tony Earls is to be congratulated on what turned out to be a very successful and enjoyable day of commemoration. The event was funded by a grant from the Irish government’s 1916-2016 Centenary Programme.


Maeliosa Stafford reading the Proclamation. On his left is Tony Earls (Mike O’Flynn)

Photographs of the day’s proceedings taken by Mike O’Flynn can be seen by clicking here. A video of the reading of the Proclamation can be seen on YouTube.

Against the Odds: Battle of Vinegar Hill 1804 and the Easter Rising 1916

Battle_of_Vinegar_Hill_Memorial-32635-22941On Sunday 6 March 2016 I gave an address at the Battle of Vinegar Hill Monument, Castlebrook Memorial Park, Rouse Hill on the occasion of the 212th anniversary of the convict rebellion there in 1804. In the address I reflected on the relationship between that event and the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, the centenary of which we commemorate this year. In the address I observed, “In both cases, the plans though bold were ill-conceived, poorly executed and destined to fail. As the Americans say, ‘You can’t fight City Hall’. And yet in both cases, Irishmen were prepared to risk their lives in a reckless endeavour against overwhelming odds.” I then went on to ask and consider the following question: “So, what is it that drove the Irish convicts of 1804 and the Volunteers of 1916, to answer the call to rise up and to rush, lemming like, towards the ramparts of the ruler, only to plunge to inevitable defeat and in many cases certain death?” To read the address click here.

Easter Rising and Captain Bowen-Colthurst

Terrible DutyNext year the centenary of the Easter Rising will be marked by many commemorative events and the publication of articles and books on numerous aspects of this significant event in the history of modern Ireland. A book recently published depicts the life of a little known participant in the rising on the British side, Captain John Bowen-Colthurst, who was responsible for the murder of innocent civilians, including the well-known newspaper editor and Dublin eccentric Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. A Terrible Duty: The Madness of Captain Bowen-Colthurst (Thena Press, 2015) by Bryan Bacon is available online from Amazon. Bowen-Colthurst’s story has significance for Australians as some of his crimes were witnessed by an Australian soldier, who was in Dublin on leave when the rising broke out and who had reported for duty at Portobello Barracks, Rathmines. The soldier wrote a letter home describing his participation in a patrol led by Bowen-Colthurst during which an innocent young man was shot in the street and a number of civilians, including two journalists, were arrested and taken back to the barracks. The next morning Bowen-Colthurst ordered that Sheehy-Skeffington and the two journalists be shot by firing squad. The Australian soldier’s letter was published in the Age newspaper causing a scandal, particularly amongst the Irish-Catholic community in Australia. I tell the story of the Australian soldier’s involvement in these events in Anzacs and Ireland (pp. 68-72). Ultimately, Bowen-Colthurst was court-martialled and found guilty of murder but because he was also found to be insane he was sent to Broadmoor Asylum. Released in 1918, he travelled to Canada in 1921 where he lived a long life, dying in 1965. A Terrible Duty provides a valuable insight into Bowen-Colthurst’s life and character.