Disorder in the House

The Victorian parliament is in the news a lot these days, mostly for the wrong reasons. Google “Victorian parliament” and the results over the past month frequently include words such as “chaotic scenes”, “turmoil”, “mess”. In this finely balanced parliament, with the speaker under fire from the Labor opposition and from an independent member who holds the balance of power, members are not behaving as paragons of propriety. Yet, so far, no one has accused the members of being drunk.

In New South Wales recently a minister was sacked after allegations that he had been drunk in the house. But Victorians would be quick to point out that they are a cut above that sort of behaviour, pointing to their northern counterparts’ sordid parliamentary past as depicted so colourfully in Cyril Pearls’ racy Wildmen of Sydney (WH Allen, London, 1958). After all, Edmund Barton, speaker of the NSW parliament and later Australia’s first prime minister, was not nicknamed “Toby Tosspot” for nothing. And that colourful Irish-Australian William “Paddy” Crick had once been expelled from the NSW parliament after he had been in his cups and had defied the chairman of the Committee of the Whole. He might have got away with it had he left the house quietly when the chairman directed him, but, as Hansard records, the charge against him of contempt of parliament went on to say “and afterwards having violently resisted the Serjeant-at-Arms when that officer was directed to remove him, and continued such resistance until other officers rendered assistance, causing a great disorder and scandal” (NSWPD, 12 November 1890, p 5188). The report in The Sydney Morning Herald was a little less anodyne: “The attempt at removal was violently resisted, and it required the strength of three or four of the officers of the Assembly to force the member, struggling, resisting, and kicking, outside the House” (SMH 13 November 1890, p. 4). While his fellow members were sufficiently scandalised to vote immediately for his expulsion, his constituents were more forgiving, re-electing him at the by-election held the following month.

It might be said that by expelling Crick the members demonstrated their abhorrence of such behaviour. Indeed, the Herald argued in its report of the incident that the stern determination shown by the house was the most encouraging aspect of the recent attempts at disorder by “a small section of less than half-a-dozen members by whom the whole House of 137 members has been made to bear a reputation of an undesirable kind”. In other words the honour of the NSW parliament was being besmirched by the bad behaviour of a few drunken louts. Interestingly, south of the Murray it was the corollary that led to the expulsion in 1876 of another Irish-Australian member of parliament Belfast-born James McKean. (Is there something about Irish-Australians and expulsion from parliament?)*

McKean’s offence was slandering the Victorian assembly by alleging that members came into the house ‘staggering drunk’. McKean, a lawyer, made his derogatory remarks while appearing for a client in the Collingwood Police Court. During the hearing the magistrate suggested that the legislature should change a relevant law. McKean’s response, which unfortunately for him was reported in the press, was, “Call such a drunk and immoral lot of individuals legislators? Why, the lowest in Collingwood are not so near so bad as they” (VPD, 26 July 1876, p 153). A select committee was established to investigate the matter and, following the tabling of its report, the motion to expel McKean was passed on the voices.

So, while the present Victorian Legislative Assembly might be in chaos, turmoil and a mess, its members have not as yet plumbed the depths of their 19th-century counterparts. But as my mum used to say, “Things are never so bad they can’t get worse”. Let’s hope not.


Nine members have been expelled from the lower houses of Australian parliaments, six of them Irish-Australians. Offaly-born Hugh Mahon was expelled from the Commonwealth House of Representatives in 1920 for seditious and disloyal utterances. Five members have been expelled from the Victorian Legislative Assembly, three of whom were Irish-Australians: Leitrim-born Patrick Costello 1861 for electoral fraud; Belfast-born James McKean 1869 for breach of privilege and Edward Finley 1901 for seditious libel. The other two were Scotsman James Butters and Welshman Charles Edwin Jones, both 1869 for corruption. Three members have been expelled from the NSW Legislative Assembly, two of whom were Irish-Australians: William Crick 1890 for contempt of the house and Dublin-born Richard Atkinson Price 1917 for conduct unworthy of a member in making allegations against a minister. The third was Englishman Ezekial Alexander Baker 1881 for conduct unworthy of a member, namely misappropriation of funds. All three were re-elected by their constituents.

Cricket: When Irish Eyes are Smiling

My wife and I have just returned from a cricketing tour of England with the Sydney Cricket Ground XI that included two days at Lord’s for the second Ashes Test. The atmosphere at Lord’s was fantastic – too bad about the cricket. It was not long ago that as an Irish-Australian I took delight in the way Australia used to put England to the sword whenever the two teams played the game the English had invented. On the Australians’ present form it may be some time before I will experience that sense of satisfaction once again.

Some Irish patriots might argue that anyone with a drop of Irish blood in his or her veins would despise the game of cricket as a garrison game. One such patriot was Mary MacSwiney, the sister of Terence MacSwiney, the Sinn Féin lord mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike in 1920 at Brixton prison. At the Irish Race Convention in Paris in 1922 MacSwiney gave Australian delegate Dr Herbert Moran a verbal lashing when during a debate on the establishment of an Irish Olympic Games he emphasised the value of team sports, especially cricket. In his memoirs Viewless Winds Moran recalled how she “scornfully stigmatised [the game] as a subtle means for the anglicisation of Ireland.” He should have known better than to proselytise the virtues of cricket in Ms MacSwiney’s presence given his own assessment of her:

During all that week I never saw Miss MacSwiney smile. She was the incarnation of a people’s hatred for the oppressor. The memory of all the massacres and famines blazed perpetually in her eyes. Her speech was a scalding infusion from all the bitter herbs that ever grew in the crevices of suffering and misfortune.

On the other hand, according to the Guardian‘s Patrick Kingsley, contemporary Irish patriot Martin McGuinness is said to be a fan of the sport and, no less, of the England cricket team.

Garrison game or not, during the Great Irish Famine (1845-52) cricket provided a much-needed source of income to some of the native Irish living on Viscount Ashbrook’s estate at Castle Durrow in County Laois. According to Michael Parsons in the Irish Times, recently discovered records of the Ashbrook Cricket Club reveal that while gentlemen members of the club had to pay a shilling for the privilege of playing, Catholic hirelings were paid two shillings a match. Parsons writes, “With the exception of boxers and jockeys, the Laois cricketers appear to have been the first Irish sports players to be paid”. Better than taking the soup, perhaps.

But the Australian Irish accommodated themselves to cricket from early on and many have done well at the highest levels of the sport. Sons of Erin such as Bill O’Reilly, Stan McCabe and Jack Fingleton are legends of the game. But they too were made to feel uncomfortable about their playing the English game, though not by Irish patriots. In the sectarian times in which they played waspish team mates were more likely to be the source of vitriol.

In recent times, with the attenuation of patriotic fervour and sectarian conflict, Ireland has taken its place among the second tier of cricket playing nations with some notable success. As well as progressing to the second round of the 2007 World Cup, they memorably, defeated England in the 2011 World Cup. In that game Dublin-born Kevin O’Brien hit the fastest World Cup century off only 50 balls. Even Mary MacSwiney might have cracked a smile at that result.

Let’s hope that in the return Ashes series this southern summer the Aussies can turn it around so that Irish-Australian eyes are smiling once again.

Tours Downunder: John Redmond MP and the English Cricket Team of 1883

One hundred and thirty years ago this month John Redmond MP, an Irish member of the House of Commons, and his brother William came to Australia on a lecture tour to promote the cause of Irish home rule and to raise funds for the Irish National League.

At the same time a tour of a different sort was underway. The English cricket team under Ivo Bligh had come to Australia to play a three-match Test series. England won the series 2-1 and a group of Melbourne women presented Bligh with an urn said to contain the ashes of a bail. This was the first of many Ashes Test series to come. Although only three matches were scheduled, the two teams decided to play a fourth game in Sydney at the Association Cricket Ground (now the Sydney Cricket Ground).

Although much has been written about both tours, it is not widely known that there is a connection between the two.

The Redmond brothers tour of Australia was very controversial, not only because of the vehement opposition of the major metropolitan newspapers to Irish home rule but also because of the startling news then coming out of Ireland.

Just after the Redmond brothers arrived in Australia the trial began in Dublin of the men accused of murdering the Irish Chief Secretary Lord Frederick Cavendish and his Under Secretary Thomas Burke in Phoenix Park, Dublin in May 1882.

One of the accused, James Carey, turned informant and made allegations that the Land League (the predecessor of the Irish National League) had an assassination committee and that the League had provided funds to the assassins. These allegations were never substantiated and later disproved, but much of the local press reported them as fact unleashing a withering backlash against Irish nationalists.

Earlier in the month the Redmond brothers had started their tour in Adelaide and had made their way to Sydney, arriving on Monday 19 February 1883, the day the news broke of Carey’s allegations. It was also the second day of the Test match, and the newly arrived Irishmen spent their first day in Sydney at the ground watching the cricket.

The Echo, the Fairfax evening newspaper which was vehemently anti-Irish, took delight in reporting that the Redmonds received the “cold shoulder” from many of their compatriots who had just learned of Carey’s allegations. [Read The Echo]

However, it seems that the then organisers of the ground were not so unwelcoming. According to the Protestant Standard, an anti-Catholic weekly newspaper, “the Irish flag and two American flags were flying on the Pavilion, and nowhere the English flag”. Scandalised by the likelihood  that the “green flag with the harp and the inscription ‘Cead  Millia Failthe’ on it” was a gesture of welcome to “the sedition mongers”, the newspaper called for an explanation. [Read Protestant Standard]

In the end, England lost out all round. The English cricket team lost the Test by four wickets in four days and the Redmond brothers, after weathering the storm of controversy, spent the next ten months touring Australia and New Zealand where they raised over £15,000 for the Irish cause.