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.