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, as a Labor member of the Australian parliament and a government minister. 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.
In Australia, Mahon is best known for having been expelled from the Australian parliament, the only person to have suffered that fate. That was in 1920 after he criticised 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 newspapermen in the Commonwealth’. Another declared, ‘He must have been nourished in his infancy on the venom of a squid’.
Born at Killurin in 1857, Hugh was the 13th of 14 children of James and Anna Mahon. James was a tenant farmer on a substantial holding at Killurin. The land was part of the Geashill Estate owned by Lord Digby of Dorset. In 1869 James gave up the farm and the family emigrated to America where Hugh trained as a newspaperman. Unfortunately their American dream failed and in 1880 the family returned to Ireland, where Hugh’s brother Patrick had retained a remnant of the family farm. Patrick’s descendants still live there today.
The newspaper trade was not all Hugh learnt in America. Albany, where the family lived, was a fenian stronghold. On Hugh’s return he found employment in County Wexford as editor of the New Ross Standard owned by nationalist Edward Walsh.
An activist as well as a journalist, Hugh used his newspaper to support the tenants during the Land War. He also used his printing press to print leaflets calling for boycotts of landlords. These activities brought Mahon under police notice and in October 1881 he was arrested during the government’s crackdown on the Land League. Imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol with Parnell, he was released after two months on health grounds. He immediately returned to his Land League activities but after being threatened with re-arrest emigrated to Australia.
On arriving in Melbourne in May 1882 Mahon was employed by the local Land League travelling extensively to raise funds to send back to Ireland. When John and William Redmond visited Australia in 1883 to promote the league, Mahon helped to organise their tour.
He then resumed journalism as a reporter, editor and newspaper owner. In 1888 Mahon married Mary Alice L’Estrange of Melbourne. They had four children.
After failing to enter the New South Wales parliament, Mahon moved to the goldfields of Western Australia in 1895 where he established the Menzies Miner in the boom town of Menzies, 160 km north of Kalgoorlie. During his time there 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.
In 1898, Mahon was appointed editor of the Kalgoorlie Sun, 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.
During Mahon’s twenty months at 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 advocated Aboriginal rights and served as a minister in four Labor governments, including Postmaster-General in the first Labor ministry 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.
Mahon family reunion at Charleville Castle, Tullamore, 1922
In 1922 Hugh visited Ireland for the first and last time since his exile 40 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. He died in 1931 and his buried in Melbourne.
Book and Author details:
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). The book will be available from Offaly History Centre from 27 April and can also be ordered online at the Offaly History bookshop. We are looking forward to hosting this launch and hope to meet lots of people interested in our Irish Australian connections, Geashill, Offaly and Mahon family history.
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)