Rodney Sullivan and Robin Sullivan

Overcoming near-death episodes in the 1930s, during World War 2, and in 2015, the Queensland Irish Association (QIA) is one of the oldest and most successful ethnic organisations in Australia. Affectionately known as the Irish Club, the Association is the leading custodian of Irish culture and heritage in Queensland. Its Library contains some 200 books in Gaelic and a facsimile copy of the Book of Kells.  The value of its heritage collections was recognised by the National Museum of Australia in its 2011 Exhibition: Not Just Ned: A True History of the Irish in Australia. QIA contributions included stained-glass doors from Tara House, a memorial harp, and a Pipe Band kilt, cap, and Tara brooch. 

For almost a century and a quarter, the Association has fostered Irishness through oratory, architecture, literature, music, dance, sport, and parades. With membership peaking at 10,000 in 1998 it has hosted Irish Presidents, Australian Prime Ministers, Queensland Premiers, and  Lord Mayors. Its St Patrick’s Eve dinners attract the patronage of Irish Ambassadors and Queensland Governors. Nevertheless, the QIA has stood out among inner Brisbane clubs for its inclusiveness. In the words of an illustrious member, Premier TJ Ryan, during World War 1, it was ‘an Association broad enough to embrace every man of Irish birth or extraction, irrespective of his political or religious views.’ However, women, although a background force from 1898, only acquired full membership in 1986.

The foundation of the QIA was inspired by an upsurge in Irishness associated with the centenary of the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. It was also a reaction to a spike in sectarianism. Thomas Joseph Byrnes, Queensland’s most promising Catholic politician of Irish descent, was defeated in the 1896 election. In the following year, an ethnic militia, the Queensland Irish Volunteers, disbanded, following attempts to suppress its Hibernian identity.  The QIA’s inaugural gathering, on 23 March 1898 was chaired by James Fitzgibbon, prominent pharmacist. Patrick Stephens, former QIV commander, was secretary. There were about 150 in attendance, predominantly former Volunteers, and  Hibernians. Brisbane’s Irish elite, Catholic and Protestant, contributed medical, legal  and business notables. These included medical practitioners Francis Glynn-Connolly and Patrick Moloney, brother-in-law of TJ Byrnes. Frank McDonnell, Labor member for Fortitude Valley, and former Volunteer, was also present, as he was at most Irish occasions. The meeting resolved that ‘a Queensland Irish Association of a non-sectarian and non-political character be established’. A constitution was drafted by a committee comprising Patrick Stephens, Henry Neylan, Patrick O’Neill, and Peter Gaffney.  While O’Neill was a solicitor, the document owed much to advice from future president and fellow lawyer, Thomas O’Sullivan. 

The Association was fortunate in its early presidents: John Kingsbury (1898-1901), Thomas O’Sullivan (1902-1903), Patrick Stephens (1903), Timothy O’Shea (1904-1909) and Peter McDermott (1909-1922). Kingsbury, a Dublin born Methodist, symbolised determination to avoid the Catholic-Protestant conflicts of Ireland. All promoted Home Rule for Ireland, meaning representative government as in Queensland, rather than control from London, while emphasising that first loyalty was to their land of adoption. Nevertheless, the Association came under suspicion during World War One, particularly after the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, which was condemned by the QIA. John Fihelly and William Lennon, prominent QIA members and Ministers in TJ Ryan’s Government, speaking at the Irish Club, attacked Britain for its harsh reprisals. They, and the Club by association, were subject to virulent allegations of disloyalty. These only subsided when Lennon’s son, Austin, won the Military Cross for distinguished gallantry in the brutal battle for Pozières. From his strategic post as head of the Premier’s Department, Peter McDermott was aware that, with war-induced paranoia, the QIA was in danger of proscription. He believed it was saved by its literary reputation.

Appointed Lieutenant-Governor in 1920, William Lennon was awarded Honorary Life Membership in 1928, during the presidency of conservative Attorney-General Neil Macgroarty. Shortly after, Lennon officially opened the Association’s refurbished Elizabeth Street premises. This was a high point from which the QIA was pulled by the Depression, with membership and income plunging while debt escalated. In 1934, liquidators of the Association’s banker demanded repayment of some £20,000. The QIA was saved by the intervention of founding member John Devoy, chairman of Castlemaine Perkins Ltd, who  provided a £15,000 settlement.

The QIA recovered from  the ravages of  depression and war under the twenty-year presidency (1943-1963) of John Keogh. Revitalisation was evident by 1948, when the Club celebrated  its Golden Jubilee and hosted former Irish Prime Minister, Éamon de Valera. Subsequently, Tara House welcomed Irish Presidents Patrick Hillery (1985), Mary Robinson (1993) and Mary McAleese (1998 and 2003). On her first visit, charismatic Mary McAleese was guest of honour at the Centenary Dinner, one of the Club’s epic occasions, with distinguished performances from its Pipe Band, Irish Dancers and Tara Singers.

Despite successfully pursuing its cultural and heritage missions, the Queensland Irish Association encountered financial turbulence in the twenty-first century. This was a fate shared by counterparts in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth as well as other clubs in inner Brisbane. In 2015, unable to meet its liabilities, the QIA entered voluntary administration and, in a bitter blow, heritage-listed Tara House was sold to repay creditors. However, the Irish have a tradition of resilience. The Supreme Court terminated the winding up in 2017 and members elected a new Board of Directors, chaired by Hon Jeffrey Spender QC. In 2020 the QIA purchased new premises in Fortitude Valley and faces the future with confidence.

QIA Dancers, St Patrick’s parade City Hall, 1995 (Courtesy Éamon Gaffney).

Queensland Irish Associations hurling team 1915 © State Library of Queensland.