IRISH STUDIES ASSOCIATION OF AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND
NUI MAYNOOTH, 18-2O JUNE 2015
Ireland’s Others: Diversity in History and Culture
Edmund Dwyer Gray Jr: his life in two hemispheres
by FELIX M. LARKIN
The title of this paper carries quite deliberate echoes of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy’s famous autobiography, for the careers of Gavan Duffy and Edmund Dwyer Gray Junior are strikingly similar in many respects. Both were born in Ireland – Duffy in 1816, Gray in 1870. Both achieved prominence in Irish public life through their association with newspapers, and both came to play a significant role in Irish politics – albeit for brief periods. Both, much disillusioned by their experiences in Ireland, emigrated to Australia. In Australia, both engaged in radical politics, and both served as prime minister in a regional government – again, for relatively short periods. Duffy, having attained the office of premier of the colony of Victoria in 1871, fell from power in 1872; and Gray was premier of the state of Tasmania for a period of nine months in 1939. By a curious coincidence, when in 1855 Duffy sailed into exile in Australia, one of his shipmates was Moses Wilson Gray, whose brother, Sir John Gray, was the grandfather of the subject of this paper. Duffy records in his autobiography that during the tedious journey to Australia he had ‘daily confabulations with Wilson Gray on the destiny of the new country and all we hoped to do and achieve there’.
The two brothers – Wilson Gray and John Gray – were born of Irish protestant stock in Claremorris, Co. Mayo, in 1813 and 1816 respectively. Wilson became a lawyer and went to America in 1838. John qualified as a medical doctor; but he enjoyed only a brief career as a physician. Notwithstanding his Protestantism, he was a staunch supporter of O’Connell’s campaign for repeal of the Act of Union and was thus drawn into political journalism. In 1841 he purchased the Freeman’s Journal newspaper with some associates; and when his brother, Wilson Gray, returned from America in 1844, he joined him in managing and editing the Freeman. John Gray became sole proprietor of the newspaper in 1850. In 1852 he was elected to Dublin corporation, and in that capacity was responsible for bringing the Vartry water supply to the city – for which achievement he was knighted. He was MP for Kilkenny city from 1865 until his death in 1875, and he had begun to ally himself with Isaac Butt’s home rule movement in the last year of his life. The statue of him that stands in O’Connell Street, Dublin, was erected in 1879. Wilson Gray also died in 1875. In Australia after 1855, he had been active – with Gavan Duffy – in the land reform movement in Victoria, and he served a member of the legislative assembly of Victoria from 1860 to 1862. He then moved to New Zealand, where in 1864 he became district judge of the Otago goldfields, a position he held until his death.
Wilson Gray was not the only connection that the Gray family had with Australia. Sir John Gray’s son and successor as owner of the Freeman’s Journal, Edmund Dwyer Gray Senior, married the daughter and namesake of the Victorian philanthropist Caroline Chisholm, celebrated as ‘the emigrants’ friend’ for her work for female emigrants to Australia, but caricatured by Charles Dickens as Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House. The younger Caroline, on a visit to Ireland, met her future husband in most unusual circumstances. A schooner was wrecked during a storm in Killiney Bay in September 1868 and Gray – whose family had a summer house nearby – swam out with a rope to the doomed craft, saving five lives. Miss Chisholm, by chance, witnessed this heroic deed and was afterwards introduced to him. They married in the following year. The subject of this paper was their eldest child; a second son died in infancy, and they also had two daughters. Writing in the Sidney Morning Herald in 1924, Edmund Dwyer Gray Junior recalled his maternal grandmother – then an invalid, and living in London – telling him as a child ‘of the lovely land of Australia’, and there is no doubt that Australia had a great fascination for him as a result of these conversations.
Caroline Gray (née Chisholm) was a Catholic: her children were raised as Catholics, and her husband – Edmund Dwyer Gray Senior – converted to Catholicism in 1877. Also in 1877, he became MP for Tipperary county. He later represented successively Carlow county and the St Stephen’s Green division of Dublin. But for the advent of Parnell, he might have led the Irish parliamentary party at Westminster. To protect his own political prospects, Gray strongly opposed Parnell’s rise within the party; and when, after the 1880 general election, Parnell was elected party leader, Gray was one of eighteen MPs who voted against him – out of a total of forty-three. Thereafter, however, he largely supported Parnell’s leadership – and the Freeman’s Journal became the unofficial organ of the Irish parliamentary party at Westminster.
The Gray family’s involvement with the Freeman’s Journal lasted for fifty years and it spanned three generations of the family – Sir John Gray, and his son and grandson, both named Edmund Dwyer Gray. The Grays made the Freeman an important newspaper, the foremost nationalist daily newspaper published in Dublin in the nineteenth century. The repeal in the 1850s of the oppressive duty on advertisements and then on the newspapers themselves opened the way for a great expansion in the newspaper market, and Sir John Gray exploited this opportunity, growing the circulation of the Freeman from as little as 2,000–3,000 copies per day to approximately 10,000 at the time of his death in 1875. Under his son, Edmund Senior, the Freeman’s production capacity was further increased, its circulation again grew threefold — to over 30,000 copies per day — and it became extremely profitable. In 1887, he converted the Freeman into a public company, while retaining control for himself. He died at the early age of forty-two in 1888, and for the next four years the company was effectively under the control of his widow and their son, Edmund Junior, who was aged only 18 when his father died. At that time, the younger Edmund Dwyer Gray – having left school the previous year – was touring in Australia and New Zealand, and he learned of his father’s death while visiting the town of Rotorua, in New Zealand, through ‘a small notice in a newspaper’. That quote is taken from the letter that he wrote to his mother from Rotorua, which is in the National Library of Ireland. He immediately made arrangements to return home, but – though his mother controlled more than forty per cent of the share capital of the Freeman company – he was too young to have any real influence in the management of the newspaper, and he returned to Australia in early 1890.
He was still in Australia when the Parnell ‘split’ occurred in December 1890. At the outset of the ‘split’, the board of the Freeman declared in favour of Parnell – a decision which Mrs. Gray, as the principal shareholder in the company, fully endorsed. When her son returned to Ireland in the following February, he too indicated that he would support Parnell. However, in March 1891 the anti-Parnellites launched their own daily newspaper, the National Press, and the Freeman began as a result to lose circulation and revenue. Young Gray – justifiably fearful for his inheritance – then persuaded his mother that the Freeman should abandon Parnell. This required a special general meeting of the Freeman company, held on 21 September 1891, at which the pro-Parnell board was replaced with one that included both Mrs Gray’s son and the man soon to become her second husband, Captain Maurice O’Conor.
After the Freeman switched sides, the Parnellites established the Irish Daily Independent in December 1891 to fill the vacuum caused by the Freeman’s defection. There was not room at that time for three nationalist daily newspapers in Dublin, and certainly it made neither commercial nor political sense to have two anti-Parnell organs. Accordingly, the Freeman and its erstwhile rival, the National Press, merged in March 1892. In simultaneous transactions, the National Press company bought Mrs Gray’s Freeman shares for £36,000 and the Freeman company purchased the National Press newspaper for exactly the same sum – and promptly shut it down. It was a condition of any merger that Mrs Gray should sell her interest in the Freeman’s Journal; the National Press had broken the Gray family’s dominance of the nationalist newspaper market in Dublin and the Grays would not be permitted to assume that role again. Mrs Gray had no option but to accept this – since, quite apart from any other consideration, her health had collapsed under the strain of the previous four years. Her son and Captain O’Conor both ceased to be directors of the merged company in 1893. Edmund Junior was left with no prospects in Ireland, and so he emigrated to Australia in 1894 – never to return, except on a brief visit in 1898 after his marriage in Sydney to a Miss Clara Agatha Rose.
In his early years in Australia, Gray enjoyed little success: he seems to have dabbled in mining and in farming, but nothing more is known of his activities until he emerges from obscurity as the editor of the Daily Post, the organ of the Labour Party in Tasmania, in 1912. He was now aged 42. He was a leading figure in the Australian labour movement, both as a journalist and as a politician, for the remainder of his life – but a somewhat erratic one, due to heavy drinking. His father too had had a serious drink problem which contributed to his early death. Gray Junior continued as editor of the Post and of its successor newspaper, the World – with a brief interruption due to ill health – until 1922, when he was dismissed after a quarrel with the Labour Party leadership. He then worked briefly in Sydney as a journalist for Jack Lang, later Labour Prime Minister of New South Wales, before returning to Tasmania in 1925 to edit a new Labour weekly, the People’s Voice. He continued as editor of the Voice until his death twenty years later in 1945. Despite the Voice’s links to the Labour Party, Gray strove as editor to maintain a measure of independence from the party. In this, he emulated his father’s example as editor and proprietor of the Freeman’s Journal: neither father nor son ever blindly followed a party line, though the newspapers they controlled were clearly identified with specific political movements.
In 1928 Gray was elected to the Tasmanian parliament for the Labour Party – having first hyphenated his name in order to gain a higher place on the ballot paper. He became deputy leader of the Labour Party in 1932, and when the party came to power in Hobart two years later, he was appointed state treasurer and deputy to premier Albert Ogilvie. When Ogilvie died suddenly in 1939, Gray was the compromise choice to succeed him – but this was intended merely as an interim arrangement, and he resigned after six months. He was then re-appointed as treasurer under the new premier, Robert Cosgrave, and he remained in that office until his death in 1945. He was regarded as a highly effective treasurer who, to quote the author of his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Professor Richard Davis, ‘managed to “bring home the bacon” and laid the basis for [Albert] Ogilvie’s post-Depression reforms’. The reference to ‘bringing home the bacon’ refers to Gray’s success in obtaining favourable treatment for Tasmania from the federal government’s Commonwealth Grants Commission established in 1933 by the Labour prime minister of Australia Joseph Lyons to provide grants for the smaller, less well-off states like Tasmania.
Lyons was himself a former prime minister of Tasmania, and he shared with Gray a sense of grievance about Tasmania’s position as a small island dominated by the adjacent landmass. Like Gray, Lyons had an Irish background – he was the grandson of Irish immigrants – and no doubt both were mindful of parallels between Ireland and Tasmania vis-à-vis London and Canberra respectively. Ironically, however, the effect of the Commonwealth Grants Commission was gradually to increase the influence of the federal government over the affairs of the states – and this process was accelerated by the introduction of a uniform federal income tax as a war measure by the Canberra government in 1942. That measure effectively destroyed the autonomy of the state treasurers, but Gray – unlike other state treasurers – did not oppose it as he felt it offered a better way of addressing Tasmania’s perennial economic problems than anything the state government could do on its own initiative.
Gray always retained an interest in Irish politics, and as a journalist during the years 1916 to 1922 he stayed faithful to his family’s long-standing moderate nationalist sentiments. His newspapers at that time – the Daily Post and the World – supported the Irish demand for independence and, in the words of Richard Davis, rejected ‘the hysterical fear that support for Irish self-determination would lead to the disintegration of the British Empire and the end of White Australia’. Gray, however, was unwilling to abandon the Irish constitutional nationalist tradition and espouse Sinn Féin. He condemned the Easter Rising in 1916, and argued that the insurgents should have been suppressed earlier – and later, during the War of Independence, he made it clear that murders on both sides were equally abhorrent to him. He supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, arguing that it should satisfy Irish aspirations, and he opined – somewhat optimistically – that Ulster ‘would soon join the rest of Ireland when she saw how well the new Free State was governed’.
Gray’s success as a politician – albeit in Tasmania – had been forecast by Justin McCarthy MP, who wrote of the young Gray in 1891: ‘I see in him the future prime minister of an Irish parliament’. And this eventuality – Gray as prime minister of an independent Ireland – is, in fact, conjured up by Patrick Maume in a remarkable piece of counterfactual history, published as an appendix to Paul Bew’s recent biography of Parnell, Enigma. Maume postulates that, if Captain O’Shea had been struck by a horse-drawn vehicle and killed while crossing a street in, say, 1887, then the Parnell ‘split’ would not have occurred; Parnell might have lived on well into the twentieth century and delivered home rule for Ireland; the Freeman’s Journal would almost certainly have survived as the predominant nationalist newspaper in Dublin; and, instead of losing his inheritance and emigrating to Australia, Edmund Dwyer Gray Junior might have matured into one of Parnell’s chief lieutenants and perhaps his chosen successor among a younger generation of home rulers. Thus would Justin McCarthy’s prophesy have been fulfilled, but it was not to be.