Thursday, January 17, 2008

Athy’s links to the premier’s office in Australia

Athy can lay claim to many important and historical figures from the past, some by birth, many more by association or links stretching back through the generations. One such connection, tenuous as it may seem, linked the Anglo-Norman town with the only British prime minister ever to be assassinated. The luckless individual was Sydney Perceval, who was fatally wounded in the House of Commons by an embittered failed businessman in 1812. The prime minister’s niece, Maria, was the wife of Reverend Frederick Trench, then curate of St Michael’s Parish Church but later to become its rector. Trench was the last elected Sovereign of Athy Borough, which was abolished in 1840 and he was to die 20 years later when his carriage, travelling from his home at Kilmoroney House, collided with the medieval town gate at the bottom of Offaly Street. Following the accident, Preston’s Gate, as it was known, was demolished. Another prime minister with links to Athy was Joseph Aloysius Lyons, who held the premier political post in Australia for seven years from 1932. The Australian prime minister, born in Stanley, Tasmania in 1879, was the fourth child of Ellen Carroll, formerly of Forest, Athy. Ellen was the daughter of John Carroll of Forest and she emigrated to Australia in or about

1850. Clearly, she was a very young girl when she left Athy so perhaps she emigrated with her parents and the other members of the Carroll family. This was the post-famine period when Athy and South Kildare generally experienced a very large reduction in population due to emigration, which was generally centered on Britain and America.

To travel to Australia in the 1850s was the prerogative of convicts, who did so courtesy of the state, or reasonably well-off families who could afford to pay for their own passage to the Southern hemisphere. We know that Ellen Carroll’s sisters Hetty and Mary were also in Australia, for when the future prime minister was 12 years of age he lived with his two aunts in Stanley. The presence of three Carroll sisters in Tasmania would tend to support the belief that the Carroll’s had emigrated to Australia as a family.

Interestingly, I find that upwards of 37 young girls from the Athy area travelled to Australia between 1849 and 1850 as part of an Orphan Emigration Scheme. They were girls sent out from the local workhouse and included in their numbers was Ann Carroll who arrived in Sydney on the ship Lady Peel on 3 July 1849. However, there is nothing to connect her to the Carroll family of Forest.

Joseph Aloysius Lyons’ parents were Michael Lyons and Ellen Carroll, both of whom had Irish backgrounds. Michael was actually born in Tasmania of Irish parents just ten days after they had arrived as Irish immigrants in Tasmania. Joseph’s father initially ran a small farm, but dabbling in business ventures he lost his savings and continuing ill health brought the Lyons family into financial difficulties. This forced his nine-year-old son Joseph to leave the Catholic school at Ulverstone and take up odd jobs to help the family situation. Three years later his mother’s sisters, Hetty and Mary, took him in hand and he was able to return to school. He qualified as a teacher in 1901 and taught for a number of years in various country schools. Allegedly influenced by the Irish radicalism of his mother and his sisters, he became actively involved with the Australian Labour Party in Tasmania. This brought him into conflict with his employers, the Tasmanian Education Department, and resigning from his teaching post in 1909 he stood as a candidate for the Tasmanian assembly. Elected to the assembly, he later became president of the state’s Labour Party and in time minister for education for Tasmania. He was responsible for the building of the first high schools in Hobart and Launceston, two Tasmanian towns with high numbers of Irish immigrants.

Following the Easter Rebellion of 1916, he became vice-president of the Hobart United Irish League and during the conscription controversy which raged throughout 1917, not only in Ireland but also in Australia, he consistently campaigned against the British government’s attempts to increase the intake of troops for the war in France and Flanders.

He became leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party in November 1916 and four years later premier of Tasmania. In May 1928, Lyons resigned from the Tasmanian parliament to contest elections for the Australian federal government. He was duly elected and would be reelected at three further national government elections in the 1930s.

Dissatisfied with some individuals within the Australian Labour Party, Lyons resigned from that party in 1931 and became one of the founders and eventual leader of the United Australia Party, which won the Australian general election some months later. The son of the young girl from Athy became prime minister of Australia on 6 January 1932.

Australia, like every other country in the world, suffered during the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, Lyons’ management of the country’s affairs in the years leading up to the Second World War prompted fellow parliamentarian Robert Menzies, himself to be a future prime minister of Australia, to describe Lyons as “the best parliamentarian I have ever known”.

Joseph Lyons travelled to London in 1935 as representative of the Australian government to attend the king’s jubilee celebrations. I have been unable to find out if he took the opportunity to visit Ireland that year, or indeed if he ever visited his moth-er’s homeland. I have also drawn a blank in my attempts to trace the Carroll family of Forest and particularly John Carroll, father of Ellen, Hetty and Mary, the Carroll sisters whom I believe emigrated to Australia in the 1850s.

The Australian prime minister of Irish extraction, and more important-ly from our point of view with a family background centered in South Kildare, died while holding the highest political office in Australia in

1939. He had been in failing health from the previous year and passed away following a heart attack on 7 April 1939. He was buried in Devonport, Tasmania after a memorial service in Sydney and the Australian capital of Canberra.

Joseph Lyons was survived by his wife Enid, whom he had married in 1915 and by 11 of the 12 children of their marriage. Four years after her husband’s death Enid Lyons stood as a candidate for Darwin in the federal general elections and became the first female member of the Australian House of Representatives. She successfully contested three further general elections and on the election of Robert Menzies’ government in 1949 she became the first female cabinet member in Australia. She resigned from parliament two years later and died in 1981.

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who may know anything of the Carroll family of Forest, Athy. Perhaps some members of the prime minister’s family have visited the South Kildare area in the past, or alternatively made enquiries about their ancestors from Forest. If anyone can throw light on the Carroll family, I would welcome hearing from them.

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