Irish Humanitiarians, Indigenous Australians, and Daniel O’Connell’s Legacy

I was delighted to be asked to speak at the 2023 Daniel O’Connell Summer School in Kerry: My talk on ‘Irish Humanitarians, Indigenous Australians, and Daniel O’Connell’s Legacy in Settler Australia’ drew on scholarship by Mark Tedeschi, Anna Johnston, and others. A slightly extended version of the talk is set out in full below.

Irish Humanitarians, Indigenous Australians, and Daniel O’Connell’s Legacy in Settler Australia

In 1836—following the abolition of slavery across the British Empire—a parliamentary committee was set up in London to investigate Britain’s treatment of Indigenous peoples. The committee’s report, published in 1837, condemned as ‘heartless’ exploitative practices in those ‘dark places of the earth, full of the habitations of cruelty’. Based on interviews with forty-six official eyewitnesses (including Indigenous Khoisan and Xhosa chiefs who travelled to London from southern Africa), the report concluded that ‘[i]t is not too much to say that the intercourse of Europeans in general, without any exception in favour of the subjects of Great Britain, has been … a source of many calamities to uncivilized nations’ (Report, pp. 3-4).

That same year, in 1837, the Aborigines Protection Society (APS) was established to advocate for tighter metropolitan controls over zones of settler-Indigenous contact, and for the establishment of land reserves and other protectionist policies. Daniel O’Connell was not a founding member of the APS, but he was certainly present at the Society’s third and fourth annual meetings at Exeter Hall in London on 7 August 1840 and 18 September 1841, respectively. On that day in 1841, the Australasian Chronicle recorded that O’Connell ‘rose amidst loud cheers’ and gave a rousing speech about the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, noting that the subject involved more ‘oppression and cruelty than had ever been brought before the public’: ‘Wherever the white man settled, the natives had first been banished, then pursued, and next exterminated. There was no colony that had not participated in this exterminating guilt’ (18 Sept. 1841, p. 4).

 Going beyond the idea of protection from settler violence, O’Connell concluded his speech by arguing that Indigenous peoples must be compensated for their land and treated with full equality as British subjects:

[T]he native inhabitants of our colonies … are endowed with the rights of a common humanity, in which they cannot, without the most criminal injustice, be outraged by a system of colonisation not adequately compensating them for their lands, or failing to secure to them the protection and privilege of British subjects (Australasian Chronicle, 18 Sept. 1841, p. 4).

For O’Connell, colonialism and oppression were inevitably linked, and he maintained in his earlier speech for the APS on 7 August 1840 that ‘no other human event led to evils so multitudinous’. Indeed, in that speech, O’Connell noted that he stood before his audience ‘an Aborigine himself … and he therefore felt a personal sympathy for the native inhabitants of every other country’ (The Liberator, 7 Aug. 1840, p. 126).

As this audience knows well, O’Connell was no narrow nationalist and his important contribution to anti-slavery debates in the Americas and British policy in India is now well-documented, thanks to Maurice Bric, Pauline Collombier-Lakeman, and other historians. O’Connell’s contribution to the protection and rights of Indigenous peoples has been less explored and warrants further attention, but the story I want to tell today is primarily about another Irish humanitarian, a contemporary and friend of O’Connell’s, John Hubert Plunkett, Solicitor-General and then Attorney-General of New South Wales in Australia from the 1830s to the 1850s. 

Born in Roscommon to an established Catholic family in 1802 (Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, now patron saint for peace and reconciliation in Ireland, was an ancestor), Plunkett studied law at Trinity College Dublin and was called to the Irish bar in 1826. He was a member of O’Connell’s Catholic Association, established in 1823 to campaign for Catholic Emancipation. O’Connell credited Plunkett with the electoral success of his candidate in Roscommon in 1830 and thanked him with a dinner in Plunkett’s honour. As the Australian barrister and former NSW Senior Crown Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi has noted, ‘[Plunkett’s] association with Daniel O’Connell … had a profound influence on him, and his views on the rights of all men, regardless of faith or origin, clearly reflected those of his mentor’. In particular, Plunkett’s role as a shop steward for the Catholic Association ‘developed his administrative skills and politicised him as an advocate for human rights’ (Tedeschi, Murder at Myall Creek, p. 20).

There is little doubt that Plunkett’s friendship with O’Connell had an enormous influence on his life. Plunkett’s appointment as Solicitor General of New South Wales in 1831 was largely the result of lobbying by O’Connell, following the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829. This was the first appointment of a Catholic to a significant position of legal authority within the British Empire. On arrival in New South Wales, Plunkett was determined to establish equality before the law based on what Justice Jacqueline Gleeson has characterised as a specifically Catholic understanding of ‘human dignity’ (Gleeson, ‘Human Dignity’, p. 4). Plunkett extended legal rights and protections first to convicts and servants, and then to Indigenous peoples, who were not then able to give testimony as witnesses in court. 

Some Australian colonists considered Plunkett to be ‘a slashing Irishman … full of the wildest opinions of what were the rights of people’(cited in Earls, Plunkett’s Legacy, p. 55), but it was Plunkett’s later involvement in a controversial trial that proved most divisive. In late September 1838, Sydney newspapers began to publish accounts of a crime at Myall Creek, a station in northern New South Wales about 350 miles from Sydney. There, on 10 June 1838, a group of twelve stockmen had very violently killed twenty-eight unarmed Weraerai (or Wirrayaraay) people of the Gamilaraay nation, predominantly younger men, women and children—many of them in their mother’s arms—in an episode of what would now be considered ethnic cleansing. Only one man fully witnessed the events that took place. As an Aboriginal man, Davey was not able to give sworn evidence in court. However, there was a detailed investigation (led by Danny Day, a police magistrate originally from Tralee) and eleven of the twelve men were charged and put on trial. 

As the Irish President Michael D. Higgins noted in a landmark address to the Western Australian parliament in 2017, it is important to acknowledge that injustices were inflicted upon First Nations peoples by Irish immigrants, including at the Myall Creek Massacre (Irish Times, 18 October 2017). At least three of the perpetrators at Myall Creek were Irish convicts or former convicts, including John Russell, Edward Foley, and John Blake.

The trial was controversial among white Australian settlers because it was the first time Europeans had been charged with the murder of Indigenous Australians. Plunkett was the prosecutor in the trial and it involved the supreme test of his belief in equality before the law, pitting him against the views of settlers, the military, the newspapers and media infrastructure, and even the convict population (since most of the accused were convicts or former convicts). Later, a petition was circulated to have him removed from his position as Attorney General. The petition failed but Plunkett was, for a time, ostracised by colonial society after seven of the perpetrators were convicted in a second trial and hanged on 18 December 1838. Ironically, Plunkett—like O’Connell—was opposed to capital punishment.

The Sydney Herald newspaper railed that it is ‘nothing short of legal murder to take the lives of white men for the alleged slaying of blacks’ (Sydney Herald, 10 Dec. 1838, p. 2), but Plunkett held firm in his belief of equality before the law. According to Mark Tedeschi:

the approach taken by … Plunkett towards the case demonstrated an enlightened and visionary attitude that was unparalleled in his time or for more than a hundred years afterwards. Plunkett did not just prosecute eleven men for murder. He prosecuted his entire society for its connivance in the attempted annihilation of the Aboriginal people and their culture.  (Tedeschi, ‘The 2017 Myall Creek Commemoration Speech’, pp. 157-8)

This was the only time in Australia’s early colonial history that any white settlers were found responsible by law for acts of atrocity towards Indigenous peoples. 

Plunkett was not, however, the only Irish humanitarian to respond to the Myall Creek Massacre. On 13 December 1838, Eliza Hamilton Dunlop’s poem, ‘The Aboriginal Mother (After Myall Creek)’, was published in The Australian newspaper, several days after the seven men were found guilty of the incident. The poem was highly critical of settler violence. Dunlop was born Eliza Matilda Hamilton in 1796 in County Armagh. Her father, Solomon Hamilton, was an attorney practising in Ireland, England, and India. Part of a privileged Protestant family, Dunlop was largely raised by her paternal grandmother and grew up reading the work of social reformers. She was deeply interested in the Irish language and supported Catholic Emancipation. Eliza Hamilton married David Dunlop from Country Antrim. The Dunlops had five children in Coleraine, where they protested against absentee landlords, before leaving Ireland in 1837. 

In 1838, a few months before the Myall Creek Massacre, the Dunlops arrived in New South Wales, where David Dunlop took up the position of police magistrate and Protector of Aborigines. Eliza Dunlop was not herself an observer at the scene of the Myall Creek Massacre, but her poem was the product of her first-hand experiences as the wife of a police magistrate. She can therefore rightly be called a poet of witness, both in the sense that her primary sources included newspaper reports and eyewitness accounts, and in the sense that the poem itself stands as a textual act of witness to a horrific crime.

Although it ventriloquises the voice of Aboriginal woman (which may sit uncomfortably with us today), ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ is an important poem, which aimed to induce a sympathetic response in a hostile white settler readership. The poem is also, for its time, a radical assertion of Aboriginal subjectivity, given that many settlers—unable to understand or navigate complex Aboriginal languages—wrongly assumed that Indigenous Australians were incapable of independent thought and self-expression:

Oh! Hush thee—hush my baby,
I may not tend thee yet.
Our forest-home is distant far,
And midnight’s star is set.
Now hush thee—or the pale-faced men
Will hear thy piercing wail,
And what then would thy mother’s tears
Or feeble strength avail!

Dunlop invokes here the ‘universal’ figure of the grieving mother, using the ostensibly natural and pre-political nature of maternal feeling to transcend racial, cultural, and class differences. In her manuscript collection of poems, The Vase, ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ was placed next to her poem ‘The Irish Mother (also sometimes titled ‘The Emigrant Mother’), which ends with a cry of grief in Gaelic: ‘I lonely mourn, and watch; and weep:/ Mo chreach! Mo thruaidh! och on!’. Dunlop clearly meant these two poems to be read together in a kind of cross-cultural sharing of mourning and grief.

Yet while Dunlop invokes a common maternal nature, ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ also follows the Aborigines Protection Society in emphatically rejecting ‘fatal impact’ theories, attributing the ‘vanishing’ of the Aboriginal people not to the inevitable processes of evolution, but rather to the violent actions of ‘the pale-faced men’ and their ‘English steel’. Even more strikingly, Dunlop recognises this violence as a breaking of Aboriginal culture and tradition:

Now who will teach thee, dearest,
To poise the shield, and spear,
To wield the koopin, or to throw
The boommerring, void of fear;
To breast the river in its height;
The mountain tracks to tread?
The echoes of my homeless heart
Reply — the dead, the dead!

When criticised by the Sydney Herald newspaper for her poem, Dunlop bravely responded in print against a settler culture that sought to ‘ridicule ties stronger than death, which bind the heart of a woman, be she Christian or savage’, concluding that she hoped the poem would ‘awaken the sympathies’ of the English nation for a people who were ‘rendered desperate and revengeful by continued acts of outrage’ (Sydney Herald, 29 Nov. 1841, p. 2).

The negative publicity following the publication of the poem affected David Dunlop’s career as a police magistrate. The Dunlops were soon moved to a remote location in the Hunter Valley and there, too, locals campaigned against David’s appointment and undermined his authority. As Anna Johnston has documented in her work on linguistic knowledge formation on the colonial frontier, Eliza Dunlop was later able to achieve considerable fluency in the Awabakal language, and translated Indigenous songs and literary compositions (Johnston, Antipodean Laboratory, pp. 66-112). Today, Aboriginal communities and linguists use Dunlop’s transcripts and word glossaries for language reclamation projects in the Hunter Valley, where they are producing Aboriginal language dictionaries.

Once a forgotten figure, Dunlop is going through a period of recognition in Australia. Although there is not yet a book-length biography of Dunlop, there is a now a collected edition of her poetry (edited by Anna Johnston and Elizabeth Webby), as well as some excellent essays and book chapters on her work. Plunkett, too, is a relatively forgotten figure in Australian history. In June 1856, the judges of the NSW Supreme Court paid tribute to Plunkett’s role as Solicitor General and Attorney General, with the Chief Justice saying:

When the contests shall have passed away, and the voices of friendship and calumny have been like silenced by death, and the grave has closed over the generations which now know us, there will be no name recorded by the pen of history, in Australian annuls, with juster or more endearing praise than that which belongs to Mr Attorney General Plunkett (cited in Earls, Plunkett’s Legacy, p. 24).

While there are at least two biographies of Plunkett—John Molony’s An Architect of Freedom (1973) and Tony Earls’s Plunkett’s Legacy (2009)—Plunkett is far from well-known outside of the Australian legal fraternity. Even in June of this year, Tedeschi published an article in the Sydney Morning Herald with the headline: ‘True heroes exposed the Myall Creek massacre. To our shame, we don’t know their names’ (9 June 2023). Like Eliza Dunlop, Plunkett deserves to be remembered not just for his connection with Daniel O’Connell, but also for his transmission of O’Connell’s humanitarian spirit of legal equality and human dignity to settler Australia.

Today, the Myall Creek Massacre is of huge significance to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike. The Myall Creek Memorial was established in 2000 (162 years after the massacre) as ‘an act of reconciliation, and in acknowledgement of the truth of our shared history’ (Myall Creek Memorial Plaque). It is a twenty-three-hectare site with a large granite boulder at its center, on which rests a plaque commemorating the victims of the massacre. The boulder is at the top of a walkway in the shape of the Rainbow Serpent. At several intervals, there are plaques with images by a local Indigenous artist, accompanied by texts in Gamilaraay and English. A commemorative ceremony is held every year in June. There is no mention of Dunlop or Plunkett at the Memorial, which is devoted to the Indigenous victims, but I think of that they would approve.


Secondary References:

Tony Earls, Plunkett’s Legacy: An Irishman’s Contribution to the Rule of Law in New South  Wales  (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2009)

Jacqueline Gleeson, ‘Human Dignity in the Time of John Hubert Plunkett’ (2021):

Anna Johnston, The Antipodean Laboratory: Making Colonial Knowledge, 1770-1870  (Cambridge University Press, 2023)

—- and Elizabeth Webby (eds), Eliza Hamilton Dunlop: Writing from the Colonial Frontier  (Sydney University Press, 2021)

John N. Moloney, An Architect of Freedom: John Hubert Plunkett in New South Wales, 1832-1869 (ANU Press, 1983):

Mark Tedeschi, Murder at Myall Creek: The Trial that Defined a Nation (Simon & Schuster, 2016)

—- ‘The 2017 Myall Creek Massacre Commemoration Speech’, in Genocide Perspectives VI:  The Process and Personal Cost of Genocide, ed. N. Marczak and K. Shields (UTS Press, 2021), pp. 155-8:

Further Reading:

Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan (eds), Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre  (NewSouth Publishing, 2018)

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