Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Balfe, John Donnellan (1816–1880)

by L. L. Robson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

John Donnellan Balfe (1816-1880), politician and journalist, was born in County Meath, Ireland, son of James Balfe and his wife Sara Sutherland, daughter of Baron Duffus. He was educated at the Jesuit Clongowes Wood College near Dublin and then entered the Life Guards. He was stationed at Windsor and at the crowning of Queen Victoria was detailed to her bodyguard. Leaving the army, he returned to Ireland where he became a member of the Repeal Association under Daniel O'Connell. He was active in seeking redress of the grievances under which Ireland laboured and was the author of letters on the landlord and tenant question published in the Dublin Evening Post. He withdrew from the Young Ireland party, fearing that its schemes would lead to a peasant uprising.

In 1850 Balfe married Mary, daughter of Terence O'Reilly, and a sister of Christopher. In that year the Balfes migrated to Van Diemen's Land in the Australasia, arriving in October. Balfe carried letters of introduction from Earl Grey and Lord Clarendon and was appointed assistant comptroller of convicts by Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison, who wrote of him: 'His education and habits fit him peculiarly for the situation, and I trust he will by his conduct prove himself worthy of the confidence which will be placed in him'. In December 1852 Balfe publicly assaulted Thomas Gregson who had claimed that Balfe was the controlling power behind the Hobart Town Advertiser. Balfe was taken to court and fined £200 which was then raised by public subscription. Next year Balfe resigned from the Convict Department and settled on his land at Port Esperance in the Huon district. There he engaged in a long and bitter conflict with the police magistrate at Franklin; at gunpoint Balfe twice rescued his servants who were being taken into custody, believing that they were arrested only to annoy him. When the police magistrate later petitioned the lieutenant-governor against Balfe's suitability as a justice of the peace, his charges included drunkenness and perjury.

Balfe was an able political journalist: as 'Dion' he opposed the Anti-Transportation League in 1850-53 and as 'Bill Shingle' drew attention to the needs of the Huon district. In the House of Assembly he represented Franklin in 1857-70, West Hobart in 1871-72 and 1877-80 and South Launceston in 1874-77. He held no ministerial office but was chairman of committees in 1863-66. Always an active member he sat on many inquiries, introduced dozens of petitions and was noted for lively speeches that were often caustic about corruption in the House. In 1868 he was engaged for a year by John Davies as editor of the Mercury under an agreement that pledged him to total abstinence and obliged him to vote in the assembly consistently with his editorials. Dismissed after four months for a breach of the first clause, Balfe sued Davies for £500 but lost. A select committee in 1869 declared the second clause a breach of privilege because it tended 'to fetter freedom of vote and action of the Honorable Member for Franklin in this Honorable House'. In the 1870s Balfe was editor of the liberal Tasmanian Tribune. In 1875 he published Life in Old Ireland in Olden Times, a lecture he had given to the St Patrick's Society. The Bulletin, 3 April 1880, called him 'the finest writer, best speaker, readiest wit and ablest constitutional lawyer in Tasmania'. He died aged 64 at his home in Battery Point on 13 December 1880 and was buried at Cornelian Bay cemetery. He was survived by his wife, a son and three daughters, one of whom was a Sister of Charity at St Joseph's Convent.

Select Bibliography

  • Tasmanian Cyclopedia, vol 2 (Hob, 1900)
  • Colonial Times (Hobart), 20 Feb 1853
  • Mercury (Hobart), 14 Dec 1880
  • GO 1/90/357, 33/73/98-105, 78/217-58 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CSO 24/220/8745, 221/9773, 10382, 10512, 255/10449, 256/10502, 269/5248 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • CSD 1/74/1919, 4/94/1005 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • correspondence file under Balfe (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

L. L. Robson, 'Balfe, John Donnellan (1816–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/balfe-john-donnellan-2924/text4225, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 30 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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