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Beirne, Thomas Charles (1860–1949)

by Carolyn Nolan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Thomas Beirne, by Noel Cournihan, 1936

Thomas Beirne, by Noel Cournihan, 1936

State Library of Queensland, 194210

Thomas Charles Beirne (1860-1949), retailer, was born on 9 July 1860 at Ballymacurly, Roscommon, Ireland, son of John Beirne, farmer, and his wife Catherine, née Callaghan. After scanty education at a near-by Franciscan monastery, then at a National school where he excelled at mathematics, he was apprenticed to his cousin Dominick Owens, a draper in Strokestown; in 1880 he went to Gallagher Bros of Ballina. In March 1881 he joined M. D. Piggott of Tuam, County Galway, who befriended him and persuaded him to migrate to Australia rather than to the United States of America. Beirne sailed for Melbourne on the Lusitania, arriving in February 1884; 'There was no-one to welcome me' he recorded; 'I was a complete stranger in a strange land'. He was quickly employed by Eyre & Sheppard of Carlton, then by Foy & (William) Gibson.

Piggott, who had also migrated, invited Beirne to partnership in Brisbane, and in February 1886 Piggott & Beirne opened a drapery store in Stanley Street, South Brisbane, then a smart shopping area. Beirne married Ann Kavanagh on 11 April 1887 in St Stephen's Cathedral. Of their ten children, only five daughters survived infancy.

After a disastrous fire in the store in January 1889 and dissolution of the partnership in August 1891, Beirne opened a new store in the then unfashionable Fortitude Valley; he was fortunate, for the great flood of 1893 destroyed South Brisbane as a retail centre. Meanwhile he instituted mail-order arrangements. In 1894 a Scot, James McWhirter, became his manager for one year, then partner for three, eventually opening a rival store across the street. Beirne later reflected that the ensuing competition made the Valley the principal shopping area in Brisbane. He opened a branch at Ipswich in 1892 with his brother Michael as manager, and another at Mackay in 1902.

Beirne avoided possible financial damage from the bank crashes of the 1890s by instituting a direct buying scheme with London in 1896; at home he operated through many small accounts in various towns. In 1898 he became an active member of the Brisbane Traders' Association and was president in 1901. He was trusted by the infant Labor Party; in 1898 he moved the vote of confidence in Frank McDonnell, whom he had known in Ireland, and W. G. Higgs as candidates for Fortitude Valley. While visiting Britain in 1905 he was requested by cable to become a member of the Legislative Council; he was appointed on 27 July by the (Sir) Arthur Morgan ministry, and remained a member until the abolition of the council in 1922. He always insisted strongly on his freedom from party ties.

Beirne was universally regarded as a good employer and made several attempts to introduce profit-sharing and staff shareholding schemes, but he was bitterly disappointed at the lack of interest and the petty bickering over status. As a successful businessman with an extensive portfolio of shares, he was a welcome addition to many company boards; the first and most controversial was the Brisbane Tramway Co. which he joined about the time of the 1912 general strike. His public appeal for moderation, in a letter to the Brisbane Courier, fell on deaf ears and cooled his relations with the labour movement, but he stayed on the board until the company was bought out by the government. Beirne was also interested in his membership of the Queensland board of the Australian Mutual Provident Society; he was a director in 1916-36, deputy chairman for three years and chairman for seven, and was invited to remain a member for two years after the statutory age for retirement. He was also on the board of the Queensland Trustees, the Atlas Assurance Co. and the British Australian Cotton Association.

Beirne was elected to the Council of the University of Queensland in 1927 and was warden of the university from 1928 until his resignation in 1941. He enjoyed these associations and in 1935, the university's silver jubilee year, he was persuaded to donate £20,000 to establish the T. C. Beirne School of Law rather than bequeath the £10,000 which he had originally intended.

A devout Roman Catholic, he was a close friend and confidant of Archbishop James Duhig. In July 1929 he was awarded a papal knighthood of the Order of St Gregory by Pius XI in recognition of his work for the Church, particularly towards the building of the new Holy Name Cathedral. Throughout his life Beirne helped the Pius XII Regional Seminary, Banyo, and the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, and was also a foundation benefactor of Duchesne College at the university. Accused by an Orange newspaper of sectarianism in 1917, he won £5000 in defamation proceedings. In evidence, he announced that he and his family had voted for conscription.

Beirne's pastimes were mainly connected with his family life and his home, Glengariff, at Hendra, with its beautiful grounds, tennis and croquet courts. He was fond of picnics and Sunday tennis and croquet. At his death Glengariff was given to the Church as a home for the newly appointed coadjutor archbishop.

Beirne retained an active interest in the store until shortly before his death on 21 April 1949. He was buried in Nudgee cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £1,251,574 in Queensland and £19,225 in New South Wales, with other assets recorded in Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Canada; he was one of the few millionaires in Australia. His estate was left to his family, apart from minor bequests to Catholic educational institutions and some charities.

Select Bibliography

  • Newspaper Cartoonists' Association of Queensland, Queenslanders as We See 'Em (Brisb, 1916)
  • E. Macrossan, The Life Story of Thomas Charles Beirne (Brisb, 1947)
  • Commercial Publishing Co. of Sydney, Ltd, Annual Review of Queensland, vol 1 (1902), no 1
  • Brisbane Courier, 31 May–2 June 1917
  • Catholic Advocate (Brisbane), 30 May, 11 July 1929
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 23 Apr 1935, 21 Aug 1947, 22, 23 Apr 1949
  • Truth (Brisbane), 24 Apr 1949
  • Catholic Leader (Brisbane), 28 Apr 1949
  • C. Douglas, And Long Go It Was (State Library of Queensland)
  • Supreme Court (Queensland), file W9/44/49 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Carolyn Nolan, 'Beirne, Thomas Charles (1860–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/beirne-thomas-charles-5186/text8719, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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