Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Foran, Martin Henry (Harry) (1850–1908)

by Richard Ely

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Martin Henry (Harry) Foran (1850?-1908), schoolteacher, journalist, Domain and Yarra Bank orator, was born about 1850 at or near Kilkee, Clare, Ireland, son of James Forhen. The family had been peasant freeholders but had turned to fishing. A precocious student at the local elementary school, Foran contemplated training for the priesthood, but in 1871 was appointed trainee teacher at the Kilkee Boys National School. Resigning on grounds of ill health, he became locally prominent in tenant reform and Home Rule agitation, but trouble with the police induced him to migrate to Victoria in 1876.

Chastened by Irish misadventures, he returned to teaching; first in Catholic schools and from 1879 as a permanent state-school teacher. Fairly successful at first but unable to hasten promotion by political patronage, he embarked on a sustained war of complaint. He did not receive his licence to teach until 1885, and correctly suspected that department heads wished to be rid of him. In September 1888, upon complaint by his headmaster, Joseph Derrick, Foran was suspended and brought before the Public Service Board on a charge of disciplinary and sexual misconduct. Although he was substantially cleared, the board was induced by the government to reopen Foran's case in April 1889, and this time ordered his dismissal. An appeal to the Supreme Court failed. By 1890 the case had become a minor cause célèbre, but Foran's parliamentary friends, such as C. F. Taylor, were unable to institute a select committee of inquiry. In 1892 Foran sued Derrick for libel but had to abandon the case when the Crown, successfully pleading privilege, refused to produce Derrick's report.

Next year Foran was in Sydney, earning a living by freelance journalism and as a salesman of Catholic books. A regular and popular Sunday afternoon speaker on the Domain, his chief appeal was to the Irish Catholics among the unemployed. His main political stamping-ground was the street corners and open public spaces of the inner city. Publicly, he scorned the self-serving machinations of all parties; but, in practice, linked himself with fellow Catholics among the radical Protectionists—notably Edward O'Sullivan. The Labor Leagues he saw as dangerously tainted by atheistic socialism, opportunism and Protestant bigotry. Foran initiated or dominated many ephemeral protest groups including the Anti Humbug League (1894), the New Labour Organisation (1895), the Christian Socialists (1895), the Protectionist Labour Party (1895), the Unemployed Organisation (1896), the Republican League (1896-97), and the Patriotic Vigilance Committee (1897). In 1894-95 he edited the Sydney Irish World. In 1894, 1895, 1898 and 1901 he was an independent, flamboyant and drastically unsuccessful candidate for the New South Wales parliament. However he polled better in the 1897 election of delegates to the Federal convention, and in the 1901 Federal election for East Sydney against (Sir) George Reid. Witty, verbally and sometimes physically violent, attracting derisory but affectionate nicknames such as the 'Domain Demosthenes' and the 'Mayor of Hyde Park', Foran in these years gained a foothold on the margins of respectable State politics.

He returned to Melbourne in 1902 and established himself as a Yarra Bank identity. In 1903, according to Melbourne Truth he drew larger crowds than any other speaker. A founding director in November 1903 of Australia's first daily labour newspaper, the People's Daily, he broke with the paper in December, angered by its decision to support the endorsed Federal Labor candidate for Melbourne Ports instead of himself.

In his last years the pattern of Foran's public activity began to alter. About 1904 he joined the Labor Party and served for a time on the Metropolitan District Council; he was a sporadic contributor to the populist Catholic weekly, the Tribune; in 1905 he became vigorously involved in the bishops' crusade against atheistic socialism; in 1906 he took part in the Wren machine's fight to keep open the Collingwood tote—at one stage reviving the Christian Socialists for the purpose. He gave up his Yarra Bank meetings early in 1908 when his health failed, and died of jaundice and hydatids on 25 April at St Vincent's Hospital, Fitzroy, unmarried and virtually penniless. He was buried at Boroondara cemetery in a plot belonging to a Labor Party friend, Alderman J. T. Street of Richmond.

A 1906 writer in Truth declared, dismissively, that Foran 'had a variable career as a political failure'. An obituarist in the Tribune praised his defence of Catholic doctrine and principles, and hinted that despite eccentricity, he was as worthy a 'knight of the Southern Cross' as some recently honoured by the archbishop. A Bulletin obituarist declared that Foran 'probably was the most fluent public speaker in Australia—not even excepting Deakin … as a claptrap orator he stood supreme'. These judgments are extravagant, but not absurd.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Ford, Cardinal Moran and the A.L.P. (Melb, 1966)
  • Hard Up, 28 Mar, 4 Apr 1896
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 June 1892
  • Truth (Sydney), 17, 24 June, 1 July 1895, 7 Mar, 12, 19 Sept, 3 Oct 1897
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 13 Feb 1897, 14 May 1908
  • Catholic Press, 6 Apr 1901
  • Argus (Melbourne), 11 June 1906
  • Truth, 2 May 1908
  • Bulletin, 7 May 1908
  • Minute book, Metropolitan District Council of the Political Labour Council, Victoria (State Library of Victoria)
  • R. G. Ely, The Trouble with Harry … (University of Tasmania Library).

Citation details

Richard Ely, 'Foran, Martin Henry (Harry) (1850–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/foran-martin-henry-harry-6205/text10665, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 31 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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