Lynch, Arthur Alfred (1861–1934)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Arthur Alfred Lynch (1861-1934), rebel and polymath, was born on 16 October 1861 at Smythesdale, Victoria, fourth of fourteen children of Irish Catholic John Lynch (1828-1906), surveyor and civil engineer, and his wife Isabella, née MacGregor, from Scotland. John Lynch had migrated in the early 1850s, worked as a gold digger, was one of Peter Lalor's captains at Eureka and was imprisoned but released for want of evidence. His reminiscences in Austral Light in 1893-94 were later republished as The Story of the Eureka Stockade. A lover of poetry who would spout 'Rabbie' Burns by the hour, he was first chairman of the Browns and Scarsdale municipality and in 1870 a leading founder of the Ballarat School of Mines and examiner in mathematics.

Because the family was so large Arthur spent some of his childhood with his MacGregor grandparents. Several of his siblings died of diphtheria. In retrospect he considered his early schools thoroughly bad, but was happier at Grenville and Ballarat colleges. Voraciously reading Adam Smith, Locke and Herbert Spencer, and 'entranced' by the differential calculus, he determined to pursue education in his own way: 'If I were to live at all I would live with the utmost effectiveness and with entire dauntlessness of spirit'. Quinsy troubled him throughout his youth; nevertheless, exulting in his physical prowess, he became an outstanding runner in a period when Smythesdale was a centre for athletics.

From 1878 Lynch took the 'certificate' course in civil engineering at the University of Melbourne. He was delayed by twice failing in elementary natural philosophy, but after award of the exhibition in second year he finished in February 1882 with second-class honours. After engineering employment and teaching mathematics, he completed his B.A. in 1885 and took third-class honours in logic and mental and moral philosophy in February 1886 (M.A., 1887). But for W. C. Kernot, to whom he was devoted, he found his teachers to be mediocre—'no great mind…no great soul'; Professor Nanson was 'chilling'.

Seeking to 'further explore … the realms of thought', Lynch left for Europe, never to return. He studied physics, physiology and psychology at the University of Berlin in 1888-89, acquiring respect for German science and especially for the physicist Helmholtz. In Berlin he met an Irish student Annie Powell whom he was to marry in 1895. In London in the early 1890s he worked as a freelance writer, publishing verse which owed much to Byron and Our Poets (1894), a verse-satire which earned him enmity. Prominent in Irish circles, he stood unsuccessfully for the House of Commons for Galway, and later was commissioned to voyage to the United States of America to attempt to reconcile two Irish factions. He became a powerful journalist for the National Reformer, then the Daily Mail for which by 1898 he was Paris correspondent. Having travelled widely, Lynch was now fluent in several languages and wrote well in French and German.

Sent to report on the South African War, he immediately made contact with Botha and agreed to help form a second Irish 'brigade'; Kruger appointed him colonel in command of the motley band of about seventy volunteers of diverse nationalities. Republican anti-monarchism was one of his basic principles. Under its amateur commander the 'brigade' performed creditably but was disbanded after six months. Lynch was sent to America to promote the Boer cause before returning to Paris. Meanwhile he had been elected for Galway as a Nationalist and, after announcing his intention of taking his seat in a letter to The Times, set off for London and was arrested at Dover on 11 June 1902. Next January, calmly protesting that he was an Australian, he was tried for treason and sentenced to be hanged, but immediate commutation to life imprisonment followed. After mass petitioning and intervention by King Edward VII he was released a year later and pardoned in 1907. Lynch took up medical studies at St Mary's, Paddington, graduated from the University of London (M.R.C.S., L.R.C.P., 1908) and practised at Haverstock Hill. He later found time to graduate in Paris with a diploma of electrical engineering. In 1909 he was elected to parliament for West Clare. During World War I he fought for freedom as ever, he believed. After informal work in France, aiding communication between British and French leaders, late in the war he was appointed colonel in order to encourage recruiting in Ireland; he had little success. By now he was a close ally of Lord Northcliffe.

Lynch did not stand at the general election in 1918 and returned to medicine, controversy (such as attacking the notions of Dr Freud) and prolific authorship. He wrote nearly thirty books in all, including five volumes of verse and two novels. Perhaps his most important contributions were in psychology and ethics and his critical writings on science, though his Case Against Einstein (1932) did not long survive scrutiny. He published his entertaining My Life Story in 1924.

A hefty man, strikingly handsome, of charm, courtesy and even temper, Lynch was one of the most picturesque figures of his time. He was erratic in his grasp of public affairs but was generally respected for his integrity and extraordinary range of knowledge, and was on friendly terms with many great contemporaries. He had no doubt that his was one of the outstanding minds of the age. Survived by his wife, childless, he died at Paddington, London, on 25 March 1934.

Select Bibliography

  • J. G. Roberts, Smythe's Creek and Smythesdale (Ballarat, 1930)
  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1931-1940
  • V. Palmer (ed), A. G. Stephens (Melb, 1941)
  • R. L. Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War (Canb, 1976)
  • B. Lewis, Our War (Melb, 1980)
  • British Australasian, 29 Mar 1934
  • People (Sydney), 4 July 1962
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 June 1909, 27 Mar 1934
  • Times (London), 26 Mar 1934
  • Ballarat Courier, 27 Mar 1934
  • Canberra Times, 7 July 1979
  • Lynch papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Lynch, Arthur Alfred (1861–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lynch-arthur-alfred-7270/text12599, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 June 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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