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MacDevitt, Edward O'Donnell (1845–1898)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Edward O'Donnell MacDevitt (1845-1898), barrister and politician, was born at Glenties, County Donegal, Ireland, son of Donald MacDevitt, barrister, and his wife Mary, née O'Donnell. He had some theological training but finished his education in law. Without being called to the Bar he left Ireland, probably invited by Bishop James Quinn with whom he arrived at Melbourne in the Donald Mackay on 20 March 1861. He soon moved to Brisbane, taught school for a time and probably on Quinn's behalf edited the North Australian at Ipswich. He was admitted a barrister in the Supreme Court on 20 February 1864 and built up a practice in Brisbane.

In 1864-65 MacDevitt was active in the campaign against secular education and in 1866-67 practised in Sydney. Soon after his return to Brisbane in 1868 he became a public figure by his unsuccessful defence of T. J. Griffin at Rockhampton. He practised mainly in northern courts and nominated for the Rockhampton seat in December 1869 but withdrew, seeing that only a local candidate could win. In September 1870 he was elected member for Kennedy on a northern separation platform. When the northern seats were redistributed MacDevitt won the new mining seat of Ravenswood on 29 December 1873. He had been prominent in the liberal obstruction campaign of 1872 and, probably on the advice of Charles Lilley, was chosen by Arthur Macalister as attorney-general in preference to (Sir) Samuel Griffith. Though a good speaker, MacDevitt was a poor administrator and was easily shown up by Griffith as a failure in office. He vainly opposed the government's bill for abolishing denominational schools and in July 1874 sought appointment to the Supreme Court. When offered instead the bench of the Metropolitan District Court, he resigned his office and seat on 3 August and returned to Ireland.

While passing through America MacDevitt reported to the Queensland government on railways and in England served as a migration lecturer. In 1878 he was appointed one of three Queensland commissioners to the Paris Exhibition. He settled in Dublin to practise in land cases and after the Land Act was passed in 1881 published two technical pamphlets explaining it. He served as a legal assistant of the Irish Land Commission in 1881-89 and claimed to have been confidential emissary from the Irish government to the British cabinet. In Ireland he married Katie Power; they had one son and two daughters.

In 1890 MacDevitt returned to Australia and settled in Melbourne where he published a Manual of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works Act (1891). He went to Western Australia in 1896 and practised in Kalgoorlie, publishing his Guide to the Goldfields' Act 1895 as a means of gaining attention. He was commissioned by the colonial government to edit a Handbook of Western Australia (1897). In August he was made secretary to a royal commission on mining but the appointment was inexplicably withdrawn a few days later. In January 1898 MacDevitt went to Melbourne for a holiday. During a heatwave he was learning to ride a bicycle but collapsed suddenly on 4 February and died in a Malvern street.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty Years (Brisb, 1919)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1873, 185
  • Parliamentary Papers (Great Britain), 1882, 55, 287, 1889, 61, 679
  • Brisbane Courier, 18 Mar, 17 Sept 1864, 9-11 Jan 1865, 13 Dec 1869, 3 Sept 1870, 20 May 1872, 4 Aug 1874
  • Port Denison Times, 6, 13, 27 Aug, 10 Sept 1870
  • Queensland Times, 11 Aug 1874
  • Freeman's Journal (Dublin), 8 Nov 1881, 11 Jan 1882
  • Kalgoorlie Western Argus, 10 Feb 1898
  • Australasian, 7 May 1898
  • Daily Mail (Brisbane), 24 Aug 1907
  • S. W. Griffith diary, 8 Jan 1874 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Mines Dept, 4458/97 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Roll of Barristers (State Records New South Wales, and Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'MacDevitt, Edward O'Donnell (1845–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/macdevitt-edward-odonnell-4078/text6511, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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