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Mahon, Hugh (1857–1931)

by H. J. Gibbney

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

Hugh Mahon (1857-1931), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

Hugh Mahon (1857-1931), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23198631

Hugh Mahon (1857-1931), journalist and politician, was born on 6 January 1857 at Killurine, near Tullamore, King's County, Ireland, thirteenth child of James Mahon, farmer, and his wife Anna, née McEvoy. Educated by the Christian Brothers, he was taken to the United States of America with his family in 1867, where, in hard conditions, he learned printing from 'Yankee bloodsuckers'.

Mahon returned to Ireland about 1880 and worked as a reporter at New Ross, Wexford. A political activist, he spent two months in Kilmainham gaol, Dublin, in 1881 with Irish National Land League leaders including Charles Stewart Parnell, but was released with suspected tuberculosis. He fled to London when imprisonment threatened again unless he left the country, and in March 1882 sailed for Australia under an alias as a paid agent of the league. He was one of the managers of a fund-raising tour of the eastern colonies by John and William Redmond until September 1883. Mahon edited newspapers in Goulburn, was a political reporter for the Sydney Daily Telegraph and briefly owned a paper at Gosford. On 24 September 1888, at Manly, he married Mary Alice L'Estrange of Melbourne. When his wife went to Melbourne for the birth of their second son he sold out, followed her and worked as a freelance journalist. In 1895 he left to edit a paper at Coolgardie, Western Australia. His family temporarily stayed in Melbourne.

Mahon settled at Menzies as the publicly active proprietor of the Menzies Miner and in 1897, after a campaign which left him discredited, stood unsuccessfully against his rival H. Gregory for the new North Coolgardie seat. Driven out by the collapse of the goldfield, as editor of the Kalgoorlie Sun in 1899 he persistently denounced the Forrest government and its supporters for corrupt practices and became notorious after a series of libel actions. Active, though not prominent in the Separation for Federation movement, he won the Federal seat of Coolgardie as a Labor candidate in 1901.

Mahon's talent for invective and reputation as an Irish-Catholic patriot made him a useful acquisition to the struggling Labor Party. He was a member of royal commissions on ocean shipping services in 1906 and the pearling industry in 1912-13. As postmaster-general in the Watson ministry in 1904 and minister for home affairs in the Fisher ministry of 1908-09, he was a competent but routine administrator. Caucus refused by one vote to re-elect him to the ministry in 1910, some preferring Charles Frazer. Some partisans openly questioned Mahon's record as a Labor man. The Westralian Worker found him 'professedly … a democrat whose snobbish coldness of demeanour would make a snake shudder'. His electorate having been abolished in a redistribution, Mahon lost the new seat (Dampier) to Gregory in January 1913, but when Frazer died in November he won Kalgoorlie without opposition. Mahon was appointed honorary minister in the 1914 Labor government and, on the death of J. A. Arthur in December, became minister for external affairs. In an administration again marked by unnecessary antagonisms he had a cool relationship with his departmental head Atlee Hunt, savagely persecuted former prime minister Alfred Deakin, but supported his friend (Sir) Hubert Murray unequivocally in New Guinea. Mahon's hopes of becoming treasurer in 1915 were disappointed.

As managing director of the Catholic Church Property Insurance Co. in 1912-31, he was influential in the Catholic Church and the Irish national movement, and was close to Archbishops Carr and Mannix as an adviser. He reluctantly joined the radical majority to expel W. M. Hughes from the Labor party over conscription in 1916 and lost his seat in the 1917 general election. He regained Kalgoorlie for Labor in 1919. Late in 1920, after the death of Terence McSwiney, lord mayor of Cork, Ireland, in a hunger strike, Mahon savagely attacked British policy and the Empire, referring to 'this bloody and accursed despotism', at an Irish Ireland League open-air meeting in Melbourne on 7 November; a motion for the establishment of an Australian republic was passed. The speech created a sensation and led to hostile demonstrations in Melbourne. Citing 'seditious and disloyal utterances', on 11 November Hughes introduced a motion in parliament calling for Mahon's expulsion. Though he contested the details Mahon refused to defend himself in parliament, and, after an extended and passionate debate, he was formally expelled from the House in a procedure unique in the history of the Commonwealth parliament. He then unsuccessfully contested the ensuing by-election.

In 1921 Mahon travelled to Europe and Ireland, returning to Australia in June 1922. Survived by his wife and four children he died on 28 August 1931 at Ringwood, Victoria, and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. He was a 'political conundrum' to contemporaries, who deplored his bitterness and lack of humour, but his absorption with Catholic and Irish affairs was his great consistency.

Select Bibliography

  • A. A. Baker, Hugh Mahon's Expulsion From Parliament (B.A. Hons thesis, Australian National University, 1967)
  • R. G. Dryen, The Significance of the Expulsion of Hugh Mahon, M.H.R., from the Federal Parliament, 12 November 1920 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of New South Wales, 1967)
  • H. J. Gibbney, Hugh Mahon: A Political Biography (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1970)
  • Mahon papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Mahon, Hugh (1857–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mahon-hugh-7460/text12993, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 July 2017.

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

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