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McGirr, John Joseph (1879–1949)

by Bede Nairn

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

John Joseph Gregory McGirr (1879-1949), pharmacist, land dealer and politician, was born on 21 October 1879 at Parkes, New South Wales, second son and third child of John Patrick McGirr, miner, and his wife Mary, née O'Sullivan, both Irish born. John Patrick (1847-1925) migrated with his brother to New South Wales in 1868 to join their uncle Fr J. McGirr, parish priest at Parkes. John Patrick dug unsuccessfully for gold, and after his marriage in 1873 began to acquire dairying and town properties, gradually becoming wealthy and founding a family that was to achieve prominence in the mid-western district and in the Labor Party.

Greg McGirr was educated at St Joseph's Convent, Parkes, St Stanislaus College, Bathurst, and at the University of Sydney where in 1902-03 he qualified in pharmacy. He soon opened a chemist shop at Peak Hill, later extending to Parkes, Orange, Narromine and eventually Sydney; with managers operating them, they proved profitable investments, specializing in veterinary products and vermin poisons. McGirr himself concentrated on land and stock trading and built up his business to a turnover of £100,000 annually. Despite his increasing affluence he retained a radical streak, and joined the increasing flow of Catholics into the Labor Party as Protestants became a mainstay of the Liberal Party. In 1910 McGirr ran unsuccessfully for the seat of Orange, but won Yass at a by-election in 1913. On 14 November 1914 in Brisbane he married Rachel Rittenburg Miller, B.A., a schoolteacher.

By then McGirr had adopted an ebullient, populist style, tending to be overbearing and insensitive, with a sledge-hammer eloquence. But, if something of a stormy petrel, he was good company and generous, of medium build, good-looking with reddish hair. The split in the Labor Party in 1916 over conscription for overseas service in World War I resulted in the expulsion of twenty-three parliamentarians, of whom five were Redmondite Catholics, and the formation of a Nationalist government by W. A. Holman. As whip in 1916-17, McGirr reflected the rising influence of the radical Irish element in the enlarged Catholic group in the Labor Party. He did not attend parliament regularly but his aggressiveness, especially his enmity with T. J. Ley, maintained his prominence, and in the 1920 elections he won a Cootamundra seat, playing a significant part in Holman's defeat there.

McGirr had not been active in the development of Labor policy on child endowment, but he espoused it vigorously and was minister for public health and motherhood in J. Storey's 1920 government, becoming known as 'Mother McGirr'. Next year he opened a baby health clinic at Woolloomooloo, but the belief that he was not devoting sufficient time to his portfolio was justified when he took over a year to bring down the motherhood endowment bill; although it did not become law, it restored his popularity. When Storey died in October 1921, J. Dooley became premier and McGirr his deputy; they were an antipathetic pair. McGirr was also minister for labour in October-December.

The fall of the government in 1922 aggravated Labor's factional strife. McGirr had manoeuvred to gain the support of New South Wales elements of the Australian Workers' Union which, under J. Bailey, dominated the State executive but were at odds with the Federal branch of the union. This tactic enabled him to gain pre-selection for a Sydney seat in 1922 although he continued to live at Parkes; but it resulted in the defeat of a popular Laborite M. Burke and McGirr alienated some of his caucus support. He exacerbated his estrangement at the party conference in June when he attacked his former cabinet colleagues J. T. Lang, C. C. Lazzarini, P. F. Loughlin, T. D. Mutch and (Sir) W. J. McKell. But he retained the party machine's backing and, when Dooley was expelled in March 1923, McGirr was made leader by the executive. The resulting crisis was settled by the intervention of the federal party executive, on which the federal A.W.U. was influential; it appointed W. F. Dunn stopgap leader pending a caucus vote, at which Lang was elected in July.

McGirr was now distrusted by all Labor factions, including most of his co-religionists. He seemed to lose his political judgement, resigned from the Labor Party on 31 July, founded the Young Australia Party in 1925 and lost his seat that year. Thereafter he concentrated on his business interests, which now included hotels in country towns, though in 1940 he contested the Federal seat of Calare for the State (Hughes-Evans) Labor Party. He died of coronary vascular disease on 23 March 1949, survived by his wife and eight of his nine children. He was buried in the Catholic section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £215,226.

McGirr's elder brother Patrick Michael (1875-1957) was a businessman and grazier. A Labor member for Macquarie in 1917-20 and of the Legislative Council in 1921-55, he was western lands commissioner in 1932-33. His youngest brother James (1890-1957), a pharmacist and investor, was Labor premier and treasurer in 1947-52.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Dixson, Greater than Lenin? (Melb, 1977)
  • H. Radi and P. Spearritt (eds), Jack Lang (Syd, 1977)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1923, p 132, 147
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 15 Apr 1920, 13 Oct 1921, 21 May, 26 Nov 1925
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June 1922, 10 Mar, 3 Aug, 1 Nov 1923, 9 May 1925, 24 Mar 1929, 5 Sept 1940
  • Australian Worker (Sydney), 14 Mar 1923.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'McGirr, John Joseph (1879–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcgirr-john-joseph-7358/text12781, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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