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O'Loghlen, Sir Bryan (1828–1905)

by S. M. Ingham

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

Bryan O'Loghlen (1828-1905), by Julian Rossi Ashton

Bryan O'Loghlen (1828-1905), by Julian Rossi Ashton

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S30/07/81/245

Sir Bryan O'Loghlen (1828-1905), politician, was born on 27 June 1828 in Dublin, third son of Michael O'Loghlen (1789-1842) and his wife Bidelia, daughter of Daniel Kelly of Dublin. The O'Loghlen family had been settled for centuries in County Clare. Michael was a distinguished lawyer who was elevated to the Irish bench in 1836 and appointed first baronet in 1838. He was the first Catholic since the 1688 revolution to be raised to a judicial office either in England or Ireland.

Bryan was educated at Oscott College, Birmingham. On 14 October 1845 he entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he took honours in classics and mathematics but left in 1847 to join the Young Ireland movement. Hoping to become a railway engineer he was articled in 1848 to T. Flanagan, an engineer of the Bolton, Blackburn and Clitheroe line. During the railway slump of 1849 he returned to Ireland and in 1850 gained farming experience on the family estate, Drumconora, County Clare. In 1851 he worked in a Swiss-German mercantile house in London. In 1852 he decided to read for the Bar and returned to Trinity College (B.A., 1856) and was called to the Irish Bar in Easter term. After five years on the Munster Circuit he arrived at Melbourne in January 1862 and was soon admitted to the local Bar. In April 1863 he was appointed a crown prosecutor and in the 1870s conducted some of the heaviest criminal cases in the metropolitan district. On 17 September 1863 he married Ella, third daughter of James Mackay Seward of Melbourne.

In 1876 O'Loghlen was appointed a land tax commissioner, but resigned to contest North Melbourne without success for the Liberal party in the election of May 1877. On 22 July he succeeded to the baronetcy when his elder brother died unmarried. Friends nominated O'Loghlen to succeed his brother as member for Clare in the House of Commons and, despite absence, he headed the poll. Meanwhile Graham Berry's Liberal ministry was in conflict with the Legislative Council, one of the issues being reform of the council itself. O'Loghlen's candidature for North Melbourne at the by-election on 4 February 1878 was deemed so crucial that the government proclaimed a half-holiday to facilitate a full poll. His opponent was J. G. Francis, but O'Loghlen won by ninety votes. He joined the ministry without portfolio and on 7 March became attorney-general. In the ministerial election he again defeated Francis but with a reduced majority. For accepting an office of profit under the Crown, his seat at Westminster was declared vacant by the committee of elections of the House of Commons on 24 April 1879. From 27 December 1878 to 17 June 1879 he was acting premier during Berry's absence in London. However, he was one of the 'Berryites' to lose his seat in the election of February 1880. Next July he was returned for West Bourke in another general election.

O'Loghlen was not a member of Berry's third ministry formed in July 1880. Since 1877 Sir John O'Shanassy had tried to gain educational concessions for Catholics. In July 1880 Berry rejected his conditions for joining the ministry and offered the attorney-generalship to O'Loghlen but refused his terms of payment by results to Catholic schools. He therefore declined office in loyalty to his Church and to O'Shanassy with whom he had little in common save their Irish-Catholic background. Berry remained premier for eleven uneasy months, having to contend with opposition from Conservatives, O'Shanassy's small Catholic 'bloc' and Liberal malcontents. O'Loghlen and O'Shanassy pressed for an inquiry on Catholic educational grievances and criticized Berry's 'narrow-minded and bigoted liberalism'. Meanwhile the conflict over reform of the Legislative Council dragged on. Although Berry insisted on a solution on Liberal party terms, parliament and the electorate had wearied of the protracted struggle. Sensing this, O'Loghlen moved an amendment for a conference with the council which was carried by 75 votes to 5 on 15 June 1881. The agreed reform was on the lines proposed by the council. Conscious of the kudos gained from his initiative, O'Loghlen then carried a no confidence motion by 41 votes to 38. Invited to form a ministry, he planned to lead an administration of prominent Conservatives and discontented Liberals, but the Conservatives had decided to refuse his overtures and to force him to concede the premiership to Robert Murray Smith. This stratagem was nullified when Thomas Bent broke Conservative ranks and agreed to serve under O'Loghlen. With both sides of the House in disarray O'Loghlen became premier, attorney-general and treasurer on 9 July 1881, but lacked a majority. The Conservatives kept him in office to avoid another Berry administration. To his utter amazement O'Shanassy was offered neither the premiership nor a place in the ministry. Of this stop-gap administration Alfred Deakin wrote that 'never was there such a scratch team constituted in Victoria'.

After constitutional traumas O'Loghlen chose the apt slogan of 'peace, prosperity, progress', but imprisoned by an unstable political situation the record of the twenty-month ministry was unremarkable. Any prosperity was based to some extent on the return of good agricultural seasons. O'Loghlen kept his word that he knew little about finance. To court popularity the government sponsored a huge railway programme and then bungled a major overseas loan to partly finance it. A Water Conservation Act was passed. Reacting to mounting anti-Chinese agitation, the government reimposed a £10 poll tax and prohibited ships from bringing in more than one Chinese for every 100 tons of goods. A royal commission on education was established and submitted two conflicting reports in 1884; one favoured Catholic claims. The furore over the 'Grattan Address' of May 1882 gravely embarrassed O'Loghlen who dissociated himself from its militant sentiments on Anglo-Irish relations, and the resulting crisis nearly brought down the government. Early in 1883 he tried to improve his position by obtaining a dissolution on the ground that 'the existing House is divided into numerous sections of parties'. The election was a disaster for the government and O'Loghlen lost his seat, leaving office on 8 March.

O'Loghlen returned to the assembly in February 1888 after winning a by-election for Belfast (renamed Port Fairy in 1889). He gave a much-needed fillip to the weak opposition to the Duncan Gillies-Deakin administration. In July 1890 he moved the adjournment of the House to speak on behalf of the growing number of unemployed. He argued that the government should provide work for the unemployed, since 'no other body in the colony … could take this responsibility'. Later that year he was among those leaders who condemned the employers' refusal of an unconditional conference with the trade unions during the maritime strike; and he also claimed that employers would have to revise the old-fashioned concept of 'freedom of contract'. The strike committee of the Trades Hall Council thanked him for his forthright stand. In November he was prominent in moves to defeat the Gillies-Deakin government for its alleged mishandling of the strike emergency. He was not a member of the next two ministries but helped to lead the Opposition to William Shiels's government and was a force behind three motions of no confidence.

On 23 January 1893 J. B. Patterson became premier and O'Loghlen attorney-general. The government was beset by the depth of a grave depression and the associated collapse of a number of banks. O'Loghlen's most notable action as attorney-general was his decision to alter, and then abandon, the prosecution of directors of the Mercantile Bank which had closed its doors. The election of September 1894 swept the Patterson ministry from office. In 1895 O'Loghlen lost a by-election for South Carlton but in October 1897 he won the Port Fairy seat. He took little part in parliamentary proceedings and lost his seat in October 1900. In 1903 he was an unconvincing and unsuccessful candidate at the Senate election. In the early 1890s O'Loghlen had stressed the necessity of a democratic federal constitution and spoken strongly for provision of a double dissolution in any bicameral legislature. Yet he had combined this democratic bias with an extraordinary attitude of 'state rights' which included control of the tariff. He died at his home in St Kilda on 31 October 1905, survived by his wife who died on 9 June 1919, and by five sons and six daughters.

O'Loghlen had genuine liberal and even radical views, insisting that the advent of the Labor Party was 'a good thing for the country'. Narrow sectarian considerations were alien to his generous temperament: for a term he was president of the Royal Society; he was a loyal Catholic and staunch champion of the Irish nationalist cause. But for his Irish-Catholic background and a certain gentle and aristocratic indolence, he might have had more success in politics. A competent lawyer, he was appointed Q.C. in 1879 but refused a judgeship in 1879 and 1881 to remain in politics. He was honoured by the University of Melbourne (M.A., ad eund., 1879). A popular figure in and out of parliament, he was respected by political friend and foe alike.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Nov 1905
  • G. R. Bartlett, Political Organization and Society in Victoria 1864-1883 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1964).

Citation details

S. M. Ingham, 'O'Loghlen, Sir Bryan (1828–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ologhlen-sir-bryan-4331/text7029, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 September 2017.

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

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