O'Shanassy, Sir John (1818–1883)

by S. M. Ingham

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

John O'Shanassy, by Henry Sadd, c1855

John O'Shanassy, by Henry Sadd, c1855

State Library of Victoria, H90.159/11

Sir John O'Shanassy (1818-1883), politician and businessman, was born at Ballinahow, near Thurles, County Tipperary, Ireland, son of John O'Shanassy, surveyor, and his wife Margaret, née Dwyer. His education was curtailed when his father died in 1831 and he was apprenticed to B. B. Armstrong, a Tipperary draper and wine and spirits merchant. In 1839 he married Margaret McDonnell of Thurles.

Deciding to follow a relation who had settled in Sydney, they sailed from Plymouth in the William Metcalf on 26 July. Arriving at Hobson's Bay on 15 November, they met Rev. Patrick Geoghegan who, impressed by O'Shanassy's intelligent manner and robust physique, dissuaded the migrants from proceeding to Sydney. O'Shanassy bought a small property, Windriet, near Western Port, but lack of capital, drought and low prices made him sell it and move to Melbourne where he opened a small drapery shop in Collins Street on 26 May 1845. Later he transferred to Elizabeth Street; for about ten years he was a successful draper, largely through his wife's shrewd business sense and perseverance.

O'Shanassy's political career began in 1846 when he won a by-election to become a member of the Melbourne Council. In November he was defeated at the council elections; as a Catholic he probably suffered from the ill feeling generated by the 'Orange' riots in Melbourne on 13 July. He soon became identified with popular agitations such as the separation movement and opposition to any revival of transportation and to the sale of crown lands to finance assisted immigration. After the separation of Victoria he was returned as a member for Melbourne at the first Legislative Council elections in September 1851. For five years he was the virtual leader of the opposition to the official and nominee elements and squatting interests that dominated the council. He then thought that the squatters should pay higher rents and taxes. In June 1852 he championed the miners' cause, urging the government to sell land near the goldfields for agricultural purposes. In 1853 he was one of the twelve members of a select committee on the goldfields which recommended a modification of the licence fee. In 1853-54 he served on a select committee to inquire into the best form of constitution for a colony on the threshold of responsible government. During the constitutional debates in the committee and later in the council, he attempted to modify the conservative attitudes of his opponents. A firm supporter of a bicameral legislature, he thought that the new Legislative Council should represent property but not excessively so. The committee recommended a property qualification of £10,000 freehold for legislative councillors, but finally O'Shanassy's proposal of £5000 was accepted. His suggestion of a six-year tenure for councillors who would retire by rotation every two years was overruled; he also claimed that the £1000 property qualification for the franchise was too high. Three of his proposals for the Legislative Assembly were defeated: a property qualification of £200 for electors, triennial parliaments and equal electoral districts. However, he opposed the ballot which was enacted early in 1856. He spoke strongly against the proposition that the Constitution could only be altered by the assent of two-thirds of the members of each chamber but later had the satisfaction of carrying an amendment for an absolute majority.

The growing tension between the government and the miners led to the establishment of a commission on the goldfields in November 1854. O'Shanassy was appointed one of the six commissioners, but before witnesses could be examined, the miners rebelled at Eureka. At a public meeting in Melbourne on 5 December 1854 he was one of the speakers who deplored the resort to arms and called on all classes to submit to law and order. From 18 December to 4 January 1855 the commissioners visited the main mining areas; on return to Melbourne they heard additional evidence and submitted their report in March. Their recommendations vindicated the miners' grievances. The report owed most to the deliberations of William Westgarth and the practical common sense of O'Shanassy who suggested the term 'miner's right' to combine a cheap licence fee with eligibility for the franchise. He also initiated the suggestion that the old Legislative Council should be enlarged by twelve members, eight representing the goldfields and four nominees.

By the mid-1850s O'Shanassy was a man of consequence in Melbourne. He was a founder and president (1845-51) of the St Patrick's Society, aiming to lift it above exclusively Irish-Catholic associations. For many years the leading lay Catholic, he pressed their educational claims on the Denominational Schools Board. He was one of the first trustees of the Public Library. His business activities prospered. He actively promoted some early building and land societies and in 1855 the Colonial Bank, popularly the 'Diggers' Bank', and was chairman of its directors until 1870. In 1853 he paid £1200 for sixteen acres (6 ha) in Camberwell; within a few years he had an imposing mansion, Tara, and a commanding view of the city. To the east, Burwood village rejoiced temporarily in the name of Ballyshanassy.

With the advent of responsible government O'Shanassy was a successful candidate for the two Legislative Assembly constituencies of Melbourne and Kilmore at the September 1856 elections. He chose to represent Kilmore and held the seat until December 1865. The first two parliaments in 1856-61 were characterized by political instability, faction and intrigue; no group in the assembly could command a secure majority despite six ministries. O'Shanassy sat in opposition to W. C. Haines's administration. One of his political allies was then C. G. Duffy, a recent arrival. As a member of the 'Irish Catholic' group Duffy wished to reach an understanding with urban democrats and goldfields' representatives on the issue of liberalism against the conservatism of the landed interests. The abolition of the property qualification for members of the Legislative Assembly in 1856 was an outcome of that tentative alliance. Next year Haines lost office because of alleged misappropriation of immigration funds. O'Shanassy became premier on 11 March 1857. He tried to form a stable ministry by making overtures to centrist politicians in preference to any alliance with the 'left'. These manoeuvres were symptomatic of his growing conservatism. He formed his administration with difficulty but three members of his cabinet were defeated at the ministerial elections. After seven weeks of nominal power he was forced to give way to another Haines ministry on 24 April 1857. Although in opposition for almost a year he exerted much influence. He strongly supported the alteration of oaths of office from a religious form to one which required a simple oath or affirmation. He welcomed the government's reluctant concession of manhood suffrage for assembly elections but attacked the retention of the plural voting provisions. Early in 1858 the government yielded to the pressure for triennial parliaments.

In March the Haines ministry was defeated on the increase of members bill which also included the principle of equal electorates. O'Shanassy became premier for a second time on the 10th; he again sought a parliamentary majority by conciliating centrist politicians. In broad terms his ministry represented urban finance-capital. Owing to a pledge of the previous government, he was committed to raising a loan of £8 million for railway construction. Earlier loans had been raised through financial agents and through them from the British public. This time the agency was six local banks, members of the cabinet (including O'Shanassy) being directors of some of them. By this arrangement he won modest repute as a financier. In May the council rejected his electoral bill by two votes. Instead of seeking a dissolution on the issue of equal electorates he clung to office but in October accepted the council's amendments which, although permitting the assembly to be enlarged to seventy-eight members, negated the principle of the one vote one value. He confessed to second thoughts about equal electorates which ignored the elements of 'wealth, labour, land or intelligence'. An important decision of the ministry was to extend state aid to the Jewish religion. O'Shanassy's growing distaste for anything savouring of radicalism was attested by the resignation of Duffy, minister of lands, early in 1859. Duffy wanted sterner measures against the squatters and a system of generous deferred payments for small farmers. By contrast O'Shanassy advocated the sale of agricultural land near towns at a fixed price of £1 an acre, the auction of better lands and the continuation of annual pastoral licences. He managed to retain office by lengthening the parliamentary recess that preceded the election in August. However, the ministry was defeated and O'Shanassy resigned on 27 October 1859 after losing a motion of no confidence in the assembly by 56 votes to 17.

In the second parliament O'Shanassy remained in opposition. At the election in August 1861 the premier, Richard Heales, improved his position, yet within three months his ministry was defeated on the budget. O'Shanassy then formed his third, strongest and most successful ministry on 14 November. His former opponent, Haines, was treasurer and Duffy, minister of lands. All three were united in their determination to retain state aid for religion and denominational education but the tide in parliament and the electorates was turning against them. In 1862 they were forced to accede to the Common Schools Act which numbered the years of state-aided denominational education. The government's most ambitious project was the Crown Lands Act which aimed at opening up much agricultural land to selectors, but its clauses were too loosely drafted to prevent wholesale evasion of the law. Other notable measures were the Local Government Act and the Municipal Act Amendment Act. The government was responsible for two important administrative reforms: the Civil Service Act which classified salaries and set out principles for promotion; the Electoral Act Amendment Act abolished public nomination and imposed a deposit of £50 for candidates at assembly elections. One of its provisions appeared to place the ballot in jeopardy; O'Shanassy opposed the principle but denied that the offending clause was designed to subvert it. The purpose of the Distillation Act was to encourage the making of colonial spirits by means of a differential duty, and an Immigration Act was designed to attract skilled labourers from Europe to assist the wine industry. The ministry was defeated by twelve votes in the assembly over the estimates of revenue from pastoral runs and O'Shanassy resigned on 27 June 1863, little realizing that he would not hold office again. Until December 1865 he was the unofficial leader of the Opposition to James McCulloch's ministry. The government won a landslide victory at the election in August 1864, McCulloch having 53 supporters to the Opposition's 14. As a free trader and a firm upholder of the constitutional rights of the Legislative Council, O'Shanassy denounced the 'tacking' of the proposed customs duties to the appropriation bill in 1865. The restricted scope for political manoeuvre in the assembly and ill health were the main factors in his decision not to contest the election early in 1866. Meanwhile in 1862 he had joined the squatter ranks by buying the run Moira, 44,500 acres (18,000 ha) in the Riverina; later he held many pastoral licences in Queensland such as Berribone cattle station in 1873.

O'Shanassy decided to spend a year overseas. At a public dinner in Melbourne on 10 May 1866 he received a testimonial of £1500 and left in the Great Britain on the 16th. In Rome Pope Pius IX appointed him a knight of the Order of St Gregory in recognition of his services for Catholic education. In Tipperary he revisited childhood scenes and enjoyed the prestige of a migrant who had prospered in distant parts. In London the secretary of state for the colonies attended a banquet in his honour on 1 May 1867. He sailed in the Great Britain and arrived in Melbourne on 13 July.

O'Shanassy's absence abroad coincided with the greater part of the constitutional deadlock over the tariff and the Darling grant. He continued to support the stand of the Legislative Council, and was one of the ex-executive councillors who had signed a protest against the conduct of Governor Darling. Though jealous of the status of the Upper House he favoured some reduction of property qualifications for its members and electors. In May 1868 he was elected to the council for Central Province, and was returned unopposed in August 1872. He received honours appropriate to a conservative leader in the council: C.M.G. in 1870 and K.C.M.G. in 1874. In his new role O'Shanassy had mixed fortunes. He carried an important amendment to the land bill of 1869 which allowed selectors to convert their selections into freehold on easy terms, but opposed in vain the temporary introduction of payment of assembly members and the abolition of state aid to religion. His estrangement from Duffy provoked perhaps his greatest political miscalculation. Personal and political differences separated them and Duffy had replaced his former colleague as leader of the Catholic interest in parliament. In 1871 Duffy became premier of a liberal ministry which included prominent radicals such as Graham Berry. In 1872 O'Shanassy was at pains to thwart and defeat the government; Duffy thought that his compatriot was one of his 'most vehement and vindictive opponents'. But Duffy's downfall in May cleared the way for the introduction of 'free, secular and compulsory' education which both had opposed.

O'Shanassy's pastoral interests proved to be a political embarrassment. In 1873 William Joachim selected 2880 acres (1170 ha) of the Moira run on behalf of himself and his eight children. O'Shanassy disputed the legality of selection by minors; litigation in Sydney and before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council decided the case substantially in Joachim's favour in 1876. Meanwhile Duffy had left for Europe and did not contest the election in 1874. Wishing to reassert himself as the leading Catholic politician, O'Shanassy resigned from the council in April and contested his old assembly seat of Kilmore. The sitting member, Lawrence Bourke, had obeyed O'Shanassy's orders to vote against Duffy in the crucial division which had defeated his government in 1872, but rejected his former leader and refused to retire in his favour. Duffy's supporters ran their own candidate, Thomas Hunt, a Kilmore journalist and appropriately, from Tipperary. They referred constantly to the Joachim case in a electorate where the majority of voters were Catholic and pro-selector. Hunt won the seat. The local paper observed that O'Shanassy had 'changed [and] times have changed'. In January 1876 he suffered a similar humiliation at a by-election for Villiers and Heytesbury, Duffy's old seat. A minor consolation was his appointment in 1875 as chairman of the royal commission on volunteer forces.

O'Shanassy was returned to the Legislative Assembly for Belfast at the election of May 1877. His main aim was to retain state aid for non-government schools which would cease in 1878. However, his room for political manoeuvre was again limited. The Berry ministry (1877-80) had a huge majority and was committed to payment of members, reform of the council and a higher tariff which included a stock tax. O'Shanassy opposed all these measures and complained that the stock tax was unfair to squatters. In the grave constitutional deadlock between the two Houses, redress of Catholic grievances rated a low priority. On 24 September 1878 he introduced a bill to provide for the payment for instruction in sectarian schools according to secular results; early in December he withdrew it. He became a prominent activist in the Catholic Education Defence Association formed on 5 July 1879. At the election of February 1880 he campaigned against Berry on the education issue and embarked on a brief career of making and unmaking ministries. He found to his cost that he could help to destroy governments in evenly-divided assemblies but that he was not the 'king-maker' of the late 1850s who could form a ministry. After the election he and his seven Catholic supporters held the balance of power between Berry's 43 Liberals and James Service's 35 Conservatives. Berry's party was accordingly relegated to the Opposition and when the Service ministry took over in March 1880 they refused to consider Catholic claims and also fell. At the ensuing election O'Shanassy supported Berry who had promised to set up an education commission to examine Catholic grievances. After another Berry ministry was formed in August, the Liberal caucus agreed to the Education Commission on terms which satisfied the Catholic bishops. But O'Shanassy also sought power for himself, wanting either the premiership or at least equal status with Berry and the right to nominate three members of the ministry. For understandable reasons Berry did not agree and, ignoring his promises on education, remained in office for an uneasy year. Meanwhile Sir Bryan O'Loghlen, a prominent Irish Catholic and a former 'Berryite', refused to join a ministry which was allegedly anti-Catholic, but his initiative resolved the impasse over reform of the council. In June 1881 he moved a successful motion of no confidence against Berry which O'Shanassy supported. In the contest for the spoils of victory O'Loghlen won: he formed a coalition ministry which did not include O'Shanassy. O'Loghlen, like Berry, did not want to share power with an aspiring but failing 'king-maker'; moreover their only common political ground was the education issue. During 1882 O'Shanassy was in impotent opposition. O'Loghlen appointed a royal commission whose tasks included the examination of the alleged educational grievances endured by Catholics. O'Shanassy objected to 'alleged'. He made his last important speech in June 1882 at the height of the furore over the 'Grattan Address' which he deplored. He said that he had warned its promoters not to import old-world loyalties into a new land and to remember that they should act as Australians in their adopted country. At the election in March 1883 he lost Belfast to a young Australian Catholic. No doubt his sentiments expressed in the campaign went against him: 'Young Australia indeed; time enough for young Australia to speak in twenty years' time'. It was ironical that he had alienated native-born Catholics and Irish Home Rule supporters by refusing to be associated with the visit of W. and J. Redmond just before he died on 5 May 1883. Predeceased by his eldest son, he was survived by his wife who died on 13 July 1887 and by two sons and three daughters. He had become affluent, his New South Wales properties alone being valued at £75,000 in 1885. It is likewise ironical that, in the wake of the 'Grattan Address' and Home Rule controversy, few were interested in erecting a monument to a man who had been thrice premier of the colony.

O'Shanassy's political mentor was Daniel O'Connell and, like the 'Liberator', he sought to preserve his limited programme of reform from the taint of radical innovations. Until 1863 he was able to enlist substantial support both in parliament and in the electorate; but for his identification with the Catholic community his political position might have been stronger. He then drew closer to the Conservatives when colonial liberalism sought further conquests and his business and pastoral interests made him less sympathetic to popular movements and more equivocal on land reform. However, the Conservatives saw scant profit from an alliance with a prominent leader of the Catholic laity. He also started to lose ground among some of his fellow Irish Catholics who rejected his politics despite his forthright stand on the education issue. His estrangement from the more democratic Duffy was symptomatic of a wider alienation. O'Shanassy's bustling ambition and a strong strain of egotism contributed to his growing isolation. He was partly successful in his determination to be nothing less than premier between 1857 and 1863, but his later terms were unacceptable and helped to sabotage the very cause closest to his heart. Yet he had qualities which attracted followers for some years. He had an impressive physique and undoubted intelligence. Conscious of his limited educational opportunities, he read widely but sometimes his speeches suffered from his untrained and unsystematic habits of study. On some matters he held enlightened views, particularly on the necessity of Federation and on the general role of Irish Catholics in a new country. When Melbourne was a village O'Shanassy was a practical and exemplary pioneer; in the hectic 1850s he was a vigorous politician who did not stint his energies in the public interest; and at his death he was entitled to a little of the credit for 'marvellous' Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • W. H. Archer, ‘Sir John O'Shanassy: a sketch’, Melbourne Review, 8 (1883)
  • Argus, 7 May 1883
  • G. R. Bartlett, Political Organization and Society in Victoria 1864-1883 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1964)
  • S. Dew, The Belfast Electorate 1863-1883 (B.A. Hons thesis, Monash University, 1969).

Citation details

S. M. Ingham, 'O'Shanassy, Sir John (1818–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oshanassy-sir-john-4347/text7059, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 27 June 2016.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2016