Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Vincent Dunlea (1894–1970)

by Edmund Campion

This article was published:

Thomas Vincent Dunlea (1894-1970), Catholic priest, was born on 19 April 1894 at Ballina, County Tipperary, Ireland, son of Thomas Dunlea, farmer, and his wife Bridget, née Minogue. Educated at Roscrea college, Mount Melleray monastery and St Peter's College, Wexford, he was ordained priest on 20 June 1920. He took up duties in the archdiocese of Sydney at the end of the year. Three sons of the thirteen Dunlea children emigrated and became a paradigm of Irish-Australian experience—one was a publican, another a policeman, the third a priest.

As curate in inner-city parishes, Dunlea got close to people in distress. All his life he remembered hearing a boy at the Albion Street children's shelter singing, 'I wish I had someone to love me'. When he was appointed parish priest of Sutherland in 1934, he found some of his Depression-hit parishioners living in caves and humpies. Riding a white horse, he brought them food and hope. At the presbytery he collected homeless boys and moved into a larger house when numbers grew. After Sutherland Shire Council forced them onto the road, they set up tents in nearby (Royal) National Park.

Publicity led to a gift of seven acres (2.8 ha) at Engadine, where 'Boys' Town' started in August 1940. It was to be partly self-supporting and to be run by the boys themselves—with the priest's oversight—on the lines of a similar settlement in Nebraska, United States of America, made famous by a Hollywood movie. Dunlea won support for the town from sporting and journalistic circles: the Jewish bookmaker George Nathan each Sunday organized a fund-raising carnival, with trotting, cycling and midget-car racing that packed the Sydney Sports Ground. In 1942, at Archbishop (Cardinal Sir Norman) Gilroy's request, the De La Salle Brothers came to Boys' Town. Having visited the U.S.A. and resigned his parish, Dunlea moved there in 1947.

In the late 1940s he was working among alcoholics with Dr Sylvester Minogue and Archibald McKinnon of the Darlinghurst reception house. For a time the pioneer Alcoholics Anonymous group met in the Boys' Town city office and at other locations found by Dunlea. He was a good facilitator, but some of his swans turned into geese. A bush camp for alcoholics and a residential 'Christmas House' both collapsed, which seemed to prove that a controlled environment was not the answer to alcoholism. Boys' Town fund-raising functions had sharpened Dunlea's own drinking problems and he came to recognize that he himself was an alcoholic. In 1950 he took a year's leave of absence to wander around Australia.

On his return, Dunlea became chaplain to the Matthew Talbot Hostel for destitute men. There his listening kindness was given full stretch. In 1952 he went to Hurstville as parish priest, devoting his time to A.A., to a new organization for people with psychiatric problems, Recovery Group, as well as to a menagerie of odd animals. 'When Tom Dunlea doesn't take an interest in stray dogs any longer', he said, 'you'll know that he's had it'. In 1965 he was appointed O.B.E. He died on 22 August 1970 in Lewisham Hospital and was buried in Woronora cemetery. The congregation which attended his reburial at Boys' Town on 7 September included a pet sheep and a stray dog.

Select Bibliography

  • A. McKinnon, They Chose Freedom (Bonnell's Bay, NSW, c1985)
  • D. Halliday, Father Dunlea's Approach to Dealing with Young People in Difficulties (Engadine, NSW, 1987)
  • D. Coleman, Priest of the Highway (Syd, 1973)
  • M. Austen and M. Richardson, Father Dunlea and Those with a Drinking Problem (Engadine, NSW, 1987)
  • Voice of Boys' Town, 1941-48
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 10 Dec 1939
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 25 Nov 1960
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 19 June 1970
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 27 Nov 1960
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Aug, 27 Dec 1939, 25 Jan 1947, 12 June 1965, 24 Aug 1970.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Edmund Campion, 'Dunlea, Thomas Vincent (1894–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 April, 1894
Ballina, Mayo, Ireland


22 August, 1970 (aged 76)
Lewisham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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