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John Arthur Fihelly (1882–1945)

by Betty Crouchley

This article was published:

John Arthur Fihelly (1882-1945), by unknown photographer, c1928

John Arthur Fihelly (1882-1945), by unknown photographer, c1928

Brisbane City Council Library, BCC-B120-32760

John Arthur Fihelly (1882-1945), public servant and politician, was born on 7 November 1882 at Timoleague, Cork, Ireland, son of Cornelius Fihelly, customs officer, and his wife Anne, née McCarthy. The family arrived in Brisbane in September 1883 as migrants on the Duke of Westminster. John was educated at the Petrie Terrace State School and St Joseph's College, Gregory Terrace, until October 1895 when he joined the Post Office as a telegraph messenger. He transferred later to the Department of Trade and Customs and in 1908 was a junior clerk in its State office on £60 a year.

Handsome and well-built, Fihelly was an enthusiastic Rugby footballer. An aggressive forward, he represented Queensland against New South Wales in 1905-07, and in 1907 both Queensland and Australia against New Zealand. A founder of the Rugby League code in Queensland and a Queensland and Australia representative player, he was also assistant manager of the first Australian team to visit Britain in 1908-09. He became a referee later. He was president of the Queensland Amateur Rugby League in 1914-16.

Widely read, Fihelly also wrote well, and regularly contributed to the Worker from about 1906. He won Paddington for Labor in the Legislative Assembly in April 1912 and in May, with Roman Catholic rites, married Marguerite Agnes, daughter of Peter Murphy. The attorney-general Thomas O'Sullivan wrote that Fihelly added much to the debating strength of the Opposition; 'aggressive, personal and witty, he attacked the man rather than the subject'. Confident, ambitious and a protégé of Edward Theodore, Fihelly became secretary of the party caucus in 1914; with Theodore he was also its principal writer of campaign literature. He was minister without portfolio in the Ryan government in 1915-18. As assistant minister for justice, he was an innovator who revitalized the department. With Ryan and William McCawley he drafted the workers' compensation bill; both it and the Insurance Act, 1916, were piloted through parliament by him.

Fihelly's outspoken support of Irish dissidents offended many. After his impassioned denunciation of the British government in September 1916 at a Queensland Irish Association meeting, Governor Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams refused to speak to him; and Fihelly was suspended from Executive Council meetings until he apologized. Ryan was determined to keep him in the ministry and persuaded caucus to withdraw a censure motion; but colleagues registered their dismay at Fihelly's lack of tact by preferring the junior member John Coyne as secretary for railways. Because of his anti-conscription activities, the pejorative term 'Fihellyism', signifying disloyalty and support for Germany and the Sinn Fein rebels, gained some currency.

Fihelly was so competent, nevertheless, that in April 1918 he was made secretary for railways. He travelled in North America and Europe on departmental business in 1918-19 and instituted a number of important reforms but critics claimed he had no genuine working-class sympathy. Northern unionists particularly found him arrogant and without sympathy for Charters Towers railway men suspended in 1919. It was known that he held shares in several businesses including Cummins & Campbell of Townsville.

Easily defeated by Theodore in the October 1919 election of a new party leader, Fihelly still won the deputy-leadership. After October 1919 he added the ministry of justice to his railways portfolio and in August 1920, both the treasury and public works. Even for a man of his energy, it was an enormous work-load. In 1919-21 he was also on the senate of the university. Despite his alleged disloyalty, his reception as acting premier of the Prince of Wales in 1920 was impeccable.

Fihelly's personal behaviour was becoming embarrassing to the government by 1921 and in June he was defeated by William Dunstan in pre-selection for the Federal seat of Maranoa. In February 1922 he accepted appointment as agent-general. When Theodore decided to negotiate personally in London about maturing loans, Fihelly was furious. Beset also by domestic and emotional problems, he left London early in February 1924 without advising his government, met Theodore in New York and handed him his resignation. It was accepted from 31 March.

Making no further attempt to enter parliament, Fihelly retired into relative obscurity, He won the Paddington ward for Labor in the first 'Greater Brisbane' council elections in February 1925 and held it until 1930; he had defeated Edward Hanlon in the selection ballot. Late in 1925 he stood unsuccessfully against (Sir) Donald Cameron for the Federal seat of Brisbane. In September 1926 his skull was fractured in an accident at Sandgate and from then he steadily deteriorated. In 1930-33 he was employed for short periods in minor capacities by the Queensland government. After several terms in the Dunwich Benevolent Institution, he died of a cerebral thrombosis in Brisbane on 2 March 1945, survived by his wife, their daughter and two sons, one of whom was a prisoner of war. He was buried in Toowong cemetery after a state funeral.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan: A Political Biography (Brisb, 1975)
  • D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds) Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1952 (Brisb, 1978)
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 6 Jan 1913, 20 May, 9 July 1915
  • Punch (Melbourne), 20 July 1920
  • Worker (Brisbane), 9 Feb 1922, 5 Mar 1945
  • CO 161/165 193/331, 351 418/221/5.

Citation details

Betty Crouchley, 'Fihelly, John Arthur (1882–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Arthur Fihelly (1882-1945), by unknown photographer, c1928

John Arthur Fihelly (1882-1945), by unknown photographer, c1928

Brisbane City Council Library, BCC-B120-32760

Life Summary [details]


7 November, 1882
Timoleague, Cork, Ireland


2 March, 1945 (aged 62)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.