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James Charles Mahoney (1907–1997)

by Patrick Buckridge

This article was published online in 2021

James Charles Mahoney (1907–1997), professor of French, was born on 9 August 1907 at Maryborough, Queensland, eldest of five children of Queensland-born parents James Richard Denis Mahoney, schoolteacher, and his wife Annie Maud, née O’Brien, who had also been a teacher. Young James attended the State primary schools at Sellheim (1912–14), Tinana (1914–17), and Kingaroy (1917–21). After the family moved to Brisbane, he continued at St Laurence’s College, South Brisbane (1922–23), and St Joseph’s College, Gregory Terrace (1924–25). A gifted student, he came fifth in the scholarship (1921), first in the junior (1923)—winning the (T. J.) Byrnes memorial medal—and second in the senior (1925) State public examinations. He was awarded an open scholarship to the University of Queensland (BA, 1929), where he took first-class honours in modern languages (English and French).

At school and university, Mahoney played representative cricket and excelled in middle-distance running. In 1924 he won the inter-school open mile for Terrace; in 1925, the junior half-mile championship of Queensland, in record time; and in 1927, the State senior mile championship. While an undergraduate, he began his career as a citizen soldier, being commissioned (1927) as a lieutenant in the 26th Battalion. In 1928 he was president of the Wider Education Society and secretary of the University Union. He was, as well, a formidable debater.

Mahoney was selected as Queensland Rhodes scholar for 1929. At Balliol College, Oxford (BA, 1931; BLitt, 1932; MA, 1935), he studied French language and literature under the medievalist Alfred Ewert, including an eight-month period in France, funded by the Heath Harrison travelling scholarship. He achieved first-class honours in his bachelor degree. His thesis for the bachelor of letters degree, on the classical French dramatist Jean Mairet, was supervised by two eminent scholars, Gustave Rudler and Eugène Vinaver; the latter afterwards praised it as ‘a distinguished piece of work on a difficult and important subject’ (UQA S135). Mahoney also competed for Oxford against Cambridge in the mile and relay races—acting as pacesetter for two Olympic athletes on one occasion—and was awarded a half-Blue for athletics.

Back at the University of Queensland in 1933, Mahoney was appointed as reader (meaning tutor) in the department of modern languages. He was promoted to assistant lecturer in 1936. On 18 February 1939 in Mary Immaculate Church, Annerley, he married Maureen Catherine Grealy, a public servant; the couple set up house at St Lucia. They were both devout Catholics and he often read the lesson in church services. From 1933 he had commanded the Queensland University Detachment, successively, of the 9th—15th and 9th—49th battalions. After the outbreak of World War II, he began full-time duty on 1 May 1941 as brigade major of the 7th Infantry Brigade, the principal staff officer responsible for the organisation, training, and administration of four thousand men. The formation deployed to Papua in 1942 and 1943. He was mentioned in despatches for his service, which included the battle of Milne Bay (August–September 1942). In January 1944 he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. As a general staff officer, grade 2, in the 1st Australian Combined Operations Section (1944–45), he served on Morotai and in Borneo in 1945.

Following his demobilisation on 9 November 1945, Mahoney returned to the university, where he acted as guidance officer for ex-servicemen enrolling under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme (1946–48). He was promoted to chief lecturer in French in 1950. His appointment in 1954 as founding professor of French, against stiff overseas competition, was by no means a foregone conclusion, and the support of Archbishop Sir James Duhig on the university senate was reputedly crucial.

An able administrator with a high sense of public and professional duty, Mahoney fulfilled many responsible roles, including president (1966–68) of the professorial board, dean of the faculty of arts, member (1966–77) of the senate, secretary and vice-president of the University of Queensland Staff Association, president (1953) of the Australasian Universities Modern Languages Association, and founding president (1959–61) of the Modern Language Teachers’ Association of Queensland. He was, in addition, president (1953–77) of the Alliance Française (Brisbane section), in which role he expanded the Concours des Écoles, a popular French-speaking competition for Queensland schools. In 1960 he was appointed to France’s Légion d’honneur for his service to French culture.

Mahoney’s mentor and friend Dr F. W. Robinson said of him in 1954 that ‘in earlier days his seriousness of purpose had found expression in a certain sternness and rigidity’ but that in more recent years ‘he has let the geniality, humour and flexibility of his character have much wider play’ (UQA S135). Nonetheless, for the last twenty years of his academic career, he was widely seen as a remote figure by students and colleagues, a perception reinforced by his aquiline features and an insistence on lecturing in formal academic attire. Furthermore, his preference for public lectures and radio broadcasts over research publications, of which—like many senior academics of his generation—he produced very few, annoyed some of the more ambitious younger scholars in his department.

Retiring in 1977, Mahoney was granted emeritus status. In his latter years he could often be seen showing groups of students and visitors around the Great Court at his beloved university, explaining the elaborate stone carvings in the cloisters, and identifying the grotesques of memorable staff members; one of him by Rhyl Hinwood was added in 1983. He also maintained his military connections, and in October 1992, at the half-centenary of the battle of Milne Bay, he was able (aged eighty-five) to give an hour-long tactical and logistical account of the battle, with great fluency and minimal notes, to the Royal United Service Institute in Brisbane. He died on 1 February 1997 in South Brisbane and was buried in Nudgee cemetery. His wife and their son survived him. Mahoney House at Terrace commemorates the academic and sporting accomplishments of James, his brothers Bernard, John, and William, and James's son, James (Queensland Rhodes scholar for 1963).

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Blair, Ruth. Personal communication
  • Brisbane Courier. ‘Rhodes Scholar: J. C. Mahoney Selected.’ 15 November 1928, 13
  • Cryle, Peter. Personal communication
  • Edwards, Peter. Personal communication
  • Harrison, R. I. (Sam). Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, QX59770
  • National Archives of Australia. J1795, 1240
  • Nettelbeck, Colin, ed. The Alliance Française in Australia, 1890–1990: An Historical Perspective. Turner, ACT: Fédération des Alliances Françaises en Australie, in association with the Institute for the Study of French-Australian Relations, 1990
  • University of Queensland Archives. UQA S135, Staff Files (mediated access)

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Citation details

Patrick Buckridge, 'Mahoney, James Charles (1907–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2021, accessed online 22 June 2024.

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