Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Joseph O'Donnell (1876–1949)

by L. L. Robson

This article was published:

Thomas Joseph O'Donnell (1876-1949), Catholic priest, was born on 3 August 1876 at Buninyong, Victoria, fourth of seven children of Irish parents Moses John O'Donnell, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Buckle. Details of O'Donnell's early life and education are obscure but, continuing his studies for the priesthood, by 1905 he was in Tasmania whence he was sent by Archbishop Murphy to All Hallows College, Dublin. Ordained in 1907, he returned to Tasmania as curate at Latrobe. Transferred to Stanley in 1909, he was energetic in promoting the Catholic religion, church-building and local issues. In 1915 he officiated, at the request of the bride to whom he had given religious instruction, at the marriage of Joseph Lyons to Enid Burnell.

A tubby man, of dark complexion and blue eyes, on 22 February 1918 O'Donnell (understating his age by three years) created a sensation by joining the Australian Imperial Force as a chaplain with the rank of captain. This followed an interstate speaking tour in support of conscription and an attempt to enlist as a private the previous December. He served in France with the 11th Battalion.

On 14 October 1919 O'Donnell was arrested in Ireland for traitorous and disloyal language concerning the King and British policy in Ireland, said to have been uttered in the International Hotel, Killarney. He also stated in the presence of a British officer that Germany would have won the war had it not been for the A.I.F. He was held incommunicado in Ship Street Barracks, Dublin, for several days before being removed to Britain on a writ of habeas corpus. W. M. Hughes cabled protests to the British government and messages of support to O'Donnell.

Incarcerated in the Tower of London, allegedly in the cell earlier occupied by Sir Roger Casement, he was released under open arrest and tried in the Guildhall by a general court martial on 26-27 November. Acquitted, though not honourably, O'Donnell wrote to the newspapers about his alleged mistreatment and billed the A.I.F. for his legal costs. His case was raised in the House of Commons.

O'Donnell may have been confused with someone else when arrested (he was wearing no chaplain's insignia) but his stated intention to hand over to Sinn Feiners a pistol presented to supporters of the Irish rebel John Mitchel in Van Diemen's Land was as characteristic as it was unwise.

Returning to Tasmania via the United States of America, he continued Church work at Latrobe, New Norfolk, Moonah, Launceston and Hobart. He became a well-known supporter of sport on the north-west coast, a founder of the North-West Football Union and the Latrobe Cycling Club. Successively a board member of the Spencer Hospital, Wynyard, the Devon Hospital, Latrobe, and the Royal Hobart Hospital (chairman, 1934-36), O'Donnell was a central figure in the 1935 royal commission into the management of the Royal Hobart. He refused to attend the opening of the new building in 1938 when he learned his name had been removed from the foundation stone.

Appointed archdeacon in 1944, O'Donnell vigorously opposed bank nationalization in 1947. When he died in Hobart of hypertensive heart disease on 3 September 1949 he was engaged in litigation with The Rock, a Sydney anti-Catholic publication. A passionate man, O'Donnell became known to all Tasmanians as one who stood for the under-dog and who also believed that there were two sides to every question—his and the wrong one.

Select Bibliography

  • Advocate (Burnie), 5 Sept 1949
  • Mercury (Hobart), 5 Sept 1949
  • C. A. Glass, T. J. O'Donnell (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Tasmania, 1966), and for bibliography
  • Defence Department, MP 367/445/17/244 and Prime Minister's Department, CRS A 3932 SC 292 (4) (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

L. L. Robson, 'O'Donnell, Thomas Joseph (1876–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 August, 1876
Buninyong, Victoria, Australia


3 September, 1949 (aged 73)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.