Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edward O'Shaughnessy (1801–1840)

by J. V. Byrnes

This article was published:

Edward O'Shaughnessy (1801-1840), journalist, poet and editor, was born in Ireland. His later work suggests that he had a sound education and a wide knowledge of literature. On 13 July 1824 he was convicted in Dublin of collecting taxes under false pretences and sentenced to seven years transportation. He probably committed the offence when in liquor, for there are many references to this weakness while he was in Sydney. He arrived in the Asia and was assigned as a reporter to Robert Howe of the Sydney Gazette. Until his sentence expired he lived at the Gazette office in Charlotte Street.

In the Gazette O'Shaughnessy published about thirty signed poems, mostly melancholy lyrics in the style of Thomas Moore. Later he showed that he could write satire in the manner of Byron equally well. His notices of Barnett Levey's dramatic ventures at the Theatre Royal were among the first dramatic criticisms in Australia. When he became editor of the Gazette he reprinted in it outstanding English poems and short stories from Blackwood's Magazine, thus continuing the tradition established by the founders, George and Robert Howe.

As far as can be discovered, O'Shaughnessy became editor of the Gazette on 1 June 1833 and continued for two years. This period covered the climax of the quarrel between Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke and the Tory magistrates on the question of convict discipline. The Gazette supported Bourke, but it is difficult to decide O'Shaughnessy's own views. The Gazette's traditional policy was to support the governor right or wrong, even though by 1833 it no longer relied largely on payment for the printing of Government Orders. O'Shaughnessy as an ex-convict was probably honest in his support of Bourke; the Gazette was referred to at this time as 'The Prisoners' Journal'. However, when he left the Gazette O'Shaughnessy wrote just as ably for the opposing party in the Herald.

O'Shaughnessy's editorship was marked by the bitter disputes over two political pamphlets issued by the Gazette in 1834. The first, Party Politics Exposed by 'Humanitas', the pen-name of William Watt, a sub-editor who later married the proprietress, Ann Howe, caused a storm of protest against O'Shaughnessy. The second, Observations On the 'Hole and Corner Petition' was by 'An Unpaid Magistrate', the pen-name of Roger Therry, whose correspondence with O'Shaughnessy was later exposed by Major James Mudie in The Felonry of New South Wales (London, 1837). In the subsequent newspaper campaign for and against these pamphlets, O'Shaughnessy was attacked by John Dunmore Lang in the Colonist. Lang claimed that O'Shaughnessy, because he had once been a convict, was unworthy to edit a newspaper and stated that O'Shaughnessy's character was just as bad as when he had been 'lagged in Dublin'. O'Shaughnessy sued Lang for libel but suddenly dropped proceedings. Although Lang claimed that O'Shaughnessy had been afraid to continue, the true reason seems to have been lack of money. Soon afterwards Mudie took Watt to court and O'Shaughnessy gave evidence against his former friend and colleague. Watt claimed that the Herald had paid O'Shaughnessy's debts in order to buy his evidence. Whether this was so or not, O'Shaughnessy certainly transferred to the Herald and was working on that paper when he died.

In 1838 Lang returned to the attack and stated that O'Shaughnessy, and not Alfred Ward Stephens, was the true editor of the Herald. Although the Herald's policy had not changed, Lang dubbed it 'The Convict Press'. O'Shaughnessy once more issued a writ for libel, but again the case did not reach the court. O'Shaughnessy continued to support all those aspects of convict discipline and colonial reform that he had previously denounced. He agitated for sterner convict discipline and the importation of coolie labour, justified the squatters who massacred Aboriginals, and expressed sectarian sentiments.

When he died in 1840 O'Shaughnessy's occupation was given as 'sub-editor', and his address as Princess Street, Sydney. He seems never to have married and left no will. He was buried according to the rites of the Church of England.

Select Bibliography

  • Freeman's Journal (Dublin), 1824
  • manuscript catalogue and newspaper indexes under Edward O'Shaughnessy (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. V. Byrnes, 'O'Shaughnessy, Edward (1801–1840)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




3 May, 1840 (aged ~ 39)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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

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Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: fraud
Sentence: 7 years