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Edmund McSweeny (1861–1929)

by Anne-Maree Whitaker

Irish Internees in Darlinghurst Gaol, 1918 [McSweeny is seated in front row, far left]

Irish Internees in Darlinghurst Gaol, 1918 [McSweeny is seated in front row, far left]

Edmund McSweeny (1861-1929), Irish community activist, was born on 1 January 1861 at Burncourt, County Tipperary, Ireland, the son of William Sweeny or McSweeny, policeman, and his wife Honoria (née Marshall). He grew up in an era of great turmoil in Irish history, and devoted his life to advancing the cause of his native land. Burncourt is part of the parish of Clogheen, whose parish priest Father Nicholas Sheehy was executed in 1766 for his opposition to laws penalising Catholics. The priest was the subject of poems and laments, his grave became a site of pilgrimage and there was an unsuccessful campaign to have him canonised during the nineteenth century.[1] He would have presented a powerful role model to Edmund in his formative years. 

When he was about eight years old Edmund’s parents moved back to their native village of Ballydonoghue, County Kerry, where he attended the local national school. The period of his young adult years coincided with the outbreak of the land war (1879-82) and the establishment and rapid growth of the Irish National League. The Moonlighters movement, which was founded in Kerry in 1879, involved young men assisting evicted tenants to reclaim their cottages by force. The Irish National League was founded in Mayo in October 1879 as a successor to the Land League, and was seen as the open organisational counterpart to the clandestine Moonlighters. Edmund was reputed to have been involved in both the Moonlighters and the League, helping to form a League branch in Ballydonoghue.[2]

Edmund’s mother Honoria McSweeny died on 28 March 1882 at the age of 48, after an illness of one week.[3] Following her death Edmund moved to England. He seems to have been involved with the Irish Republican Brotherhood there, as he was later found in possession of the printed rules of the IRB North of England Division.[4] The Brotherhood, also known as the Fenians, was founded in 1858 and were behind all the armed risings against Britain over the next 70 years. Between 1881 and 1885 they conducted a ‘dynamite campaign’ of bombings in England. 

After less than a year in England Edmund emigrated to New Zealand, following his older sister Bridget. He travelled on the Oxford which sailed from Plymouth on 26 April 1883, the day the press was reporting the trial of the men accused of assassinating the Chief Secretary in Dublin’s Phoenix Park and another trial of ‘dynamite conspirators’ at Bow Street police court.[5] The voyage turned into an ordeal when the ship was dismasted and had to put into Cardiff for repairs, and then an outbreak of typhoid killed six passengers before they arrived in Wellington.[6]

Edmund McSweeney is shown on the electoral roll in Auckland in 1884 and 1887. He resumed his activity with the Irish National League, becoming honorary secretary of the Auckland branch in 1885.[7] He gave a number of lectures on Irish history to the League, a topic in which he was ‘very deeply versed’.[8] His 70-year-old father followed him to New Zealand in 1889 and together they moved in 1891 to Sydney where Edmund’s brother Henry had joined the police force.

One of the first groups Edmund joined on arriving in Sydney was the Shamrock Club, which held social events and lectures as well as an annual pilgrimage to the grave of 1798 Rebellion hero Michael Dwyer in Devonshire Street Cemetery. It may have been through this group that he met Elizabeth Mary Theresa O’Connor, whom he married on 10 October 1892 at Sacred Heart Church, Darlinghurst. Lizzie came from the same area of north Kerry as Edmund, and had arrived in Sydney as a 13-year-old with her parents and siblings in 1878.[9] Lizzie’s mother Hannah was a first cousin of Richard O’Rahilly, whose son was to play an important part in Irish cultural and political movements.[10]

The McSweeneys moved to a rented house in Paddington where their sons were born: William Joseph Aquinas in 1893 and John Columbanus in 1895. John died at the age of three months and they had no more children. Edmund’s elderly father William was also living with them until his death in 1901.[11] In 1895 Edmund established the National Tea Company, with offices at 9 Bond Street near Circular Quay. He advertised ‘choice Indian, Ceylon and China teas’ and offered ‘special quotations for convents, colleges &c’. The firm continued to trade until 1898 after which he seems to have relied on work as a salesman.[12]

His involvement in Irish community organisations continued during the 1890s with the Irish National Foresters benefit society. The Foresters were among the best known friendly societies in Ireland and were closely associated with Irish nationalism. They expanded to NSW in 1891 and a state executive was formed the following year. McSweeny was secretary of the William O’Brien branch, and later served as SHCR (state president) in 1899 and state secretary in 1901.[13]

The approach of the centenary of the 1798 Rebellion saw a move by the Foresters to erect a memorial in Waverley Cemetery in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. The grave of 1798 leader Michael Dwyer had to be moved as the cemetery was being cleared to make way for a new central railway station. A committee was formed under the chairmanship of Dr Charles William MacCarthy, which rapidly organised Dwyer’s reburial and the construction of an impressive monument over his new grave.[14] McSweeny served on the committee with the specific role of joint auditor.[15] Doubtless he also undertook many other tasks as the group raised over £2600 in less than three years and held two major fundraising concerts in Sydney Town Hall.

After the completion of the monument in 1900 concerns soon arose about vandalism and the need for a protective fence.[16] The committee was reactivated and organised two more concerts of Irish music in the Sydney Town Hall, on 9 October 1905 and 26 January 1906, specifically to fund the installation of railings around the memorial. The concerts were planned by Dr MacCarthy, who arranged the parts for trios and quartets and also acted as accompanist.[17] McSweeny’s duties as Secretary included the production of 40,000 programmes and organising their distribution outside Catholic churches on two successive Sundays, as well as newspaper advertising and hoarding posters.[18] Although the concerts were pronounced a success the work on the monument did not proceed until two decades later.

By 1907 the McSweenys had taken the lease on a boarding house at 92 Cathedral Street, Woolloomooloo, a short walk from St Mary’s Cathedral and three doors from Lizzie’s aunt Johanna O’Connor’s grocery shop. It was also convenient to 14-year-old William’s school St Mary’s High. The boarding house provided a valuable supplement to the family income. Edmund’s father-in-law John O’Connor died there in May 1907, and his widow Hannah moved into the 13-room house with the McSweenys. The proximity to the Cathedral was also a plus for the deeply religious Catholic family, many of whom attended daily Mass.[19]

In response to growing political turmoil in Ireland, in 1915 the Irish National Association was formed in Sydney with the aim ‘to assist Ireland to achieve her national destiny’. Edmund McSweeny was elected vice-president of the INA which held lectures and social functions to promote Irish culture and soon expanded to Melbourne and Brisbane.[20] The following year a rebellion broke out in Dublin which became known as the Easter Rising, in which over 500 people were killed and large parts of the city centre destroyed by British bombardment. Sixteen of its leaders were executed and Lizzie McSweeny’s second cousin known as The O’Rahilly was killed during the fighting.[21]

Within weeks the response by the INA’s leading figures was to formally establish branches of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the clandestine group which had been responsible for the Rising. The Nationalist Government led by Billy Hughes was determined to introduce conscription to aid Britain’s war effort, and to suppress internal dissent. As opponents of conscription the Irish, led by Melbourne’s Archbishop Mannix, were an obvious target in the Government’s sights. Hughes frequently alluded to Sinn Féin and Mannix as a threat to Australia.[22]

In March 1918 houses were raided across Sydney including the McSweenys’ and papers seized. The following June four men were arrested in Sydney: INA Secretary Albert Dryer, Vice-President Edmund McSweeny, Warden William McGuinness and dancing instructor Michael McGing. Along with two others from Melbourne and one from Brisbane they were brought before an official enquiry. McSweeny was found to be the custodian of the IRB funds and all seven men were ordered to be imprisoned without trial in Sydney’s Darlinghurst Gaol. They were held until December 1918, except for Dryer who remained in custody until February 1919. McSweeny, who had been employed as an agent for one of the major insurance companies, lost his job and was forced to appeal to wealthy Irish-Australians for a job or donations.[23]

In around 1921 the McSweenys moved to 48 Canberra Steet, Randwick, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. By now Edmund was 60 and may have virtually retired from the workforce. He served two years as President of the INA in 1923-24, which saw the arrest and deportation of Irish envoys Father Michael O’Flanagan and John Joseph O’Kelly.[24] One of the initiatives during his term was the formation of a fife and drum band which participated in St Patrick’s Day parades and concerts.[25]

After this McSweeny had one piece of unfinished business to complete, the planned railing at the 1798 Memorial at Waverley. The memorial is 30 feet wide and 24 feet deep surmounted by a Celtic cross rising to 30 feet. The main material is white Carrara marble, and the memorial is embellished with mosaics and bronze bas-relief sculptures. He had been Secretary of the original railings appeal in 1905-06, and acted as Treasurer when the project was renewed in 1926 by a coalition of Irish organisations. More than just a fence, the bronze railing was decorated with swords, axeheads, a shield and a harp with Celtic interlace. It was unveiled on New Year’s Eve 1927 by Archbishop Kelly and the final cost was £345/10/-.[26]

Edmund McSweeny died at his Randwick home on 24 February 1929 at the age of 68.[27] An appeal was launched to construct a monument over his grave in Waverley Cemetery, and it was completed before the end of the year. In his speech unveiling the handsome marble Celtic cross, Irish nationalist priest Dr Patrick Tuomey praised McSweeney’s piety and patriotism, adding: ‘He was a great scholar, with a keen mind, exceptionally well equipped, especially with knowledge of history, more especially the history of his native land.’[28] His comrade Albert Dryer said of McSweeny: ‘until the last, he was devoted with unusual ardour and singleness of purpose to the cause of Ireland. He was associated with every Irish movement in Sydney and was a foremost advocate of independence for Ireland.’[29]

[1] Thomas P Power, ‘Sheehy, Nicholas’, Dictionary of Irish Biography

[2] Donnacha Séan Lucey, ‘Land and Popular Politics in County Kerry, 1872-86’, PhD thesis, National University of Ireland Maynooth, 2007; Witness statement of Albert Dryer, WS1526, Bureau of Military History, Irish Military Archives, np (hereafter Dryer witness statement).

[3] Honoria Sweeny, death registration district of Ballyduff, union of Listowel, entry 230, 28 March 1882, Group Registration ID 5974365, from

[4] Inquiry under Regulation 56B of the War Precautions Regulations before the Hon Mr Justice Harvey re Irish Republican Brotherhood (hereafter Harvey Inquiry), National Archives of Australia, series no A432, control symbol 1929/4572, pp 35-36.

[5] Assisted Immigration to Wellington New Zealand by the ship Oxford 1883, Archives New Zealand, p 16; ‘Very Latest’, South Canterbury Times, 27 April 1883, p 3.

[6] ‘The Oxford Inquiry’, New Zealand Times, 7 September 1883, p 7.

[7] New Zealand electoral rolls 1853-1981,; ‘Meetings’ Auckland Star, 14 May 1885, p 3.

[8] Dryer witness statement.

[9] Dryer witness statement; NSW marriage certificate 1551/1892; Pericles 1878 shipping list, NSW Archives and Records, NRS5316, 4/4803.

[10] ‘Mrs H O’Connor’, Catholic Press, 15 November 1917, p 24.

[11] NSW death certificate 10621/1901.

[12] Advertisements, Catholic Press, 30 November 1895, p 12; Daily Telegraph, 17 May 1898, p 8.

[13] ‘Irish National Foresters – Early history’, Freeman’s Journal, 16 August 1934, p 26; ‘Irish National Foresters’ Benefit Society’, Freeman’s Journal, 1 April 1899, p 22; ‘The Irish National Foresters’, Catholic Press, 10 August 1901, p 5.

[14] Ruan O’Donnell, ‘Irish-Australia and the 1798 Centenary in Sydney’, in Jeff Brownrigg et al (eds), Echoes of Irish Australia: Rebellion to Republic (2007), pp 1-11.

[15] ‘’98 Commemoration’, Freeman’s Journal, 30 Jul 1898, p 17; ‘’98 Commemoration’, Freeman’s Journal, 17 Nov 1900, p 12.

[16] ‘Vandals and the ’98 Memorial’, Freeman’s Journal, 7 September 1901, p 23.

[17] ’98 Monument Grand Irish National Concert’, Freeman’s Journal, 14 October 1905, p 29; ‘Irish-Ireland Concert’, Freeman’s Journal, 3 February 1906, p 29.

[18] E McSweeny, ‘Anniversary Night Irish Concert’, Catholic Press, 18 January 1906, p 17.

[19] ‘The Winners of High Honours’, Catholic Press, 19 December 1907, p 19; ‘Mrs H O’Connor’, Catholic Press, 15 November 1917, p 24.

[20] Anne-Maree Whitaker, ‘Irish National Association’, Dictionary of Sydney,

[21] Patrick Maume, ‘O'Rahilly, Michael Joseph (‘The O'Rahilly’)’, Dictionary of Irish Biography

[22] Garrath O’Keeffe, ‘Australia’s Irish Republican Brotherhood’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 83, pt 2 (December 1997), p 140.

[23] O’Keeffe, ‘Australia’s Irish Republican Brotherhood’, p 146.

[24] Mark Finnane, ‘Deporting the Irish Envoys: domestic and national security in 1920s Australia’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 41/3 (2013), pp 403–25.

[25] ‘Irish National Association Fife and Drum Band’, Freeman’s Journal, 2 October 1924, p 27.

[26] Jonathan M Wooding, ‘“It was in Human Nature to Love One’s Native Land and Make

Sacrifices for it”: Monumental Commemorations and Corporeal Relics in 1920s Irish-Australia’, History Australia, vol 4, issue 2 (2007), pp 39.8–39.14. Wooding does not discuss the earlier appeal to install railings.

[27 NSW death certificate 01268/1929.

[28] ‘Edmund McSweeny Memorial’, Catholic Press, 31 October 1929, p 20.

[29] Dryer witness statement.

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Citation details

Anne-Maree Whitaker, 'McSweeny, Edmund (1861–1929)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 June 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Irish Internees in Darlinghurst Gaol, 1918 [McSweeny is seated in front row, far left]

Irish Internees in Darlinghurst Gaol, 1918 [McSweeny is seated in front row, far left]

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sweeny, Edmund

1 January, 1861
Burncourt, Tipperary, Ireland


24 February, 1929 (aged 68)
Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.

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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.

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