Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

They Called Him Old Smoothie: John Joseph Cahill

Academic journal article Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society

They Called Him Old Smoothie: John Joseph Cahill

Article excerpt

Just over 50 years ago, on October 23 1959, the body of the premier of New South Wales lay in state in this cathedral. Beside his coffin were members of his Cabinet, some Catholic like himself, some of other faiths and some with none, kneeling together on the hard floor, as throughout the day tens of thousands of ordinary people queued to walk quietly by to pay their last respects, many brushing tears from their eyes. It was an extraordinary spectacle. If you had been there you might have noticed the lone figure of Norman Thomas, Cardinal Gilroy, the archbishop of Sydney, deep in prayer in a secluded pew. He and Joe Cahill had been friends for a long time and had fought a few battles together especially during the great Labor Party split in the 1950s.

A couple of days before at about 2.25 in the afternoon--on Tuesday October 21--there was commotion down Macquarie Street in Parliament House. That, of course, isn't all that unusual as you would know but this time it was different. Joe Cahill, who had been premier for a record seven years had had a heart attack in the Legislative Assembly while fiercely defending his government against a no confidence motion over allegations concerning the Rural Bank's lending practices.

The next morning while chairing a party meeting he had had another attack, and the day after that, on October 22 1959, he died in the Sydney Hospital next door from a third.

On Saturday morning October 24 1959 there was a spectacle that was even more extraordinary when mourners packed the cathedral to join Cardinal Gilroy as he celebrated Joe Cahill's Requiem Mass, and hundreds who couldn't find a seat spilled over into Hyde Park, and more than 300,000 people lined Sydney streets two and three deep from the cathedral all the way to Rookwood cemetery to catch a final glimpse of the casket in which lay a man who was essentially an ordinary man like themselves. Many knelt on the damp footpath, clasping Rosary beads in their hands. The police said it was the biggest crowd ever to witness a funeral procession in Sydney.

My purpose in being here today is to tell you a little about this extraordinary ordinary man Joe Cahill.

People ask me why I chose to write Cahill's biography. My first career was as a journalist, starting at the very bottom of the pile as a message boy and eventually writing politics and then a daily column. When my newspaper closed in 1957 I moved into other fields in which I did some writing but not enough to satisfy the ink that is in my veins.

When I retired in 1990 I decided to start another career writing biographies, especially about politicians whose biographies had never been written and, in my view, deserved to be written. One was Black Jack McEwen and another was John Joseph Cahill. I published McEwen in 1996, Cahill last November.

McEwen of course was a federal politician; Cahill was a state politician. McEwen was a dedicated Country party man, Cahill was a dedicated Labor party man. McEwen was prime minister of Australia but for only 23 days, Cahill was premier of New South Wales for 2758 days. McEwen was in the Commonwealth parliament for 44 years and retired undefeated, Cahill was in the state parliament for 31 years but was out of the House for three years when he and several others lost their seats in the Lang debacle in 1932. McEwen was educated by the light of a kerosene lamp in a lean-to on a soldier settler's block. Cahill left school at 13 and educated himself at night in Workers' Educational Association classes. McEwen's father was a migrant from Armagh in Northern Ireland. His stock was Presbyterian. Cahilrs father was a migrant from County Limerick in Ireland. He was a Catholic. Both were very very astute politicians and great fighters.

You could say that McEwen and Cahill had a lot in common. Certainly they were alike in one respect. Both must have had a real distaste for biographers because, as I found to my discomfort, they left behind very few personal records. …

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