The grave of a Catholic priest in Cornelian Bay Cemetery reflects his forty-two years of faithful service to the congregants of the Archdiocese of Tasmania.
Born in Buninyong, Victoria, of Irish parentage, Archdeacon Thomas Joseph O’Donnell spent most of his life in Tasmania, as a priest in the parishes of Stanley, Latrobe, New Norfolk, Moonah, Launceston and Sandy Bay. He worked tirelessly building churches and schools and served on local councils and hospital boards. He also founded and promoted sporting clubs. He was outspoken, controversial and passionate about a number of causes, but popular with his parishioners and always willing to support the disadvantaged. In 1944 he was appointed Archdeacon and died in September 1949 during a libel court case he had instigated against The Rock, an anti-Catholic publication.
For a brief period in late 1919 he was the centre of a military, political and media storm. He had, in 1917, undertaken an interstate speaking tour in support of conscription. Early in 1918 he enlisted as a private in the AIF, but was later appointed Chaplain to the 11th Battalion on the Western Front, where he carried out his duties with compassion and diligence. In late 1919 he was granted leave and visited relatives in Ireland, where he had earlier studied for the priesthood. He had with him a pistol that once belonged to John Mitchel, a leader of the Young Ireland movement, who was transported to Tasmania after the failed 1848 uprising. At the Gresham Hotel in Dublin he presented the pistol to Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Féin, an Irish Republican party. At a time of political unrest this drew the attention of the Irish Special Branch, who placed him under surveillance.
On 10 October, O’Donnell, in AIF uniform, was at the International Hotel in Killarney engaged in animated conversation with William Marsh, a man he had just met. It was later alleged by 2nd Lieutenant JS Chambers of the King’s Liverpool Regiment that he had heard O’Donnell make seditious remarks about the King and the British Government and when asked to desist was told to mind his own business. The incident was reported and four days later O’Donnell was detained under close arrest. He applied to the High Court for a writ to secure his release but the arrest was deemed lawful and he was placed in the custody of the AIF and escorted to London. Evidence indicates that he spent one night in the Tower of London before being released under open arrest.
His two-day court martial conducted at the Guild Hall on 26–27 November saw him acquitted, although not honourably. Incensed at his treatment O’Donnell then set about recovering his court costs from the AIF. His case was raised in the House of Commons in London and he received from the War Office £1060/12/11 in costs plus £700 compensation. He resigned his commission in the AIF, effective from Christmas Day 1919, and independently returned to Tasmania.
Chaplain O’Donnell’s service and court martial files held by the National Archives of Australia are not for the faint-hearted, amounting to more than 700 pages!
Service Record for Chaplain Thomas Joseph O’Donnell, attached to 11th Battalion: http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=7001008
Court Martial Record Thomas Joseph O’Donnell: http://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=7001007
Chaplain (4th Class) Rev TJ O'Donnell: Court Martial Arising from Alleged Seditious Remarks – Series MP367/1, Item 445/17/244, National Archives of Australia
O'Donnell, Thomas Joseph (1876–1949), LL Robson, Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/odonnell-thomas-joseph-7880
‘Thrown into Tower: Rev T O’Donnells’ Treatment by Authorities etc’, Dublin Saturday Herald, 1 November 1919.
Anzacs and Ireland, Jeff Kildea, Sydney, 2007