Interviewer: Siobhán McHugh for National Library of Australia
Born in 1957 to parents with a small 20 acre farm in the heart of rural Ireland, Eugene McCague had, in most respects, a normal and typical country childhood. Like his five siblings (three brothers and two sisters) he attended the local National School, rode his bike everywhere, went fishing, listened to his father play the fiddle for house céilís, learned a bit of the accordion himself and went to dances at the community hall. Before rural electrification and proper plumbing it was an era of tilly lamps to light the family’s three room house, batteries to drive the radio and journeys to the pump to fetch water. It was also a time when neighbours helped each other on the barter system and everyone’s harvest was brought in with everyone’s help. Mass was attended on Sundays and from everything around him, Eugene feels he acquired a sense of family, of respect for others, of common decency and strong feelings of social justice.
But Eugene McCague did not grow up in a typical part of Ireland but in border country. The family farm lay in a tongue of land in the north of County Monaghan that touches on Fermanagh to the west, Tyrone to the north and Armagh to the east, all counties within Northern Ireland. Although living in the Republic of Ireland, in the lead up to the 12th of July, Orangeman’s Day, as a boy Eugene could hear practising on marching drums from nearby localities with small Orange Lodges. These communities were, in his opinion, good people, neighbourly people, but Irishmen and women whose political orientation pointed to the division of Ireland between the six counties of British ruled Northern Ireland and the 26 county Irish Republic. Perhaps therefore it is no surprise that Eugene McCauge became a firm believer in the creation of an all-Ireland 32 county nation, something that could only come about with the removal of the international border so close to his own home.
In 1981, Eugene McCague, a trained panel beater, came on a working holiday to Sydney. He came at the height of the so-called ‘troubles’ in Ireland, as nationalists on both sides of the border were engaged in a struggle to end British rule in Northern Ireland. Indeed, Eugene arrived during one of the most critical periods of that struggle as a number of republican prisoners were on hunger strike in the Maze Prison outside Belfast demanding that they be given the status of ‘political prisoner’ rather than that of common criminal. Over the months of 1981 ten of the strikers died, including the most famous of them, Bobby Sands. In Sydney Eugene, a committed republican, found himself caught up in the Australian Irish reaction to these events and he became active in an organisation set up to financially support the families of the strikers and other republican prisoners, as well as to raise Australian awareness of what was happening in Ireland – ‘Australian Aid for Ireland’. He was president of ‘Australian Aid’ when Gerry Adams, the leader of the main Irish republican party, Sinn Fein, came to Australia in 1999 and addressed audiences at a large dinner at Randwick Race Course, at Harold Park and at the University of New South Wales.
One of Eugene’s most memorable moments as an Irish republican activist came in 1988. In that year, the year of the Australian bicentennial, the Queen of Australia, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and her husband, Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, came to Sydney and one of their engagements was to officially open the new Darling Harbour development. Eugene and others managed, despite whatever security arrangements were in place, to get very close to the royal visitors and to raise their placards with messages like ‘Brits Out’ (British out of Northern Ireland). He feels that the Duke certainly got the message and turned his head away.
A favourite spot for Eugene is the 1798 Monument in Waverly Cemetery. He and other members of ‘Australian Aid’ were always ready to help the INA there at the annual Easter Sunday commemoration of the 1916 Rising in Ireland. They also assisted a group known as the ‘Irish National Congress’ raise money to place a marble panel at the back of the memorial to remember the names of those who died in the Maze hunger strike of 1981:
I love going down there … [the monument] remembers all Ireland’s dead … embodies the fight for Irish freedom.
Today Eugene McCague has absolutely no regrets about that time in his life when he was active in support for Irish republican activities in Australia. It is his firm conviction that the Irish republican movement is something that embraces all Irish people regardless of creed. He acquired this sense of what that ideal republic might look like when he used to attend Easter Sunday republican commemorations in Ireland in his native Monaghan in the 1970s, and what he heard there would, in his eyes, be as relevant today as it was when he first listened to this vision of a united Ireland:
[it was] always about getting the British out of Ireland, getting a better country for the Irish people … if a Protestant was listening … to a Republican speech I’ve never heard them referencing people of any religion … it was always the ethos within the republican movement that it was an inclusive Ireland.