Image of the interior of the Princess's Theatre, Bendigo

Interior of the Princess’s Theatre, Bendigo, 1874, A/S11/07/74/53

The play Advance Australia was staged at the Princess Theatre in Bendigo on Saturday 3 July 1920. It was written by a local Catholic priest, John Joseph Kennedy. The play was strongly anti-imperialist and intensely Australian, and the performance created a national furore.

The drama follows a family’s experience during the First World War. The mother has lost her husband in the Boer War. She asks her sons “Why should you offer yourselves as cannon fodder because Imperial megalomaniacs quarrel?”[i] Her sons, though, volunteer for service and one is killed.

A lengthy and positive review, highlighting pieces of dialogue, was published in the Bendigo Advertiser on Monday 5 July 1920. This precipitated a hastily organised protest meeting at the Bendigo Beehive Exchange that evening.

A larger ‘indignation’ meeting was convened on Friday 9 July 1920 at the Bendigo Town Hall.

A motion was carried expressing “detestation and abhorrence of the disloyal sentiments uttered in the play… [and].. emphatic disapproval of the mendacious and dastardly reflections on the English soldiers…”.[ii]

Image of newspaper clipping from The Argus

The Argus, 7 July 1920, page 8

One speaker, Chaplain Captain Dorman, attacked the play for depicting the English as degenerate and effeminate. Another speaker challenged the playwright’s view that the British looked upon Australians as an inferior class. A message was read from the Prime Minister Billy Hughes condemning the play as thinly disguised Sinn Fein propaganda[iii]. None of the speakers had seen the play and relied for their views on the newspaper report.

Image of newspaper clipping from the Ballart Star

Ballarat Star, 10 July 1920, page 1

Meanwhile, outside the Town Hall, a large group of supporters of the play gathered and gave three cheers for Melbourne’s Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, for Father Kennedy, for Home Rule and for Ireland.

The author, Father Kennedy, had himself served as a chaplain during the war and had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1916 for conspicuous gallantry in action at the Battle of Fromelles[iv]. He had repeatedly returned to the frontline trenches under heavy shell fire to rescue the wounded.

The Battle of Fromelles was a disaster, with  5,533 Australian casualties in a single night.[v]  Father Kennedy’s experiences of this futile carnage formed the basis of his play.


Father Kennedy’s war service record, National Archives of Australia

Newspaper clipping from the Shepparton News, 19 October 1916

Shepparton News, 19 October 1916, page 1

One of his most vocal opponents, George MacKay, had publicly described Kennedy’s DSO as the ‘Dastardly Seditious Order’[vi]. Like the protagonists in the play, two of MacKay’s sons volunteered for the war and one was killed.

The war had been appalling. Many had lost loved ones and wished to see their deaths as worthwhile. Many soldiers returned disillusioned and disturbed at the horrors they had endured.

Archbishop Mannix and Prime Minister Hughes were implacable opponents in the bitter debate over conscription during the Great War. Conscription was narrowly rejected in plebiscites in 1916 and 1917.

In the aftermath of the failed Irish Easter Rising of 1916, and the subsequent battle for Irish independence, it was a particularly volatile time in relations between the British Government and Irish republicans, and this was mirrored in Australia.

There was a divide between Australians with Irish Catholic heritage and those with British Protestant heritage. The controversy over the play reflects this.

Fr Kennedy had served as a priest in country Victoria in Yarrawonga before the war and Myrtleford after the war. He had previously published a history of his regiment, and had written several novels prior to the War.

Cover images of two novels written by Rev. John J. Kennedy

Carrigmore, or, Light and shade in West Kerry / by John J. Kennedy, 1909,

Gordon Grandfield, or, The tale of a modernist / by J.J. Kennedy, 1912,

After the controversy over “Advance Australia” his next play “The Desmond’s of Dingle” was performed at the Theatre Royal in Bendigo in November 1920, without a hint of controversy.

He suffered health issues most likely related to his war service and later emigrated to the United States where he served as a priest in Georgia until his death on 18 February, 1957.

It appears the playscript of Advance Australia has not survived.

Further reading:

For more on the impact of Anglo/ Irish tension on Australia see the Easter Rising Dublin 1916 Research Guide.

National Archives Australia holds the war service records for Fr Kennedy; and George MacKay’s sons Murdoch Nish MacKay and George Eric Mackay.

The controversy received extensive coverage across Australia at the time, much of the coverage can be searched on Trove Digitised Newspapers (although the Bendigo papers are not digitised for that period).

See The Advocate 22 July 1920: pp.14-15 for Fr.Kennedy’s detailed account of the issues surrounding the play, including his experience of the Battle of Fromelles.

For an extensive obituary of Fr Kennedy see the Bulletin of the Catholic laymen’s association of Georgia p.1,11.


[i] Bendigo Advertiser 5 July 1920, p.3

[ii] Bendigo Advertiser 10 July 1920, p.7

[iii] Ibid

[iv] London Gazette Supp. 26 September 1916 p.9421

[v] McMullin, Ross Disaster at Fromelles Wartime Issue 36

[vi] Bendigo Advertiser 6 July 1920, p.5

This article has 3 comments

  1. Fr John was my grand uncle . Our dad told us many stories about him and his DSO was in our house on the mantelpiece . He rarely spoke of it on later visits home to our house as you’d expect from one who became so disillusioned with war . He was a very lovely , generous and warm uncle to my late father .
    I visited his parish in Bendigo while touring with Celtic Divas in 2012 . Fr John’s three siblings also emigrated to Australia and I am fortunate to be in contact with my many Kennedy cousins there !

    • Andrew McConville

      Dear Ellis,

      Thanks very much for your comment on our blog post regarding your grand uncle Father John J Kennedy.

      The play Fr Kennedy wrote has great historical significance as his experience of the war was the Battle of Fromelles. This was the first major engagement of Australian troops on the Western Front. It lasted only about 14 hours over the night of the 19 July 1916 and into the next morning. In that time the 5th Australian Division suffered 5,533 casualties, including over 2000 killed. It was during this battle that Fr Kennedy won his DSO, constantly returning to the front line under heavy fire to assist injured soldiers. You can see from this newspaper article highlighted in the blog ( ) the bravery of his actions, and how highly regarded he was by the men.

  2. This is a important exposition of the vile inter-religious bigotry which beset Bendigo and all of Australia following the Conscription Plebiscites. It is an adornment for our city now that this describes history and not current events or attitudes. Hughes was parachuted into the federal seat of Bendigo subsequent to his expulsion from the ALP and his seat of East Sydney. One of the local mandarins responsible for that flight was the McKay mentioned. See La Trobe University. Sir John Quick Lecture 2017.

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