MULCAHY, Edward (1850–1927)
Senator for Tasmania, 1904–10, 1919–20 (Protectionist; Nationalist Party)

Edward Mulcahy, draper, was born in Limerick, Ireland, on 28 March 1850, one of a large family born to James Mulcahy, blacksmith, and Mary Anne, née McMahon. The Mulcahys arrived in Tasmania in June 1854, where James worked as a mechanic for the Hobart engineering firm of Davidson and Clark, while the young Edward became friends with Clark’s son, the future federationist, Andrew Inglis Clark. Mulcahy, who left school at fifteen, was educated at Roman Catholic schools in Hobart. After being apprenticed to the Advertiser as a compositor and to the shipwright, John Ross, he worked as a blacksmith with his father for two years. By the time Mulcahy was twenty-two, he had moved into the soft goods field and, by 1878, was a partner with Mathew Ready in the drapery store, Ready and Mulcahy. Continuing on his own, Mulcahy eventually had outlets in Hobart and Launceston, and at Queenstown and Zeehan on the west coast. He seems to have been particularly interested in Zeehan, where he established the Royal Exchange Hotel and the Grand Hotel; also the Gaiety Theatre. Like many other Tasmanian businessmen of the time, he was badly hurt by the collapse of the Van Diemen’s Land Bank in 1891.

Mulcahy first secured election to the House of Assembly in 1891 as a Ministerialist. He was re-elected in 1893 as an ‘Opposition’ member and again in 1897, 1899 and 1900 as a Ministerialist. By the turn of the century, he had become an important player in the emergence of a strong non-Labor party, being secretary of the Tasmanian Democratic League, and later involving himself with the protectionist group. He had been prominent in bringing down the liberal Government of Sir Edward Braddon in 1899 and, in the subsequent conservative Lewis government, Mulcahy became Minister of Lands and Works, Minister for Mines and Minister for Railways (1899–1903). He was an active minister, doing much for the development of Tasmania’s west coast, while in Hobart he pushed successfully for the building of the GPO and the Customs House (which earned the Mercury’s approval as being ‘worthy of the capital city’, and which still dignify the Hobart city centre). However, all this was not sufficient to shield Mulcahy from an ignominous electoral defeat in 1903, when he and the Premier lost their parliamentary seats, largely over the imposition of income tax.[1]

The blow was softened by Mulcahy’s election to the Senate in the same year. (He had been an unsuccessful candidate for the 1897 Australasian Federal Convention.) The Mercury commented that Mulcahy was ‘not one likely to allow himself to be the tool of any Ministry’. In 1910 and 1914, he failed to gain Senate re-election, but won the House of Assembly seat of Wilmot at a by-election in June 1910, remaining in the seat as a Liberal until 1919. He served as Minister of Lands and Works and Minister for Mines in the Solomon Liberal Government (1912–14). He resigned from the Assembly after being chosen on 15 January 1919 at a joint sitting of the Tasmanian Parliament to fill the Senate casual vacancy caused by the resignation of Senator J. J. Long. During the joint sitting, Mulcahy spoke forcibly against circulars he claimed had been distributed to members on both sides of the Tasmanian Parliament objecting to his being a Roman Catholic. This was not the first time that he had strongly denied accusations of religious bias in the performance of his public duties. Mulcahy served until 30 June 1920, when his period of service expired. Two years later, he was unsuccessful in contesting the state and federal seats of Denison as a Nationalist.

Mulcahy was a conscientious participant in Senate business, speaking upon a range of subjects including support for the old-age pension and White Australia. Like many of his colleagues, he defended what he called ‘the dignity and importance’ of the upper House against high-handed government treatment. He particularly abhorred the propensity of governments to duck their responsibilities, claiming that the principles of responsible government were often avoided: ‘Time after time, we have deputed the functions of responsible Ministers to Select Committees and Royal Commissions’. (He resigned from the royal commission on postal services after only six months service.)

As a businessman, he believed that his background gave him particular insights into such matters as manufacturing, trade, bounties and customs duties, all of which he was fully prepared to discuss. He was linked with the Protectionists although he claimed to be independent. He was a firm Empire loyalist, opposed Asian immigration, and did not consider ‘that a Labour Party … is necessary in the Australian Parliament’. However, in 1919, he admitted that although he was an ‘anti-Labour man’, he would have liked to see ‘a larger number of honorable senators upon the opposite side of the Chamber’. He supported improved working conditions, but wanted things ‘done on common-sense lines, and in a manner fair to everybody else’.[2]

Mulcahy believed that an important role of senators was to protect the rights of their own states. He worried over Commonwealth attempts ‘to accomplish by a side wind’ legislative outcomes in areas that did not fall under Commonwealth power. He firmly believed that the state parliaments had a continuing relevance to Australians: ‘… the responsibilities with which they are charged are really of more importance to the progress and prosperity of the individual States than any legislation we can enact in this Parliament’. Like other Tasmanians in the Federal Parliament, he focused on the effects of Federation on the island state (which he described as ‘the Cinderella of the Union’) believing that the loss of customs revenue had been of greater disadvantage to Tasmania’s financial position than had been predicted. He described the state’s finances as being ‘in a condition of slow strangulation’.[3]

In Mulcahy’s opinion, all legislation needed to be considered in the light of its possible effect upon Tasmania’s economy. His opposition to increases in parliamentary allowances, and his determination to fight Western Australia’s demand that the Commonwealth pay for the survey for the transcontinental railway were based on such considerations. He complained that ‘Western Australia, which yields nearly £9 000 000 worth of gold annually, is asking little Tasmania to bear the expense of this project’. He called for some guaranteed access to topping up funds for his state, particularly with the failure of the ‘Braddon Blot’ (section 87 of the Constitution) to work as Tasmanians had hoped. He wanted ‘Tasmania to participate in some of New South Wales’ superfluous wealth’.[4]

Most of Mulcahy’s non-political activity was concerned with business matters, but he found time to serve on the Metropolitan Drainage Board in Hobart. He was a fervent conscriptionist, a member of the National Referendum Council and a member of the executive of the Reinforcements Referendum Council. Mulcahy was a staunch supporter of all matters concerning his Church, and for many years sang in the choir of St Joseph’s, Hobart. He was thrice married: on 26 February 1878 to Mary Ann Bromwich, a dressmaker; on 20 June 1893 to Mary Ann’s sister, Sarah Jane; and on 3 July 1913 to the 29-year-old Rosie Bernard Winter. Mulcahy was ailing by the time he left the Senate in 1920. He retired to Hobart, where he died on 23 October 1927. Rosie survived him as did six daughters and three sons of his three marriages.

‘Teddy’ Mulcahy seems to have been a moderate man, who was a firm believer in the importance of personal freedom. He believed trade unions and the Labor Party placed undemocratic restraints on their members. His support for Irish Home Rule was based on ‘the God-given right that every nation possesses to govern itself’. He opposed attempts to ban alcohol in military canteens: ‘Personally, I should not allow any man, any body of men, or any legislation to rob me of anything which I conceived to be an individual liberty, so long as it did not interfere with the individual liberty of others. I should not hesitate to violate a law that would attempt to rob me of such a right or liberty’.

Described as ‘a ready, fluent, and forcible speaker’, Mulcahy appears to have put service to his state ahead of personal gain. As the Mercury commented: ‘Had he but given half the attention to his own affairs that he gave to those of his State he might have died a rich man’.[5]


Scott Bennett

[1] CPD, 30 July 1919, p. 11046; The Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol. 1, 1899, Maitland and Krone, Hobart, pp. 94–95; Mercury (Hobart), 24 October 1927, p. 6; Clipper (Hobart), 19 December 1908, p. 2; Lloyd Robson, A History of Tasmania: Volume II, Colony and State from 1856 to the 1980s, OUP, Melbourne, 1991, pp. 221, 302; Mercury (Hobart), 9 January 1897, p. 5, 12 December 1893, p. 3, 15 December 1893, p. 3; D. J. Murphy (ed.), Labor in Politics: The State Labor Parties in Australia 1880–1920, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1975, pp. 394, 398, 436; Mercury (Hobart), 2 June 1898, p. 4, 3 June 1898, p. 4, 27 July 1899, p. 3, 2 April 1903, p. 6; CPD, 21 August 1907, p. 2091; R. Mitchell, The Career of Edward Mulcahy in the Tasmanian House of Assembly, BA (Hons) thesis, University of Tasmania, 1971.

[2] Mercury (Hobart), 18 December 1903, p. 4, 16 January 1919, p. 5, 17 January 1919, p. 4; CPD, 3 March 1904, pp. 39–46, 31 August 1905, p. 1726, 17 August 1905, p. 1069, 11 July 1907, p. 403, 30 July 1919, pp. 11043, 11046.

[3] CPD, 8 December 1905, p. 6542, 25 October 1907, p. 5202, 11 July 1907, p. 401, 9 July 1919, p. 10497, 14 June 1906, p. 177, 2 August 1905, pp. 436–437.

[4] CPD, 11 July 1907, p. 397, 21 August 1907, p. 2091, 23 August 1905, p. 1297, 14 June 1906, p. 179.

[5] The Cyclopedia of Tasmania, pp. 94–95; Ernest Scott, Australia During the War, A & R, Sydney, 1943, pp. 349, 354, 369–371, 417; Robson, A History of Tasmania, pp. 325, 331; CPD, 11 July 1907, p. 403, 19 October 1905, p. 3759, 26 July 1906, p. 1848; Mercury (Hobart), 24 October 1927, p. 6, 7 January 1897, p. 1.


This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 242-245.

MULCAHY, Edward (1850-1927)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Tas., 1904–10, 1919–20

Tasmanian Parliament

Member of the House of Assembly, West Hobart, 1891–97; Hobart, 1897–1903; Wilmot, 1910–19

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1907–10