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Australia’s Irish Royalty: Jim & Sarah Scullin – Feb 2014

On Sunday February 16th 1864, Michael McNamara stepped ashore in Melbourne, Australia. The eighteen year old from County Clare was destined to become part of Australian royalty when his daughter Sarah became First Lady to Australian Prime Minister Jim Scullin, another child of Irish émigrés.

Michael McNamara was born in 1845 on a farm at Ballymacdonnell, near Bodyke. In the autumn of 1863, he said farewell to his brothers Patrick and Denis and sailed out of Queenstown (Cobh), County Cork, on board the Blanche Moore.

Ninety days later, he landed at Melbourne in the state of Victoria. He made his way to the gold-mining boomtown of Ballarat. The railway had arrived two years earlier and Ballarat was rapidly evolving into an industrial city, nicknamed the Athens of Australia. He found work at the Ballarat Woollen Mills, making blankets, flannels and tweed. He also made some extra money tap dancing at the Ballarat horse races.

In 1874, he married Sarah Simcocks, a 31-year-old Irish girl from Killarney, County Kerry, who emigrated to Australia with her family when she was twelve years old. The Simcocks also lived in Ballarat where her father George Eyre Simcocks was a Civil Engineer.

An early supporter of women’s suffrage, Sarah McNamara was one of 30,000 women who signed a petition in 1891 urging the Victorian State Government to concede that ‘Women should Vote on Equal terms with Men’.[i]

The McNamaras had eight children between 1874 and 1889. During this time, it is assumed that Michael received word from home regarding the infamous Bodyke evictions of 1887 in which eighty year old widow Margaret McNamara was one of two people evicted from Colonel John O’Callaghan’s estate. It is not yet known of or how Margaret McNamara was related to Michael.[ii]

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Above: Michael and Sarah McNamara with children.
(Photo courtsy of Tony McNamara)

Michael McNamara passed away in 1909, two years after Sarah’s marriage to James Scullin. His widow survived him until 1924.

Sarah Marie McNamara, their fourth child, was born in 1880, the same year that the bushranger Ned Kelly, another son of an Irish émigré, was hanged in Melbourne.

She was working as a dressmaker in Ballarat at the time of her marriage on 11th November 1907 to rising socialist politician James ‘Jim’ Scullin. His father John Scullin was a Catholic railwayman from Bellaghy, near Magherafelt, County Derry, who had emigrated to Australia in his twenties.[iii] After five years working on the gold mines, John had raised enough money to pay for his Armagh-based fiancée Ann Logan to sail over and join him. They settled in Trawalla, Victoria, where Jim, the fourth of their eight children, was born in 1876.

Sickly but quick witted, Jim ran a grocer’s shop in Ballarat during his twenties but found himself increasingly drawn to political debate. A passionate supporter of the evolving labour movement in the early 20th century, he became a lynchpin of the Australian Workers Union. In 1910, he was elected to Parliament for the Australian Labour Party but lost his seat in a general wipe-out of the party at the 1913 election. As editor of a Labour daily newspaper in Ballarat, he emerged as one of the leading opponents of conscription in Victoria during World War I; Sarah’s brother Thomas Francis McNamara served at the Somme.

The Scullin marriage was childless which enabled Sarah to play a pivotal role in Jim’s subsequent political career, particularly as his mentor and protector when the ill health that plagued him in his childhood returned to torment him. An active and well-informed member of the Labour party, she often filled in for him at social events when he was too sick to attend. She also made her presence felt at parliamentary sessions, a rarity amongst the wives of Australia’s political elite at that time.

Jim Scullin became the leading light of the Labour party in the late 1920s, leading them to a landslide victory at the election of 22nd October 1929, becoming the first Catholic to take office as Prime Minister of Australia. Unfortunately, his luck changed dramatically just two days later when the Wall Street Crash plunged the world – and Australia with it – into a decade long depression. The Scullin’s private life also took a powerful knock when, on 4th November 1929, Sarah’s brother George McNamara was accidently flung out the back of a lorry near Ceduna and killed.

In the autumn of 1930, James and Sarah Scullin set off for London, ostensibly to attend the Imperial Conference, but also to seek an emergency loan for the heavily indebted Australian economy. From London, the Scullins dashed over to Ireland for a whirlwind grand tour of their parents’ homeland.[iv]

They visited Bodyke and Bellaghy, the towns from which their fathers had emigrated seven decades earlier, as well as Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Killarney.[v]

At Bodyke, Sarah Scullin was greeted by ‘a host of cousins hitherto unknown to her except through the medium of letters or through her recollection of the remarks made by her father concerning them.’ Australia’s First Lady was ‘so overcome with emotion’ by the welcome she received that she was unable to speak. Her husband acknowledged the crowd on her behalf, before they shot off to see the house where Michael McNamara once lived and the chapel where he was christened. The Scullins, devout Catholics who neither drank nor smoked, spent the night in Ennis as guests of the Bishop of Killaloe.[vi]

When James Scullin visited his fathers home at Bellaghy, he was likewise met by thirty cousins and fifty others ‘who claimed a relationship’. Amid the general ‘rejoicing’, he also had a taste of the Irish penchant for fireworks when, according to the Mid-Ulster Mail, large numbers of ‘squibs were hurtling through the air, to the delight of the juveniles, who can express themselves better by such explosive materiel than by vocal methods’. A man described as ‘a namesake of the Premier’ was subsequently ‘in the dock on a charge of selling the squibs to the children’.[vii]

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Above: Jim and Sarah Scullin.
(Photo courtsy of Tony McNamara)

The Scullins were deeply proud of their Irish bond In Cork, Jim Scullin spoke of Sarah and optimistically told the crowd how, ‘by our marriage, we have linked up North and South and I hope that the linking of Ireland will be as happy as ours.’[viii]

Returning to Australia, Jim Scullin’s administration was utterly bogged down by the recession. His proposals to halt it were rejected as too radical an infinitely more conservative plan was implemented, with drastic results for the ALP. Sarah was present in parliament during the debate and vote that brought her husband’s government down in 1932. The ALP did not return to power until 1941 but when they did, Scullin was given a prominent advisory role and many of the ‘radical’ economic proposals he had initially proposed were now successfully adopted.

Jim Scullin was bedridden for the last eighteen months of his life. Sarah was his devoted nurse through until his death in January 1953. He was given a state funeral in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, with a Requiem Mass presided over by the County Cork born Archbishop of Melbourne Daniel Mannix.[ix] Sarah Scullin, the daughter of an Irishman who became Australia’s First Lady, passed away in 1962.


With thanks to Tony McNamara (great grandson of the original Michael McNamara), Pat McNamara (the Killaloe-based grandson of Michael’s brother Denis) and Peter Beirne (Clare County Library), Anthony Edwards (Clare County Library) and Roisin Ingle (The Irish Times).


See also:

John Robertson ‘J. H. Scullin: A Political Biography’ (University of Western Australian Press, 1974).

Pat McNamara’s article, ‘A red-letter day for Bodyke’ in the “Clare Association Yearbook” for 2003, at pages 36/7. The yearbook is published annually by the Clare Association in Dublin, and should be available in the NLI (ISSN 0791-1033-25).

“The Saturday Record” (published in Ennis) of 29 November and 6 December 1930


[i] Through the combined efforts of the Genealogical Society of Victoria, the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, Public Record Office Victoria and the Parliament of Victoria, the Women’s Suffrage Petition of 1891 has been digitally transcribed and developed into a database. Check it out at

[ii] Michael McNamara’s mother was Margaret Considine from Newmarket-on-Fergus but Pat McNamara does not believe she was the Margaret McNamara who was evicted from Bodyke.

[iii] John Scullin, son of Patrick Scullin, is said to have lived at 20, Tamlaghtduff Road, Bellaghy, and he emigrated circa 1862.

[iv] Sarah, a strong advocate of Australian manufactured goods, sported Australian clothes throughout the trip. She was also an artist, specializing in oil paintings, and relished her visit to the National Gallery of Ireland, as well as the Tate and National Gallery of London.

[v] The Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 26 November 1930, p. 15.

[vi] The Clare Champion described Sarah as ‘the heroine of a modern Sentimental Journey, [who] had travelled from the Antipodes to visit for the first time the home of her ancestors and to make the acquaintance of a host of cousins hitherto unknown to her except through the medium of letters or through her recollection of the remarks made by her father concerning them.’

[vii] They stayed in Bellaghy overnight with the parish priest . “Dream of a Life: Mr Scullin’s Tour, Cairns Post (Qld.), Saturday 29 November 1930, p. 8.
The squib man was discharged under the First Offenders Act. ‘The Scullins of Bellaghy’, Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld.), Wednesday 28 January 1931, p. 6.

[viii] The Irish Times, Tuesday, November 25, 1930, p. 7. ‘Linking of North & South – Mr Scullin’s Speech at Cork’.

[ix] Daniel Mannix was born the day after Michael McNamara landed in Australia.