Denizen of a disturbed time

I have reservations about both barrels of this book’s title. Such fascism as existed briefly in Ireland in the early 1930s was driven by suspicion of de Valera’s conversion from gunman to Taoiseach rather than by corporatist social theory or admiration for a strong leader; it was quickly assimilated into a mainstream political party, Fine Gael, the main opposition party in the current Dail and firmly in the political centre. Likewise, describing De Groot as an Australian legend, in the same league as, say, Les Darcy, Don Bradman or Weary Dunlop, is to exaggerate public knowledge about the man.

The name De Groot may not be conspicuously Irish, but Frank De Groot was as Irish as 300 years of domicile in the country would entitle his family to claim. He was a descendant of Dutch Huguenots who had settled in Dublin in the 17th century to escape persecution by Catholics on the Continent. In time they became so well regarded that every male member of the family was entitled to apply for the hereditary right of Freeman of the City. Moreover, his mother was a Butler, than which there are few surnames more closely associated with Irish aristocracy.

He was in his early twenties when he first came to Australia, settling in Sydney. His initial break came as a result of the shrewd munificence of publisher and bookseller George Robertson, who provided him with the funds to import antique furniture from Ireland. In a short time, he was a dashing, flamboyant figure in the local antiques trade. He returned to Dublin to marry his sweetheart, arriving in time to enlist in the Hussars and serve with distinction in the Great War, retiring with the rank of captain.

Back in Sydney, he continued where he had left off as an antiques dealer, branching into the manufacture of quality reproduction furniture that was said to be indistinguishable from the original Chippendale or Queen Anne. In time, visiting royalty would dine at his tables, literally if not metaphorically. He was also heavily in demand for shopfitting, and was responsible for the original David Jones stores in Sydney. Among the well-heeled and well-bred of 1920s Sydney, Frank De Groot was quite the arbiter of taste.

All of this points up the folly of describing the well-known and highly respected businessman who cut the ribbon to open the Sydney Harbour Bridge as ‘a nobody’ or ‘an eccentric’. In fact, his action was applauded by many as a deserved insult to New South Wales Premier Jack Lang. The impression of an oddball was reinforced when, after his daring intervention, he was briefly incarcerated in what was known as ‘the giggle house’, a section of Darlinghurst Gaol reserved for the overflow from local asylums.

Interestingly in these nervous days, one of the charges that he briefly faced was for ‘seditious conspiracy’. In due course he was given a feather-duster fine of £5, but more significantly the court ruled that the ‘plucky cavalry officer’ and not the premier of the state had opened the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

It may be that some knowledge of the story of Frank De Groot still exists if only as a trick question on quiz nights. What is less well known is the political background of a time in which there were real fears of a right-wing coup either by the New Guard of which De Groot was a prominent leader or by some splinter group from that organisation. Nor was he the only prominent citizen in sympathy with the thinking of the New Guard; people like Banjo Paterson and Charles Kingsford Smith were at least tolerant of their ideology.

‘Bloodshed was not unlikely and a civil war loomed,’ according to historian Andrew Moore in this comprehensive account of those disturbed times. He goes to some length to counter the view that De Groot’s action was a kind of circuit-breaker, a release valve for the tensions simmering in an economically depressed society. De Groot, he concludes, should not be hailed as an accidental saviour of democracy. Perhaps it says something about the Australian character that today we remember 1932 more for the bodyline cricket series later that year than for the peaceful defeat of a local brand of fascism.

The author brings his story up to today by noting that John Howard was seated on a De Groot chair at the Sydney celebrations for the centenary of Federation in 2001. Unfortunately, he spoils that story by telling us that when the PM was apprised of the provenance of the chair, he was ‘disinterested’. Ouch! There are other howlers—a sword ‘sheaf’, an antique ‘fare’—and he has the annoying habit of explaining an initialism the first time it is met and leaving readers to their own devices thereafter. And there were lots of these three-letter groupings, most of them now thankfully obsolete: UAP, AIF, UMM, CPA, CIB, WDC, BEF, IWW.

These quibbles aside, this is one case in which the man and his action are less interesting than the groups of whom he was a member and who were enthusiastic admirers of Mussolini, Franco and their ilk.

Francis De Groot: Irish Fascist, Australian Legend
Andrew Moore. The Federation Press, 2005. isbn 1 862 87573 1, rrp $39.95

Frank O’Shea is a Canberra writer and educator.

 

 

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