Victorian Cross recipient could be Port Augusta-based

HOME: Private Martin O’Meara of the 16th Battalion has been awarded the Victoria Cross during World War I, but where did the Australian-Irishman call home? Photo: Australian War Memorial
HOME: Private Martin O’Meara of the 16th Battalion has been awarded the Victoria Cross during World War I, but where did the Australian-Irishman call home? Photo: Australian War Memorial

ON September 8, 1916 the official London Gazette announced that an Australian infantryman, Private Martin O’Meara of the 16th Battalion, had been awarded the Victoria Cross.

He received the award for most conspicuous bravery.

During four days of very heavy fighting he repeatedly went out and brought in wounded officers and men from ‘no man’s land’ under intense artillery and machine gun fire.

He also volunteered and carried up ammunition and bombs through a heavy barrage to a portion of the trenches, which was being shelled at this time.

He showed throughout an utter contempt of danger, and undoubtedly saved many lives.

Mr O’Meara, Australia’s only Irish-born Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War, earned his award for actions near the village of Pozières on France’s Western Front during early August, 1916.

Although claimed by the Western Australian coal mining town of Collie as one of ‘theirs’, because he enlisted there, other Australian places have a claim to association with him, including Port Augusta where he lived and worked during 1912 and 1913.

The lure of work attracted many immigrants to South Australia, including Mr O’Meara.

He was from County Tipperary, but had been living in County Kilkenny in 1911 shortly before leaving Ireland.

After arriving at Adelaide, probably in early 1912, he made his way north and found work at Wild Horse Plains.

He does not seem to have stayed there very long and it is likely that he made his way further north to Port Augusta during the second half of 1912. 

Railway construction work attracted many men and Port Augusta was a town where workers were going to be needed, as the Federal Parliament had passed legislation for a new railway line between Port Augusta and Kalgoorlie in December 1911.

The Adelaide Register had reported in February 1912 that, ‘about 1800 men will be required, 900 of whom will be engaged at the Western Australian starting point, and 900 at Port Augusta.’

Men began to arrive in Port Augusta during the course of 1912 and the first sod of the new railway line was turned at Port Augusta on September 14, 1912 by the Governor General, Lord Denman. 

Mr O’Meara had made it to Port Augusta by mid-December, 1912 when he nominated another Irishman, Michael O’Rourke from County Clare, as an assisted migrant under a South Australian Government immigration scheme.

O’Rourke was an agricultural labourer and was described by Mr O’Meara as his ‘comrade.’ 

Mr O’Meara offered two Port Augusta men as referees In his nomination paperwork who could report on his own character – Charles Myers, a railway ganger and secretary of the Port Augusta section of the South Australian United Labourers’ Union, and J.A. Magee, of whom nothing more is known.  

While at Port Augusta, Mr O’Meara attended services at All Saints’ Roman Catholic Cathedral, and he became acquainted there with Father John O’Rourke, the local priest.

A later newspaper account of Mr O’Meara’s time in Port Augusta notes he, ‘was a frequent visitor at the Presbytery.

‘He loved to denounce the disgraceful treatment of the working classes at home and to express his views on the Irish question in general.

‘As a Catholic he was practical and a credit to the land of his birth’. 

Martin O’Meara was still at Port Augusta area in March, 1913 when he wrote to the South Australian Government on behalf of a friend, Denis Brosnan, who wanted to nominate his sister as an immigrant.

No clues remain as to who Denis Brosnan actually was, although it seems likely that he was Irish.

Mr O’Meara also took the opportunity to query the status of Michael O’Rourke’s travel, indicating, ‘you can let me know as soon as possible as I might move to the west’.

It seems moving to Western Australia was being considered, perhaps with the aim of securing work on the Western Australian section of the transcontinental railway east of Kalgoorlie.

His time at Port Augusta ended in March or April, 1913, when he left Port Augusta and travelled to Brighton near Adelaide, to work on another railway project.

He subsequently moved to Reynella and then McLaren Vale during 1913 before sailing to Western Australia during early 1914 and finding work as a woodcutter near the town of Collie.

He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in August, 1915 and served in Egypt as a machine gunner in early 1916 before travelling with his unit to France in mid-1916.

Mr O’Meara was wounded in action three times, in August, 1916, in April, 1917 and in August, 1917.

While in hospital following his third wounding, he wrote an interesting letter to Father John O’Rourke, at Port Augusta:

I suppose you will be surprised to hear from me after years, but when you know one never forgets it’s all right. How are you getting on? Are you as thin as ever? Well, I wish I could have a talk with you now.

I could tell you some grand and glorious tales about the faith. On the other hand, as in the world over, there are plenty of Catholics who do not take advantage of it. Well, they cannot blame the priests who are with us. Every priest with the Australian forces is a man that any government should be proud of.

Go where you will you hear great accounts of them ... But would they be worthy some of St Patrick (who faced the Irish kings with only a staff) if they were not brave!

However, it was a good thing that the great saint did not make the same mistake that England made and faced Ireland with a sword. He would never have conquered it. Well, I am just about all right again, and expect to return to France any day now. I will say good-bye, hoping this will find you in the best of health and spirits.

The flavour of the letter leaves no doubt Mr O’Meara was a staunch Roman Catholic and an Irish nationalist.

Mr O’Meara returned to Western Australia in November, 1918 to assist with recruitment, but had serious mental breakdown shortly after the Armistice and spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals in Perth.

He died in December, 1935 aged 50 years.