In his series on The Irish Who Helped Shape Australia, John Joe McGinley profiles John Joseph Cahill, Father of the Sydney Opera House


When you think of Australia, many people envisage the iconic Sydney Opera House located in Sydney Harbour. It is now viewed as one of the world’s most famous and distinctive buildings. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece of 20th-century architecture and the driving force behind it was a man with strong Irish roots, John Joseph Cahill.

John Joseph Cahill, was a long-serving New South Wales politician, railway worker, trade unionist, and Labor Party Premier of New South Wales from 1952 until his death in 1959.

Born on 21st January 1891 in Kadina, a small town in South Australia, Cahill had a humble upbringing. His father was a miner born in County Limerick and his mother a housewife was the daughter of immigrants from County Clare.

At 16, Cahill was apprenticed as a fitter at the Eveleigh Railway workshop. There he joined the Workers’ Educational Association and attended lectures that developed his public-speaking skills in debating societies.

He was quickly elected an officer of the Marrickville branch of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers Union. In this role, Cahill went as a delegate to union conferences. He was sacked from his job on 14th August, 1917, for his part in a railway strike and his personal file was annotated by the bosses as an ‘agitator’.

Despite this, in May 1922 he was re-employed by the railways. He married the love of his life Esmey Mary Kelly on 11th November, 1922. They would have five children together.

He was elected to the South Australian House of Assembly in 1924, representing the seat of Gumeracha. In the parliament, Cahill established himself as a staunch defender of workers’ rights and social justice.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own