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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Conolly, Philip (1786–1839)

by Linda Monks

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Philip Conolly (1786-1839), Roman Catholic chaplain, was born in County Monaghan, Ireland. Educated for the priesthood, he was ordained at Maynooth, and did pastoral duties for five years in the Dublin archdiocese. He answered the call for volunteer missionaries when the British government consented to have Roman Catholic chaplains stationed at Botany Bay and the Derwent. A Protestant magistrate described him as 'a truly loyal man, and a very useful member of Society'. The archbishop of Dublin said: 'We have known Rev. Philip Conolly to be a Catholic Clergyman of exemplary religious and moral habits'. These references satisfied Earl Bathurst, who told Lachlan Macquarie in October 1819 that Fathers Conolly and John Joseph Therry had his authority to officiate in Australia. The two chaplains arrived in Sydney in the Janus in May 1820, and after a year's duty there, Conolly reached Hobart Town on 14 April 1821. His first Mass was celebrated at a store owned by Edward Curr, later manager of the Van Diemen's Land Co., with nine free people present. Macquarie had insisted on restricting the time and place of Divine Service, assistance at marriages and the instruction of children in government institutions, but William Sorell and (Sir) George Arthur proved somewhat more tolerant.

A man 'of no small ability and attainments, witty and full of dry humour', Conolly laboured for fourteen years among 'a wicked and perverse generation', making regular quarterly visits on horseback to Launceston, George Town and other settlements. So efficient was his ministry that Arthur sought, albeit without success, a higher salary for him in 1826, claiming that no one could have performed the duties of his office 'with more satisfaction to the Government'. In 1824 Sorell had granted him five acres (2 ha) of land in Hobart, now occupied by St Mary's Cathedral. Here he built St Virgil's chapel, but it was a poor scarecrow of a church, with loose floor boards, unceiled and unplastered. Its state, and Conolly's criticism of the conduct of some of his flock, in 1834 aroused counter-allegations that he was indolent and neglected his parishioners. Other complaints arose from the title to the land occupied by the chapel, and the residence, Killard, attached to it. Though Sorell, when asked, stated that the land had been granted for church purposes, not as a personal location, a committee which Arthur had appointed in 1835, decided in Conolly's favour. But meanwhile aroused by criticism, and as Dean Kenny of Sydney put it, 'rather antiquated in his manner as a result of being so long by himself', he had given a vague, irrelevant and highly disrespectful reply to inquiries by Bishop John Bede Polding who had come down from Sydney at the end of 1835 to try to patch up the troubles, and had been suspended from his sacerdotal functions. He started an action against Polding for defamation, but in the end retired to Killard. Then the Caveat Board, after making further inquiries of Sorell and George Evans, concluded by majority that Conolly had not established his land claim; but its lack of unanimity enabled him to appeal to the Supreme Court. However, before the case was heard Conolly became ill; he died on 3 August 1839, and in due course his heirs relinquished their claims to the disputed lands. His last years had been spent in turmoil but his earlier energy had securely established his church in the colony. Sorell, Arthur, public officials and newspapers all paid tribute to Conolly's many excellent qualities.

Select Bibliography

  • H. N. Birt, Benedictine Pioneers in Australia, vol 1 (Lond, 1911)
  • J. H. Cullen, The Catholic Church in Tasmania (Launceston, 1949)
  • correspondence file under Philip Conolly (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Linda Monks, 'Conolly, Philip (1786–1839)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]


Monaghan, Ireland


3 August 1839
Tasmania, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence