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Ernie O’Sullivan

Written by: (Contributed) on


(From Vanguard 25 January 1984)

Today I lost a friend. There is nothing remarkable about that, it happens to all of us.

Ernie O’Sullivan was my friend and he was more than that. He was a true friend of the Australian working people. During his lifetime he gave his all to the struggles waged by the working man wherever he may be.

For that reason and because I believe that to relate some of his history may be of some assistance to the younger generation of Communists, I have decided to submit this article for consideration by Vanguard.

Ernie O’Sullivan was born in North Melbourne 85 years ago of an Irish mother and a Cockney Irish father. Because of the economic situation and because the owners of the means of production did not require the amount of skilled labour necessary today, the powers that be cared very little whether children of the working class attended school or not. In fact, if they were able to perform work at the age of five or six years, so much the better. This in itself relieved them of the burden of having to provide for the poor.

Ernie was one of those children unable to read or write and by the time he was eight years old he was already an accomplished entertainer, performing in the many city hotels of those days. He specialised in the art of “song and dance” which he learnt from an uncle who had been a champion Irish dancer in England. Ernie was later to improve his technique and added tap dancing, the soft shoe, with those big long shoes so popular during the days of vaudeville. He told gags, and somehow or other he included a ventriloquist doll into the act, although he himself was never a ventriloquist as far as I know. In later life, he was to become very proficient at his profession and toured with the Fuller Group of theatres, performed at the old Tivoli, the Bijou, the Temperance Hall, to mention a few. During the depression years, he performed at many suburban Melbourne theatres.

“Sometimes we’d get paid and sometimes the promoter would ‘take the knock’”.

“Yes”, and a humorous smile would crease his face, “I remember in the ‘twenties we used to have ‘tryout nights’ at the Bijou. Well, some of these ‘tried out’ were pretty crook and the patrons would pelt them with tomatoes, anything they could lay their hands on, blurt them and all that sort of thing. They called it ‘Getting the Bird’ – poor bastards. Some of them got more than ‘The Bird’; they copped the whole fowlyard.”

And then there was his experience as a paper boy. “When I was a brat, seven or eight, I suppose, when I wasn’t busking, I sold papers; I was at that for years. But there was one drawback as far as I was concerned, and not only me: a lot of the paper kids in those days couldn’t read or write. So we used to sing out the headlines the others sang out. Of course, we didn’t know what was in the paper. Some used to have a joke with us. They would sing out some stupid thing and like parrots we’d call out the same. But, anyhow, it didn’t matter that much, people bought the paper just the same”.

I often used to engage him in conversation of those early Melbourne days. He would talk of the hansom cabs. “There used to be dozens of them pulling up outside the theatres, hotels, picking up fares and dropping them. Some people made a living by following the horses too. No, not by backing them, although they did that also, but with a handcart and broom and shovel to pick up the droppings for manure and sell it. In those early days it was all horses and carts of some description.”

He talked of the time he had a hotdog stand outside the North Melbourne football ground. “My mother would help me get my stock together and I’d get to the ground and set up the stand, sell what I could and take the rest home; the next week I’d be back with some fresh dogs and the ones I didn’t sell the week before and heat ‘em up again. I suppose they’d be a bit high after a while but as far as I know, no-one ever died from my hot dogs.”

He went to work on the Melbourne waterfront as a youth with his father. “They were brutal days; the workers were treated like animals by some of the foremen who themselves were animals. They stood over the weaker men for money, made them cough up part of their wages otherwise they’d not be in a job in the future.”

He explained that the union in those days had very little power and was quite incapable of protecting the workers. “That is why it is so important to maintain a strong trade union movement in this country”, he would say. “We must never let the young ones become complacent. They must be constantly reminded of those days and that those in power today were the same people in those times.”

But he always maintained that the young people of today would never put up with what we did in those times because “they are too well-informed”.

During the ill-fated wharf labourers’ strike of 1928, the young O’Sullivan, along with his father and the other strikers, played their part in the struggle against the government of the day, their police force and the scabs imported to perform the work of the striking unionists.

“The coppers protected those scabs like they were thoroughbreds; they kept them in special homes and even built a fence around them so that they would not come into contact with the union men. But still, some of them did just the same, but I am sure they wished they hadn’t. The carried to their graves the title of ‘Scab’”.

Later, unable to find work in the long strike period, he found himself, along with other waterside workers, in the country, working in the shearing sheds, doing whatever they could to provide for their families.

In the early ‘thirties Ernie and his brothers became taxi drivers at a time when taxis would not move from their rank sometimes for days because no-one had the money for a cab fare.

“We lived in our cabs, we ate in them, slept in them, we washed our clothes at nearby taps in the street and hung them out to dry in them.”

I remember he told me once: “You see, it was really not all that hard to get a job on the taxis. It served two purposes”, he said with a smile. “The first, as far as we were concerned, was we had a job, that at the worst provided us with somewhere to live, as bad as it was, with the possibility that something would turn up and we always had someone to talk to. And we used to help one another as best we could. That in itself was good. The other thing was, the taxi companies did not have to worry about garaging their cars, they were at least being looked after and while they were not earning much from them, we kept them roadworthy. I suppose you could say it was it was the best of a bad deal for all concerned.”

It was at this time that he joined the Communist Party, along with his brothers. “We were pretty rough, as you can imagine; first of all, I couldn’t read or write. Tom or Don could, a bit, but they were not much better than I was. I am not sure how I came to join the Party, whether I found it or it found me, but anyhow, we found one another and it was the best thing that happened to me in my lifetime.” He thought a moment. “The Party taught me to read and write. I suppose I learned myself, but without the Party I probably would still be illiterate today.”

He explained how drivers would sit on the taxi rank for days without “turning a wheel”. The taxi companies, like other employers, were ever demanding better returns. Drivers, in attempting to keep up wit the demands, tried to work around the clock, fell asleep at the wheel, became ill and so on. Something had to be done and the Party was the only answer. He often spoke of the big taxi drivers’ strike during those days. The experience gained during the wharf labourers’ strike was a big help in the organising of the taxi drivers.

He talked of the necessity to print pamphlets and get their message to the other workers and the public. “So, it was very important to be able to read and write, and it didn’t take me all that long, although I never did become a very good speller”, he would laugh. “Anyhow, I could always understand my own writing. When I learnt to read, I was able to study Marxism. I have been studying it every day since, and still know very little about it.”

But Ernie O’Sullivan was truly a Marxist-Leninist. He lived his life in constant devotion to the working people and the world’s poor and underprivileged. He deprived himself of much and was supported by a devoted wife and daughter.

Ernie was one of the first Australian Communists to recognise the departure from Marxism by the Soviet “leader” Khrushchov when he assumed the leadership of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, turning it onto the road to imperialism.

All through his association with socialism and until his death he remained a supporter of the Chinese revolutionaries, their Communist Party and the great Chinese Marxist-Leninist Comrade Mao Zedong.

There are many stories that can be told about Ernie O’Sullivan, dock worker, entertainer, professional boxer, taxi driver, shearing shed hand, builders’ labourer, Party functionary, motor mechanic and carpenter of sorts, revolutionary man of the people, devoted member of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist).

While I am sure that he would never have agreed to what has been written here, I am equally sure that something should be recorded regarding the life of Ernie O’Sullivan, true Communist.



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