By the 1890's, Queensland was a place of ever-burgeoning optimism. Great, if at times undefined hopes for the colony's future filled this era with a peculiar vitality that was both the product of earlier decades and the progeninr of Queensland's ethos in later years. Just recognition, it seems, has been given to the outstanding government leaders of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: S.W. Griffith, T. Mcilwraith, W. Kidston and T.J. Ryan have all received biographical treatment, as have Premiers of lesser significance like R. Philp and A. Morgan. These men were, of course, public figures in their day, each attracting a particular quota of admiration, envy, sympathy and dislike from the people of the colony. Consequently, when the historian seeks to investigate the lives and careers of such individuals, much of the information he draws upon is embedded in this matrix of contemporary thought.
With the above in mind, one discovers an extraordinary omission in the current array of biographies on Queensland government leaders. Thomas Joseph Byrnes (1860-1898) was Premier for a mere five months, from April 1898 to the time of his death ln September of that year. Yet, despite this brief tenure of office, he inspired a large body of eulogistic literature that was produced both during his career and, intermittently, for a number of years after his premature demise. Byrnes was the first native born Premier of Queensland and, indeed, was the youngest man thus far appointed, being but thirty-seven when he assumed leadership. This neglected Liberal politician is the only Queensland Premier to be honoured with two memorial statues, and - in the distinguished company of Sir Charles Lilley and T.J. Ryan - had a medal for scholarship posthumously endowed in his name.
Byrnes was the child of poor, Irish-Catholic immigrants. A brilliant, diligent student, he won a succession of state and private awards which took him from the Bowen State Primary school to Brisbane Grammar, and thence to the University of Melbourne where he obtained an Arts-Law degree. After his return to Queensland, he became Minister for Justice in the newly formed Coalition Government of 1890: from then on, until his unexpected death in 1898, Thomas Byrnes' star seemed in the ascendant.
The man's native birth and family back ground, his diligence and academic success, his political promise and premature death together form the constant theme of the panegyrical writings which Byrnes inspired. This literature, ramified by public honours like the commenorative statues and medal, comprises what Ronald Lawson has termed the "Byrnes Legend"; the motif of the Legend is success, the admirable success and self betterment supposedly attainable by anyone who is willing to work both honestly and hard. ...................................