He was a brilliant scholar. Rose from rags to riches. Youthful, charming, patriotic. The most eligible bachelor of the colony. Taken too soon, causing an unequalled display of public grief. He’s our own JFK and today stands in a park most people have never visited.
This month is the 117th anniversary of the death of Thomas Joseph Byrnes. He’s the youngest ever Premier of Queensland, only 37 when he assumed leadership in April 1898. The first native born Premier of Queensland. And the first to die in office. Byrnes passed away suddenly on 27 September 1898 having contracted measles then pneumonia. His short life was immediately engulfed in legend, honoured by Brisbane’s first public statue.
Byrnes is the only Queensland Premier to be remembered with not one, but two memorial statues. Both built by public subscription in 1902. One in Warwick, and this one today in a Fortitude Valley park sharked by speeding Brisbane traffic. Incongruously named Centenary Place, the green opened in 1925 the year after the centenary of European settlement in Queensland that it was supposed to commemorate. Without the cathedral that was planned to receive its vista, the park’s design is now irrelevant. Byrnes stands sort of at its heart. Proud of his colony’s imposing development evidenced by the tallest building in the state, the 81 storey Infinity Tower.
Byrnes probably doesn’t measure up to the enormous lore that enveloped him a century ago. But born of poor Irish immigrants, his youthful brilliance as a barrister and politician, his charm and patriotism, made him a sharply rising star. Bursting into a supernova upon his premature death.
James Dean, John F Kennedy. They died young and were made legend. Queensland has Thomas Byrnes who predates them both. His good looks flanked by the cityscape still exudes an irresistible charisma. It’ll be worth the dash across the traffic.