How Australia targeted Irish after act of terror

The Prince and the Assassin’s story of a mad man’s attempt to kill Victoria’s son and the hysterical over-reaction still resonates today

The attempted assassination of Prince Alfred by Henry O’Farrell

The attempted assassination of Prince Alfred by Henry O’Farrell

 

President Michael D Higgins’s visit to Australia is a timely reminder of the deep historical links between Ireland and Australia. The Irish came with the first fleet to Australia in 1788 and have remained an enduring presence.

The relationship, though, between Irish Catholics and the dominant British Protestant stock has not always been harmonious. Catholicism was synonymous with disloyalty. Priests were not allowed into Australia until 1820. Many of the sectarian currents from home found expression at the other end of the Earth.

Tensions reached a zenith in the first World War when Irish Catholics and their combative prelate Archbishop Daniel Mannix were blamed for the loss of two conscription referenda.

The roots of this enmity are deep and indelibly linked to the troubled relationship between Britain and Ireland in the 19th and 20th century.

Steve Harris’s book The Prince and the Assassin has excavated from the past a little remembered incident that had huge implications at the time and still resonates to this day.

On March 12th 1868 a lone-wolf Irish gunman Henry O’Farrell attempted to assassinate Prince Alfred, Queen Victoria’s second eldest son and the “spare to the heir” in the Sydney suburb of Clontarf. Alfred survived as the bullet’s momentum was stopped by his braces. His survival was regarded as a miracle, a one in a thousand chance.

Harris, a former newspaper editor in Australia, has written a compelling book about the incident. Deliberately or inadvertently, the would-be assassin comes across as a more sympathetic character than Victoria’s boorish spoilt-rotten son.

O’Farrell, who was born in Dublin, grew up in Melbourne as the son of an upwardly mobile butcher. He was a bright child, well-educated and aware, even at a young age, of the tumult in the old country. He grew up too in an era when triumphant displays by the Orange Order in Melbourne could provoke riots.

He joined the priesthood and travelled back to Europe, but appears to have left in mysterious circumstance and his life spiralled out of control. His father’s ostensible wealth was built on debts. When he died, he left his sons with nothing.

O’Farrell was more mad than bad and his family noticed he suffered from delirium tremens and delusions. His trial was a foregone conclusion. It was conducted in such a febrile atmosphere that no doctor would testify as to his sanity.

Prince Alfred himself intervened to try and save O’Farrell’s life but political considerations were paramount and the authorities in New South Wales were determined that he should die.

O’Farrell mentioned that he had been part of a Fenian conspiracy to assassinate Prince Alfred. No evidence was advanced at his trial to that effect and Harris concludes he most likely acted on his own.

The response of the establishment in Australia to the shooting has its echoes in the present day. They held the entire Irish community suspect and guilty by association. As one Australian commentator wrote at the time: “The public …has rushed into extremes and with its usual persistent ignorance has condemned a whole nation … Because the man who shot at the Duke was an Irishman, because he was supposed to be a Fenian, and because some Irishmen are Fenians, forthwith the whole Irish nation is condemned as a nation of assassins.”

Draconian laws were passed to crack down on free speech, laws that even the British themselves thought were extreme. There was talk of restricting Irish emigration to Australia. The response to terrorism today is little different.

The assassination attempt happened just a year after the Fenian uprising of 1867 and the execution of the Manchester Martyrs. The terror of Fenianism in Australia gripped the authorities.

Harris also concludes that, while the shooting did not kill Prince Alfred, it killed any prospect of him becoming King of Australia as was mooted at the time. It also killed any prospect of Australia becoming a republic.

That debate goes on. Harris writes very well about the obsequious response in Australia to the shooting with politicians and the press falling over themselves to proclaim their loyalty to the mother country.

That obsequiousness, the colonial cringe, stubbornly prevails in elements of Australian society as witnessed by the risible attempt by the then Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, to offer Prince Philip a knighthood in 2013. The sooner Australia become a republic, the better for its standing in the world.

Harris’s book is a tale of two nations, Ireland and Australia, but, given the worldwide fear of terrorism, it has global resonance.
Steve Harris’ The Prince and the Assassin is published by Melbourne Books

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