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Stabbings at the Sydney mall: When horror came to ‘County Bondi’

Worldview: Irish people in the Australian city are struggling to process violent events of the past week, which struck right at the heart of the community

Sydney in autumn is stunningly beautiful. With summer’s relentless humidity and persistent flies gone, it’s the time of year many Sydneysiders relish the most. Warm days, cool nights, azure skies that can take your breath away.

Last Saturday was one such day: a day so perfect you could convince yourself that nothing could go wrong. By late afternoon, however, the city had been plunged into grief and shock. Mercifully unfamiliar with acts of terrorism or with mass shootings, its approximately 5 million residents – including tens of thousands of Irish nationals – have struggled to process what has occurred over the past week.

On Saturday, a 40-year-old man with a long history of mental illness wreaked havoc in a major shopping centre. Over 20 horrific minutes, Joel Cauchi stabbed 18 people. Six of them were killed and 12, including a nine-month-old baby, received treatment. Six remain in hospital. The attacker was shot dead by a police officer.

On Monday, in a completely unrelated incident, a 16-year-old Sydney boy walked into a suburban place of worship and attacked a cleric with a knife. Once word got out about the stabbing, there were riots outside the church. Police and ambulance officers came under attack. Later, the boy’s action was deemed to be an “act of terror” by NSW Police.


Everyone in Sydney suddenly felt they were one degree of separation from terror. Westfield Bondi Junction, where the first incident took place, is the closest thing Sydney has to the Dundrum Town Centre. A shopping mecca for those from the well-heeled eastern suburbs became a crime scene.

Everyone shudders at the prospect of what the death toll might have been in Bondi had Cauchi been armed with a gun instead of a knife

It is also at the very heart of what has come to be known as County Bondi. For more than 20 years, wave after wave of Irish backpackers have come to call Bondi Junction and its environs home. The Tea Gardens Hotel, a well-known Irish watering hole, is adjacent to the mall. According to the 2021 census, 3 per cent of the population of Bondi Junction was born in Ireland, and many more live in the adjacent suburbs of Bondi Beach, Coogee and Randwick. Irish accents are conspicuous in the area due to the latest wave of backpackers.

Leanne Devine, from Kilkeel, Co Down, runs the Head Office hair salon, just a stone’s throw from Westfield. Days after the attack, she says the local community is still reeling. “It’s all anyone’s talking about,” she tells me. “You can feel the sadness in the air.”

The Irish Support Agency offers welfare services to vulnerable Irish emigrants. A spokeswoman said there had been an uptick in calls since the attack. On Thursday, the mall reopened, but no shops were trading. Westfield called it a day of “community reflection”. Many took the opportunity to pay their respects to the victims. But the grieving is only beginning. Funerals have yet, at time of writing, to take place. A memorial is planned. Those most familiar with the place wonder how they will reconcile themselves to what has happened. Local author Kerri Sackville, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, said Westfield was “a safe place” for mums such as herself. “Now it’s been shattered.”

Horrifying stories have emerged. New mum Ashlee Good had been shopping when she and her nine-month-old baby were attacked. Badly injured and bleeding profusely, she handed her gravely injured little girl to bystanders urging them to save her. The baby, after four days in intensive care, survived. Her mother did not.

There were heroes too. NSW Police Inspector Amy Scott, the first officer on the scene, confronted the knife-wielding attacker alone before shooting him dead with a bullet to the chest. French construction worker Damien Guerot, dubbed “bollard man” after being filmed trying to stop Cauchi’s murderous rampage, has been offered permanent residency in Australia.

Cauchi was not deemed a terrorist, but that will be of no comfort to those who have lost loved ones. The absence of terrorism means community fury has been contained

That Sydney has struggled to come to terms with the Bondi atrocity, and then the teenager’s attack on the cleric, is a reflection of the city’s relative, enviable, safeness. But the fact that it has not experienced a mass shooting is not a matter of luck, it’s a matter of policy. After the 1996 Port Arthur massacre – in which 35 people were killed by a lone gunman – then prime minister John Howard changed the gun laws to ban pump-action, automatic and semi-automatic firearms.

Everyone shudders at the prospect of what the death toll might have been in Bondi had Cauchi been armed with a gun instead of a knife.

Cauchi targeted women. Five of the six who died were female. As in Ireland, violence against women is a growing problem. More women have been killed by a current or past intimate partner so far in 2024 than the total number of Australians lost to acts of terror on Australian soil – ever.

Cauchi was not deemed a terrorist, but that will be of no comfort to those who have lost loved ones. The absence of terrorism means community fury has been contained. In its place is just overwhelming sadness. There is also a renewed focus on how mental illness is diagnosed and treated; on how homelessness can increase the risk of harm for those living with schizophrenia; on how confronting entrenched misogyny can reduce gendered violence.

A brave political decision decades ago all but ended gun violence in Australia. And Australians are now looking once again to their leaders for reassurance that their sunny serenity will be restored.

Billy Cantwell is deputy opinion editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. He was the founding editor of Australia’s Irish newspaper, The Irish Echo