How an Irish antiques dealer upstaged locals to open Australia’s greatest bridge
An Irishman’s Diary: Frank De Groot was dragged off his horse and faced charges including malicious damage to the ribbon
Frank De Groot raises his sword to cut the ribbon
Decades before Irish racing trainers started winning the Melbourne Cup, as they may do again next week, another horseman from this island achieved a notable first in Australia, also upstaging the locals. That event happened in Sydney. And it was rather more controversial, landing the protagonist not in the winners’ circle, but the city’s Central Police Court.
It was St Patrick’s weekend – Saturday , March 19th – 1932 when Frank De Groot rode into history, before an audience of 300,000. Despite the surname, he was a Dubliner, descended from a Huguenot family that had lived in the city for centuries. His father was a well-known sculptor, his uncle one of Ireland’s leading antique dealers.
The young De Groot had been schooled in Blackrock College, and enjoyed sport, including rugby and rowing, although he was especially keen on horse-riding. In a profile published after his moment of fame, The Irish Times said, while he had been considered “a steady boy”, he also had “ambitions in life that led him to seek adventure”.
He moved to Australia in 1910, where he set up an antique and fine arts business of his own. Then in 1914, he returned to Dublin and the war, training for the officer corps in Trinity College, earning a commission with the 15th Hussars, and captaining a cavalry unit in France.
Surviving that, he came home to marry a Miss Bessie Byrne, from Portumna. Then he went back to Australia and his business, whose customers included the country’s governor-general, local representative of the British monarch, to whom he supplied a ceremonial chair.
Australia was still comfortably ensconced within the empire then. But in the 1920s, the establishment was being increasingly challenged by left-wing radicals including, in New South Wales, Jack Lang.
Born of an Irish mother and Scottish father, and sharing Michael Collins’s nickname, “The Big Fella”, Lang emerged from Sydney’s inner city slums to lead the local Labor Party, becoming state premier in 1925 and presiding through the Great Depression.
When Lang announced that he, not the English-born state governor, would open the Sydney Harbour Bridge in March 1932, the New Guard was unimpressed. As preserved by Pathé newsreel, the trappings of the ceremony were strikingly British.
From a rostrum draped with the union flag, the governor read a message from the monarch. God Save the King was played. But Lang’s speech outlined a Labor vision of the bridge. And his personal stamp on proceedings was to have included cutting the ceremonial ribbon.
De Groot’s horse was named “Mick”. And according to one account, it was Mick who performed the opening, his rearing hooves beating the sword to it. In any case, the ribbon had to be replaced for Lang’s official cutting, after which the watching thousands were invited to cross the bridge on foot.
De Groot, meanwhile, had been dragged off his horse by a policeman and arrested. Initial investigations seem to presume insanity, but doctors certified otherwise and he faced trial on charges including malicious damage to the ribbon.
In the event, he was convicted only of “offensive behaviour” and fined £5. He then successfully sued for wrongful procedure, on the grounds that a military officer could not be arrested by civil police, and won damages and the return of his sword.
By an equine coincidence, when his conviction was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald of April 7th, 1932, it was overshadowed on page 9 by the death of Phar Lap, Australia’s greatest race-horse. A smaller adjacent story concerned a crisis in Ireland caused by the new Fianna Fáil government’s hostility to the Oath of Allegiance.
De Groot in time moved back to Dublin and died there in 1969. Today, he features among the cast of once-colourful characters reposing in Glasnevin Cemetery, where his nearer neighbours include another notable horse handler, James “Skin the Goat” Fitzharris: cab-driver to the Invincibles and a character in Joyce’s Ulysses.