When ‘Fenian’ meant ‘Terrorist’

A Book Review by Frank O’Shea


Steve Harris. THE PRINCE AND THE ASSASSIN. Australia’s First Royal Tour and Portent of World Terror. Melbourne Books, 2017. 326 pp.

ISBN: 9781925556131

RRP: $32.95

If someone from a Muslim country were to shoot an Australian politician today, that person would almost certainly be called a terrorist. And just as surely, there would be extensive checks into his background and his friends to determine whether he was acting alone or as part of a larger group. Equally, there would be no shortage of ambitious politicians who would use the opportunity to cast blame and suspicion on all Muslims.

All that would be a fairly exact copy of what happened 150 years ago in Sydney when Prince Alfred, the second son of Queen Victoria, was shot by Henry O’Farrell. The authorities assumed that this was part of a Fenian plot, and large rewards were promised to anyone who could provide evidence that such was the case. The leading advocate of that position was Henry Parkes, and although he could not find any Fenians, he managed to fix firmly in the public mind the idea that all Irish and all Catholics were disloyal or treacherous. It took the best part of a century for that opinion to disappear(?) from Australian discourse.

This book supports the most widely accepted view of the assassination attempt, namely that the would-be assassin was acting on his own and was probably clinically insane. It also suggests that the suppression of evidence by Parkes meant that the trial and subsequent hanging of O’Farrell was a miscarriage of justice.

But there is much more to the book than the account of the assassination attempt and its aftermath. The author devotes a number of chapters to each of the two main characters, with Alfred coming particularly badly out of the comparison. Much to the disgust of his mother, he was, like his older brother the future King Edward VII, a notorious womaniser. Referred to as ‘The Dirty Dook’ by the media of the day, they were not afraid to describe him as ‘a dirty drunkard, dirtier than a distempered dog. He bilked his paramours and procuresses and pals and diddled the poor washermen who undertook the unsavoury task of scouring his dirty linen.’


The Dirty Dook

O’Farrell, in contrast, seems to have been one of life’s losers. The Catholic bishops of the day could thank their stars that he decided to give up his idea of becoming a priest, although he did manage to be ordained a deacon. His brother, a disgraced solicitor, seems to have been cheated out of funds by Bishop Goold of Melbourne, a man he later shot at – and missed. In his final days, O’Farrell was tended by jail chaplain Fr Michael Dwyer, said by the author to have been the grandson of the former Wicklow Chief’.

The book emphasises the toadying subservience of the Australian population to Victoria and her family, each state attempting to outdo the other in their obsequious sycophancy. Reading some of the accounts today will raise a smile. Here, for example is the Ballarat Star describing, with tongue in journalistic cheek, a gathering where the colony ‘could not supply a higher average of feminine good looks’ and where the ‘general elegance of the toilets spread over all a republican equality of elegance and grace’, whatever that meant. But equally, after the attempt on Alfred’s life, the papers left no doubt about their loyalties in accounts that were equal parts fury, shame and protestations of love for the Queen.

This is a worthy account of an event often passed over in what is remembered of the story of early Australia. The author is a former newspaper editor, which may raise a grin when we find him using Empirical when he means Imperial and alternate when he means alternative. Is this what happens when we sack sub-editors?

Frank O’Shea is a member of the editorial team of Tinteán.