The Irishman who Shot the Duke of Edinburgh

Book Review by Frank O’Shea

A MAN OF HONOUR. By Simon Smith. Echo Publishing. 335 pp.

The story is reasonably well known and can be told quickly. In March 1868, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of Queen Victoria, surrounded by admiring Sydneysiders, was shot by an Irishman named Henry James O’Farrell, who was immediately attacked by the crowd and had to be rescued by the police. He would shortly after face the courts where he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Alfred survived and went on to lead a full life.

That is the basis for this book, described as a novel, but so detailed in its description of those events and its treatment of mid nineteenth century Sydney and Melbourne that it could profitably be imagined as a work of history. The author, Simon Smith, is a filmmaker who has recorded stories from around the world, and that background is seen in the writing as he fills in little details and concentrates on the lives, likes and troubles of the main characters.

The other thing which adds authenticity to what Smith writes and persuades the reader that this is what things were really like is that his mother, a great granddaughter of Henry O’Farrell’s sister, gave him a file containing a number of documents from the time, kept by the O’Farrell family and including letters between members of the family at that time. Added to these was a transcription of a long conversation between O’Farrell and Henry Parkes, gathering dust for more than a century in NSW state archives. Similarly, he quotes directly from words used by the judge and counsel at O’Farrell’s trial and even uses a letter written by Alfred to his mother Queen Victoria, reproduced he tells us ‘by kind permission of Queen Elizabeth II, Alfred’s great-great-niece.’  

The book is structured around four main characters: the would-be assassin O’Farrell, his sister Caroline from Ballarat and Melbourne, Henry Parkes, at that time the colonial secretary, determined to find a wider Irish conspiracy in the assassination attempt, and of course HRH Prince Alfred. Each of these has a number of chapters, some written in their first-person voice, some as ordinary narrative.

Minor characters include John Alipius Goold, first Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne who took the twelve-year-old O’Farrell under his wing. There is also Fr Michael Dwyer, Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney who would be with O’Farrell in his final days. There is a generation of Irish school children for whom the name Michael Dwyer was the ultimate Irish hero, because he had occasional victories in his dealings with the English. He would be sent to New South Wales where he was mistreated by Governor Bligh before settling in Western Sydney; today his descendants are found all over Australia, in particular in the Bungendore region near Canberra. The priest of the same name who ministered to Henry O’Farrell was the grandson of that Irish hero.

The title of the book may be off-putting. It is almost as if the writer is setting out to show that Henry O’Farrell is a misunderstood hero, a man who needs to be better known and appreciated. And while there is an element of that in the narrative, no attempt is made to hide the central fact that he took out a gun and shot a man in the back, the bullet being deflected and missing vital organs by centimetres. Alfred was in serious pain for some time, his recovery helped by the ministrations of some of Florence Nightingale’s sisters, recently brought to the colony by Parkes.

It would be easy to imagine that if the trial of O’Farrell were to be held today, he might be found not guilty by reason of insanity. The case put by his sister as a witness and his counsel Butler Aspinall – he had made his name as defender of those charged with the Eureka troubles – was a strong one. The problem of course was persuading a jury of 12 successful Sydney men, delighted at the first visit to their colony by a member of the royal family, that an Irishman should not be hanged.

Once you get used to the sometimes unusual chapter introductions, you come to delight in Smith’s style. If there is such a comparison, the writing here seems the kind of thing you might find in a detailed film script. At one stage, for example, when the teenage O’Farrell is accompanying Archbishop Goold on a visit to Ireland and Rome, the churchman barely notices the stress of the Irish peasants. It is 1851, four years after Black ’47, the worst year of the Great Famine. But O’Farrell is deeply touched: ‘Despite the sadness that has been visited on them, these people are still welcoming, can still smile. But it is a strange, beautiful smile of grief. This place is awash with grief. You cannot escape it. It soaks into your clothes, your skin. Soaks into your soul.’

This is a wonderful book, part fiction, part history. Read and admire.

Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.