The year is 1868 and the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred, is on a world tour with stops at Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. Prince Alfred was the first member of the English royal family to visit Australian shores, some eighty years after the Colony of NSW had been claimed for the Crown.
On 12 March 1868, Prince Alfred was the guest of honour at a Sailor’s Home Picnic at Clontarf. Also at this picnic was one deranged Irishman: Henry James O’Farrell. Born in Dublin, O’Farrell had immigrated to Victoria with his family when he was just six years old. He had studied for the priesthood, but was not ordained after a dispute with the clergy while studying overseas. He later tried his hand at sheep farming and as a grain merchant, but both ventures failed. Disappointed and depressed, he turned to the bottle for comfort and in early 1867, he suffered a serious mental breakdown. The following September, he moved to Sydney.
So back to the picnic. The guest of honour arrived at around 2pm, just in time for a late lunch. After he finished his meal, Prince Alfred left the vice-regal tent where he had been dining, and made his way to the waterfront. Here he was set upon by O’Farrell, who was brandishing a pistol. O’Farrell shot the prince in the back. One of the witnesses to the event claimed that she heard a ‘a sharp noise like a Chinese cracker’ and then saw the ‘Noble Prince’ fall, ‘first on his hands & knees & then over on his back’. The patriotic crowd quickly reacted, and O’Farrell narrowly escaped lynching by the angry mob.
The next day there was an Indignation Meeting held in Sydney, which attracted a crowd of up to 20,000 people, most of whom were ashamed that Australia’s reputation had been sullied in the eyes of the world by the attempted assassination.
O’Farrell initially claimed he was a Fenian – an Irish freedom fighter – but later retracted this and it was found that he had acted alone. Although he was an alcoholic and clearly mentally unstable, his act fuelled the tensions between the Irish (who were mostly Catholic) and those of English extraction (who tended to be Protestant) which had already been brewing. This sectarianism was also fuelled by the actions of the Colonial Secretary of the day, Henry Parkes, who carried out his own investigation of the incident due to his mistrust of his (mostly Irish) police force.
Henry James O’Farrell was hanged by the neck at Darlinghurst Gaol on 21 April 1868, after a hasty (and some say unfair) trial. The Duke of Edinburgh’s entreaties to spare O’Farrell’s life were ignored. The attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh would prove to have a lasting impact on NSW, with the passage of the Treason Felony Act 1868, and Government moves to stop funding for religious schools in the State in 1880. The bitter sectarianism between Protestant and Catholics continued through to the 1950s and 60s.
If you would like to check out the golden probe that was used to extract the bullet from Prince Alfred’s backside, it is on display at the Royal Prince Alfred Heritage Centre in the King George V Building on Missenden Road, which is open every Wednesday from 10am to 2pm. Entry is free but donations are gratefully accepted. Call 9515 9201 to make or an appointment, or just drop in.
On Sunday 24 May 2009, there is a session on Scandals, Crime and Corruption at the Sydney Writer’s Festival at 3pm at Studio 4, Pier 4/5, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay – more here on the SWF webite: http://www.swf.org.au