Consequences of a close call
The Prince and the Assassin recounts the attempted assassination of Queen Victoria’s favourite son, Prince Alfred, during the first royal tour of Australia in 1867-68. Author Steve Harris, a former newspaper editor, has delved deeply into royal, British and Australian archives to retell an event that had a dramatic and lasting impact on our country.
It is remarkable how much of this story was available in the official records, royal letters and personal diaries, interviews and statements by the protagonists and other witnesses. Harris masterfully applies his journalistic craft to weave their words into a compelling tale of contemporary interest.
The royal tour and the assassination attempt are set against the backdrop of colonial insecurities, royal decadence, the rise of the Fenian movement and the sectarianism that so marked the first two centuries of Australian settlement. In the Australian colonies, Harris writes: ‘‘The shooting ignited the first experience of the fear of international political terror, of being in the front-line of a new global criminal conspiracy.’’
Within this framework he explores the parallel lives of two young men, one a British royal leading a life of ease and privilege, the other an Irish Catholic immigrant, Henry O’Farrell, who came to Australia at a young age. His family enjoyed some business success and with his parents’ support Henry entered the priesthood but didn’t take final vows. Instead he went into business and when that failed turned to alcohol, suffered a series of mental breakdowns and embraced the Fenian cause and its revolutionary ambitions to overthrow English rule in Ireland.
Sectarianism was at flashpoint and shadowed Alfred’s tour from Adelaide to Melbourne, where he ‘‘so enjoyed himself … that a scheduled 12-day stay became six weeks’’. The social and sexual indiscretions of the young prince and his clique so offended local sensibilities that the initial public rapture quickly turned to displeasure and even ridicule. One particularly favoured courtesan, Sarah Saqui, gained lasting fame as the ‘‘official wife’’ of the duke of Edinburgh while ‘‘the duke’s bed’’ they supposedly shared became a famous landmark in a Melbourne brothel.
Then on to Hobart and Sydney (with a side visit to Brisbane), thereby flying the royal banner in five colonial capitals. Sectarian tensions were everywhere. A planned stopover in Perth had been abandoned ‘‘perhaps because of Naval nervousness about unrest from locals outraged that 62 Fenian prisoners’’ were about to be dispatched to Western Australia. In Melbourne, during an official ball ball, word cam came through of the fatal shooting of a 13-year old Irish lad in a clash between Catholics and Orangemen.
Even as Alfred made his way to a picnic at Clontarf on Sydney’s north shore on the afternoon of March 12, 1868, ‘‘rumours of possible sectarian strife were in the air’’. The lives of our protagonists were set to converge through one’s determination to kill the other.
As the prince walked towards Clontarf beach to watch a planned corroboree, the Irish zealot pushed through the crowd, raised a pistol and fired from close range.
Whether by ‘‘providence’’, as Alfred later described it, or rank good fortune, the bullet deflected away from Alfred’s vital organs, though he fell wounded and bleeding to the ground. The crowd sprang on O’Farrell, who was crushed under its weight, beaten and threatened with lynching.
While the prince made a speedy recovery once the bullet was removed, O’Farrell faced a bleaker future. He confessed his crime, still a capital offence in NSW (though not in Britain), and claimed to be part of a Fenian conspiracy. Spurred on by this confession the authorities overreacted with considerable zeal. Colonial secretary Henry Parkes pushed through the Treason Felony Act with a parcel of draconian, anti-Catholic laws that triggered what some have dubbed Australia’s ‘‘reign of terror’’.
Freedom of speech and other basic rights were suppressed; you could even be prosecuted for ‘‘refusing to join in any royal toast’’. Parkes also enlisted agents to crack the Fenian code of secrecy in what Harris calls ‘‘the genesis of counter-terrorism intelligence gathering’’. Even at the time “it was not clear whether O’Farrell was part of a broader Irish Fenian conspiracy or what the Russians referred to as a ‘lone wolf’ ”.
It is also questionable whether O’Farrell, with his long history of mental illness and the undoubted bias of the time, received a fair trial. Interestingly, the royals, both Queen Victoria and her son Alfred, showed greater compassion for the would-be assassin then the colonials and wished him to be spared the noose.
Harris aims to be more than simply a teller of history. He also wants us to learn from history and uses many quotes from the archives that are remarkably similar in tone and temper to the anti-foreigner, anti-Muslim language of today. In his postscript he notes that: “The demonisation of the Irish Catholic ‘them’ has progressively morphed into successive fears of ‘non-whites’, communists, Asians and now Muslims.”
It is just on 150 years since Prince Albert’s ‘‘royalty for loyalty’’ tour. Then, as now, paranoia levels were high.
Perhaps only time will tell whether we are more successful than our predecessors in setting the right balance between fear and security, religious expression and broader community values, social cohesion and counter-terrorism initiatives. If this history is any guide, we may well overstep the mark. writer. is a Brisbane-based journalist and
Contemporary sketch shows Henry O’Farrell’s capture after the assassination attempt