The Attempted assassination of Prince Alfred at Clontarf 1868
‘The extraordinary frenzy of both Imperial Loyalty … and mad sectarianism deeply divided and distracted N.S.W. people long after.’ (Noel McLachlan). The effects of the Prince Alfred shooting at Clontarf.
The circumstances of the attempted assassination on Prince Alfred in 1868 placed Australians in national shame,but also the events that followed included a display of prejudice and racism towards Catholics and Irish.
During the first ever visit to Australia by a member of the British Royal family in 1868, Prince Alfred was the victim of an assassination attempt. He had been ‘commissioned for a world tour under his command (the) HMS Galatea’.
Australia formed part of the world tour and included stops in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney in the many ports of call. Prince Alfred who had ‘grown in favour with all classes of people daily’ during his visit to Sydney was shot by Irishman Henry James O’Farrell. The general community and especially the religious fanatics attacked all Irish Catholics as enemies of the crown.
Word of the attempted assassination that occurred at Clontarf on 12 March 1868 quickly spread around Sydney even reaching the Parliament (Legislative Council) which doubted ‘the correctness of the information’ until confirmation was received from the detective office.
One colonial writer – Elizabeth Rickets Hall – at the time also regarded the shooting as a wicked rumour but after the shooting was confirmed her intense feelings found ‘relief in tears … it seems too deep and grave even for words’. She wrote that ‘it would be impossible to describe how all felt and looked and the scene at Clontarf was terrible beyond everything – Women and men fainted and sobbed and the criminal was nearly torn to pieces on the spot and with difficulty saved from Lynch law.
Elizabeth Rickets Hall described O’Farrell as a ‘miscreant’ and at one stage was said to be involved with the Fenians (fighter for Irish independence), on the assumption of his Irish heritage. However it is ‘most unlikely that he was’ some say he was insane ‘as his defence maintained’. He was convicted and hanged on 21 April 1868. James O’Farrell ‘obsession with Fenianism and the wrongs of Ireland’ is said to have caused his erratic behavior.
After the assassination attempt there were many a public meetings held around the country, ‘the indignation meeting that above all seems to characterize the universal sense of outraged feelings’. Australian’s immediately reacted to the shooting with nearly 20,000 people attended an indignation meeting in Sydney only one day after the shooting about ‘yesterday’s outrage’.
By the following week there were ‘daily indignation meetings everywhere’. Most Australians felt that the scandal had shamed their integrity especially with the eyes of the world on them because of the Royal tour: One universal feeling of sorrow, shame, and rage pervades the community. The whole colony has been wounded in the person of its Royal guest. A crime, which every one will repudiate with horror, has shadowed our reputation.
At one such meet a speaker retracted ‘his assertion …that there could be no Fenians in the country’, was this a public display of his loyalty to the Empire? Why did the speaker retract his opinion of Fenians? Before the shooting at Clontarf, Australians were aware of Fenian terrorism in England from reports in newspapers.
The actions of O’Farrell was ‘highlighted by rumours about an upsurge of sectarianism’. After the shooting there was a anti- Irish Catholic and non-loyalist movement which lasted for many years. There was even a meeting of loyal Irish a few days after the attempted assignation, however not many attended and no disturbance occurred as suspected.
After the shooting Irish Protestant of ‘the Orange movement came into its own’, with ‘its anti-Catholicism making it attractive to new members’. By the end of 1868 the Orange movement in Australia had become: Ultra-British, Ultra- Protestant, (with) ready-made positions at hand to feed the needs of that insure phase in the evolution of Australian identity. Orange Lodge members were still weary of the anti-Irish movement and attitude caused by the shooting especially in rural communities for many presumed all Irish were Catholics. Because they were mostly Irish, they were still part of the prejudice and racism towards the Irish after the shooting.
Henry Parkes (1815 – 1896) who at the time of the attempted assassination of Prince Albert by O’Farrell was the Colonial Secretary and the ‘principal ministerial contact with the head of the Princes’s entourage’. Some have said that Parkes turn the attempted assassination to his own political advantage, even to the extend that Parkes ‘even claimed that he had foreknowledge of the conspiracy’ (the attempt of assassination).
Immediately after the shooting Henry Parkes initiated his own investigation, as he may had little conviction in his own police force who were mostly Irish. After interviewing O’Farrell on the evening of the shooting, he then went about to search his hotel room. Upon searching O’Farrell’s personal effects he found a notebook of which set Parkes on the course that possible created the Fenian scare and the Irish distrust and hatred amongst fellow Australians. Parkes believed that a Fenian group and O’Farrell were all part of the conspiracy to kill Prince Alfred.
Parkes use the shooting to gain public support for his personal prejudice against Irish and Catholics. His opinion of the Irish was that they were just ‘jabbering baboons and disruptive trouble makers’. So with an Irishman shooting Prince Alfred it gave a perfect opportunity to promote his dislike of the Irish. Did Parkes attitude add to the hysteria that occurred after the shooting? The Parliament was quick in the passing of the Treason Felony Act which the shooting and ‘investigation of O’Farrell …helped to decide Parliament on very stringent measures’.
After the confession of O’Farrell was released in which he claimed the shooting was that of his own doing with no Fenian involvement, Parkes was then blamed for causing the Fenian scare after the shooting especially since he had never really found no evidence.
This however still did not change Parkes’s attitude and ‘suspicion of Catholicism’, showing his personal racism attitude towards both Catholics and Irish whom the majority were Catholics. Parkes who was a Protestant used his political power to finally introduced the Public Instruction Act which abolished state aid for Catholic school and others and ‘as a result New South Wales has been plagued by a two school system ever since’.
The Sydney Morning Herald along with the Empire published many stories and editorials about the shooting and many of the indignation meetings afterwards. The Herald also published telegraph messages from rural New South Wales and others about the feeling of horror amongst the many Australian communities.
Did the Herald influence people’s reaction to the shooting with such editorial story lines as ‘A crime, which every one will repudiate with horror’ and ‘We have no reader who does not feel its enormity to the fullest extend’? These and others were published only one day after the shooting. But the Herald also advised their readers to: Let the law be respected, even in the white heat of some of the strongest passions that can stir our nature in control…At present there is no authentic information as to the motives which led to the deed (shooting)…Let us not, under cover of zeal for righteousness, commit the wrong of casting undeserved suspicions…we must strive to preserve a moderation and a calmness that will keeps us from excess.
As O’Farrell was from Melbourne, the writings of the Herald quickly shifted blame for the shooting to Victoria setting the tone that ‘the crime was not of home grown but a foreign importation’. Did this make the inclination, that there was or even start some animosity between the states of Australia? The Herald was widely read in the Colony with copies being even sent to family members and friends in rural New South Wales ‘containing of course full particulars of the attempted assassination of Prince Alfred’.
One of the Catholic periodical at the time was called the Freeman’s Journal which the Herald wrote on its dislike of the publication and its contents. Even the Melbourne Age objected to the display of Irish disloyalty to the Crown and Empire which appeared in another Catholic publication the Advocate. The reason for this was that both the Freemans Journal and Advocate had published sympathy and support for the Fenian movement.
So still the Herald reported the views and opinions to their readers and may have dictated their feelings towards fellow Australians. Especially with comments such as ‘if Irishmen could not leave their hereditary feuds behind them, they would not make good Australians’. Did the Herald reader take this as all Irishmen were bad Australians?
There was a public subscription fund which was collected afterwards ‘to raise a permanent and substantial monument in testimony of the heartfelt gratitude of the community at the recovery of HRH’, which resulted in the building of the Royal Prince Alfred hospital. ‘The Prince allowed his coat of arms to be used as the new hospital crest’, with Royal status being granted in 1902. Prince Alfred on departing Sydney was with high emotions of his ‘conviction of the loyalty of the colonists at large’, noting that Australia was consider a Colony of England and not a country in our own right under the umbrella of the Empire. Even after the Prince’s departure from our shores, we still had to declare and display our loyalty to the Empire and Prince Alfred as many Churches continued to hold Thanksgiving services for Prince Alfred’s recovery even though the Prince had recovered satisfactorily.
O’Farrell’s actions had a intense effect on the Irish element in the Colony as the blame for the attempted assassination fell squarely on the Irish Catholics which spiralled aggression towards both Irish and non-loyalist, an early example of prejudice and racism in Australia. The shooting of Prince Alfred made national headlines and gave a general feeling of indignation and hurt of national pride. If O’Farrell had shot a lesser unknown person there would not have been such an national outcry which set a tone of distrust amongst many communities and provoked Protestant against Catholics and Australians against Australians.
References & Bibliography:
Primary Records: Diaries.
Hall, Elizabeth Ricketts , Miss Elizabeth R Hall’s Diary: Vol. 4, A.C. Skarratt, Milton NSW, 1992, (1868).
Sydney Morning Herald.
Secondary Sources: Publications.
Martin, Allan William. Henry Parkes: A Biography, Melbourne University Press, Carlton Victoria, 1980.
McKinlay, Brain. The First Royal Tour 1867 – 1868, Rigby, Adelaide, 1970.
O’Farrell, Patrick. The Irish in Australia, NSW University Press, Kensington Sydney, 1987.
Brent, B. Sir Henry Parkes, http://www.bec.com.au/tentfeld/hparkes.htm, October 1996.
Cowburn, Phillip M. ‘The Attempted Assignation of the Duke of Edinburgh 1868’ in Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 55. Pt. 1, March 1969.
Phillips, Valmai. ‘Reformers and Revoluntionaries: Men and Women who have sought to improve our Society’ in 1000 Famous Australians, Rigby, Adelaide, 1978.
RPA’s History, http://www.cs.nsw.gov.au/rpa/history.html.
© Written by Cathy Dunn as part of the Graduate Diploma in Applied and Local History, UNE September 1998