17 December, 2018

1868 Epilogue : The Kiama Ghost

Archbishop Polding photographed in 1869.
Image : The State Library of Victoria.
The last few posts on our Blog have coincided with the sesqui-centenary of the foundation of the present Saint Mary's Cathedral in December 1868.  In researching these posts, the edition of the Sydney Catholic newspaper, The Freeman's Journal of 12th December 1868, which reported the founding of the Cathedral, contained many allusions to anti-Catholic sentiment prevalent at the time.

Perhaps the most striking is this extract from Archbishop Polding's address to the large crowd assembled to witness the Foundation of the Cathedral :

And now we have begun a new history, and I agree with you in desiring to inscribe on its very first page the most generous sympathy and help, offered to us and accepted, when we first gathered together after our disaster, from many who are not sharers in our Catholic responsibilities. May God reward them as He best knows how. You say that thoughts of that kindness enabled you to endure much that you have since been called upon to endure. No doubt, and righteously so. What should give us confidence in our fellow men if kindness, spontaneous kindness in the very hour of need does not give it? You were right in trusting that the minds and hearts of our noblest fellow citizens, then shown to you in word and deed, would never accept or if for a moment they accepted, would speedily reject and repel the shamefully foul and cunning calumnies that at one unhappy moment were cast into the air, like a deadly miasma, by ignorant hate, and unscrupulous political scheming. Nothing has made me more thankful than the steady, manly, forbearance of so many of my dear simple children in the faith, under the most painful provocation. Their generous souls understood the motive that you have given expression to, and they accepted the counsel of the Archbishop and their bishops and their other clergy frankly and dutifully. I am proud of them. For you who are men with greater opportunities of intelligence and cultivation - why, I commend you, and sympathise with you in your annoyance and self-command; but you have been only what I had a right to expect you would be. The event has justified, you see, our counsel and your behaviour. Men are already beginning to wonder what the fuss of anger and suspicious hate has all been about; and very obviously the outcrop of poisonous plants, that threatened to mar our thirty years' harvest of brotherly harmony and good-will, has begun to wither away.
What were these forthright remarks about?  

HRH Prince Alfred
Duke of Edinburgh and
4th child of Queen Victoria.

Image : State Archives of NSW.
Earlier in 1868, a notorious event occurred which, one hundred and fifty years later, has largely been forgotten.  It concerned the first visit of a member of the British Royal Family to Australia, HRH Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and fourth child of Queen Victoria.  Prince Alfred, then only 23, over a period of several months, visited Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane (briefly) and finally Sydney during this Royal Tour.  

On 12th March, 1868, during a visit to a public picnic at Clontarf beach in Sydney, the Prince was shot at point-blank range by a deranged fanatic, one Henry James O'Farrell.  Only for the very sturdy pair of leather braces that he was wearing which happened - by sheer good fortune - to have deflected the bullet, the Prince would surely have been killed.  The assassin O'Farrell barely escaped with his life as an angry crowd turned on him in attempt to carry out summary justice.

It is not hard to imagine, even a century-and-a-half later, the public outrage that broke forth at that time.  What a disgrace that a member of the Royal Family had been murderously attacked!  Consider the horror had the child of the Monarch been killed on Australian soil?  To the dismay of Catholics, the assassin Henry O'Farrell, an opponent of British Rule in Ireland, was revealed to be a Catholic, and at one time, a student for the priesthood.

A contemporary engraving of the scene at Clontarf beach 12th March 1868
depicting the attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Image : State Library of NSW

Henry James O'Farrell
Image : State Library of NSW
An ugly wave of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment broke out around Australia and there were those who took advantage of this for their own ends.  Chief amongst these was the politician Henry Parkes, known as The Father of Federation but less well known to us now as an anti-Catholic bigot.  Although Prince Alfred, recovering well from his wound, urged calm and leniency, the assassin was quickly tried and put to death.  Only then, with the perpetrator removed, did Parkes recklessly declare that Henry O'Farrell had not acted alone, but his attempt on the Prince's life was part of a conspiracy by Irish Catholic revolutionaries.  In every age, revolutionaries have a different moniker. The Irish radicals of the 19th century were known as Fenians.

Parkes launched this campaign during a visit to his electorate in Kiama on the NSW south coast and thus was born what became known as "The Kiama Ghost".  Unhappily for Parkes, the Catholic priest attending O'Farrell before his execution received two handwritten statements from the convicted man, declaring that he had acted alone and was not part of any type of revolutionary conspiracy.

Henry Parkes
Premier of NSW on five occasions.
"Unscrupulous political scheming".
For a time, the scurrilous agitation of Henry Parkes and his allies gripped the mind of the public - after all, Parkes had his own newspaper called The Empire in order to propagate his views.  Were Catholic colonists about to rise up and attempt to seize power through revolution?  Would the Pope of Rome control Australia?  Would respectable protestant colonists be murdered in their beds by Irish rebels?  No Popery!

It was only a matter of months, however, before Henry Parkes, unable to produce any evidence of his claims, was revealed as having played the "conspiracy" card, in order to discredit Irish Catholics of the colony, some of whom were his political opponents.  In September 1868, when the more hysterical debate had died away, and with public opinion against him, Henry Parkes resigned his seat in the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales and remained under a cloud for three years.  Ever afterwards his political opponents would taunt him with reference to "The Kiama Ghost".

But much damage had been done to the harmony that existed in Australia between Catholics and non-Catholics which - arguably - was never fully healed. Nor had the Catholics of New South Wales experienced the last of the bigotry of Henry Parkes.  That is a story for another time.


A broader description of this story :



More details on the life of O'Farrell :


On the career of Henry Parkes :


Concerning the Fenians :




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