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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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O'Farrell, Henry James (1833–1868)

by Mark Lyons and Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Henry O'Farrell, by Eugene Montague Scott, c1868

Henry O'Farrell, by Eugene Montague Scott, c1868

State Library of New South Wales

Henry James O'Farrell (1833-1868), paranoic, was born at Arran Quay, Dublin, youngest child of William O'Farrell, butcher. The family moved to Liverpool, and left for Victoria, arriving early in 1841 at Melbourne where William (d.1854) became a rate collector and later a land agent.

In 1843-47 O'Farrell boarded at David Boyd's school and in 1848-49 at St Francis's school. In 1850-52 he attended St Francis's seminary and received deacon's orders. In 1853-54 he was in Europe for further study but in 1855 had a dispute with Bishop Goold and was not ordained. He became a sheep farmer near Clunes. Later as partner of his cousin Joseph Kennedy he became a grain merchant at Ballarat. In 1864 in a libel suit his brother Peter lost repute as a leading solicitor and fled from Melbourne; soon afterwards Kennedy died of delirium tremens.

Depressed by these misfortunes, O'Farrell failed in speculations and fell into debt. He took to drink and brooded over his failure to become a priest. In January 1867 he suffered a serious mental breakdown, with bouts of delirium tremens, talking of plots to poison him, brandishing pistols and threatening to kill people. Two of his sisters took him to Melbourne. Back in Ballarat he collapsed again and suffered several epileptic fits but recovered and in April wrote to Bishop Sheil about preparing for ordination. In September he went to Sydney and stayed at Tierney's Currency Lass Hotel until asked to leave because of his strange behaviour. At the Clarendon Hotel from December he was sustained by money sent by his sister and was noticeably agitated whenever Fenianism was discussed. On 11 March 1868 he practised pistol shooting at Waverley and next day shot and wounded the Duke of Edinburgh at Clontarf.

O'Farrell first claimed that he had acted on instructions from a band of Melbourne Fenians, but later retracted and stated that 'From continually thinking and talking of … “the wrongs of Ireland”, I became excited and filled with enthusiasm for the subject, and it was then under the influence of those feelings that I attempted to perpetrate the deed for which I am now justly called upon to suffer'. Found guilty of attempted murder O'Farrell was hanged at Darlinghurst gaol on 21 April and buried in the Catholic section of Rookwood cemetery.

O'Farrell's fantasies about Fenianism and the state of Ireland reflected the effects of alcoholism on an unstable personality shaped in a morbid domestic and religious atmosphere. The social tension and political excitement generated by his unique crime made a fair trial impossible, but the duke's efforts to have O'Farrell's life spared support the view that the correct verdict would have been not guilty because of insanity. The incident was an important factor in intensifying the sectarianism latent in a colony with many Protestant and Catholic Irish concentrating on their native land rather than on their adopted country.

O'Farrell's brother, Peter, attempted to shoot Archbishop Goold on 21 August 1882 in Brighton, Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1868, 1868-69, 715, 1869, 339
  • P. M. Cowburn, ‘The attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh, 1868’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 55 (1969)
  • D. I. McDonald, ‘Henry James O'Farrell: “Fenian, or moonstruck miscreant”’, Canberra and District Historical Society, Journal, Sept 1970
  • M. Lyons, Aspects of Sectarianism in New South Wales Circa 1865-1880 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1972).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mark Lyons and Bede Nairn, 'O'Farrell, Henry James (1833–1868)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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