Divergent views about terrorism, immigration and national identity are achingly at the heart of national debate, but they are also achingly historic. One hundred and fifty years ago Australia first faced the trial of terrorism threatening national security when a young immigrant shocked the country in an assassination attack, igniting moral panic about whether he was a lone wolf or part of a new international religious-political organisation of terror.
Newspaper condemnation of those seeking to trample Australia’s way of life “in blood” or visiting historic feuds on our soil came after an Irish Catholic fired into the back of our first royal visitor, Prince Alfred, during his 1867-68 tour. The shot of Henry O’Farrell, who had trained to be a priest, rocked Australia to its foundations and shocked the empire.
In 1867 the arrival of Prince Alfred was seen as the biggest event in Australia’s history. The visit began as a powerful reinforcement of the narrative that Australia was safe and secure only if it remained loyally wrapped in a mother country’s arms, while republicanism meant risk, violence, uncertainty and insecurity. Undiminished Britishness would prevent the bloodshed seen in England, Ireland, France and North America. When O’Farrell shot the prince at point-blank range at Clontarf in on March 12, 1868, the political and community response pushed the country to the edge of disorder.
The contrasting stories behind Prince Alfred, his upbringing as Queen Victoria’s favoured successor, his historic tour and debauchery, and the transformation of O’Farrell from young immigrant to rising star in the Catholic Church to assassin, sparked my initial interest in a book, but the parallels with today, and possible lessons, became ever more apparent. Here was a young religious immigrant, frayed by mental issues and fuelled by calls for bloodshed to overthrow the tyranny of British imperialism. Irish Fenians, following revolutionary improvements in communications and technology, were the first international group to harness an international flow of ideology, people, money and weaponry.
This led to Australia’s first portent of world terror. The intersection of the lives of these two men from vastly divergent backgrounds was one that set the country into moral panic, fuelling divisions across Protestants, Catholics, Irish, English, republicans, royalists, colonial rulers and religious leaders. For the most far-flung colonies, the distance from, and alignment with, the mother country was no protection against the visitation of historic feuds, frustrations and unfulfilled hopes.
Greg Woods QC, legal historian and former NSW judge, has described O’Farrell’s shooting as “one of the most controversial political crimes in Australian history”. Yet historian Geoffrey Blainey describes it as “a forgotten milepost in Australian history”. So controversial and integral to modern Australia, yet so forgotten. Why so? Is it because it’s a story that does not flatter some of those we have been taught to revere as fathers of Federation? Because it shows an ugly side of Australia’s past? Because schools and universities have not done enough to sustain our historic literacy? Because generations of leaders have been unable or unwilling to review and use historic precedents and consequences? Because much of our media is more interested in histrionics than history?
Whatever the contributing explanations — and there are some trying to take a bigger view, including The Australian — it means we struggle to understand our full history; in essence, the story of what got us here. So we rarely or optimally identify the historic analogies that may usefully enlighten us, forsaking the advice of Winston Churchill that “the longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward”. Given Australia doesn’t have to go too far back to look at and understand its entire modern self, any failure to look back longer and better so as to look forward farther and better is our collective failure and loss.
The prevailing preoccupation with national and personal economic and gratification deficits, and the shallowness of modern public life, makes it difficult to address a more fundamental deficit, one that Proverbs framed as “in all your getting get understanding”.
One of the understandings from Clontarf is that Australia was wounded by failures of leadership in politics, religion, law and media, leading to a moral panic of overreach, opportunism, misguided loyalties, religious bigotry, racism, prejudice and injustice. It’s a demonstration of how easily a community can unravel when facing a major challenge, especially when its leaders overreach and oversimplify in the name of national security, law and order, loyalty and justice. Some of the lessons and consequences reverberate still, underscoring William Faulkner’s observation that “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.” Consider some of that “past” 150 years on: continuing debates about security and treason, royalty and republicanism, religious bigotry and freedom, racism and racial profiling, state aid to church schools, church and ethnic leadership, immigration, lone-wolf terrorism, mental illness, capital punishment, gun laws and judicial independence.
Having the option of learning anything from past mistakes and failures depends on first knowing the history. That is a fundamental piece of national infrastructure. As Aldous Huxley observed: “That men who do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”