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Death of eminent Australian Catholic historian, Patrick O'Farrell

CathNews is indebted to Dr John Carmody for drawing our attention to the death of Emeritus Professor Patrick O'Farrell on Christmas Day. Professor O'Farrell is worthy of special distinction in this news service because of his contribution to the writing of Australian Catholic history. We publish in full the obituary prepared by Dr Carmody for the Irish Times newspaper.

Patrick O'Farrell, historian, born, Greymouth (New Zealand), 17 September 1933; died Sydney (Australia), 25 December 2003.

Few scholars manage to create a new field of thinking, yet Patrick O'Farrell, the eminent Australian historian who died in Sydney on Christmas Day, achieved that twice. He revivified and transformed the study of Australian Catholicism (taking it, essentially, from the hands of priests and giving it a scholarly rigour) and he created the rich panorama of Irish-Australian history. Furthermore, he did it all with an enchanting blend of wit, lucid scrutiny and stylistic elegance.

He was born in 1933 in Greymouth on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand, the second son (after Timothy, later a Dominican priest) of Patrick and Mai Farrell (née Sullivan) both of whom had been born in Borrisokane (Tipperary). After education at the Marist Brothers' High School in his native town (a port for coal, gold, timber and dairy produce), he attended the University of Canterbury in Christchurch (BA 1954, MA 1956). Despite what his background might suggest, his later historical eminence was not culturally predetermined: his earliest speciality was labour history and his PhD work, undertaken at the Australian National University, was later published as Harry Holland, militant socialist (1964). Indeed, one of his fellow graduate students in Canberra was Bob Hawke, later Prime Minister of Australia.

Those early studies led, through his examination of antipodean links with the international socialist movement, to an expertise in modern Russian history, but a conference encounter with Dr Eoin MacWhite, the first Irish Ambassador to Australia and himself a Soviet historian, steered O'Farrell towards Irish history ("of which I was then totally ignorant," he later wrote) and a year's Fellowship at University College, Dublin in 1965-66. (MacWhite had persuaded the young Australian that to progress significantly in his field would require the daunting challenge of achieving proficiency in the Russian language and that Irish questions would be altogether more congenial.)

Patrick O'Farrell had, in the meantime, been appointed Lecturer in History at the fledgling University of Technology in Sydney (now the University of New South Wales) and promotion followed rapidly: Senior Lecturer (1964), Associate Professor (1969), Personal Chair (1972), then Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1976. Over this stellar career he made several visits to Ireland, one in 1972 when he taught at both UCD and Trinity College.

The research plan of that first trip to Ireland, involving document collection for a ground-breaking study of the Irish in Australia, was to have centred upon the redoubtable Daniel Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne from 1912 to 1963, but he refused permission for O'Farrell to write his biography. The historian later wrote, "I did get to interview the Archbishop, the first occasion on which I had encountered a person who ignored my questions and answered his own. The second experience came in 1966 when I interviewed (?) De Valera".

The life-changing event -- for the author and for his readers -- was the writing and publication in 1968 of The Catholic Church in Australia: a short history 1788-1967. The religious historian, Fr Edmund Campion, said of it, "To him more than any other individual, we owe the fact that Catholic intellectual life in Australia is noticeably historical, rather than theological, philosophical or biblical". The great Australian historian, Manning Clark, thought that, "O'Farrell has written with a becoming dignity, reverence and charity for all men", though some critics (then and since) have seen him as a bishops' and priests' man. Reading his Australian Dictionary of Biography account of Michael Kelly, Archbishop of Sydney from 1911-1940 (Coadjutor from 1901), would instantly dispel that impression. "Kelly," he wrote, "had nothing original to offer by way of church policy.....his position was invariably conservative and hierarchical.....often uncomprehending". He summarised Kelly as "a strident, uncompromising but often inept and unnecessarily narrow Catholic leader".

O'Farrell had a noteworthy ability to blend the historical with the philosophical and then write with clarity, grace and perspicacity. The Irish in Australia won him the New South Wales Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction in 1987 and Vanished Kingdoms -- an extraordinary amalgam of a highly personal family history and a wider scholar's view of historical currents -- was short-listed for the Australian National Book Council's non-fiction award in 1991. All of these had been researched and written under immense physical difficulty: in 1977 he woke with a right-sided stroke after cardiac surgery but, undaunted, he underwent intense physical rehabilitation and taught himself to write left-handed.

In 1999 he produced UNSW -- a portrait, a history of his own 50-year-old university. Quirky, lively, full of insights and surprises -- like its chameleon author -- it has been characterised by fellow historians as the model for such institutional histories. It does not have a dull page. When I protested (mildly) at my own description as "that constant university gadfly" Patrick had a swift and gentle answer: "It's not a disparaging term, Jack; they called Socrates a 'gadfly'" I was, of course, mollified! Several of his books had titles which opened eyes and minds in comparable ways, Ireland's English Question: Anglo-Irish relations 1534-1970 being a telling instance.

Patrick O'Farrell and his wife Deirdre -- his intellectual and spiritual companion and colleague whom he married in New Zealand in 1956 -- had five children and an enormous family of students and colleagues many of whom were at his funeral in his parish church in Sydney on December 31. That mass, concelebrated by eight priests and a bishop, was attended by the Irish Ambassador, Dr Declan Kelly, and the Consul-General (Sydney), Ms Ann Webster; a message of condolence from the Taoiseach, Mr Bertie Ahern, was read during the ceremony. The congregation was reminded of how he challenged and chided us all, to achieve our very finest, never (at least in my experience) allowing the most vigorous -- even fiery -- argument to damage enduring mutual regard and respect. His intellectual and personal life was (like his own description of The Catholic Church in Australia) "part of a constructive social process creating a more open and mature Australian society".  …John Carmody

Dr John Carmody is in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of New South Wales and an elected academic member of its governing Council. For many years he was one of Patrick O'Farrell's colleagues.

SOURCE: Dr John Carmody

6 Jan 2004