O'Farrell, Patrick James (1933–2003), historian, was born on 17 September 1933 in Greymouth, a small port in the Westland province of the South Island of New Zealand, youngest child of Patrick Vincent ('Paddy') O'Farrell (originally Farrell), tailor and labour activist, and his wife Mai (née O'Sullivan). He had one sister, Mary (1925–39), who died of meningitis, and a brother, Timothy (1921–80), a Dominican priest. O'Farrell's parents emigrated from Borrisokane, north Co. Tipperary, shortly before the first world war. Paddy left because of antagonism over a parent's remarriage, and retained little attachment to Ireland; Mai cultivated a nostalgic image of a land of piety, beauty and friendship. O'Farrell never considered himself Irish: 'I am a product of the Irish tradition transplanted overseas – a colonial, a New Zealander of Irish descent and Australian citizenship' (O'Farrell, Vanished kingdoms (1990), xviii).
Education and early academic career O'Farrell was educated at the Marist brothers' school in Greymouth, and in 1952, despite his parents' modest circumstances, entered Canterbury University College, graduating BA (1954) and MA (1956). He moved to Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra as a research scholar (1956–9) studying labour history. He eventually took Australian citizenship but still called himself a New Zealander. Before leaving New Zealand, O'Farrell married (29 December 1956) Deirdre MacShane. They had three sons and two daughters; all assisted his later work, while Deirdre became research assistant and collaborator, reading drafts as first and strictest critic.
At Canterbury, O'Farrell encountered Irish texts in the English literature course and realised Ireland could be a serious subject. He also encountered two formative intellectual influences. The first was Christopher Dawson (1889–1970), the English catholic historian of the relationship between religion and culture, who maintained the liberal-catholic conviction that faith deserved investigation and that 'religion was not, and could not be, a self-sufficient culture: it could only be an aspect of it, large or small'. The second influence derived from the Austrian-born refugee philosopher Karl Popper (1902–94), who taught at Canterbury (1937–46), and argued that knowledge must be based on systematic scepticism, constructing hypotheses and testing them for flaws. O'Farrell also acknowledged the influence of the history of experiences and mentalities developed by scholars of the early French Annales school such as Lucien Febvre (1878–1956).
In 1959 O'Farrell became lecturer in history at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), and taught there until 1999; becoming senior lecturer in 1964, and associate professor in 1969, he received a personal chair in 1972, and a research professorship in 1999. One of his last books was UNSW, a portrait: the University of New South Wales, 1949–1999 (1999).
O'Farrell's first book (1964), based on his 1961 Ph.D. dissertation, was a biography of the militant socialist Harry Holland (1868–1933), first leader of the New Zealand Labour Party (1919–33). Deciding that the Australasian labour movement lacked sufficient intellectual depth to be interesting, O'Farrell considered switching to Russian history, but was persuaded by Eoin MacWhite (qv), Irish ambassador to Australia, that it would take too long to acquire the relevant expertise. Instead, with MacWhite's encouragement, O'Farrell planned major studies of the Irish emigrant experience in Australia and the role of the Irish in Australian history. MacWhite arranged (with F. X. Martin (qv)) for O'Farrell to spend a year (1965–6) as visiting lecturer at UCD, perfecting his knowledge of Irish history, and conducting (with Deirdre) research in Irish archives to complement investigations of Australian manuscript collections.
O'Farrell and Australian catholic history After returning from Ireland, O'Farrell was approached in 1967 to write a survey history of Roman catholicism in Australia. Initially reluctant, he decided to fill the gap, writing without footnotes for a paperback mass market. The result, written in six months, was The catholic church in Australia: a short history, 1788–1967 (1968), drawing on Sydney diocesan archives, Irish archives, and clerical and episcopal publications. (As substitute for footnotes, O'Farrell and Deirdre prepared Documents in Australian catholic history (2 vols., 1969). Like the Short history, Documents aimed beyond the academic world to schoolteachers and other lay and clerical intellectuals.) Amongst other iconoclasms, the Short history emphasised the unchurched and disorderly nature of the early Australian Irish, whose catholicism rested on communal loyalties and grievances as well as (or more than) the dedicated evangelisation and sacramental labours of early priests; how many early clergy experienced burn-out or engaged in vicious squabbles; how Irish bishops who dominated the Australian hierarchy from the 1870s standardised and promoted devotions and senses of identity which they projected onto a complicated catholic community and retrojected into their image of the colonial past; and how the decline of Irish dominance after the tumults of 1914–22 revealed the Irish spiritual empire as one among successive 'dreams': identity projects affecting the Australian environment, but finally consumed by it.
The Short history sold 10,000 copies over twenty years, while achieving a much wider readership. It marked the emancipation of Australian catholic history from clerical and clericalist pietas, and its acceptance as an academic subject; as O'Farrell intended, the book stimulated a vast body of research on the Australian catholic experience, much of it conducted by his own UNSW students. In 1977 O'Farrell revised the history (almost doubling its length to incorporate new research) as The catholic church and community in Australia: a history. This became The catholic church and community: an Australian history (1985), with preface and epilogue covering fragmentation, decline and attempted reinventions after Vatican II. A final update (under the 1985 title) appeared in 1992.
O'Farrell's work remained deeply informed by his catholic faith, and his hope for a distinctively Australian catholicism. Without comprehending O'Farrell's lifelong struggle with the catholic experience in Australia, it is difficult for Irish-based historians to understand why in the late 1960s and early 1970s he considered relocating to Irish academia because 'Australian questions kept raising Irish questions' (Fitzpatrick (2004)).
O'Farrell and Irish history As visiting lecturer in UCD (1965–6), teaching courses on socialist thought and Russian history, O'Farrell engaged in research (and microfilming) in Irish archives in relation both to Australian catholic history and 'revolution in Ireland, 1887–1923'. With T. Desmond Williams (qv) as intermediary, O'Farrell concluded a book agreement with a London publisher in June/July 1966, just before returning to Australia. O'Farrell founded an honours course on modern Irish history at UNSW, using seminars to develop ideas for the proposed book, but the project was delayed, first by O'Farrell's work on Australian catholic history, and then by his mother's terminal illness (she died in 1970). The book finally appeared in 1971 as Ireland's English question: Anglo–Irish relations, 1534–1970, described as a religious interpretation.
During further study leave in Dublin (1972–3; he held positions in both TCD and UCD), O'Farrell met T. W. Moody (qv); the two scholars were mutually impressed. O'Farrell contributed chapters – written in the mid 1970s and footnoted, at Moody's insistence – on 'The Irish in Australia and New Zealand, 1791–1870' and 'The Irish in Australia and New Zealand, 1870–1990' to volumes 5 and 6 respectively of the New history of Ireland (not published until 1989 and 1996). This visit, which confronted O'Farrell with the Northern Ireland troubles, produced England and Ireland since 1800 (1975). In thematic chapters, O'Farrell discussed how Anglo–Irish conflict involved differing attitudes to history, time and violence. O'Farrell expressed religious disapproval of violence, asserting that it could never provide long-term resolution, while noting that it often achieved short-term results.
Because O'Farrell's scholarship subjects Irish nationalism to historical analysis rather than unequivocally identifying with it, he is conventionally aggregated with the 'revisionist' historians associated with the journal Irish Historical Studies, led by Moody and R. D. Edwards (qv). In fact, Ireland's English question challenged the Irish Historical Studies model of historiography, and O'Farrell anticipated later critics in his complaints (cf. review of Ireland since the famine by F. S. L. Lyons (qv) in Journal of Religious History, viii, no. 1 (June 1974), 117–19) that the model overemphasised politics to the neglect of wider cultural assumptions and conflicts which underlay them, underplayed catastrophes such as the famine, and evaded painful subjects such as religious sectarianism.
O'Farrell's broad-brush study presents Anglo–Irish relations in terms of deep-rooted and conflicting cultural assumptions: particularly the relationship between Irish catholicism and a vision of the ideal social order as family-based and disrupted by economic and social upheavals associated with British modernity, and the inability of post-union British observers to comprehend an Ireland that took religion more seriously than they did. O'Farrell implies that this shortcoming was shared by observers who took British perspectives for granted – hence the book's title, derived from the veteran Irish-Australian nationalist Albert Dryer. This view was criticised by the English conservative historian E. R. Norman as academic rehabilitation of the determinist-moralist nationalist view, ignoring the possibility that Ireland might have derived benefits from British rule (Historical Journal, xv, no. 4 (1972), 815–19).
Aspects of O'Farrell's arguments challenged liberal-nationalists and republicans. After arguing that the Irish parliamentary party and home rule (whose historical rehabilitation was a major theme of contemporary Irish academic research) were inherently unable to resolve diverging Irish and British expectations, he analysed the contemporaneous catholic revival, cultural revival, and separatist revival which developed from the 1890s, suggesting that each fed the others' dangerously unrealistic expectations, voiced in catholic and separatist journalism (notably the chauvinistic Catholic Bulletin). The sacral nationalism of P. H. Pearse (qv) was presented, in a catholic critique originating with Eoin MacNeill (qv) and mediated through F. X. Martin, as an egoistic parody of the Gospel. Only the humiliating Irish civil war dispelled the dangerous theocratic delusion of a perfect catholic Ireland.
O'Farrell's hopes for his book as model for Irish historiography were not fulfilled, but it was influential: Lyons's Culture and anarchy in Ireland (1979) acknowledged a significant debt to O'Farrell. England and Ireland served as model for States of mind (1983) by Oliver MacDonagh (qv), and MacDonagh also acknowledged O'Farrell's influence on the revised 1977 edition of his Ireland: the union and its aftermath. R. F. Foster's survey Modern Ireland (1988) was indebted to these works by O'Farrell, Lyons and MacDonagh. Some nationalist historians thought this influence baneful. In the late 1980s Brian P. Murphy, OSB, criticised O'Farrell's use of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century publications, insinuating O'Farrell distorted history to justify partition. O'Farrell showed that Ireland's English question was written before the Northern Ireland troubles to which Murphy claimed it responded, denied he was a partitionist, defended his interpretation of material cited by Murphy, and called Murphy's expressed hopes for peace and reconciliation hypocritical since Murphy refused to engage with other historians' arguments but instead libelled their motives.
Later life and scholarship In 1977 O'Farrell suffered a near-fatal stroke after cardiac surgery and had to re-learn to walk, talk and write (with his left hand). Recovery was never complete, but he continued his major projects with the assistance of his family. With Deirdre, he prepared several television documentaries, and he frequently commented on Irish affairs for Australian radio. Academic and state honours came his way; he served on the boards of learned journals and academic bodies, advised projects for the commemoration of the bicentenary of European settlement in Australia in 1988, participated in government-sponsored tours of Irish America and Northern Ireland, assisted in the preservation of Australian and other archives, and kept up a stream of occasional publications. Through Irish eyes: Australian and New Zealand images of the Irish, 1788–1948 (1994) led to a 1996 photographic exhibition in Belfast.
The 1980s saw the completion of two major projects conceived in the 1960s. The Irish in Australia (1987; revised editions in 1993 and 2000) argued that conflict between the Irish minority and those seeking a little Britain was central to Australian identity. Irish protestant immigrants were among those seeking to re-create an aristocratic society or a new Ulster secured from the Catholic threat experienced in Ireland. Meanwhile, dreams of a new 'green' Ireland, cherished by clerics and dedicated nationalists such as Dryer, masked the pragmatism of most Australian Irish and their descendants, particularly expressed through a labour movement shared with Australians of other backgrounds. The book won the 1987 New South Wales Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction. Letters from Irish Australia, 1825–1929 (1985; letters edited by Brian Trainor), a collection of correspondence-based case studies, had less enduring influence, but further marked his interest in Irish protestant as well as catholic experience.
Deepening awareness of mortality, and reflection on his past, strengthened O'Farrell's interest in history from below. After his 1983 review in Journal of Religious History of S. J. Connolly's Priests and people in pre-famine Ireland, O'Farrell speculated that the early Australian Irish might have brought with them 'pre-Christian' folk beliefs and practices, with an unarticulated and unobserved residuum tinting later attitudes and behaviour. From 1986 to 1994 O'Farrell directed the UNSW Local History Co-ordination Project (later the Community History Program), liaising with local history groups. Maintaining that 'history from below' should not compromise scholarly standards, he clashed with labour historians whom he believed to overvalue oral history, and criticised 'black armband history' (emphasising colonist mistreatment of aborigines and other minorities) as overwhelmed by guilt and remorse. O'Farrell's later work is marbled with personal reminiscences and reflections; his 1990 examination of his parents' New Zealand Irish experience in Vanished kingdoms, as case-study in the process of migration, memory and transition to colonial identity, was followed by several papers on New Zealand Irish topics in the last years of his life, as his health deteriorated.
Patrick O'Farrell died in hospital in Sydney on 25 December 2003. He was elected fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences (1972), received the UNSW centenary medal (2003), and was posthumously awarded the Order of Australia (2004). A bibliography of his publications is available in Journal of Religious History, xxxi, no. 1 (March 2007), 1–17, and many can be downloaded from www.patrickofarrell.com, a tribute site maintained by his family. Most of his papers were donated to the Australian National Library in Canberra.