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Supple, Gerald Henry (1823–1898)

by E. M. Finlay

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Gerald Henry Supple (1823-1898), Irish patriot, poet, barrister and journalist, was born in Cork, Ireland, eldest son of Thomas Supple and his wife Letitia Anne, née Sherlock, of Ballintemple, Cork, who claimed linear descent from the poet Edmund Spenser. He studied law, history and literature in Dublin; as 'Torquil' or 'G. H. S.' he contributed patriotic poetry to C. G. Duffy's Nation and The Ballad Poetry of Ireland and to Bentley's Miscellany in 1851. Some of his work was reprinted in Edward Hayes's The Ballads of Ireland in 1856. Supple was probably a Young Irelander and after the unsuccessful insurrection of 1848 he went to London where he associated with the radical journalist and publisher George Holyoake, writing articles for the Reasoner, the Empire and the Morning Star. In 1856 his History of the Invasion of Ireland by the Anglo-Normans was published in Dublin.

Supple migrated to Melbourne in 1857 and with introductions to Ebenezer Syme of the Age, joined the Melbourne press and read for the Bar. He was admitted in December 1862, but defective eyesight impeded his practice and he had to continue in journalism, writing leading articles for the Herald and the Australasian and working for the Age. He won repute as a writer on Irish genealogies and antiquities, but his unstable nature, intense sense of honour, both national and personal, and his failing sight made him susceptible to disappointment and imagined insult. In 1862 he left the Age, offended by the treatment of Irish matters by the editor, George Paton Smith, a barrister, later M.L.A. and attorney-general; on 17 May 1870 the obsessed Supple shot Paton Smith in Latrobe Street, wounding him in the elbow and killing a bystander, John Sesnan Walshe.

The trial, heard in July, stirred up much interest. G. Higinbotham and F. S. Dobson defended Supple voluntarily, and Higinbotham's speech for the defence on the grounds of insanity was regarded as one of his best. Supple was found guilty but the case was referred by Chief Justice Stawell to the Full Court on the legal point of intention to kill. The verdict was confirmed, Supple was sentenced to death and placed in irons in the condemned cell in Melbourne gaol. Public sympathy had been aroused; Duffy and other prominent men spoke or wrote in his defence and many petitions were presented. The Executive Council reprieved him pending his request to appeal to the Privy Council; but the lesser charge of attempted murder was pressed. At first the jury failed to agree, but he was again found guilty; at both trials he vehemently defended himself, denying insanity and claiming that he was undertaking a public duty in attacking the slander and vilification rife in the colony. In September 1871 the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he was removed to Pentridge.

Supple suffered bad health in gaol but published what he could to support two unmarried sisters. His poem 'Voces Dulces Animae Vinci' in the Australasian of 15 April 1876 has a certain pathos as the cry of a prisoner envying the freedom of the winds. On 5 October 1878, after Paton Smith's death, he was released on compassionate grounds.

The next week Supple left Melbourne to join his sisters in Auckland. Dependent on their help to earn a precarious living in journalism, he wrote articles for the New Zealand Herald. In January 1879 the Melbourne Review published his major work, 'A Dream of Dampier', a long, descriptive poem in which the buccaneer sees a vision of the future of the unknown land he has reached. In 1892 Melbourne sympathizers, hearing of his plight, arranged for publication of Dampier's Dream: An Australasian Foreshadowing, and Some Ballads. He died in poor circumstances in Auckland on 16 August 1898, a pathetic, even tragic, figure, who had regarded himself as the victim of moral assassins, but whose friend Henry Kendall regretted that 'his really great abilities had not been balanced by anything like an even temperament'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. F. Hogan, The Irish in Australia (Melb, 1888)
  • G. J. Holyoake, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life, vol 2 (Lond, 1892)
  • D. J. O'Donoghue, The Poets of Ireland (Dublin, 1912)
  • P. S. Cleary, Australia's Debt to Irish Nationbuilders (Syd, 1933)
  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • Victorian Law Reports, 1870
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 May, 21 July, 10, 14-16 Sept, 5-8, 17, 25, 28 Oct, 5, 16, 22 Nov 1870
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19, 20 May, 21 July 1870
  • Australasian, 16 Sept 1871, 24 Oct 1874, 15 Apr 1876, 5, 12 Oct 1878, 30 Jan 1892, 10 Sept 1898
  • Sydney Mail, 3 May 1884
  • H. Kendall, Notes on Men and Books, no 1 (Moir collection, State Library of Victoria)
  • G. Supple letters 1860-97 (Co-operative Union Ltd, Holyoake House, Manchester, England).

Citation details

E. M. Finlay, 'Supple, Gerald Henry (1823–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/supple-gerald-henry-4670/text7723, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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