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Daniel Henry Deniehy (1828–1865)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

Daniel Henry Deniehy (1828-1865), orator, man of letters, lawyer and politician, was born in Sydney on 18 August 1828, the only son of Henry Deniehy (d.1850), produce merchant, and his wife Mary, née MacCarthy (d.1883); he was baptized on 28 August in St Mary's Church. His father received a seven-year sentence at Cork for vagrancy in 1819 and arrived in the ship Hadlow in August 1820; his mother, also with a seven-year sentence, arrived in the ship Almorah in August 1824.

Deniehy was a precocious child and his parents recognized and cultivated his unusual talents. At several schools he studied French, Italian, classics and English literature and his teacher and tutors admired his quick and retentive memory. William Bede Dalley was a boyhood friend, and the artist Adelaide Ironside an early associate.

At 14 he went to England with his parents and read for a time with a university tutor; he visited many of the major art centres on the Continent and spent 'a swallow's season' in Ireland, where he met and was deeply impressed by leaders of the Young Ireland Party. He returned to Sydney in the immigrant ship Elizabeth on 29 April 1844, continued his schooling and was articled to the solicitor Nicol Stenhouse. In 1845 he published a novelette 'Love at First Sight' in the Colonial Literary Journal; he wrote criticism for the People's Advocate, and in 1847 some youthful verse in Heads of the People. Deniehy's association with Stenhouse gave him access to a fine library and he began forming his own famous library, later reputed to weigh over four tons. He was admitted as a solicitor on 3 May 1851. He did well at the law but gradually his love of literature prevailed and he became involved in radical politics. In 1851-53 he gave a number of lectures on poetry and French literature to the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts.

In 1850 Deniehy fervently supported Rev. John Dunmore Lang's Australian League and worked with the liberal Constitution committee. Known as 'the boy orator', on 15 August 1853 he publicly derided William Charles Wentworth's proposed colonial nobility as 'a bunyip aristocracy', and soon ridiculed the scheme into oblivion. In 1854 he went to Goulburn to benefit his health and legal practice. A temporary estrangement from (Sir) Henry Parkes was followed in December 1854 by a letter in which he indicated his misgivings about entering politics: 'My education, in the deep sense of the word, is not yet complete—I have not yet built myself into what I conceive to be the requisite spiritual and mental proportions—I have not yet learnt, thought, and observed enough'. Letters to Parkes in 1855 show an increasing political interest but no urgency to enter politics. However, after a stirring nomination speech that repeated his inner doubts, he won Argyle and as 'an extreme liberal' represented it from 13 February 1857 to 11 April 1859.

He made many excellent parliamentary speeches, particularly those on the land bill (1857), the electoral reform and the Chinese immigration bills (1858). In 1858 he returned to Sydney and was in great demand as an occasional speaker. His fame spread to Victoria and in September he spoke in Melbourne on the land bill and argued that 'the first great aim of statesmanship in a new country should be to people the soil,—in a word, to create a great community'. In the second Cowper ministry Deniehy opposed the appointment of (Sir) Lyttleton Bayley as attorney-general, and immortalized the whole incident in a pungent satire entitled How I Became Attorney-General of New Barataria (Sydney, 1860); first published in the Southern Cross, which Deniehy founded in 1859 and edited, it is his longest written piece and his monument as a political satirist.

Deniehy still devoted much time to literature. In November 1857 he lectured approvingly on the poetry of his friend Charles Harpur. He also recognized the quality of William Forster's poetry. He wrote on a variety of topics for the Freeman's Journal, Southern Cross and other journals; in 1859-60 he composed a number of excellent obituary notices on eminent men of letters including his exemplar, Thomas De Quincey.

Deniehy's principles and independence brought him into conflict with his Church, first in January 1859 over his opposition to extra state aid and next month over Abbot Henry Gregory's nomination of a Protestant to the Catholic orphanage at Parramatta. Deniehy addressed a protest meeting which found Gregory's act 'repugnant to the simplest Catholic interests' and passed a vote of no confidence in the Church administration. A committee of seven including Deniehy forwarded the resolutions to Archbishop John Bede Polding who demanded that the seven recant under pain of excommunication. They submitted except Deniehy, but all appealed to Rome.

In Deniehy's last term in parliament, representing East Macquarie from May to November 1860, he became extremely disillusioned with the moral tone of politics and politicians. Refusing to compromise his principles, he alienated even his best friends, and took to drink. His notable political work was on the land question, in particular some of the key clauses of the Robertson Land Act.

In 1862 Deniehy and his family went to Melbourne and he edited the Victorian. Rehabilitated for a time he wrote well, but after the death of his only surviving son he relapsed. The paper closed in April 1864 and he returned to Sydney to resume his legal practice. Henry Kendall noticed in him 'some flashes of the old light' even though most of his mental and physical strength had gone. 'It is bad at this time of day, this beginning the world over again; but it must be done now or never' he wrote to his wife in October. In a last desperate effort to restore himself he went to Bathurst, where, wavering between deep despair and flashes of optimism, he sank into complete alcoholism.

On 22 October 1865 in a Bathurst street Deniehy fell and struck his head. He died in hospital from 'loss of blood and fits induced by habits of intemperance'. Two days later a handful of mourners accompanied his body to the old Catholic cemetery. Peter White, the clerk of petty sessions, incurred the displeasure of the Church for reading the burial service.

Deniehy, slender of limb and delicately made, stood about 5 ft 2 ins (158 cm); his face was freckled and his ample brow was overlaid by a shock of flaxen hair. His manners and speech were correct and his laugh bright and clear. His verse is generally facile and undistinguished, but his speeches are excellent examples of Irish oratory. His literary criticism, though highly praised by David Blair, George Barton, Frank Fowler and Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, is somewhat marred by reckless superlatives and copious allusions. As a critic he believed that 'Criticism should be gentle' because 'all life, literature, politics are but processes of approximation'. He ranged sensitively over the whole field of modern letters, from Stendahl to Emerson, from Heine to Mrs Jameson with, as Walter Murdoch says, 'his bright intelligence and swift appreciation'.

He saw the colonial milieu as 'darkened by the nature and occasion of its first settlement and by the black history of its first decades' where 'Art had done nothing, but Nature everything'. He inexorably isolated himself from this environment and was finally defeated by it. Colonial society was harsh and generally unaccommodating to a man of his temperament, insight and sensitivity; and his life ended in mortification, personal tragedy and failure.

Deniehy left very little evidence by which to judge his undoubted political and literary talents and great human qualities. Any assessment of his importance must also consider his contemporaries' opinions, which are compelling even allowing for the Victorian weakness for 'young, blighted genius'. Many praised Deniehy's unassuming manner, warm-hearted and generous disposition, as well as his learning, wit and vivacity. Dalley, Barton and Stenhouse regarded him as one of the most gifted men that the colony had produced. To Richard Horne Deniehy was the 'brightest spirit' of all young Australians. In 1883 Dalley recalled him as 'the most gifted Irish-Australian of our history' and said he might easily have occupied 'the highest place among the most gifted and honoured of modern Irishmen'. In September 1888 Daniel O'Connor and a group of admirers had Deniehy's remains removed from Bathurst and interred in Waverley cemetery by the Franciscan fathers. Over his grave a tall monument was erected 'as an admiring tribute to the graceful genius of one of Australia's most gifted and patriotic sons', with the verse,

The Vehement Voice Of The South,
Is Loud Where The Journalist Lies;
But Calm Hath Encompassed His Mouth,
And Sweet Is The Peace In His Eyes.

On 24 February 1852 at Sydney, Deniehy had married Adelaide Elizabeth, only daughter of John Casimir Hoalls, gentleman, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née English. They had two sons and five daughters. He was survived by his wife and three daughters. On 7 July 1877 Deniehy's widow married John McGarvie Smith; there were no children. She died at Woollahra on 31 December 1908, aged 78, and was buried in the Church of England section of Waverley cemetery.

A statue of Deniehy by James White is on the Lands Department building in Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • G. B. Barton, Literature in New South Wales (Sydney, 1866)
  • G. B. Barton (ed), The Poets and Prose Writers of New South Wales (Sydney, 1866)
  • E. A. Martin, The Life and Speeches of Daniel Henry Deniehy (Melbourne, 1884)
  • J. Normington-Rawling, Charles Harpur: An Australian (Sydney, 1962)
  • P. Loveday and A. W. Martin, Parliament Factions and Parties (Melbourne, 1966)
  • B. T. Dowd, ‘Daniel Henry Deniehy: Gifted Australian Orator, Scholar and Literary Critic’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 33, part 2, 1947, pp 57-95
  • Austral Light, Apr 1894
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Aug 1853, 19 Feb 1857, 5, 13 Jan, 9, 28 Feb, 4 Mar 1859, 27 Oct 1865
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 19 Mar 1859, 28 Oct 1865, 13 May 1883
  • Australian Journal, Oct 1869
  • Bulletin, 15 Apr 1882, 1-29 Sept, 6 Oct 1888
  • Town and Country Journal, 17 Mar 1888
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Deniehy, Daniel Henry (1828–1865)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Daniel Deniehy, n.d.

Daniel Deniehy, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 169442

Life Summary [details]


18 August, 1828
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


22 October, 1865 (aged 37)
Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia

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