When the Fenians escaped from Fremantle Gaol: The Catalpa rescue tale well-told

October 15, 2019

The Catalpa Rescue
By Peter FitzSimons
Hachette Australia, 2019
404 pages $34.99

It was on Easter Monday, in ‘Seventy-six
In Freemantle(sic) the jailers were all in a fix
From Fauntleroy, down to Amen-timbertoe
There was racing and chasing and bother, you know
For the Fenians had ‘sliddered’ right off in a row.

So stated John Breslin, one of the masterminds of the escape of six Irish Fenian prisoners from Fremantle Gaol in 1876, in his poem "The Cruise of the Catalpa". Peter FitzSimons, author of books about various subjects in Australian history, such as the Eureka Stockade and Ned Kelly, brings to life the gripping tale of the Catalpa, an important moment in the struggle for Ireland’s freedom from British rule.

After centuries under the yoke of English rule, Irish nationalists staged failed uprisings against British rule in 1798, 1803 and 1848. By 1858, Irish freedom fighters formed the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Known as the Fenians, they recruited among Irish soldiers in the British army to overthrow the British authorities.

By 1867, the Fenian rising was crushed and dozens of their members sentenced to up to 15 years in the British penal colony of Western Australia. Once there, they were sent to Fremantle Gaol. Known as the "Convict Establishment" or the "Living Tomb", and built by convict labour in the 1850s, the men were subjected to a brutal regime of forced labour and floggings.

Among the Fenians jailed was John Boyle O'Reilly. With the help of a sympathetic Irish priest, O'Reilly was able to escape on a whaling boat to the United States in 1869. Campaigning had forced the British government to pardon all civilian Fenians, so by 1869, only 10 Fenian prisoners remained in Fremantle Gaol.

After agreeing to leave Britain, John Devoy was pardoned in 1870 and arrived in the US by 1871, where O'Reilly was also living. Both became influential newspaper editors. They began plans to free the remaining Fenian prisoners.

At the 1874 convention of the IRB's US-based sister organisation, Clan Na Gael, Devoy read a letter smuggled out of Fremantle by Fenian prisoner James Wilson, appealing to the Irish exile community in the US to help them escape.

In the letter, Wilson stated: “Dear Friend, remember this is a voice from the tomb. For is not this a living tomb? In the tomb it is only a man’s body that is good for worms, but in the living tomb the canker worm of care enters the very soul. Think that we have been nearly nine years in this living tomb since our first arrest and that it is impossible for mind or body to withstand the continual strain that is upon them. One or the other must give way.

"It is in this sad strait that I now, in the name of my comrades and myself, ask you to aid us in the manner pointed out … We ask you to aid us with your tongue and pen, with your brain and intellect, with your ability and influence, and God will bless your efforts, and we will repay you with all the gratitude of our natures… our faith in you is unbound. We think if you forsake us, then we are friendless indeed."

In response, the Clan Na Gael pledged to help with the escape of their compatriots. Donations poured in from Irish exiles from all over over the US. With funds raised from this appeal, Devoy and O'Reilly hired a whaling boat called the Catalpa. By early 1875, they had convinced whaling boat captain George Anthony to assist the escape attempt.

A US Quaker with no connection to the Irish cause, Anthony agreed to join the highly risky plot due to his sense of social justice, believing it the right thing to do. At the same time, John Breslin travelled to WA to assist with the escape attempt. Posing as a businessman, Breslin stayed at the Emerald Isle Hotel in Fremantle to scope out the jail and inform the prisoners of the escape plot.

Despite many problems and delays, six of the men manage to escape Fremantle on April 17, 1876 and headed to Rockingham where they are taken to the Catalpa. In close pursuit was the British military ship, the Georgette. A standoff between the two ships ended with Anthony raising the US flag and stating Catalpa was in international waters.

Relations between the US and Britain were still tense due to the British government supporting the South in the US Civil War. The British authorities decided to let Catalpa go to avoid an international incident. The six men sailed to the US unhindered, receiving a heroes welcome in New York City.

FitzSimons has expertly detailed an extraordinary tale of international solidarity inspired by the American and French revolutions and the ongoing Irish freedom struggle; the Catalpa escape struck an important blow against British colonialism in Ireland’s ongoing struggle for freedom.

Irish liberation was only partially achieved in 1921, when the British government granted dominion status to 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties to end the Irish War of Independence. The struggle to end British rule in the other six counties that make up the Northern Ireland statelet continues to this day, and has again become a major flashpoint due to Britain's Brexit conundrum.

The Catalpa Rescue is an amazing tale because it shows how a blow for freedom can be struck despite huge odds if people are determined and organised.

A noble whale ship and commander
called the Catalpa, they say
she sailed into Western Australia
and took six poor Fenians away

so come all you screw warders and jailers
remember Perth regatta day
take care of the rest of your Fenians
or the Yankees will steal them away...

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