Discovering our grandmother, Mary Friel

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Our Grandmother Mary Gallagher née Friel (Image thesilvervoice. Date unknown)

Our grandmother Mary Friel died many years before any of her grandchildren were born. We knew about her, as when we went from Carrigart to visit the many relations in Fanad in the next peninsula, a visit to her grave at Massmount was part of the itinerary, and was either the first or last port of call. Discovering her has taken a lifetime, as information about her is so scarce, and that is due in no small measure to the fact that she died so young, also her name is not recorded on the family headstone. Thoughts have turned to her now as we are about to commemorate the centenary of the birth of her eldest child, our Aunt May, and so I tried to piece together the story of her life. So who was she? What do we know about her?

Mary Friel was born on May 22 1882, the 2nd youngest of 8 children of John Friel, Carpenter, and Annie nee Coll of Pullid in Fanad. In 1896, her older sister Hannah or Nora, died at age 22 of consumption, or ‘phthisis’, which of course was Tuberculosis.  It must have been heartbreaking for the 14-year-old to stand at the grave of her older sister at Massmount graveyard.

Some five years or so later, the 1901 census has three of the Friel sisters residing at a shop in Balloor, Fanad owned by John Friel – possibly their father or another relation.  Older sister Katie, a seamstress aged 22 was the head of the household, with  Susan aged 19, a shop assistant and 17 year old Mary, also a seamstress. We see that all three girls were bilingual. By this time oldest sister Unie (born January 1871)  was married and living at Araheera with her husband John Friel and two of their children plus an extended family of in-laws.

1901 Census – 3 Friel sisters in Baloor Fanad

The second son of the family and one of only two Friel boys, Arthur (known as Art), joined the priesthood and in 1911 we find our grandmother Mary, together with her youngest sister Annie living with him at his home in Tangaveane, Graffy, near Glenties County Donegal. Art, Mary and Annie were close in age and presumably shared a close relationship. (The census form is filled out in the Irish language). It would not have been unusual for the sisters of a priest to act as his housekeepers.

1911 census – completed in Irish

The next event that I have been able to verify is the marriage of Mary and our grandfather James Gallagher on September 26 1915. They would have met because Fr. Art was the curate in the parish in which our grandfather had lived and worked as a school teacher. Fr Art, or Uncle Art as he is referred to in our family, officiated at their marriage in the church of Edeninfagh, Glenties and youngest sister Annie was one of the witnesses.

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The marriage photograph of Mary Friel and James Gallagher 1915.

Last summer for the first time I visited the church in Edeninfagh and found it quite emotional to be standing in the same place where they all gathered to celebrate the marriage. The church is in the hills of Donegal in a very quiet location.

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Edeninfagh Chapel in the misty hills of Donegal

The interior of the church, where our grandparents made their marriage vows.

Our grandfather was now teaching at Templedouglas National School in Glenswilly, so Mary would have moved there with him.  When expecting their first child, Mary, as was customary, returned to her mother’s home to give birth in May 1917. Again her youngest sister Annie was called upon to be godmother to their eldest child, our Aunt May.

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James Gallagher and Mary Friel with their firstborn, Mary Isabella Gallagher in 1917

Our aunt Eileen and our father Gerard were both born in Glenswilly in 1919 and 1921 respectively. The next location we have for them was at Ballyheerin, Fanad  where our grandfather was the local school teacher and it was here that they welcomed their next two sons Sean and Jim, into the world in 1921 and 1923.

Ballyheerin – the house with the slate roof in the centre of the picture, partially hidden behind the field, where our grandparents lived and where Sean and Seamus were born

In 1925 our grandmother experienced the loss of her mother Anna Friel, nee Coll and the following year in 1926, her father Sean (John) died.  In November 1928 her youngest sister Annie passed away at the tragically young age of 43, leaving a young family. These sorrowful events must have been very hard for our poor grandmother to endure.

The Gallagher family with their 5 children moved to Carrigart at a date that I have not yet established, but probably in the late 1920s,  when our grandfather became school principal at Mulroy National School. Our father used say that they looked at Ballyhogan House as a possible rental when they moved to Carrigart, but that his mother (always referred to as ‘Mama’ by all of her children) felt it was too far from the village and so they moved into the house at the top of the street, probably belonging to Mary Anne Maguire, proprietress of the Carrigart Hotel at the time.

Information and anecdotes about our grandmother are few and far between which is astonishing in itself. Aunt May, the eldest in the family told me that she was an excellent seamstress and made beautiful quilts, including one that had the rising sun as a centre piece. With hindsight I have a vague recollection of such a patchwork quilt on my bed when I was very young, but it is only in recent years that I have come to appreciate that I actually lived in the same house where our grandparents had lived and indeed where our grandmother died.  Apart from possibly the quilt, I have no memory of anything about them in the house, no photograph, no belongings, no memories at all.  Aunt May also told me that she and her mother used go to ‘the spout’ outside Carrigart village to collect buckets of fresh spring water.

Mary became ill when the children were quite young and according to our father, she spent a lot of time with her brother Fr. Art who was then a curate in Falcarragh. The curate had a housekeeper and could presumably look after his sister in her illness. Dad said he remembered visiting ‘Mama’ at Uncle Art’s house in Falcarragh and that they could only see her for a very short time as she was very tired.  She seems to have been there for a long time, but young children do have a different perspective of time. He recalls that they were upset that she could not go home with them. According to our neighbour, Mrs Duffy, our grandmother had undergone surgery for breast cancer in Dublin some time before she died. It was she who told me many years ago that she had breast cancer.

I once sat in on a discussion between most of Dad’s siblings and they all recalled being taken to her sick-bed in Carrigart one by one to say kiss and say goodbye to her. I cannot begin to imagine the trauma for the children, nor indeed for a mother having to go through such a deathbed scene. They all recall her saying/asking ‘what will become of poor little Seamus’ who was her youngest child, then only 6 years of age.

Aunt May told me that she herself  was a daily Mass goer and she remembers well on the Saturday morning arriving back home from Mass to be told that her mother had died. This was July 25 1931 and the children were then aged, 6, 8 10, 12 and 14 with Aunt May being the eldest.

The death certificate, which I only recently acquired, shows the cause of death as ‘Carcinoma of the liver, following amputation of breast. (9 months)’. It is very possible and highly probable that our grandmother suffered greatly during her illness. The limitations to pain relief almost a century ago do not bear thinking about. Her death must surly have come as a great relief to older people that her suffering had come to an end, but her children were bereft.

Obituary August 1931 – no mention of the five children!

When our grandmother died the old graveyard in Carrigart was full and the new graveyard had not yet been acquired, so her body was returned to Fanad to be laid to rest with her older sister Nora, her mother and her father, just yards from the grave of her youngest sister Annie. Aunt May seems to be the only one of the siblings to recall the funeral, so perhaps the others remained at home. She told me that after the funeral they went to a nearby establishment for a meal and it was here that she saw and ate baked beans for the first time in her life!

It was this grave that we visited every time we visited the many relations in Fanad. The inscriptions were in Irish and it never occurred to me then that her name was not on the memorial. The grave was opened again just a year later as her eldest brother Francis died in August 1932. His name is transcribed below that of his parents, followed by his wife.  A son of Francis and his wife are also buried here.

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The Friel Grave at Massmount Graveyard.

In recent years our father and his brothers had a plaque placed on the grave in memory of their mother, but it remains my wish to have her name inscribed on the headstone with her sister, mother, father and brother. At the time of writing Mary Friel has great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren. I like to think that they and their descendants would like to know about her. This is all we know.

As our father would often say..’Poor Mama ….God Rest them all’

 

 

 

 

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Leaving the world behind #5 – The kindness of strangers

In the summer of 2016 I spent 6 weeks in a care facility following surgery on a multiple leg fracture. Six long weeks. Six weeks when I wondered what ever would become of me, six long weeks when I had time to contemplate what might lie ahead should I need care that could not be given by my family. Here I observed daily life in a rural nursing home/ care facility populated by elderly who were cared for by enthusiastic young girls and men, and by mostly Phillipino and immigrant nurses. This series of posts are my thoughts on those surreal weeks.

The kindness of strangers.

Totally immobile and in need of help with basics like food preparation, managing stairs, showering etc, the knowledge that I could not go home after surgery dawned slowly but surely. Added to this, a cocktail of pain relieving narcotics frequently resulted in ‘out of body’ type sensations, such as floating and light headedness, or something similar to having had one or two too many glasses of wine, so a solution had to be found. This being that I  would be transferred from hospital to a care facility for 6 weeks until such time as the  plaster cast could be removed and a boot put in its place to prevent weight bearing.

The transfer itself was interesting.  In and out of elevators and wheeled along endless hospital corridors by ambulance crews, we ended up in what looked like a back yard with bins and sundry stuff  lying about. It was lashing rain. The ambulance was parked some distance away and we had to make a dash for it. Brian and Kate were both deeply apologetic that I had to be run through the rain as they could not park any nearer the door! Apparently I was fortunate that this was high summer and not the depths of winter with hailstones and high winds to contend with.

The care facility turned out to be a nursing home populated mainly by elderly and staffed, in the main, by some of the loveliest and kindest human beings I have ever met. Mainly Phillipino men and women, the nursing staff were always smiling, always kind, always helpful, always concerned and always attentive. These people were thousands of miles from their families, yet appreciated that they had jobs, could work and look after the family at home in the Phillipines. One of the senior nurses had worked in Ireland for 15 years. Her husband and 8 children were at home, while the two youngest were with her in Ireland.  Another had been in Ireland for 8 years while his wife and children remained in the Phillipines. He tries to get home once a year to see them. A few of them also had other jobs, caring for elderly in their own home, or perhaps working a shift in another establishment so they could look after their families on the other side of the world.  If asked about their family at home, the tears would well up in their eyes, yet they always had a smile and you would never think that they had such sadness to deal with on a daily basis. 11,500 kilometers is a huge distance between spouses and children.

The care assistants were mostly local young girls, students working through their holidays from nursing or other courses at university. At a guess, the average age of the assistants was about 20 years, desperately young to be caring for older people I thought. But I was wrong. I have never seen such affection and gentleness as these young girls had for the people in their care.

An elderly man, hands gnarled and with his back almost doubled over with arthritis, holds on to one of them, shuffling along as she gently guides him to the comfort of a big armchair in the sitting room. His face is expressionless, he does not speak, yet she talks away to him, encouraging him to take every step.

A frail white haired lady with a walking frame is gently guided towards the dining room; the short journey along the corridor from her room taking all of five minutes but is filled with cheerful banter from the carer about the beautiful flowers by her bedside. There is no response.

Flowers. Guaranteed to lift the spirits. (Image the silver voice)


A girl, who I discovered is all of 19 years old, wheels a profoundly disabled man to lunch in his huge wheelchair with lots of equipment attached. She chats away in an imaginary one sided conversation, and you would hope that he heard what she is saying even if he cannot respond.

At the weekly singalong, a young girl delights a profoundly incapacitated man in a wheelchair by holding his face and singing ‘You are my sunshine’ at close range. Only his gladdened eyes seemed to register what was happening.

A man who has lost his mobile phone for the fifth time in as many hours is distracted by a young girl who invites him to go out to the garden to look at flowers. He forgets his phone and follows her obediently as she expertly distracts him from his huge concern about the phone which  is not in fact lost at all.

All of this personal care is in addition to changing beds, helping patients get up and dressed for the day, serving meals, showering patients, providing cups of tea, all so willingly done, often on 12 hours shifts and on the minimum wage of just over 9 Euro an hour.

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Disco Girls (By Dossier – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29792495)

At the end of their shift on a Saturday night these young girls change into their disco gear, apply their make up and false eyelashes, don short short skirts, do their hair ( one, a brunette in uniform even had long grey tresses), splash on the scent  and head off for a night on the town. They look the same as all the other young things at the pub or disco, but believe me these fabulous girls on minimum wage are making a huge difference to many lives!

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Leaving the world behind #4 – A visit from George Clooney! 

In the summer of 2016 I spent 6 weeks in a care facility following surgery on a multiple leg fracture. Six long weeks. Six weeks when I wondered what ever would become of me, six long weeks when I had time to contemplate what might lie ahead should I need care that could not be given by my family. Here I observed daily life in a rural nursing home/ care facility populated by elderly who were cared for by enthusiastic young girls and men, and by mostly Phillipino and immigrant nurses. This series of posts are my thoughts on those surreal weeks.

A visit from George Clooney! 

Being wheeled off to a ward after surgery was such a relief! Deliciously painfree after 6 days of severe discomfort, the heavily plastered limb totally numb and an array of metalwork now holding it all together, I was on cloud nine! Total immobility was required for a number of days to be followed by some weeks of non weight bearing as any pressure could ‘bend the metal’ or something like that.

Soon after arriving on the new ward, nature called. The red call-button that hung over the bed was duly pressed. An assistant arrived and the request was lodged. Routine stuff in a hospital ward takes a while, so I settled back on my comfortable pillows. Still pleasantly woozy and in a carefree floating hazy drug and anaesthesia induced sort of a stupor, I waited for my Florence Nightingale to return with the appropriate solution to my dilemma.


I  recall lamenting the passing  of the nurse in her starched cap and apron and the colour coded uniforms that distinguished between ward assistants, ancillary nurses, staff nurses and ward sisters. It’s always good to know who you are dealing with. Nowadays they are all in navy pants and tops and lord alone knows who we are speaking to. Its all very confusing. I harbour very real and deep seated fears that anyone, even the tea lady or a porter, might enquire about bowels, and that I may divulge the most personal information to an inappropriate person. What is one to do?

Modern hospital nurses, mixed genders, mixed uniforms!

About five minutes after my call for assistance there was something of a muted buzz of admiration on the all-female ward. From my vantage point furthest from the door, and through my druggy blur, I saw a very-handsome-all-smiling George Clooney lookalike cruise in. Gosh! WHO is HE visiting!  He glided down the ward and I realised that the very attractive lady in the bed opposite was going to be the lucky one…in all probability this is one of her handsome sons. I hoped that my hair, unwashed for a whole week, was not too bedraggled! I adjusted my blue paper hospital gown with the back opening that refused to stay closed and prayed (possibly aloud) that there would not be a bed pan or commode delivered to my cubicle in the presence of such a vision as ‘George’ who was approaching! After all, a girl is never too old to want to impress!

Within seconds ‘George’ with his beautiful smile was standing by my bedside. MY bedside!  MY BEDSIDE! Almost delirious,  I glanced at the envious faces in the other beds. Wishing  to impress, I tried, but failed  to recall the names of his films from deep within my drugged and anaesthetised brain. My blood pressure soared  and I swear my heart stopped! He swished the curtains around my bed, so that it was only me and him! Alone. In a cubicle. I surely have died and gone to heaven!

‘Come here to me now, girl’ says he in a thick County Cork accent, while he pulled back the sheet and revealed a glinting bed pan from somewhere behind his back.  ‘Roll over dere now, girl’ says he, forcing the cold steel into bed beside me. ‘You’re not George Clooney at all’ I muttered, totally mortified. ‘George Clooney?’ Not at all girl! I’m O’Sullivan from Ballydehob. Where are you from yourself?  Let me know when you are ready der, girl, will ya, just press da button’. He swept away as quickly as he came, leaving me scarlet faced,  bewildered and mortified. A spilt second later as I struggled to recover myself, he parted the curtain and asked in the loudest voice I have ever heard : ‘And did da bowels open today, love? If not,would ya like some prune juice? ‘

I hoped the ground would open up and swallow me!

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Leaving the world behind #3 – Company in Bed

In the summer of 2016 I spent 6 weeks in a care facility following surgery on a multiple leg fracture. Six long weeks. Six weeks when I wondered what ever would become of me, six long weeks when I had time to contemplate what might lie ahead should I need care that could not be given by my family. Here I observed daily life in a rural nursing home/ care facility populated by elderly who were cared for by enthusiastic young girls and men, and by mostly Phillipino and immigrant nurses. This series of posts are my thoughts on those surreal weeks.

Company in Bed

Following surgery on my broken leg I was transferred to a care facility by ambulance, to await further orthapaedic treatment. I was quite pleased to discover that I had been allocated a private room with a private bathroom. It smelt peculiar and slightly unpleasant but I resolved to ask if the bathroom might be swabbed down with bleach to freshen  it up. A small window did not allow much light in as it was only about two feet from a high wall, but as I later learned I was very fortunate to have a window at all and doubly fortunate to have a room of my own.

Exhausted after the transfer between institutions and delighted to have some bit of privacy after the 6 bed ward of the acute hospital, I settled into bed early with the TV for company and eventually dozed off.

During the night I became aware that there was someone in the room, and not only in the room, but climbing into the bottom of my bed. ‘Hello’ said he in a very quiet and friendly voice. ‘H..h..h..h..hello’ I blurted as he continued to climb in next to my plaster cast leg as I wondered if I should strike him with it. I said that I thought perhaps he was in the wrong  room, but he told me that I was in HIS bed. All the while I was fumbling for the emergency button and was grateful that at least he was climbing in to the bottom of the bed and not the top end!


After some minutes, help arrived and he was coaxed out of my bed and led back to his own space, further along the corridor.  Apparently he had a tendency to wander and he was regularly retrieved from beds that were not his own as he was confused.

It was an eye opening experience on my first night in a care facility, where patients who were physically capable of wandering about are free to do so.  I was immobile in the bed, with only my heavily plastered leg as a weapon to protect my honour! A close call indeed!

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Leaving the world behind #2 – Meeting Old Nick

In the summer of 2016 I spent 6 weeks in a care facility following surgery on a multiple leg fracture. Six long weeks. Six weeks when I wondered what ever would become of me, six long weeks when I had time to contemplate what might lie ahead should I need care that could not be given by my family. Here I observed daily life in a rural nursing home/ care facility populated by elderly who were cared for by enthusiastic young girls and men, and by mostly Phillipino and immigrant nurses. These are my thoughts on those surreal weeks.

Anastasia and Old Nick.

Anastasia was a truly lovely lady. She was here on a voluntary basis, had settled into her new home and was very content. She was shrewdly observant and made her way to the so called Library after tea each evening where she held court!  She was very proud of the fact that her parents were of a mixed marriage but that her father had insisted the children were all raised Roman Catholics.

She was one of many I met in here who was happy with her lot, content to be someplace where her needs were seen to, where she did not have to worry about looking after herself, about shopping for meals, about doctor appointments, about taking her medicines at the correct times. I do not recall her having had any visitors when I was there. Perhaps she had no immediate family nearby.

She usually announced her arrival in the ‘library’ with the immortal words: ‘Do you believe’? My standard reply was ‘In what? ‘, ‘In ‘Old Nick’ of course’ she would answer. ‘And who on earth is Old Nick?’ I would ask, knowing full well what she meant. ‘Old Nick is the Devil himself ‘ she said and  ‘If you don’t believe in him, he will come to get you’.

Anastasia felt especially safe in her bed at night as a priest had been the previous occupant.  He had been given the Last Rites and died in that bed that was now hers. ‘Can you imagine the prayers that were said in that bed’ she would say? Old  Nick would not dare go near her there!

Every night after my first meeting with Anastasia I wondered who had occupied this bed that was now mine, hopefully temporarily.  How many had slept here?  Had they died? Had they been anointed? And how many were priests?

I will be glad to get back to my own bed, that I have owned from new and that has not been an anointed death bed.

I need to get out of here!

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Leaving the world behind #1 – the ancient mariner. 

In the summer of 2016 I spent 6 weeks in a care facility following surgery on a multiple leg fracture. Six long weeks. Six weeks when I wondered what ever would become of me, six long weeks when I had time to contemplate what might lie ahead should I need care that could not be given by my family. Here I observed daily life in a rural nursing home/ care facility populated by elderly who were cared for by enthusiastic young girls and men, and by mostly Phillipino and immigrant nurses. These are my thoughts on those surreal weeks.

The Ancient Mariner

Tall and distinguished, gold chain hanging from a waistcoat pocket, white shirt, with a perfectly knotted tie and wearing an exquisitely cut grey mohair suit, he arrives to the ‘library’. Probably in his 80s but looking younger, he is walking with a crutch, held backwards. He studies the library shelves, tilting his head slightly to one side to read titles on the vertical spines. Danielle Steele, Maeve Binchy, Patricia Cornwell do not stir any interest. Ian Rankin, Nelson DeMille, Andy McNab? No! The so-called Library consists of two lots of shelves in a chair lined room, with a table on one wall, covered in white linen.

He makes return trips on several consecutive days after his first arrival. The mohair suit and the beautifully knotted tie, to my surprise, are evident each day too. How long before these sartorial  items will be replaced by track suit bottoms and a tee shirt?

Sitting in the corner of a ‘library’ in a care facility, I observe the comings and goings of older people who must leave the world behind when they pass through the locked door. Some for weeks, some for longer, some forever. I wait for my broken leg to heal over possibly six weeks. In six weeks I hope to be on the outside again. Will he ever be back out there to choose his very own reading material, to peruse his own bookshelves for his reading of choice?

He turns and walks towards other shelves and I catch a glimpse of a hearing aid. Other residents are being escorted to the dining room for the last meal of the day, some walking with support, some in wheelchairs, some slowly making their own way on legs that are no longer strong. ‘What  do you like to read’ I ask, quite loudly. ‘SEX’ he responds, in as strong a voice as I have heard within these walls!  ‘ I don’t  think you will find much of that here’ I respond as he goes back to scrutinise the book shelves only feet away from a table shrouded in white linen, adorned with artificial flowers and a pair of  extinguished candles, that lies in wait for the weekly Wednesday morning mass.

SEX. Nothing could be further from life in a care home, in a nursing home, in a home for the elderly. Yet this man seeks it on the few miserable book shelves, populated by popular fiction, easy reading, chick lit, in all likelihood donated on a charitable basis by family of the patients.  What, after all would an older person want? What else could they be expected to read? Several times a day he returns to the bookshelves, almost in disbelief. Where are the books he is interested in? Where are the books suitable for a single former merchant navy seaman on these shelves beside the stark white linen altar, prepared for mass? Bent in disappointment, he swings his reversed crutch and klonks his way towards the dining room.

I need  to get out of here.

 

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The greatest propaganda coup in Fenian history

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The Catalpa Memorial Rockingham Western Australia (Image Thesilvervoice)

It is still billed as the most daring escape ever undertaken, yet it happened over 140 years ago! Years in the planning, and months in the execution, the rescue of six Irish Fenians from Fremantle’s Convict Establishment remains a breathtaking and exciting story, and has been called the ‘greatest propaganda coup in Fenian history’. Yet I wonder how many Irish people have ever heard of it!

John Boyle O’Reilly (see previous post here) was one of  62 Fenian Political prisoners aboard the Hougoumont, the last ship to transport convicts from England to Australia in 1867. Some 17 of these, like Boyle O’Reilly, were military personnel who were charged with recruiting Fenians from within the ranks of the British army.
During the voyage of the Hougoumont the Fenians produced seven weekly hand written newspapers entitled ‘The Wild Goose: A Collection of Ocean Waifs’. The title of the publication was inspired by ‘The Wild Geese’ a name given to Irish soldiers who had gone into exile and who had served in European armies from the 17th century.
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The first page of The Wild Goose, handwritten by Fenian Convicts while being transported to Western Australia. (Image Wikipedia)

Boyle O’Reilly escaped Western Australia in 1869 and went to live in Boston. Over time some of the other convicts were released or given Tickets of Leave, but about 12 of the military convicts were still held. Meanwhile another Fenian John Devoy, a Kildare man, who had been pardoned in England on condition that he go into exile, made his way to America. It was he who received a letter from convict James Wilson, smuggled out of  the Fremantle Establishment, pleading for help to escape.
Boyle O’Reilly and Devoy were instrumental in producing a plan to effect the escape of their comrades still languishing in Western Australia. Devoy attended a Clan na Gael meeting in New York at which he read Wilson’s letter which ended with ‘We think if you forsake us, then we are friendless indeed.

Wilson wrote that his was ‘a voice from the tomb,..For is not this a living tomb’ and said they were facing ‘the death of a felon in a British dungeon.‘ Devoy read the letter at a meeting of Clan na Gael and shouted. ‘These men are our brothers!

In 1875 with financial assistance from thousands of Irishmen via Clan na Gael (an Irish independence support group) the Catalpa, a three masted whaling bark was purchased for $5,550. The plan was for the ship to appear legitimate and to undertake whaling while making its way to Western Australia. Captain George Smith Anthony, an American sympathetic to the cause of the patriotic Irishmen was the trusted whaling captain who skippered the Catalpa that pulled out of New Bedford, Massachusetts on April 29, 1875.

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The Whaling Bark Catalpa (Image Library of Congress)

The Catalpa made her way to the Azores, hunting whales along the way. She dropped off a cargo of whale oil but most of her crew deserted and three got sick. A new crew was recruited.

Meanwhile in September 1875, two Fenian agents, John Breslin and Thomas Desmond arrived in Western Australia. Breslin was a native of Drogheda County Louth and already had credentials in assisting escapes as he had sprung James Stephens the leader of the Fenians from Richmond Prison in 1865. Thomas Desmond was born in Cobh County Cork and emigrated to America at the age of 16. He fought on the Union side of the American Civil War after which he became Deputy Sheriff in San Francisco.

In Western Australia Breslin assumed the identity of a wealthy American Businessman, James Collins. He had a letter of introduction that enabled him to become acquainted with the Governor of Western Australia, who very conveniently took him to the Convict Establishment on a guided tour! Desmond found work as a wheelwright and got to know local Irishmen who agreed to help with the plan. The Catalpa voyage took longer than anticipated as she lost a mast in a storm, but she eventually dropped anchor off Bunbury in Western Australia on March 29, 1876.
Captain Anthony and Breslin met and finalized their plans.  The original escape was scheduled for early April but had to be abandoned due to the arrival of customs officials and Royal Navy ships in the area. The event was reset for Easter Monday when most people, including the Establishment Garrison would be distracted by the annual boating regatta on the Swan river.
On Monday morning April 16 1876, the Catalpa was anchored in International waters. Captain Anthony and a crew rowed a whaleboat ashore to Rockingham, about 20 miles from the prison at Fremantle, and there awaited the arrival of the prisoners.
Breslin and Desmond arrived near the prison with horses and wagons and the 6 prisoners who had all been working outside the walls on that day made their escape. The local helpers cut telegraph wires to ensure that word of the escape could not be spread, and the horses took off at breakneck speed for Rockingham pier. On board the wagons were six Fenians
Robert Cranston, Thomas Darragh, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Martin Hogan and James Wilson.

The Fenians made it to the pier where Captain Anthony and his crew were waiting in the whaling boat. Because the Catalpa was so far out at sea, they would have to row for a number of hours to reach it. They were however spotted by a local man who raised the alarm. When they were about a half mile offshore they saw mounted police and trackers arriving on the shore. Soon after they saw a steamer and a coast guard cutter that had been appropriated by the Royal Navy to intercept them. They rowed like mad with the armed authorities chasing them. They could see the Catalpa in the distance but the steamer Georgette was closing on them. Darkness fell and a gale blew up causing crashing waves to almost submerge the boat. Captain Anthony ordered them to start bailing and they kept rowing for their lives. The Georgette was unable to locate them due to the heavy seas and the lack of light.

At first light the Georgette reappeared, headed alongside the Catalpa and demanded to go aboard. The 1st mate refused. The Georgette was running low on fuel and had to return to shore to refuel. Captain Anthony decided to make a run for it to the Catalpa so they rowed with all their might with a cutter in hot pursuit, but they made it and scrambled aboard. Captain Anthony immediately got the Catalpa under sail to get away, but the wind dropped and the Catalpa lay powerless. By the following morning, those on board the becalmed Catalpa were alarmed to see the Georgette with a 12 pound cannon and armed militia pull alongside. The Fenians and crew on the Catalpa armed themselves and stood ready to die.

SSGeorgette

The Georgette (Image Wikimedia Commons)

The Georgette fired a shot across the bow of the Catalpa and ordered them to stop, saying there had escaped prisoners on board. Captain Anthony’s response was that he only had free men on board and the Georgette responded with a threat to fire on the ship. Still becalmed and in danger of drifting back into Australian waters, Captain Anthony pointed to the American Flag and said : ‘This ship is sailing under the American flag and she is on the high seas. If you fire on me, I warn you that you are firing on the American flag’. The wind increased again and Anthony drove his ship towards the Georgette, narrowly missing its rigging!  The Catalpa headed to sea with the Georgette in pursuit but eventually the British retreated and headed back to the coast. The Fenians were free! They arrived back in the USA four months later to a heroes welcome and news of the astonishing rescue was spread worldwide. Devoy, Breslin and Anthony were hailed as heroes

In 2005 a very impressive memorial to these events was unveiled at Rockingham where the Fenians made their escape. The centerpiece of the memorial is 6 bronze Wild Geese flying out to sea to freedom. Perched on a polished local granite base, the Wild Geese Memorial as it is called, can be seen from some distance away on the Rockingham shoreline.

The entire pillar sits on a bed of ballast stones collected from the holds of many ships that transported people to Western Australia. An engraved image and short bio of each of the escapees is etched onto the granite pillar.

In 2014 the memorial was finally completed with the installation of pillars bearing transcribed pages from the onboard newspaper The Wild Goose, including  part of the the image of the actual page shown above.

The shiny surface makes for challenging photography!

Looking towards Garden Island and the horizon where the Catalpa made her way to freedom.
Rockingham 14 April 2014 2014-04-14 057

 

Robert Cranston was a native of  Stewardstown, Co. Tyrone. He served in the 61st British Infantry. Very little is known about Robert after arriving in New York.

Thomas Darragh was a native of Wicklow. He was a Protestant member of an Orange Lodge and had been decorated for bravery in the British Army.

Michael Harrington was from Macroom, Co. Cork and had been decorated for bravery in the British Army.

Thomas Hassett was a native of Doneraile Co. Cork  and had served in the Papal Brigade in Rome. A previous attempted escape from the Fremantle Establishment failed.

Martin Hogan from Limerick deserted the British Army, was captured and tried. He lay in an unmarked paupers grave until 2014 when a marker was erected by the Fenian Memorial Committee of Chicago.

James Wilson was from Newry Co. Down. He served in the British Army in America, India and Syria he deserted in 1865 but was caught and transported. The last survivor of the Catalpa convicts, he died in 1921 at the age of 85.

In this year when we in Ireland recall the Fenian Rising, it is fitting to recall the events that happened beyond our shores for the same cause.

So come you screw warders and jailers

Remember Perth regatta day

Take care of the rest of your Fenians

Or the Yankees will steal them away 

(Folk song lyrics)

 

References

National Museum of Australia

Smithsonian Magazine

Wikipedia

San Francisco Sheriff’s Department

‘The Voyage of the Catalpa: A perilous journey and six Irish Rebels’ escape to freedom’ by Peter Stevens. 2003 Weidenfeld & Nicolson History

http://www.smithsculptors.com

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