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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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)
National Museum of Australia
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