Relations between Irish people and Australians tend, on the whole, to be excellent – even though our respective impenetrable accents and their occasional use of odd expressions like ‘strewth’ and ‘ripper’ make conversation virtually impossible. But we still manage to get on. in part, it must be recognised, this is because of our mutual antipathy to whinging poms. However, even though a goodly percentage of Aussie DNA originated in Ireland, good relations between the people of our two great republics … oops, sorry, Australia still has the monarch, doesn’t it? Let me rephrase that so … good relations between our two great nations was not necessarily a given. That’s because, for many years, Australia was little more than a massive prison camp for Irish persons who had a jaundiced attitude towards said monarch ie. Irish rebels.
This weekend, one hundred and twenty-four years ago, a rather unusual Irish emigrant ship arrived off the coast of Western Australia. It was a bit different because it wasn’t bringing any Irish emigrants to Australia, it was removing half a dozen of them. The ship, a whaler from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was called the Catalpa and it was probably the most extraordinary sea-going vessel in Irish republican history, until the Asgard landed weapons in Howth in 1914.
The function of the Catalpa was to transport a number of former Irish rebels from Freemantle to New York. The difficulty was that these six gentlemen, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, had not actually been formally released from prison. They had to be sprung first!
The Catalpa was a whaling ship that had been purchased by the great Irish-American Fenian John Devoy, leader of Clan na Gael, with the intention of bringing off this outrageous coup. Only the captain, George Anthony, had any idea that the ship wasn’t setting sail from New Bedford in April 1875, to kill defenceless whales.
In tandem with the covert sea voyage, two Fenian agents, John Breslin from New York and Thomas Desmond from San Francisco, were sent to Western Australia to pose as American businessmen and to do the groundwork that would allow the six Fenian prisoners to escape from a work detail and make it to the Catalpa. Breslin even managed to befriend no less a personage than the governor of Western Australia. Not bad for an undercover Fenian. Desmond’s job was to organise transport and to make sure news of the escape did not emerge until the convicts were safely on board their rescue ship.
The Catalpa arrived off the coast of Western Australia in late March 1876, dropped anchor in international waters, and waited. Onshore the six Fenian prisoners, having managed to slipped away from their work detail, were escorted by Breslin and Desmond to a small boat that would take them to the rescue ship. Desmond had organised that all telegraph communications were to be cut. Captain Anthony was waiting with the boat, whose departure was delayed by appalling weather. Crew and convicts spent a number of tense hours waiting to be discovered before the rowing boat could be taken off the beach. By the time that happened word of the escape had got out and a British military vessel, the Georgette, had been sent to intercept the skiff and/or the Catalpa itself.
But the prisoners managed to reach the Catalpa before they could be intercepted. In doing so they played cat and mouse with a police cutter carrying thirty armed men on board. They barely managed to win the race to the whaling ship anchored just outside the three mile limit.
When the Georgette drew alongside the Catalpa it attempted to manoeuvre Anthony’s ship into Australian waters. Warning shots were fired. It was only when Captain Anthony raised a US flag that the Georgette backed off and allowed the Catalpa to begin its journey to New York with its six freed prisoners. It arrived there, to a tumultuous Irish-American welcome, on 19 August. A grateful Clan na Gael made a gift of the ship to George Anthony.
But there was a seventh prisoner who didn’t make it. A Fenian named John Kiely was left behind in Freemantle. Why? Because his compatriots had concluded that he was working as an informer for the prison authorities. So, although the Catalpa did rescue half a dozen IRB prisoners from Freemantle prison, it did not, technically, carry off all the Fenians left in captivity in Western Australia.