Catalpa: The gripping story of a spectacular Fenian prison break in Australia

It was one of the most audacious prison escapes in the history of the British Empire. In the 1870s, Irish nationalists based in the United States plotted to spring six Fenians from a penal colony in Western Australia.

They enlisted the support of George Anthony, a swashbuckling whaling captain from Massachusetts, to travel across two oceans in a ship, the Catalpa.

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His mission was to pick up the escaped convicts near Fremantle Prison and carry them off back to America, where they could live again in freedom.

One of the remarkable features of the Catalpa story is that it is hardly celebrated in Ireland at all. The Australian author, Peter FitzSimons, who has written several bestsellers in his home country, hopes to give the jailbreak its due place in history.

“It’s a story that is of interest in four countries – Australia, Ireland, Britain and the United States,” he says.

In another life as a young adult, FitzSimons was renowned as a rugby international for the Wallabies. He says that reading about the Fenians has stirred up his own interest in his Irish roots.

His grandfather came from Donaghadee, Co Down. Peter says that when his grandfather arrived in Australia in 1889, he was so uncertain about what to expect that he walked down the gangplank with a pistol in his pocket.

As chair of the republican movement, FitzSimons campaigns to replace Queen Elizabeth as head of state in Australia.

“We now have the support of 50pc of the Australian people,” he says

After delving into the history of the Catalpa rescue and the attitudes in the region where the escape happened, FitzSimons says: “Many of the people of Fremantle and [the nearby city] Perth were on the side of the Fenian prisoners. In Australia, that is in our convict, anti-authoritarian strain of blood.”

The plan for a daring escape was advocated by John Devoy, the Fenian leader from Kildare, who was living in exile and working as a journalist on the New York Herald.

Shocked by reports of the living conditions of Irish political prisoners in the penal colony, Devoy believed a special unit could be sent to overwhelm the jailers, and bring the Fenians back to the United States.

Devoy said in his initial plans: “We should send from 12 to 15 carefully selected men, fully armed, on a ship calling at an Australian port, get them ashore in some way unobserved… and take the prisoners off, by main force if necessary.”

According to FitzSimons, others in the movement believed that the prisoners would have to be freed by stealth and trickery. They believed it should be done through “finesse not force”.

And so began a remarkable story of deception that hoodwinked the British authorities as they held the Fenians in a jail that was known by inmates as a “living tomb”.

The breakout, devised over a long distance, was fiendishly elaborate, but simply executed.Two Fenians, John Breslin and Thomas Desmond, travelled over to Fremantle and assumed fake identities, calling themselves James Collins and Tom Johnson.

In his Collins persona, Breslin posed as a wealthy landowner and mining magnate, ­hoping to do business in Fremantle. As Tom Johnson, Desmond got a job as a carriage maker.

The two men made contacts in the area and plotted the escape. Breslin became such an establishment figure in Fremantle that he was even given an official tour of the jail.

He was able to make contact with the Fenian inmates. According to FitzSimons, the escape plan relied on the fact that the prisoners were given work tasks outside the jail. And sometimes security was lax.

Having somehow acquired a set of keys, one of the Fenian prisoners, Robert Cranston, convinced a guard that he was under orders to fetch two other prisoners, James Wilson and Michael Harrington, to move furniture in the governor’s house. With a fake letter of authorisation, he approached them while they were working at the local harbour, and they headed off together.

Another prisoner, Martin Hogan, who was carrying out a painting task, distracted the warders by saying he had to go off to refill a can.

He then met up with two other Fenians, Thomas Darragh and Thomas Hassett, who were planting potatoes and were so trusted that they did not have a guard with them.

Having sneaked away, the six prisoners were then picked up by Breslin and Desmond in horse wagons, and they sped off on a 12-mile journey to Rockingham Beach.

There Captain George Anthony was waiting with a small boat, ready to transport them from the shore to the ship Catalpa.

Meanwhile, Irish nationalist sympathisers in the town cut the telegraph wires, making communication for the authorities in the area impossible.

Suddenly, back at the jail, guards began to notice that prisoners were missing and it dawned on the warders that they had been duped.

FitzSimons says one of his favourite episodes in the escape is the pre-written message placed in a bottle thrown into the sea by Breslin as they moved away from the shore. It was addressed “To his Excellency, the Governor of Western Australia”.

It read: “This is to certify that I have this day released from the clemency of Her Most Gracious Majesty Victoria, Queen of Great Britain, six Irishmen, condemned to imprisonment for life… for having been guilty of the atrocious and unpardonable crimes known to the unenlightened portion of mankind as ‘love of country’ and ‘hatred of tyranny’… In the service of my country, John J Breslin.”

The Fenians had got one over on the British authorities, and their audacious escape was celebrated back home in Ireland and in America.

‘The Catalpa Rescue’ is published by Constable

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