Freotopia > organisations > Fenians. See also: Fremantle Fenians.

Irish Republican Brotherhood, aka Fenians

From 1865 to 1867, British authorities rounded up supporters of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, an Irish independence movement, and transported sixty-two of them to the penal colony of Western Australia. They were convicted of crimes ranging from treason-felony to outright rebellion. Sixteen were soldiers who were court-martialled for failing to report or stop the treason and mutinous acts of the others. Among them was John Boyle O'Reilly, later to become the editor of the Boston newspaper The Pilot. They were sent on the convict ship Hougoumont which arrived at Fremantle on 9 January 1868, and were interned in the Convict Establishment (now Fremantle Prison). Wikipedia.

Bernie Brophy:
Of the 62 Fenians who were transported to Fremantle, upon their discharge or escape, 11 returned to Ireland, 30 went to the USA, 18 remained in Australia and it is not known for certain where the other three ended up. The most famous of the Fenians was John Boyle O’Reilly who escaped to America and became a leading writer, editor and poet in Boston. Of those who remained in Australia, 11 took up permanent residence in WA, three in NSW, two in Queensland and two in Victoria.

Some excitement was caused by the fact that the Hougoumont, which was the last convict vessel to arrive, brought amongst others thirty-eight Fenians. Fearing that attempts might be made to rescue them the vessel was escorted for some distance from England by a man-of-war. Fenian cruisers were said to be on the watch to effect a rescue. The knowledge that these people were coming to Western Australia caused some consternation, not only in the colony but in Victoria and South Australia as well. The Governor promised to send to Sydney for a warship, and did so almost immediately after the Hougoumont arrived, with the result that H.M.S. Brisk was sent over early in February and remained at Fremantle for several months The Fenians, however, were model prisoners—until the time was ripe, when they effected their escape in quite a dramatic manner. Battye, Cyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 172

The only incident of interest in connection with the Establishment itself during these years was the escape of six Fenian prisoners in 1876. This was effected through the instrumentality of an American (John Collins), assisted by Captain Antony, of the American whaler Catalpa. Arriving at Fremantle late in 1875 Collins secured employment in a carriage factory and quietly made himself thoroughly conversant with the methods of the Convict Establishment and the nature of the country to the south of Fremantle. Through the medium of a Fenian expiree (James Wilson) he was brought into communication with six Fenian convicts who, on account of their good behaviour, were not subjected to strict supervision. A favourable moment for escape arrived when the Catalpa put into Bunbury. By arrangement the six men left Fremantle in buggies on April 18, 1876, for Rockingham. When their departure became known they were hotly pursued by the police, who found on arrival at Rockingham that the convicts had been picked up by a whaleboat in waiting, which had then put out to sea. The Catalpa being the only whaler known to be on the coast, the police returned to Fremantle and put off in the police boat in search of her. After sighting her they fell in with the steamer Georgette, also in search, and learned that the Catalpa had been spoken to, but denied having convicts on board. Deciding to watch they saw the whaler move northward, and on following observed a whaleboat making toward her. An exciting chase ensued, but the police were unsuccessful in preventing the Catalpa from picking up the boat and had to return to Fremantle. The Georgette was then sent out armed in the hope of meeting the whaler in territorial waters. The two ships met outside Rottnest. The Superintendent of Police demanded the convicts and threatened to fire. The captain of the Catalpa denied that any convicts were on board, and quietly pointed to the American flag. The police, chagrined, had to return empty handed to Fremantle, after intimating that the United States Government would be communicated with. Governor Robinson forwarded a full account to the Secretary of State, who after investigating the circumstances decided that the matter was not one for diplomatic negotiation, and the Fenians remained under the United States flag. The incident created great irritation in the colony, which felt itself flouted, but no doubt the British Government was not displeased to get rid so easily of men who, after all, were only political prisoners. Battye, Cyclopedia, vol. 1, pp. 210-211.

West Australian Times 28 April 1876 p. 2:
The following details in reference to the recent escape of Fenian Prisoners from Fremantle have been supplied from a source which may be relied upon; and we are glad of the opportunity of laying them before our readers while the events which they describe are fresh in the public memory.
About 10 am, on the morning of Easter Monday it was reported at the Fremantle Police Station that six Fenian prisoners had absconded from the works at Fremantle. Immediate search was instituted, and constables sent out to track up the absconders along South Beach as far as Rockingham. … The men were at first supposed to be concealed in some premises at Fremantle; but upon search being made, this proved not to be the case. …
At 1.30 am, a man named Bell arrived in Fremantle from Rockingham, with the intelligence that a whale boat had put in there with a man that seemed to be an American and six coloured men on board. This was about 9 am, and about two hours afterwards a man on horseback and about eight or ten others in three separate traps arrived at the same spot from Fremantle. They all had jumped into the boats, and put out to sea. As they were pulling off, Bell asked what was to be done with the horses and traps. He was told they might go to—, but Bell left them in charge of his own people and hurried off to Fremantle to give the alarm; the traps, two four wheelers and one two wheeler having been previously examined, when three prison hats with numbers on them, a quantity of Patent Revolver Ammunition, a cloth gun-cover, and a bottle of wine, were found in them.
On arrival at Fremantle, Bell was unable to say how many were in the traps. He believed, however, there were about ten altogether, who had guns and revolvers in their possession. When the boat in which they embarked, was last seen by Bell, about 11 am, it was making for the Southern passage.
At 2 pm, the Water Police Boat, with Coxswain Mills, four Water Police and two land Police constables left Fremantle in pursuit.
At 8.45 [2.45?] pm, the steamer Georgette also left Fremantle in pursuit, having on board the Superintendent of Water Police, Major Finnerty and a party of Pensioners, Sergt. McLarty and seven land Policemen. In the meantime it had been ascertained, through the Police, that the absconders had left the Rockingham Timber Company's Station, in a whale boat, and gone out through the Southern passage. Two of the Land Police, while going along the beach, got sight of the boat bearing South, under sail about four miles from shore, and going towards Mandurah. These constables lost no time in pushing on to that place in the hope of intercepting the boat. …
At 3.50 pm, the Georgette was sighted coming round Garden Island through the Challenger Passage towards Fremantle.
At 5 pm, when the Georgette returned from her look-out for the absconders, it was reported that she had gone up to the whale ship Catalpa at 11 am that morning off the Murray River. She was hove-to, apparently waiting for some object. The Superintendent of water police asked the officer in charge if he had any strangers on board; to which he replied, "No!" He was then asked if the Captain was on board and again answered "No!" When the question was put to him where the Captain was, he replied he had gone to Fremantle, and was expected back during the day. The Superintendent of water police then inquired whether he might go on board; when the officer replied that he had positive instructions not to allow anybody on board during the Captain's absence from the ship. During this time the water police boat came up, and the coxswain reported that they had seen nothing of the whale boat; and as the steamer was short of coal and provisions, she returned to Fremantle, leaving the police kept to look out. … However they kept a good look out, but never saw the whale boat afterwards. …
At 9 am, off Cape de Verd, the Catalpa was sighted, and at 2 pm, the whale boat with the absconders and others was seen, in all about fourteen men. The Georgette had left the vessel two hours previously for Fremantle. The police boat ran down towards the whale boat, with the view of intercepting her, but the vessel also seeing the boat coming, bore down, and they both came together before the police boat could get up. All hands in the boat climbed up the ship's side as quickly as possible, and the Catalpa, immediately hoisted the American Flag. The police boat then hoisted the British Flag. The police boat ran up within about fifty yards of the vessel, and the corporal in charge recognised nearly 14 all the escaped convicts, some of them being at the time in their prison dress. They all immediately ran below, but came up armed, and stood in a line by the bulwarks facing the police boat. As there was apparently no chance of recovering the prisoners from the vessel, the police boat returned to Fremantle; and … the Georgette, with the Superintendent of water police, Major Finnerty, and a party of pensioners and water police, again went off in pursuit.
On the morning of Tuesday, the 18th the Catalpa was sighted off Rottnest, and the Georgette got alongside of her at 8 pm; some of the absconders were recognized. The Superintendent of water police hailed the Captain and taxed him with having the absconders on board his ship. He however, denied that he had. The Superintendent then observed that he could see them on board; upon which the prisoners immediately ran out of sight. The Superintendent then demanded the prisoners but the Captain refused to give them up. The Captain was then told that he would have a quarter of an hour to consider whether he would give them up or not. If he then refused he would have to put up with the consequences. The Captain laughed and said, "If you fire on this vessel, you fire at that Flag," pointing to the American Flag which was flying from the vessel at the time. The Superintendent of water police asked permission to board the vessel, but the Captain refused him. The Georgette then returned to Fremantle; the Superintendent of water police having been instructed not to fire on the Catalpa unless she fired first.
The foregoing is a plain, unvarnished statement of facts connected with the late Fenian escapade. The plan was very skilfully laid and succeeded quite as well as the absconders and their abettors could possibly have expected. Not a blow was struck, and not a shot fired; but a lesson has been learnt which the authorities will no doubt profit by hereafter.

References and Links

Amos, Keith 1988, The Fenians in Australia 1865-1880, NSWUP.

Barry, Liam 1992, The Dramatic Escape of Fenian John Boyle O'Reilly, CFN Publications, Australind.

Barry, Liam 2006, Voices from the Tomb: A Biographical Dictionary of the 62 Fenians Transported to Western Australia, National Gaelic Publications.

Battye, J.S. 1924, Western Australia: A History from its Discovery to the Inauguration of the Commonwealth, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Evans, A.G. 1997, Fanatic Heart: A Life of John Boyle O'Reilly 1844-1890, UWAP.

Fennell, Thomas McCarthy 2000, Voyage of the Hougoumont and Life at Fremantle, ed Philip Fennell & Marie King, privately published.

Fitzsimons, Peter 2019, The Catalpa Rescue, Hachette, Sydney.

Pease, Z.W. 2002, The Catalpa Expedition, Hesperian Press. Available online from Project Gutenberg.

Reece, Bob ed. 1991, Exiles from Erin: Convict Lives in Ireland and Australia, Macmillan.

Waters, Ormonde D.P. 2011, The Fenian Wild Geese, Catalpa Publications.

Articles &c.

Graham, Allen 2007, 'Patrick Moloney: the story of a Femantle publican and his connection to the Fenian Fright of 1881', Fremantle Studies, 5: 40-62.

Heseltine, William 2004, 'The escape of the military Fenians from Fremantle Prison: the warders' perspective', Fremantle Studies, 3: 26-45.

Murray, Sandra 2007, 'Escape! Fremantle to Freedom: an exhibition on the Irish Fenian convicts and their bold escape from the Fremantle Prison to America', Fremantle Studies, 5: 74-86.

Oldman, Diane, 'Traitors or heroes', PDF doc on this site, originally published in Between the Lines, a publication of the Rockingham Family History Society, December 2013.

Reece, Bob ed. 2000, 'The Irish in Western Australia', Studies in Western Australian History, 20.

See also:

Hugh Brophy, James Kiely.

Patrick Keating, bio by Diane Oldman on her Crimean War Vets site.

Thomas Booler played an unwitting part in the Fenian Escape - page by Diane Oldman on her Sappers and Miners site.


Fremantle Fenians.

Garry Gillard | New: 1 July, 2016 | Now: 10 November, 2023