Over the Sea and Far Away: The Catalpa and Fenians

James Boyle O’Reilly Courtesy Wikipedia

In 1866 Fenians, members of the Irish Republic Brotherhood, were arrested. Among the military Fenians prisoners were Robert Cranston, Thomas Darragh, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Martin Hogan, John O’Reilley and James Wilson. In mid-October 1867 the 7 were among 63 Fenians sent to Freemantle Prison in Western Australia. They arrived on 19 January 1868 aboard the Hougougmont, the last convict voyage to Australia. Ashore the Fenians were greeted by guards bearing firearms, ready to escort them to “The Establishment“. While they would suffer physically Cranston, Darragh, Harrington, Hassett, Hogan and Wilson held up under the stress. The same couldn’t be said of O’Reilly, whose mental state was poorly. He tried to commit suicide, but as he lay dying in the desert a fellow prisoner found him. In early 1869 Father Patrick McCabe, who held secret Fenians loyalties, decided it was time to take action. McCabe and another man paid a New England whaling captain to meet O’Reilly in international waters and take him to the US. The scheme was successful, but O’Reilly’s thoughts wandered back to his six comrades.

The years passed slowly for the Fenians left behind. Letters sent from the ‘Freemantle Six’ pleaded for help. Something had to be done. Clan na Gael purchased the bark Catalpa and enlisted Captain George Anthony. Anthony was told of the plot and agreed to take part in it, despite having no connection with Ireland or its people. Anthony left behind his wife, baby daughter and ill mother.

Bark Catalpa Courtesy Library of Congress

The Catalpa set sail on 29 April 1875 bound for the Western Hunting Grounds. The plan was to whale for some time to help defray the costly expedition, and then to proceed to Bunbury, Western Australia. Once there, the inside men in Australia would set up the prisoners’ escape to the Catalpa. As far as the entire crew knew it was just an ordinary whaling trip. Clan na Gael had put one of their own men on the ship with Anthony’s approval. Dennis Duggan was the ship’s carpenter. Several ‘exciting’ events awaited the crew of the Catalpa at the hunting grounds.  First Mate Samuel Smith was knocked unconscious by a whale and almost eaten by sharks, Anthony aided a British whaler in distress and a number of whales were caught. In Fayal, the Catalpa dropped the barrels of whale oil off before sailing for Australia.

Anthony worried over when and what to tell Smith regarding the mission’s true intent, fearing that Smith would be angry at having been deceived. After leaving Fayal, Anthony confessed. Smith was at first shocked, but took it rather well. He pledged to “stick by” Anthony until the bitter end. Anthony didn’t inform the rest of the crew, but let them think he was headed to New Zealand to do more whaling. With a non-functional chronometer, storms and a run-in with the consulate in Tenerife, the Catalpa fell behind schedule. As the she pushed on through the defiant sea, the men Clan na Gael had sent to Freemantle worked on setting up the prisoners’ escape.

On 29 March 1876 the Catalpa arrived in Bunbury near Freemantle, where the man Clan na Gael had sent, John Breslin, was staying. Anthony and Breslin planned and discussed the escape set for April 6th. But delay after delay put it off until April 17th. On the 16th, as the Catalpa stood in international waters, Anthony and a few crewmembers boarded the whaleboat and rowed for the shore. They were nearly killed when they happened on the breakers. Once ashore the waiting began. Anthony told his crew that they were picking up paying passengers who were going to New Zealand. The next day, Anthony spotted a work crew carrying lumber to a nearby jetty. The head of the work crew told Anthony they were there to load lumber on the SS Georgettewhich was slowly steaming its way to the jetty at that very moment.

Freemantle Prison 1859 Courtesy Wikipedia

At Freemantle the emaciated six prisoners rounded one another up and walked off to meet Breslin. They were taken in two buggies, Breslin in charge of one and compatriot Thomas Desmond of another. Sometime after 10 AM Breslin and Desmond arrived on the beach with their cargo. The crew, Anthony, Breslin, Desmond and the prisoners jumped into the boat and rowed madly for the Catalpa. As they did, the police appeared on the beach. As of now they could do nothing. The whaleboat’s progress was slow going.

By the next day they still hadn’t gotten aboard the Catalpa (but they had survived a storm the night before) and now the Georgette, loaded with police, was steaming for the whaler. If they had to, they’d take the Catalpa by force. In the whaleboat everyone laid down as the Georgette steamed right by them. They were not spotted. First Mate Smith, who was in charge of the Catalpa while Anthony was away, had a brief exchange with the Georgette. When they official said he was going to board the Catalpa and search for Irish prisoners, Smith became very vocal about his opinion of international waters. Lucky for hard-nosed Smith the Georgette needed to head back to Freemantle for more coal. Judging by the weather the Georgette’s captain didn’t think the Catalpa would be going anywhere for some time. Back in the whaleboat Desmond spotted another boat filled with law enforcement headed their way. As the whaleboat’s crew rowed for the Catalpa, Smith maneuvered the whaler over to the whaleboat. They were picked up in the nick of time. Meanwhile the police didn’t think it wise to board. Their decision to return to the shore was probably influenced by the fact that the Fenians were armed and very much ready to die for their freedom, rather than return to Freemantle.

The whaleboat being picked up by the Catalpa. The Georgette steaming in the background. 1st Mate Smith pictured on top right Courtesy Library of Congress

The next morning the Georgette was back. Anthony decided it was time to tell the crew what was up. Smith armed the shocked crew to the teeth, ready to do battle. Aboard the Georgette a cannon was ready to fire grapeshot at the Catalpa. When all was said and done the Catalpa freely sailed away. Not wanting to cause a scandal by boarding an American ship in international waters, the Georgette returned to the shore.  They voyage home wasn’t without trouble. The 2nd Mate died and the Fenians protested Anthony’s decision to prolong the voyage by continuing to whale. The ex-prisoners feared they would be captured by a British warship, a fear not without substance. The Freemantle Six’s fears didn’t mean they were ungrateful. Indeed they were, Darragh especially. And at Anthony’s homecoming in New Bedford, Hassett would be present. They arrived on 19 August 1876 free at last.

Source: Stevens, Peter F. The Voyage of the Catalpa: A Perilous Journey and Six Irish Rebels’ Escape to Freedom

Freemantle Six Courtesy Wikipedia


61 thoughts on “Over the Sea and Far Away: The Catalpa and Fenians

    • Terrible is right! I had a look at Wikipedia. There was a photo of a recreated 1855 prison cell. It was so tiny! You know when they have a mental asylum nearby to take prisoners gone mad, something had to be wrong. Thanks for your comment!


    • Transported convicts were often treated unbelievably badly. Norfolk Island was where the worst convicts were sent and the conditions there were torturous. http://www.pitcairners.org/settlements2.html

      The book ‘The Fatal Shore’, by Robert Hughes, is one of my favourites. The fact that any convicts survived at all, let alone thrived after release, makes me very proud to have some as my ancestors. No wonder Australians are so anti-authoritarian!


    • The local library has “The Fatal Shore”. I also noticed another book on their shelves regarding Australia history. It’s called “A commonwealth of thieves” by Thomas Keneally. Do you know if that one is any good?

      I read the info on the page you linked. Sad. Terrible anyone had to live in such conditions. Kind of makes a person’s stomach turn.


    • I haven’t read that one but Thomas Keneally wrote the book ‘Schindler’s Ark’ which was adapted to make the movie Schindler’s List. The reviews I just looked at seem to suggest it is a bit dry but good on facts.

      I find it amusing that after all these years references to our convict history are still regularly used in a derogatory way towards us. We are proud of it, not ashamed at all!


    • In a way Australians and Americans have some things in common. Before Australia became a popular place for “marrooning” convicts and before the American Revolution, Britain sent ‘convicts’ over here as indentured servants.


    • The British certainly spread their problems around the world, didn’t they! My Great Great Grandfather was transported to South Africa. When the ship arrived the authorities refused to let the convicts off and it had to keep going to Van Diemens land. Records show he continued as a total ratbag over here so they were probably better off without him, and it is just as well he was sent here otherwise I wouldn’t exist!


    • That’s very interesting, especially how a little twist in events can change the future. Your quote: “otherwise I wouldn’t exist!” And that would be a pity, otherwise I wouldn’t get in such enjoyable reading over at your blog 😀


    • Thank you! 😀
      It is amazing how small things affect our small part of the world, I marvel at my own little family, my dad’s family were either hardworking goldminers or ratbag convicts and my mum is a more recent arrival whose family history was a class of British that would never have mixed with the likes of them… yet, here I am!!


    • That’s neat, you’ve got a unique heritage. My grandfather was a maverick. He ventured from Kentucky and then to Canada, where he lived and was said to have operated his own fishing fleet around the time of the rum-runners. Makes a person wonder. Anyhow, he returned to the US in the 1930s but settled in another state. My grandmother’s father was also a maverick and a Cherokee Indian. Unfortunately my grandparents died before I was born.


  1. Great re-telling of a very familiar story. As a South Australian, of Irish descent, the song “The Catalpa” is one we loved singing and with great gusto.
    “So come all you screw warders and jailers, remember Perth-regatta day. Take care of the rest of your Fenians, or the Yankees will steal them away.” 🙂 … thanks for the reminding.


  2. French-Canadian patriots were also deported to Australia.
    One of my ancestors David Alexandre was lucky, He was not a leader so they left him alone. Thanks for this page of History.
    We share the same passion.



    • Oh, Pierre … this is so fascinating. I’m guessing that the French-Canadians were challenging Britain, in the same way that the Irish were … and so were actually “political prisoners” sent off “downunder” for the same reason. Can you give some more info, links to websites… or whatever? Best of wishes, Catherine


    • I found the subject quite by accident, while browsing my libraries bookshelves. There’s much more to the story, but I had to cut it down for this post. Thanks for your comment!


  3. Pingback: Irish rap and street music scene | Machholz's Blog

    • I think most of them were in too much shock. It was kind of sudden. The Georgette appears and fires two warning shots at the Catalpa, Anthony and Smith are telling the crew that if they don’t get away they’re likely to share a new home with the Fenians at Freemantle. I can imagine the looks on those poor crewmen’s faces!

      Thanks for your comment!


    • Lucky for them the Georgette let them go! I’m sure they were wondering exactly what was going on throughout the days, but I’m still surprised Anthony was able to keep it from them for so long.


  4. Thanks for sharing this story! I never realized the prisoners were treated so badly! It’s something I’ve never really looked into but now I want to know more! Thanks for sparking my interest!


    • Here in Australia, where this actually happened, we were never taught about this either. Not at all surprising, given the “politics” of the time. The “yankees” who “stole the Fenians away” were, as I understand it, Irishmen/sympathisers who were not powerful in mainstream USA politics, at that time. Please correct me, if I’m wrong. Cheers.


    • From what I gather the Catalpa crew, captain included, had no ‘connection’ to Ireland. The carpenter Dennis Duggan was a Fenian. Breslin, who had journeyed from the US, was Irish but posing as an American business man, while setting up the escape. Desmond, Breslin’s ‘co-worker’, was also an Irishman living in the US. There were a few more Irishman that had come from the US to assist in the escape.

      Anthony agreed to do his part because he thought it was the decent thing to do. So for the most part there were very few Yankees that knew of the plan they were undertaking. The whole thing made headlines here though once it was done. Much of the American public was thrilled with the escape. Forgive me for rattling on like this, I didn’t mean too 🙂


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