Pres­i­dent serves time in Aus­tralia’s ‘Fe­nian’ prison

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - News - Kirsty Blake Knox in Perth

WITH 243 rel­a­tives liv­ing in Queens­land, 24 speeches to make, two “smok­ing cer­e­monies” to par­tic­i­pate in, count­less plaques to be un­veiled, and thou­sands of hands to shake, Pres­i­dent Michael D Hig­gins be­gan his ex­haus­tive 24-day tour of Aus­tralia this week­end.

Hav­ing ar­rived in Perth, con­sid­ered to be the third windi­est city in the world, Pres­i­dent Hig­gins be­gan with a visit to Fre­man­tle Prison.

The im­pos­ing fortress was once home to Irish con­victs and po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers.

It is also the set­ting of one of his­tory’s great­est prison es­capes when a Quaker whal­ing cap­tain, a Fe­nian news­pa­per edi­tor, and an Ir­ish­man mas­querad­ing as an Amer­i­can mil­lion­aire sailed half way around the world from Bos­ton to Perth to free six Fe­nian pris­on­ers.

“Did the pris­on­ers not sleep in beds?” Sabina Hig­gins asked, peer­ing through the doors of one of the cells.

In­side the cramped cells, ham­mocks hung list­lessly.

In an­other, the room was cov­ered in del­i­cate sketches that a man, in­car­cer­ated for forgery, had etched on the walls.

Both Sabina and the Pres­i­dent said that vis­it­ing the prison, par­tic­u­larly the soli­tary con­fine­ment cells, was a sober­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Pres­i­dent Hig­gins has close ties to Aus­tralia. Even be­fore the fi­nal ship of Irish con­victs was sent to Fre­man­tle, his great great un­cle Pa­trick Hig­gins, a cham­pion plough­man, had ar­rived in Aus­tralia.

Pa­trick Hig­gins was the first per­son to drive a steam plough in Aus­tralia, and won nu­mer­ous prizes for his plough­ing skills in the Dar­ling Downs.

He set­tled and had a large fam­ily. As a re­sult, Pres­i­dent Hig­gins can now boast of hav­ing close to 250 rel­a­tives in Queens­land alone.

It seems un­likely he will man­age to meet up with all of them, but he plans to visit the fam­ily plot in War­wick Ceme­tery.

To­day Pres­i­dent Hig­gins will at­tend the Aus­tralasian GAA Cham­pi­onship Games be­fore the for­mal State visit be­gins in earnest to­mor­row when he will be a guest at Gov­ern­ment House in Perth.

LOCK­DOWN: Pres­i­dent Michael D Hig­gins vis­its Fre­ma­tle jail

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