Prison break tale en­thrals new gen­er­a­tion

Southern Telegraph - - NEWS - Pierra Wil­lix

A res­cue so dar­ing it has be­come known as the most suc­cess­ful prison break in Aus­tralian his­tory — the es­cape of six Ir­ish po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers 143 years ago — is the sub­ject of a new book, which was launched this week on the an­niver­sary of the in­fa­mous Catalpa Res­cue.

On Easter Mon­day in 1876, six Ir­ish Fe­ni­ans who had been im­pris­oned for their po­lit­i­cal views man­aged to flee one of the most re­mote and im­preg­nable pris­ons in the Bri­tish Em­pire.

Years in the mak­ing, the idea for the res­cue was hatched in New York two years ear­lier when mem­bers of the Clan-na-Gael, ag­i­ta­tors for Ir­ish free­dom from Eng­lish op­pres­sion, de­cided to fight back against the Eng­lish and free the pris­on­ers from the most re­mote prison in the Bri­tish Em­pire, Fre­man­tle Gaol.

The res­cue was or­ches­trated by Ir­ish rebel leader John Devoy, who had been ex­iled to the US af­ter being re­leased from prison.

In 1874, Devoy re­ceived a let­ter that had been smug­gled across the globe, and de­tailed how Ir­ish po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Fre­man­tle Gaol said they were “in a liv­ing tomb”.

Al­to­gether, 62 Fe­ni­ans, con­victed of crimes rang­ing from “trea­son-felony” to out­right re­bel­lion, had been trans­ported to WA in 1868 on the last Aus­tralian con­vict ship, the Houge­mount. With many pris­on­ers sen­tenced to a life of hard labour in the harsh Aus­tralian cli­mate, many had been as­signed back­break­ing work.

Upon re­ceiv­ing the call for assistance, Devoy en­listed the help of Ge­orge Smith An­thony, a Protes­tant sea cap­tain, to help res­cue the Fe­ni­ans. Un­der the guise of a whale hunt, Smith An­thony set out with his crew on the Catalpa to WA to res­cue the men, only reach­ing the shores af­ter a nine-month jour­ney.

The plan was to have the Catalpa wait off the coast while a small boat waited closer to shore to help take the men to free­dom.

On the day of the res­cue, the es­capees — Thomas Dar­ragh, Martin Ho­gan, Michael Har­ring­ton, Thomas Has­sett, Robert Cranston and James Wil­son — broke away from their work gangs and met up with two Fe­nian agents who had been sent to the colony ahead of the res­cue and were wait­ing for the es­capees.

They trav­elled in horse-traps south to Rock­ing­ham pier, where one of the Catalpa’s whal­ing boats was wait­ing for them.

How­ever, soon the es­cape was dis­cov­ered, and po­lice cut­ters from Fre­man­tle and Bun­bury were out seek­ing the es­capees.

Gov­er­nor Wil­liam Cleaver Robinson had also despatched the steamer

Ge­or­gette with a con­tin­gent of the colony’s Pen­sioner Guard. On the morn­ing of April 18, the Ge­or­gette found the Catalpa, but po­lice were re­fused onboard as the ship was in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters out­side the colony’s three mile limit.

Af­ter steam­ing around, the Ge­or­gette was forced to go back into Fre­man­tle for coal. The Fe­ni­ans were fi­nally brought safely onboard the whale­boat, nar­rowly avoid­ing cap­ture.

The tri­umphant res­cue had been funded by more than 7000 Ir­ish Amer­i­cans who, upon the Fe­ni­ans’ re­turn to New York, of­fered them a warm wel­come.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Mu­seum, one of the last­ing lega­cies of the event was a song, sung in the streets and pubs across the State, much to the an­noy­ance of the au­thor­i­ties, who sought, un­suc­cess­fully, to ban its singing:

“A no­ble whale ship and com­man­der,

Called the Catalpa they say, Came out to Western Aus­tralia, And took six poor Fe­ni­ans away. So come all you screw warders and gaol­ers, Re­mem­ber Perth Re­gatta Day; Take care of the rest

of your Fe­ni­ans,

Or the Yan­kees will steal them away.”

Now, the story of the res­cue will find a new au­di­ence, with the pub­li­ca­tion of The Catalpa Res­cue, writ­ten by best­selling non-fic­tion writer Peter FitzSi­mons, who is known for his tomes on var­i­ous events and pe­ri­ods in Aus­tralian his­tory. In Rock­ing­ham on Mon­day to at­tend the an­nual me­mo­rial for the res­cue, FitzSi­mons also launched the book where the Fe­ni­ans were whisked to free­dom.

An Ir­ish Fe­nian pris­oner.

Ir­ish rebel leader John Devoy.

The newly re­leased book.

Po­lice cut­ters from Fre­man­tle and Bun­bury sought out the es­capees. Go to page 16 for photos of the launch of Peter FitzSi­mons’ novel in Rock­ing­ham on Mon­day. The Catalpa yacht.

MLC Stephen Dawson, Premier Mark McGowan, Peter FitzSi­mons, Lisa Wilkin­son, Gov­er­nor Kim Bea­z­ley and Brand MP Madeleine King at­tended the me­mo­rial.

The res­cue was or­ches­trated by Devoy, who had been ex­iled to the United States af­ter being re­leased from prison.

The Catalpa ser­vice.

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