Catalpa rescue

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The Catalpa in dock. Note whale oil barrels in the foreground

The Catalpa rescue was the escape, in 1876, of six Irish Fenian prisoners from what was then the British penal colony of Western Australia.

Fenians and Plans to Escape[edit]

John Devoy
The main cellblock of Fremantle Prison

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. 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 and landed at Fremantle, in January 1868, after which they were moved to the Convict Establishment (now Fremantle Prison).

In 1869, O'Reilly escaped on the whaling ship Gazelle with assistance of the local Catholic priest, Father Patrick McCabe, and settled in Boston. Soon after his arrival, O'Reilly found work with The Pilot newspaper and eventually became editor. In 1871, another Fenian, John Devoy, was granted amnesty in England, among others, on condition that he settle outside Ireland, and he sailed to New York City. He also became a newspaperman, for the New York Herald. He joined the Clan na Gael, an organization that supported armed insurrection in Ireland.

In 1869, pardons had been issued to many of the imprisoned Fenians. Another round of pardons were issued in 1871, after which only a small group of militant Fenians remained in Western Australia's penal system. In 1873, Devoy received a smuggled letter from imprisoned Fenian James Wilson, who was among those the British had not released. He asked them to aid the escape of the remaining Fenian prisoners. Devoy discussed the matter with O'Reilly and Thomas McCarthy Fennell, and Fennell suggested that a ship be purchased, laden with a legitimate cargo, and sailed to Western Australia, where it would not be expected to arouse suspicion. The Fenian prisoners would then be rescued by stealth rather than force of arms. Devoy approached the 1874 convention of the Clan na Gael and got the Clan to agree to fund a rescue of the men. He then approached whaling agent John T. Richardson, who told them to contact his son-in-law, whaling captain George Smith Anthony, who agreed to help.

James Reynolds, a member of the Clan and on the committee to rescue the prisoners, bought under his name for the Clan a three-masted whaling bark Catalpa for $5,200, and George Anthony recruited twenty-two sailors. On 29 April 1875, Catalpa sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts. At first, most of the crew was unaware of their real mission. Anthony noticed too late that the ship's marine chronometer was broken, so he had to rely on his own skills for navigation. First they sailed to Faial Island in Azores, where they off-loaded 210 barrels of sperm whale oil. Unfortunately, much of the crew deserted the ship, and they had to leave three sick men behind. Anthony recruited replacement crew members and set sail for Western Australia.

At the same time, two Fenian agents, John Breslin and Tom Desmond, had arrived in Western Australia in September. Breslin masqueraded as an American businessman "James Collins", with suitable letter of introduction, and got acquainted with Sir William Cleaver Robinson, Governor of Western Australia. Robinson took Breslin on a tour of the Convict Establishment (now Fremantle Prison). Desmond took a job as a wheelwright and recruited five local Irishmen who were to cut the telegraph lines connecting Australia on the day of escape.

Catalpa fell behind the intended schedule due to a serious storm, in which she lost her foremast. She dropped anchor off Bunbury on 27 March 1876. Anthony and Breslin met. The pair began to prepare for the rescue.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12]

Escape and pursuit[edit]

Fenians escape by rowboat to the Catalpa

The first intended day for escape was 6 April, but the appearance of HMS Convict and other Royal Navy ships and customs officers quickly led to a postponement. The escape was rearranged for 17 April, when most of the Convict Establishment garrison was watching the Royal Perth Yacht Club regatta.

Catalpa dropped anchor in international waters off Rockingham and dispatched a whaleboat to the shore.

At 8.30 am, six Fenians who were working in work parties outside the prison walls, absconded - Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston and James Wilson – were met by Breslin and Desmond and picked up in carriages. A seventh Fenian, James Kiely, had been exposed as an informer by his fellow prisoners and left behind.

The men raced 50 km south to Rockingham where Anthony awaited them on the beach with a rowboat. A local he had spoken to earlier saw the men and quickly alerted the authorities.

The rowboat faced difficulties on its return to the Catalpa due to a storm that lasted till dawn on 18 April. The storm was so intense that Anthony later stated that he didn't expect the small boat to survive.

At 7am, with the storm over, they again made for the Catalpa but an hour later spotted the steamship SS Georgette which had been commandeered by the colonial governor making for the whaler.

The men lay down in the rowboat and it was not seen by the Georgette which was forced to return to Fremantle to refuel after following the Catalpa for several hours.

As the rowboat again made for the ship a police cutter with 30 - 40 armed men was spotted. The two boats raced to reach the Catalpa first, with the rowboat winning and the men climbing aboard as the police cutter passed by. The cutter turned, lingered briefly beside the Catalpa, and then headed to shore.

Early on 19 April the refueled and now heavily armed Georgette returned and came alongside the whaler, demanding the surrender of the prisoners and attempting to herd the ship back into Australian waters.

They fired a warning shot with the 12 pounder (5 kg) cannon that had been installed the night before. Ignoring the demand to surrender, Anthony had raised, and then pointed towards, the U.S. flag, informed the Georgette that an attack on the Catalpa would be considered an act of war against the USA, and proceeded westward.

Georgette pursued until it was low on fuel and turned away. Catalpa slipped into the Indian Ocean.


Due to cut telegraph cables, news of the escape did not reach London until June. The cables were cut by volunteers John Durham and Denis F. McCarthy, a native of Kenmare, Co. Kerry.

At the same time, the Catalpa did its best to avoid Royal Navy ships on its way back to the USA. O'Reilly received the news of the escape on 6 June (Stevens 2003, p. 352) and released the news to the press.

The news sparked celebrations in the United States and Ireland and anger in Britain and Australia (although there was also sympathy for the cause within the Australian population).

A purge of prison officials in Fremantle followed. The Catalpa returned to New York harbor on 19 August 1876.

George Smith Anthony could no longer sail in international waters because the Royal Navy could have arrested him on sight. With the help of a journalist, Z. W. Pease, he published an account of his journey, The Catalpa Expedition, in 1897.

The Catalpa was presented as a gift to Captain Anthony, John Richardson and Henry Hathaway, it was eventually sold and turned into a coal barge.

Not of great value in this capacity, Catalpa was finally condemned at the port of Belize, British Honduras.

Catalpa Memorial.


On 9 September 2005 a memorial was unveiled in Rockingham to commemorate the escape.

The memorial, a large statue of six wild geese, was created by Western Australian artists Charlie Smith and Joan Walsh Smith. The geese refer to the phrase "The Wild Geese", which was a name given to Irish soldiers who served in European armies after being exiled from Ireland.

The Fenians transported to Western Australia adopted the phrase for themselves during their voyage to Western Australia on board the Hougoumont, even publishing a shipboard newspaper entitled The Wild Goose.

A memorial stone was erected in New Bedford, Massachusetts, home port of Catalpa and her crew.


From 22 September 2006 to 3 December 2006 an exhibition, called "Escape: Fremantle to Freedom," opened at Fremantle Prison displaying many artifacts relating to the Catalpa rescue. The exhibition received over 20,000 visitors passed through.

In song[edit]

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.

the real mckenzies

On the seventeenth of April last the Stars and Stripes did fly
On board the bark Catalpa, waving proudly to the sky;
She showed the green above the red as she did calmly lay
Prepared to take the Fenian boys in safety o'er the sea.

Traditional Full lyrics

Catalpa escape legacy[edit]

  • Musician and local historian Brendan Woods authored a Theater Production about the breakout titled The Catalpa Directed by Gerry Atkinson with a cast of 22. On 15 November 2006 The Catalpa play premiered at Fremantle Town Hall the play ran until 25 November. The play was based on the diaries of Denis Cashman, with the poetry of John Boyle O'Reilly set to music and dance supported by a five-part Musical ensemble. The show sold out on three of its four night run.[13]
  • Irish rebel music band The Wolfe Tones recorded a song about the Catalpa incident called "The Fenians' Escape".
  • The Real McKenzies, a Celtic punk band from British Columbia, Canada, included their rendition of the song "The Catalpa" on the 2005 Fat Wreck Chords album "10,000 Shots."
  • Donal O'Kelly's one man play The Catalpa was an international success, winning a Scotsman Fringe First Award at the 1996 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Critic's Prize at the Melbourne International Festival in 1997.
  • Western Australian Folk music Band, The Settlers released an album in 1979 that included the song 'catalpa'
  • Australian folk band, The Bushwackers featured the song The Catalpa on the album Beneath the Southern Cross.
  • An Australian Broadcasting Corporation production, The Catalpa Rescue, was shown on ABC Television on Thursday 25 October 2007.
  • Fenian Park listed in Geographic Name Approvals in Western Australia July/September 1999 and October/December 1999 Volume 15, numbers 3 and 4 ISSN 0817-265X - page 6 "'Reserve 45390 adjacent Kurrajong Circle, Glen Iris: in 1876 several Fenians ...fled to America aboard the whaling barque Catalpa: City of Bunbury 33° 20′ 50″ S 115 ° 40′ 51″ E

Further reading[edit]

Video and media[edit]


The Perth Town Hall, which was built with convict labour, incorporates a number of convict motifs, including windows in the shape of the broad arrow.
  1. ^ "Catalpa: Escape of the Fenians from Western Australia". Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 2 July 2008. 
  2. ^ "The Fenians - Characters - History - Fremantle Prison". Archived from the original on 6 October 2007. Retrieved 2 July 2008. 
  3. ^ "The Wild Geese Today - Book Reviews". Retrieved 2 July 2008. 
  4. ^ McCormack, Joseph (April 1999). "Escape from Australia". The Hedgemaster. Garden City, New York: Irish Cultural Society of the Garden City Area. Retrieved 22 September 2010. 
  5. ^ Meagher, Paul T. (4 September 2010). "A Brief Compilation Of The Major Points Of The Catalpa Rescue Story". New Bedford, MA: Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick. Retrieved 22 September 2010. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Chapter 31". Retrieved 2 July 2008. 
  8. ^ "Catholic Encyclopedia: John Boyle O'Reilly". Retrieved 2 July 2008. 
  9. ^ "Daniel Chester French: The John Boyle O'Reilly Memorial". Retrieved 2 July 2008. 
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Catalpa Productions