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  January 19, 1868 aboard the Hougougmont, the last convict voyage to Australia. Ashore the Fenians were greeted by guards, 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. Anthony left behind his wife, baby daughter and ill mother.

Bark Catalpa Courtesy Library of Congress

The Catalpa set sail on April 29, 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.

In 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 6. But delay after delay put it off until April 17. On April 16, 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 the 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 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.

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, but they finally home arrived in 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