The Catalpa rescue: how 6 Irish revolutionaries escaped from an Australian prison

Read on to discover the incredible true story of six Irish Fenians who managed to escape from an Australian prison in the 1870s. Here’s all you need to know about the Catalpa rescue.

The most engrossing stories are those that are filled with intrigue, enveloped in tension, and characterised by audacious ingenuity, and how many things do that better than a remarkable prison escape?

With a history entangled in conflict, it is no surprise that the Emerald Isle may have some famous prison break stories to tell. Still, perhaps one of the most extraordinary of escapes took place in the land Down Under, with a very Irish character.

The background of the Catalpa rescue

This was the ship used during the Catalpa rescue.
Bark Catalpa of New Bedford, PY0582

In the late 1860s, the Irish Republic Brotherhood (IRB) was planning a revolt against British rule in Ireland. One of the tactics used by the colonising authorities was to round up members of the IRB and send them off to Australia, thousands of miles from Irish shores.

62 men were transported to Western Australia and convicted of crimes, such as that of treason-felony. They were ordered to go to the convict ship named Hougoumont. They arrived on 9 January 1868.

After several pardons were issued to those imprisoned in the penal colony, only a few men remained. Soon, in 1873, John Devoy, the leader from Ireland exiled in the United States, received a letter from Fenian James Wilson, he was one of those still locked up on the other side of the world.

The letter

A letter was very important for the entire secretive mission.

The smuggled letter is a riveting read: “Dear Friend, remember this is a voice from the tomb. For is not this a living tomb? In the tomb, it is only a man’s body that is good for worms, but in the living tomb, the cankerworm of care enters the very soul.

“Think that we have been nearly nine years in this living tomb since our first arrest and that is impossible for mind or body to withstand the continual strain that is upon them…

“… It is in this sad strait that I now, in the name of my comrades and myself, ask you to aid us in the manner pointed out … We ask you to aid us with your tongue and pen, with your brain and intellect, with your ability and influence…

“… and God will bless your efforts, and we will repay you with all the gratitude of our natures … our faith in you is unbound. We think if you forsake us, then we are friendless indeed.”

The response from John Devoy

John Devoy was a big player in the Catalpa rescue.

Devoy was touch by the heartfelt and pleading words of the incarcerated Wilson and moved to help his comrade. Wilson was once a member of the British Army but had become a Fenian and took an oath to the organisation.

Devoy took action. He hired the Catalpa ship, funded from secret donations made by Irish independence organisations across the US. It set sail for Wilson and co. and, without harm, the ship reached its destination.

The move was backed by the 1874 Clan na Gael convention, whose committee purchased the ship for $5,500. Catalpa was 90 feet long and weighed over 200 tons. 23 crew took refuge in the boat to ensure the success of the secretive mission.

How did the Catalpa rescue happen?

The Catalpa rescue happened thanks to the ingenuity of several brave men.

The Catalpa left from New Bedford in the state of Massachusetts on 29 April 1875. However, the ship did not set sail for Australia itself until around November of the same year.

Devoy recruited John J. Breslin and Thomas Desmond to act as agents and go to Australia. The former acted as an American businessman, “James Collins”, and the pair arrived in Australia in November 1875.

Meanwhile, after 11 months on the sea and setback by the weather, the Catalpa arrived at its intended destination on 28 March 1876. The ship dropped anchor in international waters off Rockingham and dispatched a whaleboat to shore.

The six remaining imprisoned Irish Fenians managed to escape from their posts whilst working in the outside area and make their way to their rescuers.

These men were: Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, James Hassett, Robert Cranston, and James Wilson. The men had run 20 kilometres, or 12 miles, to reach the boats.

A lucky escape (or two)

This image shows the Catalpa six after the Catalpa rescue.
The Catalpa six after their arrival in the US

The six men and their rescuers did well to avoid the worst in the following days. First of all, the men were prevented by a storm from making it back out to the Catalpa. At the same time, they had to hide in their whaleboat from a screw steamer owned by the colonial governor.

When they finally did make it to the ship, the screw steamer, named the Georgette, returned refuelled and armed, demanding the prisoners be returned.

Captain Anthony pointed to the US flag, warning an attack on the Catalpa was an attack against the States. And thus, the men and the famous Catalpa headed westward and away from the torments of the Australian prison.

There you have it, a brief summary of one of the most audacious prison escapes of all time – the “luck of the Irish” must have been on their side. Surely it is time someone made the story into a Hollywood movie!

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