*This week in June 1876, John Boyle O'Reilly received news of the successful escape of six Fenian prisoners from Australia on board the ship Catalpa. O'Reilly had played a major part in the escape plans. (JAB)
On October 12, 1867, after picking up cargo from Sheerness and Plymouth harbors, a fully rigged, 875-ton frigate, cast off from her moorings at Portsmouth on the south coast of England. The vessel, bound for Western Australia, her hold full to overflowing with what the British authorities deemed ‘the dregs of society,’ turned southwest and set sail for the other side of the world. The ‘Hougoumount’ (above) was embarking on her final, lucrative voyage as a ‘convict’ ship, chartered to transport 280 prisoners to what would be their final destination, some for long periods of time and some for the rest of their lives, depending on the severity of their crimes. Among the ‘convicts’ on board the ‘Hougoumont’ during that fateful journey were a group of 62 Fenians, all Irish political prisoners. They had been sentenced for taking part in the Fenian Rising of 1867.
The name Fenian comes from the old Gaelic word Fianna, and was first used in 1848 by John O’Mahony, a Celtic scholar living in the United States. He had founded a group of Irish republicans and applied the name Fenian to the group. In ancient Ireland, the Fianna were warrior groups of young men who lived apart from the mainstream and in times of trouble they were called on to fight the enemy. What set this journey apart from the many previous was the unusual fact that many of the men on board were fully literate. The Fenians were a highly educated group of individuals and not the ‘illiterate hooligans’ as portrayed by the British propaganda of the day.
Many journals written by the Fenians during the voyage still exist and seven editions of a newspaper, titled The Wild Goose, can be seen in the State Library of New South Wales. The fact that those men, under abominable conditions and with their futures largely unknown, had the courage and will to write down for posterity, their thoughts and experiences, attests to the indomitable Irish spirit. One of the convicts, John Boyle O’Reilly, went on to become a noted poet, journalist and author.
John Boyle O’Reilly was born June 28, 1844, at Dowth Castle in County Meath, just before the time of the Great Hunger. His family were fairly wealthy, strongly patriotic and fiercely resented British rule in all its forms. His father was a schoolmaster and his mother was a relative of John Allen, a close friend of Robert Emmet. Allen had played an important role in the Rising of 1803, led by Emmet. In his formative years, O’Reilly received a good early education and at age 13, when his older brother was stricken with tuberculosis, he took over as an apprentice at a local newspaper. When he was 15, he went to live with relatives in Preston, Lancashire, and worked at the newspaper office there.
In 1861 he enrolled in the 11th Lancashire Rifle Volunteers and received military training. On his return to Ireland in 1863, he enlisted with the 10th. Hussars in Dublin. Later, in 1865, he joined the secret society the Irish Republican Brotherhood and started to recruit new members from within his regiment. He recruited 80 members in total, all men with military training, who were disciplined and knew how to handle weaponry.
Unfortunately, by late 1865, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). had become such a large and popular movement that it could no longer evade detection by the British authorities. The government made a number of raids, seized records, and gathered evidence from informers. Many were arrested, including O'Reilly. For his part in the conspiracy, O'Reilly was sentenced to 20 years’ penal servitude. It appears that he was originally sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to 20 years. He served nearly two years in English prisons before being put aboard the Hougoumont for transportation to the British colony of Western Australia.
If we pause here and reflect on this man’s life so far, we can clearly see that he was intended to play the role that he eventually played in Irish history. His life could have taken no other path. If we ponder on the place of his birth we see that he was born in an area of Ireland that is directly linked to ancient Ireland in its formative years. Dowth, County Meath, lies in the area of Ireland dubbed “Royal Meath.” The county got the name ‘Royal’ because the Meath valley known as ‘Bru na Boinne’ holds the ‘Hill of Tara,’ the seat of power of Ireland's ard ri (high kings) and the ancient place where they were crowned. Across the river, high up on the east bank, sits the Neolithic ‘Newgrange’ passage tomb, another sacred site tied forever with Ireland’s history. ‘Bru na Boinne’ is the crucible where many of Ireland’s major historical events were forged, and still impact our lives today.
Knowingly or otherwise, O’Boyle surely would have absorbed and been influenced by the energies emanating from those sacred sites and their histories. This, coupled with his staunchly republican lineage led him, I am sure, on his predestined path.
'Home, friends, all that I loved in the world were there, almost beside me, -- there, ‘under the sun’ and I, for loving them, a hunted, outlawed fugitive, an escaped convict, was sailing away from all I treasured -- perhaps, forever.'
-- From an 1870 lecture delivered by O'Reilly recalling his last glance of the coast of Ireland
In 1869, O'Reilly escaped from prison on the whaling ship 'Gazelle' and made his way to Boston. Later, in 1871, he would meet with noted Fenian John Devoy and together, with assistance from Clan na Gael, they would plan the successful escape of six remaining Fenian prisoners from Australia's shores.
Read more of this fascinating story here:
Books For Sale:
Don’t Die with Regrets: Ireland and the Lessons my Father Taught Me.
The Journey: A Nomad Reflects.