Fretle Stuff > organisations > Fenians

Irish Republican Brotherhood, aka Fenians

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. They were convicted of crimes ranging from treason-felony to outright rebellion. Sixteen were soldiers who were court-martialled for failing to report or stop the treason and mutinous acts of the others. 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 which arrived at Fremantle on 9 January 1868, and were interned in the Convict Establishment (now Fremantle Prison). Wikipedia.

Of the 62 Fenians who were transported to Fremantle, upon their discharge or escape, 11 returned to Ireland, 30 went to the USA, 18 remained in Australia and it is not known for certain where the other three ended up. The most famous of the Fenians was John Boyle O’Reilly who escaped to America and became a leading writer, editor and poet in Boston. Of those who remained in Australia, 11 took up permanent residence in WA, three in NSW, two in Queensland and two in Victoria. Bernie Brophy.

Some excitement was caused by the fact that the Hougoumont, which was the last convict vessel to arrive, brought amongst others thirty-eight Fenians. Fearing that attempts might be made to rescue them the vessel was escorted for some distance from England by a man-of-war. Fenian cruisers were said to be on the watch to effect a rescue. The knowledge that these people were coming to Western Australia caused some consternation, not only in the colony but in Victoria and South Australia as well. The Governor promised to send to Sydney for a warship, and did so almost immediately after the “Hougoumont” arrived, with the result that H.M.S. Brisk was sent over early in February and remained at Fremantle for several months The Fenians, however, were model prisoners—until the time was ripe, when they effected their escape in quite a dramatic manner. Battye, Cyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 172

The only incident of interest in connection with the Establishment itself during these years was the escape of six Fenian prisoners in 1876. This was effected through the instrumentality of an American (John Collins), assisted by Captain Antony, of the American whaler Catalpa. Arriving at Fremantle late in 1875 Collins secured employment in a carriage factory and quietly made himself thoroughly conversant with the methods of the Convict Establishment and the nature of the country to the south of Fremantle. Through the medium of a Fenian expiree (James Wilson) he was brought into communication with six Fenian convicts who, on account of their good behaviour, were not subjected to strict supervision. A favourable moment for escape arrived when the Catalpa put into Bunbury. By arrangement the six men left Fremantle in buggies on April 18, 1876, for Rockingham. When their departure became known they were hotly pursued by the police, who found on arrival at Rockingham that the convicts had been picked up by a whaleboat in waiting, which had then put out to sea. The Catalpa being the only whaler known to be on the coast, the police returned to Fremantle and put off in the police boat in search of her. After sighting her they fell in with the steamer Georgette, also in search, and learned that the Catalpa had been spoken to, but denied having convicts on board. Deciding to watch they saw the whaler move northward, and on following observed a whaleboat making toward her. An exciting chase ensued, but the police were unsuccessful in preventing the Catalpa from picking up the boat and had to return to Fremantle. The Georgette was then sent out armed in the hope of meeting the whaler in territorial waters. The two ships met outside Rottnest. The Superintendent of Police demanded the convicts and threatened to fire. The captain of the Catalpa denied that any convicts were on board, and quietly pointed to the American flag. The police, chagrined, had to return empty handed to Fremantle, after intimating that the United States Government would be communicated with. Governor Robinson forwarded a full account to the Secretary of State, who after investigating the circumstances decided that the matter was not one for diplomatic negotiation, and the Fenians remained under the United States flag. The incident created great irritation in the colony, which felt itself flouted, but no doubt the British Government was not displeased to get rid so easily of men who, after all, were only political prisoners. Battye, Cyclopedia, vol. 1, pp. 210-211.

References and Links

Amos, Keith 1988, The Fenians in Australia 1865-1880, NSWUP.

Barry, Liam 1992, The Dramatic Escape of Fenian John Boyle O'Reilly, CFN Publications, Australind.

Barry, Liam 2006, Voices from the Tomb: A Biographical Dictionary of the 62 Fenians Transported to Western Australia, National Gaelic Publications.

Battye, JS 1924, Western Australia: A History from its Discovery to the Inauguration of the Commonwealth, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Fennell, Thomas McCarthy 2000, Voyage of the Hougoumont and Life at Fremantle, ed Philip Fennell & Marie King, privately published.

Pease, Z.W. 2002, The Catalpa Expedition, Hesperian Press.

Reece, Bob ed. 1991, Exiles from Erin: Convict Lives in Ireland and Australia, Macmillan.

Waters, Ormonde D.P. 2011, The Fenian Wild Geese, Catalpa Publications.


Graham, Allen 2007, 'Patrick Moloney: the story of a Femantle publican and his connection to the Fenian Fright of 1881', Fremantle Studies, 5: 40-62.

Heseltine, William 2004, 'The escape of the military Fenians from Fremantle Prison: the warders' perspective', Fremantle Studies, 3: 26-45.

Murray, Sandra 2007, 'Escape! Fremantle to Freedom: an exhibition on the Irish Fenian convicts and their bold escape from the Fremantle Prison to America', Fremantle Studies, 5: 74-86.

Oldman, Diane, 'Traitors or heroes', PDF doc on this site.

See also:

Hugh Brophy.

Patrick Keating, bio by Diane Oldman on her Crimean War Vets site.

Thomas Booler played an unwitting part in the Fenian Escape - page by Diane Oldman on her Sappers and Miners site.

Garry Gillard | New: 1 July, 2016 | Now: 19 July, 2020