The Catalpa Rescue: A Pivotal Moment in Irish History

I have summarised the following true life adventure from two sources, if you would like to skip to the bottom you can watch the 54min documentary “The Catalpa Escape” on youtube or buy a copy of “The Fenian Wild Geese” by Ormonde P. Waters.

Failed Rising of 1867

The Irish struggle for separation from Britain had suffered since the late the 1840’s because of The Great Famine and subsequent emigration. It was revived when James Stephens returned to Dublin from the American Civil War in the mid 1850s and consolidated the various groups of Fenians.

Another returnee (from the French Foreign legion), John Devoy worked hard with Stephens in the years leading up to the planned Fenian Rising of 1866 which was postponed by Stephens to 1867 and then scuppered by British Military Intelligence.

Devoy’s efforts of recruiting the loyalty of between 13,000 and 15,000 Irishmen enlisted in the British army cost him 5 years in prison and then exile to America.

But the fate of the 62 identified Fenians in the British army was far worse. Their behaviour, seen as treason, meant they were sentenced to penal servitude for life in Freemantle Prison, Australia, in today’s terms like being sent to the moon.

Devoy prospered in America, forging links with the American based Irish Fenian group, Clan na Gael, and worked for the New York Herald. In 1874 he received a letter which he read out at a Clan meeting. It was from James Hogan and Martin Wilson, two of the Fenian convicts in Fremantle. It outlined their tomb-like existence and it appealed for his help.

The Plan

With previous experience breaking people out of gaols, Devoy proposed that a ship with fifteen fully armed men would sail to Fremantle and rescue the Fenian Prisoners. But they did not own a ship nor did they have the men and most importantly they had no money for the plan.

A letter was circulated around the members of Clan Na Gael and amazingly $7,000 came flooding back.

With the assistance of John Boyle O’Reilly (one of the only men to have escaped Fremantle Prison) they bought an old whaling ship “Catalpa” at the cost of $19,000 (Clan members re-mortgage their houses to foot the bill) and refitted her for the journey. A retired 1st mate, George Anthony was recruited and despite being Protestant he recognised the injustice and agreed to Captain the ship.

The ‘Catalpa’ set sail in April 1875 with the aim of reaching Fremantle in January 1876. Only Captain Anthony knew about the rescue, to make sure that the cover story was secure, the rest of the crew were real whalers.

Devoy put the second part of the plan in action. He needed someone with inside knowledge to be waiting for the ‘Catalpa’ when she arrived. So he chose John J. Breslin, another man with knowledge of prison breaks, who was sent to Fremantle with the rest of the money to pose as a philanthropist looking for an investment.

They could not risk alerting the prisoners about the plan. The prisoners Hogan and Wilson, believing that the letter has not reached Devoy, sent another letter to Ireland looking for help. Breslin arrived in Fremantle and began to sow his cover story with success.

Just before the January date he got word to the prisoners that a rescue was imminent but his message was premature as January turns to February and there was no sign of the ‘Catalapa’. He did managed to get a tour of the heavily armed Fremantle Prison, nicknamed ‘The Establishment’ and realised that for this rescue to have any hope of success it would have to take place when the men were outside of the building.

It had now been many months since Breslin arrived and local interest in his ‘philanthropy’ was fading. He had traveled all over the colony but had not invested a penny, the authorities were tiring of him and invitations were running dry. The ‘Catalpa’’s no show worried Breslin and a number of unfolding events threatened to undermine the rescue completely.

As he played for time he had almost run out of cash. By chance he met a man called John King, who turned out to be from an Australian branch of the Fenians, they both realised that they were there to free the prisoners and King had funds. He convinced King to abandon his plan and told him that there was a ship on its way with fully armed men (Breslin still held out hope). King agreed and handed over enough cash that kept him going for another while.

By this time Breslin had been in Fremantle long enough to notice new faces. When two men arrived showing interest in ‘The Establishment’ and the Fenians inside, he feared they may have been British Spies but King became friendly with them and it turned out they were another rescue team sent in response to the prisoner’s second letter to Ireland. Still this worried Breslin. If too many people showed interest this would surely alert someone in authority.

Back in America British intelligence had discovered Devoy’s plan and sent word to Fremantle. Breslin did not know of this and had managed to convince the third rescue party to join him and King. Their job would be to cut the communication wires on the day of the rescue.

Days turned into weeks and there was still no sign of ‘Catalpa’.

The Authorities received the British warning about the planned rescue but luckily they chose to completely ignore it. They found it impossible to believe that with a barren desert one side and shark infested waters on the other that six men could be rescued from ‘The Establishment’.

Meanwhile on the 29th March, nearly 2 months late, after Captain Anthony had to deal with malfunctioning equipment, a disastrous whaling catch and a mutinous crew, the ‘Catalpa’ finally arrived in the environs of Fremantle harbour.

The Rescue

Captain Anthony made contact with Breslin and the plan was finally set for Easter Monday 1876. Anthony and a handful of his men left the ‘Catalpa’ off shore (just beyond British Waters) with his First Mate in charge. They rowed a long boat to a designated beach. Breslin had alerted the Prisoners but only two were signed for duties beyond the walls of ‘The Establishment’. The other four prisoners were able to bluff their way onto the duty. Breslin signaled and they all slipped away. While Captain Anthony waited on the beach he was spotted by a local taking an early stroll. The local saw the prisoners arrive and made his way back to Fremantle to alert the authorities. Anthony, Breslin and the six prisoners left the shore but were still visible when the police arrived on the beach.

In the long boat Breslin read out the copy of a letter he had sent to the Governor of Fremantle Prison, it informs him that Breslin had released the prisoners who were only guilty of ‘love of country and hatred of tyranny’. The mood in the long boat is high.

Once the police arrive back they sent out two ships to intercept them. What followed was an endurance race. The rescue party faced hours of hard rowing but finally managed to sight the ‘Catalpa’.

Before they could reach their destination a massive storm engulfed the small boat. They managed to survive the night and again began to row. Before they were anywhere close to ‘Catalpa’ the saw an Australian ship, the ‘Georgette’, steaming toward them. Anthony instructed them to pull in their oars and lay low in the boat. Luckily the ‘Georgette’ did not spot them and arrived alongside the ‘Catalpa’ and demanded the return of the prisoners but The First Mate turned them away.

Instead of making more demands The ‘Georgette’ had to return to the harbour because it had run out of fuel. So the rescue boat once again began to row to the ‘Catalpa’. Another boat was sighted, this time the pilot boat from Fremantle harbour, the race is on and the rescue boat arrived at the ‘Catalpa’ first. The prisoners climbed aboard, exhausted but they could hardly believe that they were finally free.

As they were about to leave the wind dropped and the ‘Catalpa’ was becalmed and became a sitting duck when the refuelled ‘Georgette’ arrived with more demands and a shot across the bows. The ‘Georgette’ was heavily armed. If this boiled down to a marine battle the Australian ship would have been the victors. Captain Anthony thought on his feet and raised the American Flag hoping that the Georgette would be unwilling to cause an international dispute. This seemed to have worked as the Australian ship held off.

But they were actually biding their time as both ships drifted back toward British waters. Just as they were about to cross that boundary the wind picked up and the ‘Catalpa’ tacked away safely.

The Aftermath

When the ‘Catalpa’ arrived back in America 1,000s of Fenians lined the streets to welcome them home. The escape had made headlines around the world, in Dublin there was a torchlight procession while the British accused the Americans of aiding and abetting terrorists.

Sadly the 6 prisoners never fully recovered from their ordeal in Fremantle Prison. Captain Anthony retired comfortably and Clan na Gael even paid for the mortgage on his house.While Breslin continued to plan and fight for Irish Freedom for the rest of his life.

The daring and international rescue had reignited the spirit in the Fenians quest for Irish freedom.

It was Devoy who gained most from the rescue. He became the leader of Clan na Gael. He cut such a dominant figure that almost 30 years later, in the lead up to The Easter Rising of 1916, Padraig Pearse visited him in America for advice on strategy. ‘The 1916 Rising’ famously put Ireland straight on to the path of attaining the state of a Republic in 1921.

Thank you to @WorldIrish for re-posting this adventure here.


9 responses to “The Catalpa Rescue: A Pivotal Moment in Irish History

  1. Amazing story. Makes such a nice change to read about a daring bid for freedom in Irish history that was actually successful.

  2. Never heard of this before, fascinating .

  3. Nice storytelling. Amazing how many factors there are to “history in the making.”

  4. wow ive naver heard of this before

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