We’ve spent the last while looking at the Fenian Raids on Canada, which proved to be the highpoint of the American Fenian Brotherhood. In the aftermath of the last, pitiable, effort in 1871 – not officially a Fenian Raid, but for all intents and purposes – the Fenian Brotherhood slowly diminished bit by bit, before essentially vanishing entirely in the 1880s (though, as we will see, there were still a few things worth covering with them before the end).
But Irish nationalism in America did not die out: there was merely a recognition that the squabbling and ineffectiveness of the Fenian Brotherhood could no longer help the cause at home. In the aftermath of the failed 1867 rising, IRB elements in Britain decided to no longer back any of the factions in the American Fenians, instead choosing to create their own organisation, which began with the “Napper Tandy Club” in New York. This soon expanded, subsuming other small clubs of a similar ideology, until a larger entity was christened in 1870. “Clan na Gael” – the “Family of the Gaels” or “Irish Family” were destined to replace the Fenian Brotherhood as the primary organisation for Irish republicans in America.
The leading light of Clan na Gael at this time, and for Irish nationalism generally, was a 28 year old Kildare man named John Devoy. Devoy had been involved with the IRB in Ireland, attempting to recruit members of the British military in the run-up to 1867, before his arrest in 1866. He spent five years in prison on treason charges, but was released in 1871 on condition that he settled outside of Britain and Ireland. Together with four other prominent nationalists – including Jeremiah O’Donovon Rossa – he travelled to the United States onboard a ship dubbed the Cuba, the passengers afterwards known as the “Cuba Five”.
In the States, Devoy attempted to heal the wrangling in the Fenians, but quickly grew disillusioned, turning instead to the nascent Clan na Gael. Also working as a journalist in New York, Devoy quickly gained a high ranking position in the new organisation, enough that he had a major say in the direction of its operations. The most famous in those early days was the so-called “Catalpa Rescue”.
In the days before and after the 1867 rebellion, 62 Fenians would be transported to penal colonies in Australia. Over the next few years, several rounds of pardons resulted in large amounts of these men being released, but a core of Fenians, considered the most seditious and with military ties, remained locked up in Fremantle Prison. One of the 62 was able to escape: a former British Army member named John Boyle O’Reilly, who used ties with local Catholic clergy to abscond from a work party and get on-board a whaling ship, eventually making it to the United States. There, he became a journalist, and had his head turned from the idea of militancy by his coverage of the disastrous 1870 Fenian Raids. He was moving in the same circles as John Devoy, and in 1873, after Devoy received a smuggled letter from one of the remaining Fremantle prisoners, he was able to advise him on the possibilities of arranging an escape.
The problem was not so much freeing the prisoners – as O’Reilly had demonstrated, it was not hard to get away from capativity in the Fremantle Prison system, as the Australian penal colonies in general were relatively lackadaisical when it came to the confinement of prisoners – it was what would come after, namely avoiding attempts at recapture from local authorities and from whatever naval assets were in the area. Devoy, Boyle and others put their heads together, and came up with a plan. Soon, Devoy had gotten approval, and funding, from the leadership of Clan na Gael.
In 1875, the Clan bought a three masted whaling ship called the Catalpa for $5’500, employed 22 sailors to man her and purchased 210 barrels of sperm whale oil to put in her hold. The plan was simple: to sail the Catalpa to Western Australia in the guise of a perfectly legitimate trading venture, pick-up the escaping prisoners, and sail back to the United States. The ship would be captained by a man named George Anthony, while Clan agents travelled ahead to Fremantle. Anthony was a protestant, but Devoy was apparently a persuasive man (or maybe the money was).
The Catalpa set sail in April 1875, disgorging its cargo in the Azores before heading to Australia. It’s voyage took some time due to a multitudes of delays, with Anthony losing time over bad navigational tools and an unprofitable detour to try and take advantage of whaling season. In the process, the Catalpa was forced to hire an almost entirely new crew, as most of those previously employed deserted when they reached land. A storm where the Catalpa lost her foremost delayed her further, but she was off the coast of Fremantle in March of 1876.
In the meantime, the Clan had not been idle. Two agents, of Fenian origin, had arrived in Fremantle. One, James Breslin, posed as an American millionaire, becoming acquainted with the local governor and receiving tours of the prison facilities as part of this. The other, Tom Desmond, presumably drew the short end of the straw, taking a job as a wheelwright in the local area, using this as a means of recruiting local Irish to the plan.
The original date agreed for the escape between Anthony and Breslin was the 6th of April, but things had to be put back by over a week owing to the sudden arrival of Royal Navy ships in the local seas, and the need for all of the intended escapees to have the opportunity to escape at one time. The new date would be the 17th, where it was hoped that much of the local manpower would be watching a regatta of the Perth Yacht Club. The prisoners were contacted by secret letters, and Desmond’s men worked to cut telegraph wires to the area, to hopefully paralyse any counter-response once the escape was discovered.
The Catalpa dropped anchor many miles from the coastline, in international waters, sending a row-boat to do the actual picking up. On the morning of the 17th, six prisoners who had gotten outside the walls of the prison – doing unsupervised work or going for exercise – made a break for it, getting on horse-drawn carriages brought nearby by Breslin. Thomas Darragh, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington and James Wilson made a 20 mile dash down the coastline to where the smaller boat waited.
All might have come undone then, as a squall kicked up that came close to wrecking the small boat that Anthony commanded, but he was eventually able to get underway on the 18th. By then the escape was well-known, and Anthony’s boat had to avoid detection from British patrols. A steamer, the SS Georgette, did happen upon the Catalpa, but as it was in international waters did not have the authority to board the vessel.
The smaller boat made to the Catalpa, just managing to avoid a run-in with a police cutter. When the Georgette came alongside again, a demand was made for the prisoners to be handed over. Anthony refused. A warning shot was fired by the Georgette, but Anthony again refused to be cowed. Unwilling to risk an international incident by firing on an American vessel, the Georgette was obliged to retire.
Avoiding Royal Navy ships, the Catalpa wound its way back to American waters, arriving in New York in August of 1876, togreat fanfare, Devoy and Clan na Gael doing all that they could to milk the achievement. Anthony retired and published a book about the voyage, while the Catalpa was eventually sold, served as a coal barge, and was later condemned in Belize.
The practical effects of the rescue were not all that significant. None of the rescued men would go on to perform great deeds in the service of Irish freedom, and British opinion, after heads had cooled, was that America was welcome to such seditious elements. But in terms of determining who was the major player in the cause of revolutionary Irish nationalism in America, it was a hugely influential event. While the Fenian Brotherhood, fractured, bust and humiliated on the world stage, was heading towards an ignominious end, Clan na Gael was suddenly on the rise, flush with success and eager to reap the benefits of their new notoriety. John Devoy was determined to make the most of this, and he now wielded considerable power within the Clan, throwing out members that he felt were misappropriating funds or not following the rules of the society. This would lead to further trouble down the line, but for now the Clan could bask in its success.
Now, the time has finally come to head back to Ireland.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.