Convict history

Fenian jailbreak revisited in new FitzSimons book

The incredible story of the daring rescue of six Irish political prisoners from ‘the most remote prison on earth’ has been retold in a new book.

The Catalpa Rescue recounts how Irish republicans in Ireland and America hatched a complex plan to free six inmates from Fremantle Gaol in Western Australia in 1876.

The prison was dubbed ‘a living tomb’ by inmates because it was virtually impossible to break out of.  

But according to author Peter FitzSimons, this did not deter loyal Irish patriots in the US from coming to the rescue of their fellow countrymen who had been sent there by the British crown.

The daring rescue inspired a whole new wave of Irish rebellion after it made headlines all over the world and left England humiliated by its audacity.

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According to Sydney Morning Herald journalist FitzSimons who is also chair of the Australian Republican Movement, the rescue “showed those seeking independence could triumph, that Great Britain was not unbeatable.”

He explained:  “The Catalpa Rescue was really the first major success for the Irish republican movement –it was the first black eye Ireland gave England.

 “The Irish snatched six of their soldiers from the most remote prison on earth and the story of how they managed to pull it off is just incredible.”

Peter FitzSimons’ new book bring the story of The Catalpa Rescue to a new audience.

Peter FitzSimons’ new book bring the story of The Catalpa Rescue to a new audience.

The rescue mission was spearheaded by charismatic republican John Devoy who was a leading member of the Fenians in Ireland before he was arrested and forced into exile in America.

Devoy received a letter from one of the six Irishmen rotting in Fremantle prison begging for help and immediately started fund-raising for a rescue.

He recruited an unlikely hero to lead the mission –an experienced Quaker sea Captain George Anthony who had no connection with the Irish cause but who he convinced “it was right thing to do.”

The plan was to disguise the American ship as a whaling boat and sail close to Fremantle where the prisoners could row out to meet the boat in international waters.

But according to FitzSimons, like all good plans “things got pretty hairy” on the day of the rescue.

“The six prisoners got away from their work detail, jumped into buggies and raced to Rockingham beach.  They jumped into a boat and rowed from the shore when three troopers charged onto the beach and started shooting at them but luckily they were far enough out that the rifles couldn’t reach them,” he explained.

Having survived this attack, the men faced further danger as a storm raged that night and they risked being sunk in a long boat that was heavily overloaded.

 “They could very easily have been swamped by huge waves but somehow managed to survive the night,” FitzSimons added.

After a tumultuous night at sea, the inmates still needed to row a considerable distance out to the Catalpa which was waiting for them in international waters.

Peter FitzSimons says writing the book has ‘reawakened’ his own Irish roots.

Peter FitzSimons says writing the book has ‘reawakened’ his own Irish roots.

“As they finally neared The Catalpa, they see the coastguard heading for them and it’s a race against time to reach the ship –the prisoners won the race by a 100 yards.”

But the drama didn’t end there as the coastguard pulled up alongside The Catalpa with cannons ready to fire on the ship.

Captain Anthony had raised the American flag on-board and defiantly told the Coastguard if they fired on an American ship in international waters it would be viewed as an act of war.

The coastguard went back to shore to seek advice and The Catalpa escaped with the six Irishmen safely aboard. It took them six months to sail back to New York where 300,000 people turned out to welcome the Fenians with open arms.

Author Peter FitzSimons said writing the book “was a re-awakening of my Irish roots.”

Peter’s grandfather James B FitzSimons was from Donaghadee in Co Down but left for Australia in the 1880’s. 

He explained: “I went there (Donaghadee) when I was doing my memoirs to get an understanding of where my people came from.

“It was really haunting.  I was looking at this village on the stunning coast of Ireland and I thought how bad things must have been for them to leave this place and go to the other side of the world.”

FitzSimons said his family still have the pistol which his grandfather James brought with him from Ireland –not knowing what awaited him in Australia.

He added: “I remember at my grandfather’s funeral, a man telling me: ‘he was a very fine man but I never understood a word he said.’   It had never occurred to me how strong my Irish roots are.”

The Catalpa Rescue by Peter FitzSimons is published by Hachette Australia and is available to purchase in book shops and online in Australia.