The Catalpa Rescue by Peter FitzSimons

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Throughout Irish history, brave people have fought to rid their land of invaders.  Over many centuries, Vikings, Normans and several English monarchs tried and failed to control Ireland. But liberty for the inhabitants was ephemeral and ultimately the rising might of the British Empire prevailed. By 1800, any semblance of Irish independence was snuffed out when the United Kingdom incorporated Ireland. Far from creating a stable land, Irish unrest led to rebellions and insurrection throughout the period of British occupation.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood (Fenian) armed rebellion of 1867 was one of many to occur in the 19th century. As rebellions go, it was a singular failure, nipped in the bud when spies reported to the British military. Most of the ringleaders and their followers swiftly arrested, tried and imprisoned. 67 Fenians were sent as convicts to Western Australia. After three years of hard labour, just six – all former soldiers – remained in custody. They were singled out as traitors, and unlike their civilian compatriots, were offered no hope of release.  

The story would have ended there, but events in the years that followed embarrassed the empire and become potent symbols of the indefatigable Irish spirit, even to this day. The Catalpa Rescue dramatizes an audacious plot to free the six from Fremantle Prison and sail them half way across the world.

People have been writing about the Catalpa since 1876, the year of the rescue; some of the accounts being written by the very people who planned or participated in the events. Peter FitzSimons has drawn from these excellent sources to provide a new, fictionalised narrative in three parts – firstly, an entertaining reconstruction of the historic events in Ireland that led to the incarcerations; secondly, an account of the detestable sea voyage and prison life in the antipodes; finally, a cliff-hanging tale of the escape and rescue.

The author’s description of the convict experience is stark and chilling. Here are men who were living happily with their families – fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. They are plunged into a world of floggings, hangings, darkness and disease into the cramped bowels of an endlessly rolling ship.

Into this darkness comes a crack of light in the form of words and music. One of the story’s central characters, John Boyle O’Reilly, is a poet who, with other Fenians, stages nightly shipboard concerts of singing and poetry writing. His first recital – The Old School Clock – is an ode to his childhood memories of the Emerald isle. Not only was it applauded by the convicts, but this poem went on to become part of the Irish canon.  

“The Fenians in the audience, sitting on upturned pails and whatever else has come to hand, huddle in close to hear old Irish tales, sing beloved songs from their youth, and meet the performance of each of their friends with wild acclaim whether deserved or not, their eyes blazing in the dim lantern light.”

Once in Fremantle, standing shackled in the blazing summer sun, the horror of their predicament is apparent. This tiny outpost of the British empire has few redeeming features and the dominant edifice is the forbidding, convict-built prison. The reader is well aware from the book’s title, that escape is at hand – but how and when is masterfully unravelled in several tension filled chapters. Even when success is apparent, it is still hard to believe that a few Irishmen in America, along with their brotherhood, could devise a scheme, and enlist the support of so many people, who have no connection with the Fenians. Yet Irish and American alike risked their lives in a rescue that took many months and was fraught with risks.  

In the cold light of history, the aborted Rebellion of 1867 and the Catalpa rescue were minor events that had little effect on Britain’s determination to deny independence to Ireland for another 50 years. However, the rebellion spawned a number of luminaries who became influential champions for independence. The Catalpa rescue catalysed the support of Americans in the cause and symbolised the triumph of hope over adversity.

One minor gripe. Most of the book is a third person narrative, which is perfectly suited to the author’s style and the historical context. However, some passages are supposed to reflect the perspective of everyday people of the time, expressed with the odd archaic turn of phrase, in a strange town-crier monologue:

“Have you heard the news! Jack O’Reilly has gone! He’s escaped!”

“Look there by the shore!

The crowds!…….

And look now as a whole flotilla of smaller vessels sail and steam out to greet them. And hark…….”

The book successfully gives the reader a sense of time travel – we often feel right there, right then – without resorting to this distracting device. Indeed, the sense of being in history is one of the delights of his writing. For instance, the escape from military boats offshore from Perth is spine tingling:

“In the whaleboat, they are now close enough to see the seven or eight men in the police boat, closing on the Catalpa from the other side – white water cascading from its thrusting bow – at much the same distance, and much the same pace as they are, though propelled by two mutton leg sails.

“Their chests heave, their eyeballs roll, their tongues flail, they haul on their oars like mad things, trying to beat, with everything in them, the vessel coming from the other direction…….”

The Catalpa Rescue is a series of interlocking, complex stories that are adroitly woven. A dramatized true story, it is every bit as thrilling as the best fiction. Peter FitzSimons has researched his topic thoroughly and unearthed many absorbing facts about the momentous events in Ireland, Australia and America. The book includes extensive references and indexing, as well as a very welcome description of “Dramatis Personae”.

Peter FitzSimons is the author of a number of highly successful books, including some very Irish ones – Burke and Wills, Ned Kelly and Eureka.  He is well-credentialed to write this book, as a supporter of republican causes (chairman of the Australian Republic Movement since 2015); spirited enforcer (Australian Rugby forward) and, most importantly, Irish pedigree (his Irish grandfather emigrated in 1889).

The Catalpa Rescue

by Peter FitzSimons

(April 2019)

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 9780733641244

368pp

$34.99 (paperback)

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