Book Review by Frank O’Shea
Peter Fitzsimons: THE CATALPA RESCUE Hachette Australia 2019. 405 pp.
ISBN: 978 0 7336 4124 4
Speaking to Australian friends, I was surprised that they had never heard of the Catalpa Rescue. On second thoughts, we had not heard of it in our schooldays or general reading in Ireland either. This was particularly strange since it was a rare instance where ‘we’ had won, where an action against the Crown had been a success from first to last and had left the Empire looking inept and embarrassed.
The rescue was of six men serving life sentences. All were former British soldiers who had taken the Fenian oath. Their intention was that they would stay in their regiments until they got the message to join an uprising that would finally drive the British out of Ireland. Despite the Fenian priority on secrecy, they were found out and convicted of traitorous behaviour. Part of their punishment was to be branded on the chest with the letter D for Deserter. Civilian Fenians, like John Devoy, were treated more leniently and eventually released, but these men were beyond any possibility of reprieve.
Both types of Fenian were transported to Fremantle, at that time on the edge of civilisation. Within a few years, the non-D Fenians were given a ticket-of-leave and could live in the community, though with some limitations on what they could do and where they could go. Despite a number of attempts in the House of Commons to treat the military men in the same way, there was no change in either the length or severity of their sentence.
In Fremantle, there were actually eight of these former soldiers. One was John Boyle O’Reilly and he escaped under his own scheming and was part of the conspiracy in America to release the others. Another was James Kiely, ‘a trusting soul and so garrulous that he will talk to anyone on anything’, not the kind of man to involve in something like planning for escape from an isolated penal colony. That left six, all kept under close monitoring that became even more restrictive after the escape of O’Reilly.
Other Fenians like Devoy, Donovan Rossa and John O’Mahony were allowed to leave their British prisons to go to America where they continued their Fenian activities as leaders of Clan na Gael. Using information from John Boyle O’Reilly – by then a respectable journalist and poet – about the conditions in Western Australia, they organised a plan to rescue the six.
The plan involved a whale-boat which they had to purchase, fit out and crew; under the command of an American named George Antony, it would pick up the escapees. The preparations for the escape would be organised on the ground by a man named John Breslin, posing as a wealthy Yank looking for investment opportunities, aided by another travelling American named Thomas Desmond, working as a carriage-maker.
Antony and Breslin are the heroes of the story, and what a story it is. Told here by Peter FitzSimons in his characteristic hands-on style, the kind of writing that gives the impression that the author loves the story and is enjoying himself. You could almost imagine him finishing one part of the action and then saying, ‘But wait, there’s more.’ And lest you may think that he has stretched the truth for the sake of his story, you are provided with almost 40 pages of references and bibliography.
In an introduction, FitzSimons tells us that his ancestors came from Donaghadee Co Down. r what it’s worth, he says, “writing this book gave me great cause to reflect even more on my own Irish ancestry, and to feel ever more deeply connected to it.” And he pays a most unconventional tribute to one of the prime movers in the whole story by dedicating the book as follows: “To the memory of John Devoy. Sir, you are an inspiration. “
Here then is history in the form of an adventure story, a book that grabs you from the beginning and keeps you enthralled, the kind that will have you missing meetings and meals and appointments. When they say something was a cracking read, this is the kind of book they have in mind.