The Elusive Fenian

by Anne-Maree Whitaker

Michael Cody

It is natural for members of a clandestine revolutionary organisation such as the Fenians to be secretive, but Michael Cody is even more elusive than most. While his comrades John Devoy, John Boyle O’Reilly, and Michael Davitt achieved international renown over decades, Cody was so shadowy that historians lost track of him after the celebrated Catalpa rescue of 1876. No-one seemed to know where he had finished up. Now, thanks to the digitisation of newspapers and library collections, we can at least track his movements, if not his motives.

Born in Dublin in 1844 at the age of 21, Michael Cody was one of a group of deeply committed Fenians who in 1865 concealed themselves in a loft in Dublin armed with revolvers as they planned to kill two informers. He was described by his comrade John Devoy as ‘a low-sized but extremely powerful man of great determination’ who had ‘a weakness for punching policemen’. Devoy also commented that Cody had a face that was ‘a model for an artist’. Cody became the ‘centre’ (leader) of a Fenian group in Callan, Co Kilkenny, and later President of the Committee of Safety which police considered an ‘assassination circle’.

In December 1865, Cody was involved in the prison escape of the Fenian commander James Stephens which was masterminded by John Breslin. Cody was arrested in March 1866 but released, and spent some time in England over succeeding months. On returning to Dublin he was re-arrested in April 1867, tried with John Flood and Edward Duffy, and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. They were transported to Western Australia on the last convict ship, the Hougoumont, which arrived in 1868 carrying 62 Fenian prisoners. Among others on the ship were John Edward Kelly, who would figure in Cody’s continuing activism.

Cody did not have to wait 20 years for his freedom, as he was pardoned under an amnesty in 1871 and immediately made his way to Sydney. From there he travelled 300 kilometres north-west to the goldfields at Gulgong which had been discovered the previous year. The district’s population had swelled by 10,000 in a few months, and continued to grow as more finds occurred. Cody became the Gulgong agent for the Irish Citizen newspaper founded by John Flood in Sydney. Also in Gulgong were Dubliner John King and Clare-born Thomas McInerney, who were joint secretaries of an appeal for Irish nationalist John Mitchel in July 1874.

The Fenians in New South Wales were still organising, and discussing plans to rescue their last six comrades in custody in Fremantle. Fast-forward to a Saturday afternoon in September or October 1875 when John King and Thomas’ brother James McInerney were travelling home from work into Sydney along Parramatta Road on a horse-drawn omnibus. Suddenly they noticed John Kelly and another man on a bus coming out of town towards them. Kelly waved to them to alight and introduced them to his companion, the legendary John Breslin who had organised the rescue of James Stephens from Dublin’s Richmond Prison ten years earlier.

From him they learned that a parallel plan had been hatched in the USA. The American rescue involved sailing a whaling bark, the Catalpa, a distance of 12,000 miles from New Bedford, Massachusetts all the way to Western Australia. Ahead of the ship, Breslin arrived in Sydney from San Francisco in search of allies, and his first contact was John Kelly who sought out King and James McInerney, and summoned Cody back to Sydney from Gulgong. Cody then set off to New Zealand seeking donations to help fund the rescue while Breslin headed to Fremantle to rendezvous with the Catalpa.

Kelly later reported to O’Donovan Rossa that ‘the [Fenian] organisation has a comparatively powerful foothold in three goldfields in New South Wales, in the Middle Island of New Zealand, and in a Queensland goldfield. This is all owing to Mick C.’ Cody returned to Sydney from New Zealand in February 1876 with around $6-7,000 worth of gold, which King packed into a portmanteau and headed for Fremantle. There on 17 April 1876, Easter Monday, the six Fenian prisoners managed to reach the Catalpa, which evaded pursuit by hoisting the US flag. The rescue became an international sensation and sparked a number of ballads celebrating the feat. As a result of his organising efforts in funding the Catalpa rescue, Michael Cody was regarded by the American Fenians as the ‘head of the order in Australia’.

After his fundraising success Cody had other preoccupations, and on St Patrick’s Day 1876 he was married to Bridget Curry at St Benedict’s Church in Sydney. The witnesses were Thomas McInerney and his wife Margaret. The church register named Cody’s parents as John Cody, Dublin boilermaker, and Dora née Byrne, while his wife’s parents were farmer Michael Curry and Bridget née Molloy of Limerick. Soon after their wedding the Codys left for Charters Towers in Queensland, where their first four children were born between 1877 and 1884. Gold had been discovered in the district in 1871, leading to a population influx and rapid development. Cody made no attempt to conceal his identity. In a satirical account in the Northern Miner (July 10, 1880) of a railway strike, his name is evoked: ‘Captain Cody, we expect was not far off when this Fenian conspiracy was hatched’.

Thomas McInerney seems to have done well prospecting in Gulgong, as he acquired an extensive property portfolio and is shown as the licensee of the Bridge Hotel on Pyrmont Bridge Road, Sydney, by January 1877. However his wife died in 1886 and Thomas the following year, nominating John King and Michael Cody as his executors. Having returned to Sydney, Cody ran the hotel until November 1887 when he turned publican on his own account, taking over the Clare Castle Hotel in George Street West (modern Broadway) which he ran from 1887 to 1890.

He then moved on to the Australian Eleven Hotel in Elizabeth Street, Redfern. In July 1891 the hotel was the venue for the formation meeting of the John Mitchel branch of the Irish National Foresters, one of the best-known friendly societies in Ireland which was beginning its expansion into New South Wales. In addition to providing health and unemployment insurance for members, they were closely associated with Irish nationalism. As well as hosting the inaugural meeting Cody also represented the branch at the formation of the State Executive in 1892 when he was elected Sub High Chief Ranger (vice-president).

The Foresters provided the activists who organised the visit to New South Wales in 1895 of veteran Irish nationalist campaigner Michael Davitt. As a Fenian ‘centre’ he was involved in the abortive raid on Chester Castle in England in 1867, but evaded capture until 1870 when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Thereafter he achieved fame as a lecturer and political campaigner, founding the Land League in 1879 and serving several terms in the British parliament as well as in prison. His visit to Australia in 1895 was intended to be a fundraising lecture tour to boost his personal finances, but when a general election was called the funds were diverted to the election campaign.

Michael Cody served on the organising committee for the visit, and was selected to represent the Foresters in presenting a formal address of welcome to Davitt when he arrived in Sydney.When Davitt reached Gympie in Queensland he stayed with their erstwhile comrade John Flood, who chaired his public lecture in the town.Cody continued in his role as Sub High Chief Ranger of the NSW Executive of the Foresters until 1896. When he stood down from the position at the annual convention ‘a hearty vote of thanks was accorded by acclamation to Bro. Cody, who gratefully acknowledged it.’ The convention closed with the singing of ‘God Save Ireland’, a song commemorating the execution of three Fenians in Manchester, England in 1867.

The Australian Eleven Hotel – original building

The Australian Eleven Hotel, named in honour of the national cricket team, was located opposite Redfern Park and attracted harriers and election meetings as well as cricketers and locals. The old building, a two-storey weatherboard terrace, was condemned in 1902 and Cody built a new two-storey brick hotel next door, negotiating a 30-year lease with the landowner. He later claimed the new hotel cost £3000. In 1905 he joined the campaign against the Liquor Bill, alleging that the proposed reduction in hotel licenses would ruin those who had made investments such as his. In 1908 he was one of five publicans nominated to the Hotel Club and Restaurant Employees Board as employer representatives.

In 1905 John Devoy wrote in his New York newspaper the Gaelic American that he, and Michael Cody in Australia, were the last survivors of the Fenians who hid in the Dublin loft in 1865. John Flood, although not one of that small group, was among the few remaining Hougoumont Fenian exiles, and it was his death in Queensland in 1909 which inspired Cody’s last recorded public utterance. An appeal was launched to build a memorial on Flood’s grave, and the Sydney committee elected Michael Cody as Vice-President. At the meeting called to establish the appeal Cody, ‘a popular and honoured citizen of Sydney’, reminisced: 

He said it was close on fifty years since he first became acquainted with John Flood, and for very many years he was closely identified with him in political matters, from that time until they had attained their liberty in Western Australia in 1871. He had known the late John Flood, in England, Ireland, and Australia, well and intimately, and how he had laboured in the cause of his country. He knew his excellent qualities, and he was fairly staggered when he heard of his death. No one in Australia knew him longer or better than himself, or regretted his death more than he did. He was very pleased to see some steps were being taken to honour his memory.

Cody gave up the license of the Australian Eleven hotel in early 1912 at the age of 68, and moved to a house he named ‘Innisfail’ in Pine Street, Randwick, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. On Christmas Eve that year his wife Bridget died at the age of 61 and was buried in Waverley Cemetery. Michael survived another 10 years before succumbing to senile decay and cardiac dilation on 13 July 1922 at the age of 78. His death notice requested ‘American papers please copy’ but, elusive to the end, his grave remains unmarked.

Michael Cody’s unmarked grave at Waverley Cemetery, Sydney

Note on sources

Keith Amos, The Fenians in Australia 1865-1880, although published in 1988 remains an essential source. Many of the later references to Cody are derived from the National Library of Australia’s bibliographic database Trove.

Picture captions

Fenianfig1 Michael Cody in 1867 (National Archives of Ireland)

Fenianfig3 Old Australian Eleven Hotel c 1890 (NSW State Records and Archives)

Fenianfig6 Cody’s unmarked grave in Waverley Cemetery (Gregory Ross)

Anne-Maree Whitaker is a professional historian based in Sydney with an interest in Australia’s Irish and Catholic history. She has published a number of articles on Australian links to the 1916 Easter Rising.
Anne-Maree Whitaker PhD FRAHS FRHistS
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