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The Catalpa Escape

a radio feature produced by Lyn Gallacher

This is the most successful prison break in Australian history. It was an international rescue effort that took years to organise, and which finally freed six Irish prisoners from Fremantle Gaol. The rescue ship was an American whaler called The Catalpa. The escape was so dramatic that it’s now a symbol of human resilience, even resurrection.


On Easter Monday, 1876, six Irish political prisoners, known as military Fenians, were rescued from ‘a living tomb’. This was how the world’s toughest prison, Fremantle gaol, was described by its inmates. The rescuer was one Captain Anthony, a Quaker sea captain who had no connection with the Irish cause. He put his crew, his family, his financiers and his own life in danger to sail from New Bedford in America to Perth in Western Australia on a trip that was disguised as a whale hunt. Why? Because, as he told his grandson, it was the right thing to do.


On the day the six escapees broke away from their work gangs at the appointed time and met up with a trap and horses and were taken to Rockingham beach, where they were rowed out to the Catalpa and crew who were waiting in international waters. It was a race for survival as the water police and the steamship the Georgette gave chase. To make matters worse a huge storm blew up and the men in the rowboat nearly didn’t survive the night. It took twenty-eight hours for the prisoners, the rowers and Captain Anthony to make it safely to the Catalpa and hoist the American flag. The idea was that if the boat was in international waters and flew the American flag then the British could not fire on her. An attack with cannons would be a declaration of war. It was a long shot. No one on board the Catalpa knew if this strategy would work. It did. The British held fire, but theCatalpa only just got away. The lack of wind in that moment meant that the ship was drifting back into Australian waters. After years of organisation, and lives on the line, the success of this escape effort all came down to a puff of wind.

Fremantle Prison was operational until 1991. It closed on 8 November of that year, meaning that this escape story has continuing, contemporary resonance for prisoners who still remember being incarcerated there. The Catalpa escape is a reminder of how a sense of self-worth can survive in the midst of horrific institutional degradation. It’s testimony to loyalty, adventure and endurance. It inspired a whole new wave of Irish rebellion, and a song that is still banned in Western Australia today. Easter Monday is Perth regatta day and it is now also Catalpa day. Here’s one version of the lyrics:


A noble whale ship and commander
called the Catalpa, they say,
she sailed into Western Australia
and took six poor Fenians away.

For seven long years they had served here, 
and seven long more had to stay, 
for defending their country, old Ireland 
for that they were banished away.


Then here’s to Brave John Boyle O’Reilly, 
Who first blazed a trail o’er the sea, 
By escaping from Bunbury to Boston, 
And vowing his comrades to free.


You kept them in Western Australia
’till their hair, it began to turn grey,
when a Yank from the States of America
came out here and stole them away.

So come all you screw warders and jailers,
remember Perth regatta day.
Take care of the rest of your Fenians
or the Yankees will steal them away.

Now, all the Perth boats were a-racing
and making short tacks for the spot,
but the Yankee she tacked into Fremantle
and took the best prize of the lot.


The Georgette, well armed with bold warriors
went out the poor Yanks to arrest,
but she hoisted her star-spangled banner
saying ‘You’ll not board me, I guess’.

So remember those six Fenians colonial
and sing o’er these few verses with skill.
And remember the Yankee that stole them
and the home that they left on the hill.


After the Catalpa rescue only four Fenian prisoners remained in Fremantle Gaol. Continuous amnesty agitation in Ireland and overseas resulted in their conditional pardon and release on 28 March 1878, by which time they were broken men.

Listen to the program here …

HindsightThe Catalpa escape



Video—The Catalpa Rescue: the most outrageous escape story in the history of the high seas.




Brendan Woods—Musician, performer and composer


Estelle Blackburn—Author and Walkley award winning journalist


James Ryan—Great grandson of Captain Anthony





Title—The Voyage of The Catalpa: A Perilous Journey and Six Irish Rebels’ Escape to Freedom
Author—Peter F. Stevens
Publisher—Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, 2002





Track—A Celtic Dreaming, Fremantle Goal, Cry of the Dreamer, The White Rose
Artist—Brendan Woods & Sean Roche
Album—John Boyle O’Reilly & The Fenian Escape from Fremantle Goal, 2006





Fremantle Prison official site





Sound Engineer—Angela Grant


Producer—Lyn Gallacher

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