The 19th century was a time of numerous rebellions in Ireland, most of them unsuccessful. Many Irish rebels were taken prisoner and sent by their British captors to the notoriously squalid Fremantle Prison in Australia – a fate regarded as essentially a death sentence.
Despite the dismal conditions, prisoners were given some leniency in moving around the jail. One captive, John Boyle O’Reilly, managed to escape by slipping away and sneaking aboard a New Bedford whaling vessel that was in the area – a not uncommon sight at the time.
After O’Reilly’s escape, a group of Irish sympathizers in the US decided to try to rescue more of the Fremantle inmates. “They looked at this model of John Boyle O’Reilly, whereby going on a New Bedford whaler, you could masquerade,” said James Russell, president of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Captain George Anthony, a Quaker, was moved by the plight of the Fremantle prisoners. He secured a bark called the Catalpa, and in 1876, set off to attempt the dangerous rescue. (His crew thought they were going on a whaling voyage, and only learned the true nature of their mission once the rescue was underway).
After learning that the Catalpa was waiting offshore, six Irish Republicans (known as “Fenians”) were able to escape the prison – a remarkable feat in itself. But that was just the beginning.
The escapees set off in a whaleboat toward the Catalpa, but were spotted from the beach. Prison authorities sent out a cutter under sail, and the motor vessel “Georgette,” to recapture the prisoners.
A fierce storm that night blew down the whaleboat’s mast, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. “They all lie down below the gunwhales,” explained Russell, “so it looks like a piece of driftwood in the water.” The escapees narrowly escaped death. Had they been caught, they most likely would have been shot or hanged.
The Georgette ran low on fuel and was forced to return to shore, so the escaped prisoners began rowing for their lives toward the Catalpa, pursued by the cutter.
“They just make it,” said Russell. “They climb up, and at this point they’re fairly sure all they need to do is set sail and off they go.”
Except… the wind suddenly died, leaving the Catalpa dead in the water for the entire night.
The next morning, the Georgette returned with a 12-pound gun on her deck and brisling with armed soldiers. They fired a shot across the Catalpa’s bow, at which point Captain Anthony hoisted up the American flag and said, ‘If you fire on me, you fire on the United States.’
“It was enough of a bluff,” said Russell. “Just then, the wind picks up, they tack, they head out to sea.”
When Captain Anthony and the Catalpa safely returned to New Bedford with the freed prisoners, there was a cannon salute for every state in the union - and every county in Ireland.