Ruairí Ó Domhnaill reviews The Voyage of the Catalpa by Peter Stevens, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £14.99
PETER STEVENS spins an engrossing tale of cruelty and determination; an inspiring account of men — Irish republicans, a Catholic priest and Yankee Quakers, dedicated to a noble cause.
The survival of Fenians in British prisons and in Australia’s convict colonies is described in graphic, depressing detail. Former soldiers — “military Fenians” — were consigned to this squalid maltreatment for life.
John Boyle O’Reilly, 10th Royal Hussars, the “finest Fenian recruiter” in Victoria’s army, was betrayed by a comrade, tried and convicted.
He escaped from Dartmoor to be recaptured and transported with his comrades to Fremantle —- they must have been among the last to suffer this fate. He effected a near-impossible escape, with the help of the local parish priest and he settled as a journalist in the United States.
A journalist and brother Fenian, John Devoy, inspired by O’Reilly’s feats and the plight of his comrades put in train an elaborate plan to effect their rescue.
J J Breslin, a sophisticated charmer, already an established Fenian hero, who engineered James Stephens’ escape from Dublin, led the Australian end of the project. A New England Quaker, Captain George Anthony and his first mate, Sam Smith, led the seaward operation.
Among the six escapees were T H Hassett, ex-Papal St Patrick’s Brigade, Thomas Darragh, an ‘Orangeman’ and the future Invincible John Walsh.
Apart from the occasional lapsus calami, Stevens’ book appears well researched. The Guardian pronounced it “carefully balanced between gripping adventure and serious history… avoiding the pull of Irish sentiment and republican rhetoric.”
This “stranger-than-fiction” account of men, who overcame Victoria’s Empire, is warmly recommended.
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