Tasmania has its secrets and I’m starting to wonder whether it has more secrets than most.
While its brutal convict heritage is much publicized and has even become a tourist draw card, there are so many surprises once you scratch the beneath the surface. As I’ve mentioned before, the brutal conflict between the indigenous Tasmanian Aborigines and settlers known as the Black Wars was largely forgotten and not even covered up.
Another facet of Tasmania’s history I knew very little about before I met Geoff, was its strong pockets of Irish settlement. There were areas with notably high concentrations of Irish settlers, especially around Westbury, Deloraine and Irish Town. These were towns where names like Murphy, Griffin, Lyons, Burke and O’Sullivan flowed from Irish tongues.
In addition to these settlers and emancipated convicts, Irish political prisoners were also exiled to Van Dieman’s Land.
So, today we’re actually not visiting a place. Rather, we’re jumping into our time machine and turning the clock back somewhere around the 1850s and hooking up with these exiles.
This was a very turbulent time in Irish History. In addition to seeking independence from England, Ireland was struck down by the Great Famine from 1845-1852. During the famine, approximately one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland, causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.
John Mitchel summed up what it meant for them to be exiled from their beloved Ireland and their cause:
“For the Young Irelanders, “Van Diemen’s Land was punishment heaped upon punishment. An outpost of the British Empire created as a receptacle for British criminals, Van Diemen’s Land was in many ways both socially and culturally ‘A little England’. Mitchel wrote in his Jail Journal that ‘every sight and sound that strikes eye or ear on this mail road, reminds me that I am in a small misshapen, transported, bastard England; and the legitimate England itself is not so dear to me that I can love the convict copy’. For a group of Irish nationalists Van Diemen’s Land was the last place they would choose to waste precious years of their life.
In particularly, we’ll be meeting up with John Mitchel and William Smith O’Brien
Referring to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, we’ll pick up with John Mitchel in Autumn of 1845 when he became assistant editor of the Nation under Charles Gavan Duffy. Meanwhile, he had joined the Repeal Association which, inspired by Daniel O’Connell, campaigned for the peaceable dissolution of the union with England; but he also became associated with the emerging Young Ireland movement, whose militancy and advocacy of physical force were leading to a collision between the older and younger leaders. The first open breach came in 1846 when Mitchel, William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Meagher and others left the Repeal Association; but it was not complete until O’Connell’s death a year later.
In December 1847 Mitchel broke with Duffy and the Nation and in February 1848 launched the United Irishman, a weekly newspaper that soon became the most influential of the organs propagating the militant views of the Young Ireland Movement. As conflict in Ireland sharpened, the authorities decided to take drastic action: habeas corpus was suspended and a new Treason Felony Act received the royal assent; under this new legislation Mitchel, having first been charged with sedition, was sentenced to fourteen years transportation for treason. Soon afterwards the other Young Ireland leaders, O’Brien, Meagher, Patrick O’Donohoe, John Martin, Terence McManus and Kevin Izod O’Doherty, were tried and sentenced for high treason at Clonmel and Dublin, and transported to Van Diemen’s Land. Mitchel was first committed to the hulks in Bermuda, and later sent to the Cape of Good Hope in the Neptune. The colonists refused to allow the ship to berth and, having lain at anchor for five months in Simon’s Bay, she sailed to Van Diemen’s Land and docked at Hobart Town in April 1850.
Mitchel, though the first to be sentenced, was thus the last of the Young Ireland leaders to reach Van Diemen’s Land. He was granted a ticket-of-leave on parole and allowed to share a cottage near Bothwell with John Martin. He was also able to meet O’Doherty and Meagher at Lake Sorell on the borders of their police districts. In May 1851 he went to meet his wife who was believed to be arriving at Launceston. For leaving the district without a pass he was arrested, but soon discharged. His wife Jane and children did not arrive in the brig Union until June, when they joined him at Bothwell. Two years later Mitchel successfully planned and carried through his escape from the island with the help of P. J. Smyth, who had come from New York as correspondent of the New York Tribune for the purpose. Having previously surrendered his parole and ticket-of-leave at Bothwell police station, he made his way to Hobart in June 1853, sailed for Sydney, and thence to Batavia, San Francisco and New York, where he received a hero’s welcome in November.
William Smith O’Brien
When you visit Port Arthur these days, you can still see William Smith O’Brien’s house. As his is a complex story, I’ve left the telling to G. Rudé, from the Australian Dictionary of Biography:
“William Smith O’Brien (1803-1864), Irish nationalist, was born on 17 October 1803 at Dromoland, County Clare, Ireland, the second son of Sir Edward O’Brien, baronet, and Charlotte, née Smith. A Protestant, he was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1826). He represented the Irish borough of Ennis in the unreformed British parliament from 1828 to 1831 and Limerick from 1835 until his exclusion from the Commons in 1849. For long an opponent of Daniel O’Connell, O’Brien joined his Repeal Association in 1843 and soon exercised an authority within it second only to ‘the Liberator’ himself. In the disputes dividing the Irish nationalist leaders in the 1840s O’Brien at first adopted a conciliatory role; and, although he walked out of the association with John Mitchel, Thomas Meagher and other militants in July 1846, he continued to preach reconciliation until O’Connell’s death in May 1847 completed the breach between the advocates of ‘moral’ and ‘physical’ force.”
From this time he appears as the oldest, most experienced and respected, though by no means the most resolute or consistent, of the leaders of the militant Young Ireland or ‘confederate’ groups which, after the February 1848 revolution in Paris, urged the formation of an Irish national guard modelled on the French and a council of three hundred as the nucleus of an Irish national parliament; eventually after John Mitchel’s arrest and condemnation in May 1848 he organized an armed insurrection. It was poorly led, ill equipped and unsupported, and proved abortive. Though O’Brien had long hesitated to engage in armed rebellion and refused to lend his name to the committee of five that directed it, he was recognized as its foremost leader, was arrested in August on a charge of high treason and at Clonmel in October 1848 was sentenced with T. F. Meagher, T. B. McManus and Patrick O’Donohoe to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The sentence was commuted to transportation for life; O’Brien and his principal lieutenants sailed in the Swift to Hobart Town, where they arrived on 27 October 1849. Three of O’Brien’s humbler and lesser-known comrades-in-arms, Thomas Donovan, Thomas Wall and John Walsh, were sentenced at Waterford in July 1850 to seven years transportation for attacking the city’s police barracks under O’Brien’s orders and reached Hobart in the Hyderabad on 13 December 1850; a fourth, Cornelius Keeffe, sentenced at Waterford for a similar offence in March 1849, followed in the Dalhousie on 14 August 1852.
On arrival in Hobart O’Brien at first refused to give his parole in return for a ticket-of-leave and was in consequence denied the privileged treatment afforded to the other Young Ireland leaders. He was sent to Darlington station in the penal settlement of Maria Island; nine months later, after an unsuccessful attempt to escape to the United States in an American whaler, he was transferred to Port Arthur, where he was allowed to live in his own cottage (now a youth hostel). In November 1850 he was persuaded to give his parole, was granted a ticket-of-leave and settled first at New Norfolk and later at Avoca, where he acted as tutor to the children of a local doctor. Returning to New Norfolk he received a conditional pardon in 1854; he sailed for Europe and in Brussels was joined by his wife Lucy, née Gabbett, five sons and two daughters. In May 1856, following the intercession of 140 British parliamentarians, he was granted a free pardon which allowed him to return to Ireland. In 1859 he paid a brief visit to New York and in 1863 to Poland. He died at Bangor, Wales, on 18 June 1864.
However, while these men had been exiled from their homeland, they were embraced and assisted by Tasmania’s tight-knit Irish community. After John Mitchel declared his intention to escape, he stayed with Geoff”s 4th Great Grandfather, William Burke of Westbury who also lent him his horse.
Meanwhile, it’s looking like John Newton, another of Geoff’s 4th Great Grandparents, could well have been serving time as a convict on Maria at the same time Smith O’Brien was there…an interesting connection, which hardly made them best of friends.
Tomorrow, I’ll be back to look at John Mitchel’s Jail Journal and his escape from Van Dieman’s Land to America.
PS I apologise if there are any mistakes and I would appreciate any corrections left in the comments please. I know I’ve only dipped my toe into this very complex subject, but it’s better to have a go, than never try at all.