It was a warm summer’s day in Fremantle, Western Australia, on January 9, 1868 when the Hougoumont, docked in the port city. It had been at sea for 89 days on a 14,000 nautical-mile voyage and it was making history.
It was the last convict ship carrying Irish prisoners and it ended 80 years of transportation. Between 1788 and 1868, 165,000 convicts had been carried to Australia.
“We commemorated it in Australia,” the man from Shandon Street in the heart of Cork City told me.
“Why wasn’t there any remembrance in Ireland of the ship which transported the Fenian leaders? This was historic, remembering what happened 150 years ago. We didn’t forget it in Australia.”
Fred Rea is not a historian, but is immersed in Irish history. He left Leeside many years ago to make a new life in Western Australia. He was involved in organising ‘Australia’s first 10-day Irish festival last month – ‘The Fenians, Fremantle & Freedom Festival’.
Held in the Perth metropolitan area, it recalled the arrival of the Hougoumont. He says that the convict ships and the stories of transportation are not well-remembered publicly in Ireland.
The Hougoumont had 62 Fenians aboard. They handwrote a newsletter during the voyage called ‘The Wild Goose’. Seven original copies are preserved in the State Library, New South Wales.
One of the Fenians was the legendary John Boyle O’Reilly, poet, journalist and activist, who later escaped captivity and got to America where he became Editor of the ‘Boston Pilot’ newspaper.
His escape was followed by “the most outrageous escape story in the history of the high seas,” as it has been described, when the unarmed whaling ship, Catalpa, from New Bedford, U.S.A., defied a British Naval vessel and its artillery in a stand-off that was an international sensation.
Stopped by the British, which fired a shot across its bows, it claimed to be just outside Australian territory, in international waters. Therefore, untouchable by the British, it saved six Fenian escapee leaders it had aboard.
Fred Rea publishes the bi-monthly magazine in Australia, Irish Scene, that claims 40,000 readers and has been in existence for 20 years. A compositor by trade and “a folk musician by night,” I met him while he was on a visit home and will feature convict ships on my radio programme, This Island Nation.
“Cork Harbour has many strong connections with this period. Unfortunately, a lot has been forgotten about this history, about the Hougoumont and other convict ships which transported 25,566 women from Ireland and Britain to Australia.”
“I got goose pimples from the emotion of standing at the Famine memorial on the Cobh quayside, recalling a story of the days of transportation when a father walked out in the water until it came over his head, trying to hold onto the hand of his daughter who was being taken out in a boat to a ship to be transported. He had to let go of her hand and never ever saw her again.
“Women convicted on trumped-up charges, transported for small offences, like stealing a little piece of linen or a bonnet, because there were too many men in Australia then.
There were others who opted to go to Australia to get out of Workhouses in the Famine.
The ‘Female Factory’ in Hobart was where they worked. It is all party of history and should be better remembered. ”
Tomorrow ECHO SPORT: The battle of the Lasers continues.