On 10 January 1868 – exactly 150 years ago tomorrow – those on board the Hougoumont, which had sailed into Fremantle from Portsmouth, England, today 150 years ago, disembarked. Imagine the ship sailing into the harbour today, replete with 108 passengers and 279 convicts including 62 Fenian political prisoners. The convicts were then marched to Fremantle Prison.
Tomorrow this event will be the subject of a Commemoration Ceremony as part of the ‘Fenians Fremantle and Freedom Festival’. Descendants of Fenians, an Irish poet and an Irish folk singer will reflect on the historic event. Noongar man, Barry Maguire will welcome all to his country. A reenactment of the convicts’ walk to the Prison will then follow, along with speeches at the Prison by a range of officials including the Acting Premier, the Hon Roger Cook MLA and the Irish Consul.
Here is the Commemoration Ceremony Schedule
8.30am: Descendants and Festival Supporters meet on Bather’s Beach, north of Kidogo Arthouse
9.00am: Commemoration Ceremony begins
10.00am: Walk of the Descendants and Supporters to Fremantle Prison (transport available if needed)
11.00am: Fremantle Prison acknowledgement of Fenians and their descendants and official speakers
11.15 am: Invitation to view ‘The Wild Goose’ and Exhibition of Transportation
3.00pm: Sharing the Stories – Descendants and history lovers invited to share stories at Kidogo
7.30pm: Traditional Irish Music session at Kidogo Arthouse
The takeaway tales from the historic event are threefold. First, that the Hougoumont carried the last British convicts to Australia, the first having been despatched to Botany Bay about 80 years earlier; second, that the convicts included 62 Fenians who so longed for their Irish homeland to be independent of Britain that they were prepared to risk the consequences of taking up arms to realise their dreams. Some of them were ‘military’ Fenians, who were at the time of their rebellious conduct members of the British armed forces; and third, that 150 years is really no time at all, like yesterday!
One way and another, the more than 9000 convicts who arrived at Fremantle in some 43 voyages over nearly 18 years contributed to the Colony’s and, from 1901, the State’s development, although just how necessary they really were to the Colony’s future at the time is debatable and was debated at the time. Today though we have the Fremantle Prison and Perth Town Hall, amongst other notable items of built heritage from that period, to remind us of the convicts’ hard labour. The legacies of the convicts are also to be found in the contributions of their descendants to the State of Western Australia and Australia.
And we have the Fenians’ particular tale as well, replete with the escape of some 7 ‘military’ Fenians. It really is about time we saw a major motion picture featuring the Fenians and their spiritual leader, JB O’Reilly, who finished up leading a celebrated literary life in Boston after first escaping Western Australia himself on an American whaler in 1869, and then organising the escape of another 6 on the Catalpa on Easter Monday 1876.
For the past number of months the Shipping News has featured Margo O’Byrne’s accounts of the Fenians’ journey on the Hougoumont to Freo. Their Irish spirts shine through their diaries.
Today we also reproduce a piece, with the kind permission of the Fremantle History Society and with thanks to Garry Gillard at Fremantle Stuff, written by Sir William Heseltine in 2004, reflecting on the unlucky officials who were unwittingly responsible for facilitating the escape of the Fenians from custody (You can read here).
Since Last Thursday night, continuing until this Sunday night 14 January 2018, Joanna Robertson at Kidogo Arthouse and her merry band of Irish Australians and Fenian empathisers have been waging a very successful campaign to celebrate the Irish and Fenian influences on Freo and WA through the Fenians Fremantle and Freedom Festival – and to gain a belated pardon for JB O’Reilly. It has been a marvellous week and it isn’t over yet! If you haven’t got to an event yet, it’s not too late – go to feniansfestival.com.au to see what’s on.
The Festival will conclude Sunday night, 14 January with a monster Feast of the Wild Goose at a very long table in Bannister Street, Fremantle, which will be specially closed off for the occasion. This will be a dinner to savour. Get your tix on line now!
So, here’s to the Irish and to the future of the Festival. Perhaps it can be held annually on or about 10 January and called Hougoumont Day!