Category: Archive

124 years ago: The Catalpa mission

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

Om Aug. 19, 1876, one of the most extraordinary episodes in Irish nationalist history reached completion. The ship Catalpa, having rescued six Fenian revolutionaries from their exile in a prison colony in Western Australia, sailed into New York harbor. The planners of the risky mission, despite enormous financial and logistical challenges, had just pulled off the impossible.

The Catalpa rescue had been the work of John Devoy. As a rising figure in Irish revolutionary circles in the 1860s, he had been among the hundreds arrested in the British crackdown of 1866-7. Sentenced to a long prison term, he was paroled in late 1870 on the condition that he not return to Ireland until his sentence expired. Devoy headed for New York, acquired a job at the New York Herald, and joined a new, secret revolutionary organization known as Clan na Gael. He quickly assumed control of the Clan and oversaw its growth in size and influence in the 1870s.

Devoy conceived of the Catalpa rescue in early 1874, after he received a letter from a fellow Fenian languishing in a prison colony in Western Australia. It painted a sad picture of forgotten heroes wasting away and pleaded with Devoy for help. “We ask you to aid us with your tongue and pen, with your brain and intellect, with your ability and influence. We think if you forsake us, then we are friendless indeed.”

Devoy felt pangs of guilt, for despite his role as a Fenian, he had managed to avoid the penalty of prison colony exile in the Pacific. But ever mindful of his goal of thwarting British domination of his native Ireland, Devoy also sensed an opportunity. For as Terry Golway writes in

his excellent biography of Devoy, “Irish Rebel,” a successful rescue “promised the reward of a galvanized and united Irish race at home and abroad, and one that would assure him of unquestioned leadership among the Irish in America.” Devoy immediately began raising money and plotting the escape.

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In April 1875, the Catalpa, paid for and outfitted by Devoy, set sail for Australia. After a year-long voyage, the ship arrived off the shores of Western Australia. Through a meticulously laid out plan, six Fenian prisoners were spirited away while on work duty outside the walls of their prison. They boarded a whaleboat and were rowed to a waiting Catalpa.

A British warship eventually caught up and even fired a shot across the ship’s bow, before turning back, doubtless unwilling to provoke an incident between Britain and the United States (the Catalpa flew a U.S. flag).

Word of the daring rescue soon reached the media and touched off celebrations in Dublin and the U.S. Thus, when the Catalpa arrived in New York harbor, the Fenian exiles were given a hero’s welcome. They passed thousands of cheering spectators as they paraded up Broadway.

In the end, the Catalpa rescue was a purely symbolic gesture and cost more money than Devoy or Clan na Gael could afford. Indeed, controversy over its financing would rage for years. Still, as he had predicted, the Catalpa rescue solidified Devoy’s leadership position and energized the nationalist cause on both sides of the Atlantic.


Aug. 17, 1807: Robert Fulton’s steamboat, the Clermont, makes its first trip, traveling 152 miles on the Hudson River between Albany and New York City in 32 hours.

Aug. 17, 1846: Prime Minister Lord John Russell’s administration announces that it will not interfere with grain market in Ireland. As a result, food prices soar in Ireland and grain is exported even as hundreds of thousands face starvation during the Great Famine.

Aug. 19, 1920: Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, begins his hunger strike in protest over his arrest by the Royal Irish Constabulary. His death on Oct. 25 dramatically boosts popular support for the War of Independence being waged by the IRA.

Aug. 22, 1791: United Irishmen founder Theobald Wolfe Tone publishes “An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland” calling for full equality of Catholics in Ireland.”


Aug. 16, 1894: Labor leader George Meany born in New York City.

Aug. 16, 1930: Pro football legend Frank Gifford born in Santa Monica, Calif.

Aug. 17, 1786: Frontiersman and Alamo martyr Davy Crockett born near present-day Rogersville, Tenn.

Aug. 17, 1920: Actress Maureen O’Hara born in Milwall, near Dublin.

Aug. 20, 1778: Bernardo O’Higgins, father of Chilean independence, born in Chile.

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