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The Catalpa Rescue is an epic tale of truly international proportions, linking Ireland, Australia and the United States of America. It ranks amongst the great escapes of the world and is a “David and Goliath” story, recounting the ultimate triumph of the small and helpless, over almost insurmountable odds. It is an intrinsic part of Rockingham’s history.

This commemorative sculpture speaks to all who espouse the ideals of freedom. It is inspired by the historical dramatic incident, which took place here in the year 1876, when the daring rescue of six Irish Fenian prisoners was affected from Fremantle Prison through Rockingham and on to Massachusetts.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in 1858. Its American counterpart, the Fenian Movement, was named after a legendary band of warriors. The Fenians had one objective - the establishment of a Free and Independent Irish Republic.

Hunger and Poverty forced many Irishmen to enlist in the British Army. In 1867 there was an uprising by the Irish against England and hundreds of the Irish Republican Brotherhood were arrested. Those serving in the British Army were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. The British Government, however commuted many of these sentences to long term penal servitude.

Thus it was that the convict transport Hougoumont transported 62 of these men to Fremantle in 1867, one of them being young activist John Boyle O'Reilly. In 1869 with the help of an Irish priest, O'Reilly escaped from a Vasse road party which was working near Bunbury.

After spending some days hiding in the coastal dunes, O'Reilly was rescued by the American whaler, the Gazell. He settled in the United States where he became a reporter for the Boston Pilot and established himself as a well-known humanitarian, writer, poet and orator.

By 1871 all convicted Fenians had been pardoned except those who had served the British military.


Of these, ten were in Fremantle Prison. One wrote a letter, which was smuggled out of Fremantle Prison and posted to America, where it came into the hands of John Devoy and John Boyle O'Reilly. This letter sowed the seed for a rescue mission which took four years to plan and which was funded by Irish families from all over the world.

The whaler Catalpa was purchased for the mission and this sailed from New Bedford in 1875 under Captain George Anthony.

Meanwhile, agents John Breslin and Thomas Desmond were given the task of travelling to Fremantle, making contact with the prisoners and preparing for their escape.

The Catalpa arrived in WA in March 1876. Due to good conduct six of the ten imprisoned Fenians had been appointed "trustees" which meant that they had some freedom to come and go from the prison during the day. On the day of the escape they made their way from Fremantle to Rockingham where a whaleboat was waiting to row them out to the Catalpa. They were pursued by the police in the coastal steamer Georgette.

The Georgette pursued the Catalpa and eventually fired a shot across the whaler's bow demanding that the prisoners be handed over. Captain Anthony denied having any prisoners on board and, pointing to the stars and stripes, proclaimed: "That's the American flag. I am on the high seas. My flag protects me. If you fire on this ship you fire on the American Flag."

The Georgette reluctantly returned to Fremantle empty handed.


After the Seige of Limerick in 1690, twenty thousand Irish soldiers followed Patrick Sarsfield to France. Known as the Wild Geese, they served with distinction in all the armies of Europe. The term has subsequently passed into common usage amongst the Irish to include all revolutionaries exiled from their native land, and ultimately, all the millions of Irish migrants and their descendants who form the 70 million Irish diaspora today. On board the convict transport “Hougoumont” the Fenians certainly thought of themselves as Wild Geese, for they produced a weekly hand written literary journal entitled “The Wild Goose”.

Birds are symbolically important as emblems of freedom in all cultures from the earliest times. They represent transcendence, freedom from earthly cares, the endeavours of man to overcome his everyday concerns and enter into a higher state of being. The impression of birds ascending through flight has long been associated with other-worldliness and the concept of purity of thought. To the Celts however, all birds were particularly sacred symbols, being messengers of the gods and harbingers of good fortune, enchantment and healing. The mythical “Tuatha” appeared as birds of brilliant plumage. Water birds, reflecting the ephemeral link between air and water, are especially spiritual. The good, said to follow the sun, represents the idea of migration as a natural phenomenon, and thus symbolizes light, inspiration and the eventual flight home

Map & Directions


Esplanade, Rockingham, WA, 6168