The Battle of Vinegar Hill in New South Wales (1804) and Eureka Stockade Rebellion in Victoria (1854) saw many Irish take-up-arms in endeavour to overthrow their colonial masters, while in the Hawkesbury region of New South Wales during the Black Wars period (1795 - 1816), some Irish emigrants joined with Australian aboriginals in what was to become a long and protracted bloody war with English colonists over land rights, while across the length and breadth of Australia, private wars between Irish Catholics and English Protestants were daily played out in communities who had still strong allegiances to their respective country of origin and religion.
And while the Catholic Church’s role in Australia was to reach out to those Irish Catholics disfranchised by the Irish famine, to some it wasn’t enough, and that a stronger force was required to ‘right the wrongs’ of Ireland. Also disillusioned with the Catholic Church reluctance to throw its weight behind Home Rule for Ireland, other famine survivors would look to Fenianism as a possible physical force to help them achieve something they’d been fighting for over 600 years: freedom from the shackles of the English Crown.
By the mid 1800s, Fenian societies had sprung-up in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Tasmania, while across the continent in Western Australia; the port town of Fremantle would become an enclave for Fenians and their sympathisers.
When it was announced that 62 Fenians arrested in the 1866-77 Irish uprising were being transported to the Swan River Penal Colony of Western Australia on the convict ship Hougoumont in Oct of 1867, Fenian Fear began to spread amongst those colonists still loyal to the English Crown. Perhaps their fears were well founded, because out of the 62 Fenian political prisoners to be transported, 17 were military men who’d fought for the British Empire in India, China and the Crimea, while the rest were civilian Fenians; men well versed in guerrilla warfare.
Fearing that these Fenian prisoners would overtake their captors, and along with local Fenian sympathisers, ransack the colony of Western Australia, several well-heeled colonists would plead with the Governor to request a ‘Men O War’ vessel be sent from their sister colonies on the eastern seaboard to protect them from annihilation.
Meanwhile, back in England and Ireland, Fenians had carried out attacks on British military installations in Dublin, Cork, Manchester and Clerkenwell resulting in civilian casualties on both sides, while across the Atlantic, came news that anti-Fenian campaigner and Irish born Canadian politician Darcy McGee had been murdered by an alleged Fenian assassin in Ottawa. These rebellious attacks would send a clear message to the British Empire: until Home Rule for Ireland was resolved, Fenianism was a force to be reckoned.
However, not all Fenians were murderers or men of violence. Most were well educated and people of substance, and with some adding greatly to the evolution of democratic values we cherish today.
Are you a descendant of a Fenian transported to Australia, or a descendant of one of the 62 Fenians transported to Western Australia on the convict ship Hougoumont in 1867-68? If so, then we'd love to hear your story, and what it means for you to be part of the conversation that Fenianism wasn't to be feared, but a movement full of passion and idealism that still resonates in Australia today.