“Remember this is a voice from the tomb. For is this not a living tomb? In the tomb it is only a man’s body that is good for worms, but in this living tomb the canker worm of care enters the very soul..” — James Wilson writing to journalist John Devoy from Fremantle Prison in Western Australia, 1873
The pen is mightier than the sword. Case in point: a desperate, furtive plea smuggled to a New York reporter from deep within the impregnable confines of Western Australia’s Fremantle Prison. It was a letter that launched not a thousand ships, but a single, humble American whaler that stood its watery ground against a heavily armed British steamer for the noble cause of freedom and independence. The whaler was the Catalpa, its captain was George Anthony and its precious human cargo consisted of six Irish political prisoners, who had languished and suffered at the Fremantle prison for a decade.
Their remarkable story is told in SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Irish Escape. The documentary uses evocative, dramatic re-enactments, and readings from actual diaries and journals, to follow the adventure, from Ireland, where the revolutionaries are arrested in 1866, to Fremantle Prison, the most remote and notorious jail in the British Empire, to the United States, where their ultimate taste of liberty is bittersweet.
“The story of the so-called Fremantle Six is one of the most unlikely and heroic escape stories in the history of the high seas,” said Jared Lipworth, executive producer of SECRETS OF THE DEAD. “Their grit and determination inspired generations of Irish patriots and the resonance of their success helped turn the tide of history in favor of Irish independence. Few of us know about the story of this incredible prison break, even though Americans played a major role in it, so we’re excited to reveal this pivotal moment in history on SECRETS OF THE DEAD.”
The program introduces (photo right), Martin Hogan, Thomas Darragh, Robert Cranston, Thomas Hassatt, and Michael Harrington — Irish-born, British soldiers who joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secret revolutionary group also known as the Fenians. They had been recruited by John Devoy, who led them in a failed rebellion against Great Britain under Queen Victoria. While the six soldiers were convicted of treason and imprisoned, Devoy, a civilian, was exiled to America. He was working for the New York Herald when the letter — that catalytic cry for help penned by his old recruit James Wilson — landed on his desk.
SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Irish Escape finds Devoy in Baltimore, Maryland, at a meeting of the Clan Na Gael, a powerful and secretive organization of Irish nationalists. Devoy reads the letter aloud, letting the voice from the tomb speak for itself, and subsequently circulates it to some 7,000 expatriates in an attempt to raise funds for the rescue. Not a word of it is leaked to the British.
Donations supporting the Fremantle Six roll in as Devoy concocts a rescue plan around the pretext of a whaling voyage. In New Bedford, Massachusetts, he buys a ship, the Catalpa, and hires recently retired first mate George Anthony as captain. In the program, Catalpa historian Thomas Keneally describes the first-time captain as a risky choice — “a real blue-blood Yankee, a protestant, a non-conformist temperance man…the very antithesis of the Irish.” But buoyed by his sense of justice and the prospect of a handsome reward, Anthony embarks on the mission on April 29, 1875.
Devoy’s point person in Australia is the Irishman John J. Breslin, posing as American millionaire James Collins. He easily gains entry into the Fremantle Prison, convincing the guards that he is looking for cheap labor and investment opportunities. The global reach of the Fenians becomes apparent as other Fenians appear on the scene with plans of their own to rescue the Fremantle Six. Despite a warning from British Intelligence about one of the plots, the local authorities are convinced that escape from Fremantle — hemmed in by a vast desert to the east and thousands of miles of shark-infested ocean to the west — is impossible.
Meanwhile, unavoidably delayed by three months, Captain Anthony finally steers the Catalpa into Bunbury, a small port south of Fremantle, on March 28, 1876. He and Breslin meet to discuss details of the plan and, on April 15, the Catalpa heads toward Rockingham beach, about 20 miles south of Fremantle. Anthony had been instructed to stay with the Catalpa well outside of the three-mile limit of Australian waters under British jurisdiction. But refusing to put his crew at risk alone, he heads for shore in a small whaleboat.
On Easter Monday, the prisoners make ready for their resurrection — from the tomb of Fremantle to a second chance in America. They bluff their way into opportunistic work details that allow them to run off, undetected, to the Rockingham road, where Breslin waits for them with two carriages. When they emerge from the brush and spot Breslin, they are ecstatic, running toward the carriages and tossing aside their work tools in a moment of triumph and liberation. But their fight for freedom is just getting started. SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Irish Escape re-enacts their fast and furious ride to the shore, where Anthony and his crew are spotted by a local worker, who surmises the escape plan and gets word to the authorities. About an hour into the escape, an alarm is sounded at the prison. By the time the Fenians launch the whaleboat, the police are in pursuit.
Anthony and the prisoners row the whaleboat toward the Catalpa as official boats — including the highly maneuverable, steam-powered H.M.S. Georgette — are launched from Fremantle to search for them. For 48 hours, Anthony and his men are dangerously tossed on agitated seas. At sunrise, Sam Smith, the first mate on board the Catalpa, spots the whaleboat in the distance just as the Georgette approaches and demands to search the ship. Smith refuses to allow it. The luck of the Irish prevails as the Georgette runs out of fuel and is forced to return to Fremantle. Then, a coast guard cutter spots the prisoners in the whaleboat and gives chase; Anthony and company just barely make it safely to the Catalpa.
But still, the fight isn’t over. The following morning the Georgette returns, armed for combat with a loaded, 12-pound cannon. The action is captured in another re-enactment. After firing a warning shot, the Georgette engages in a hair-raising game of cat-and-mouse, trying to nudge the Catalpa into Australian waters, where she will have jurisdiction to open fire. Suddenly, the old Irish blessing, “may the wind be always at your back,” takes on new meaning as a fortuitous gust spirits the Catalpa out of the Georgette’s trap and away, toward America.
Five months later the men arrive in New York to a hero’s welcome. SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Irish Escape concludes with a glimpse of their individual stories. Captain Anthony returns to New Bedford and settles into a comfortable life and home, paid for by the Clan Na Gael. Sadly, the Freemantle Six never quite recover from their prison ordeal. According to Devoy, they bear “the marks of bitterness, of despair, of desolation, the marks of hopelessness.” As for Devoy, he and Breslin rise to prominence within the ranks of the Clan Na Gael and continue the fight for Irish independence.
As Devoy predicted, the prison break would bolster Irish morale and spur the fight for independence, which was finally won in 1922. Devoy lived long enough to realize that lifelong ambition and, half a century after being exiled, returned to the country he had fought so hard to free.