Long before the days of annual summer vacations, low-cost airlines and bargain flights, travel was a far more muscular activity than it is today. Certainly there was travel for pleasure but more often people travelled for religious, economic or political reasons. Travel was commonly related to pilgrimage and diplomacy, war and crusade, exploration and trade.
One fascinating episode in the history of travel relates to the deportation to Western Australia of Irish nationalist John Boyle O’Reilly. O’Reilly was deported from Dublin in 1867, sentenced to 20 years imprisonment and labour for his part in the nationalist Fenian Rising the same year. O’Reilly was convicted of not revealing that he knew mutiny was brewing in Her Majesty’s Forces in Ireland. He was a captive on the very last voyage taking convicts to Australia – from 1850 to 1868, Western Australia had been used by Britain as a penal colony with more than 9,000 convicts transported and dumped during those years.
Led onto the forbidding transport ship Hougoumont – at the tender age of 23 – O’Reilly had at least one cause for comfort despite the long voyage and prison sentence ahead of him in a vast unknown land. He had initially been sentenced to death before the court settled instead on transportation to Australia.
Yet as an Irish nationalist who loved his country, setting sail as a prisoner on the Hougoumont was clearly immensely traumatic. O’Reilly, a poet and novelist who would later become editor of the Boston newspaper The Pilot, wrote a poem Farewell to express his grief at being transported. In it he wrote:
Farewell to thy green hills, thy valleys and plains,
My poor blighted country! In exile and chains
Are the sons doomed to linger.
Before long however, he was writing poetry on the beauty of Australia – O Beauteous Southland! was how he began his poem Westen Australia.
On board the transport ship, O’Reilly found himself accompanied on the voyage by a couple of dozen other deported Irish nationalists. The Hougoumont‘s fascinating passenger list notes many of the convicts as Fenians or suspected Fenians. (“Fenian????” says a common note on the old document.) Better educated and more literate than the common criminals they travelled with, the rebels produced a newspaper The Wild Goose to entertain themselves. Wild geese are a traditional Celtic symbol for soldiers far from home, the symbolism being based not just on the birds’ flight but also the fact they are hard to capture, rebellious and prone to bite those who try to restrain them.
After nearly three months at sea the Hougoumont finally arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia, on the 9th of January 1868. O’Reilly was set to work building a road from Bunbury to Vasse. However, the Irishman got on well with his warder Henry Woodman and, as an educated young man, was soon also assigned to clerical work. Woodman used the young Irish prisoner as a messenger too, even dispatching him to his own family home with messages. As he travelled between the two very different worlds of captivity and this welcoming home, O’Reilly began a relationship with his captor’s daughter. His poetry at the time indicates, sadly, that he was disappointed at the end of the liasion.
O’Reilly didn’t accept that he would serve out his long sentence in Australia. With a rebel spirit always busy looking for ways of escape, he made an ally of local Catholic priest Patrick McCabe. Soon McCabe was persuaded to help the young prisoner escape the penal colony. In mid-February 1869, O’Reilly quit his fellow prisoners one day and joined a group of Irish settlers in a nearby town, Dardanup. They travelled to the local Collie River where a rowboat was moored waiting for them, and rowed out into the Indian Ocean, twelve miles up the coast, where O’Reilly hid. The escape plan was that he should wait for an American whaling ship, Vigilant, which was due to sail out of Bunbury – McCabe had persuaded the captain to pick O’Reilly up. But the captain failed to keep his promise and O’Reilly had to watch with a heavy heart as the Vigilant sailed by, dashing his hopes of escape.
Two weeks later, another deal was made – O’Reilly would be picked up by another whaler, Gazelle. This time, O’Reilly rowed out to sea on 2 March and was lucky enough to board the ship that would take him to Java – and freedom.
Except – O’Reilly’s voyage to freedom hit another obstacle. Bad weather forced the Gazelle to re-route to Roderiquez in Mauritius and Mauritius was then a British colony. To his horror, the ship was boarded as soon as it docked by police who had heard there was an escaped prisoner on board. The Gazelle‘s crew promptly turned over a different prisoner – a convict called James Bowman who’d blackmailed his way on to the ship back in Australia by threatening to expose O’Reilly’s escape plan. Why Bowman went quietly is not documented.
Several months later, O’Reilly transferred from the Gazelle to an American cargo vessel, Sapphire. The Sapphire docked in Liverpool in October 1869 and the young Irishman sailed to America on another American ship, the Bombay. His extraordinary travels, which had begun with transportation and captivity on the Hougoumont in 1867, ended with freedom in late 1869 when, to O’Reilly’s great joy, the Bombay docked atPhiladelphia.
Settling in Boston, the former Irish rebel renounced militant oppositon to British rule, concentrating on writing and arguing the case for Irish independence. He married and had a family and later became editor and co-owner of Boston’s The Pilot newspaper.
Fittingly for a young man who’d spent so many months on the high sea and found himself transported away from the Ireland of his childhood to not one but two new continents, O’Reilly’s first book of poems was titled Songs from the Southern Seas. This work, and the still-existing editions of The Wild Goose, show how deeply the experiences of transportation, voyage and discovery penetrated O’Reilly’s imagination and spirit.
The city of Boston still has a monument to John Boyle O’Reilly which stands on the edge of the Fenway. It shows O’Reilly, seated, alongside personifcations of Erin ( Ireland) and Poetry.