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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Charlotte Grace O’Brien

charlotte-grace-obrienCharlotte Grace O’Brien, author, philanthropist, plant collector, and activist in nationalist causes and the protection of female emigrants, is born on November 23, 1845 at Cahirmoyle, County Limerick.

O’Brien is the younger daughter in a family of five sons and two daughters of William Smith O’Brien, Irish nationalist, and his wife Lucy Caroline, eldest daughter of Joseph Gabbett, of High Park, County Limerick. Upon her father’s return in 1854 from the penal colony in Tasmania, she rejoins him in Brussels and stays there until his removal to Cahirmoyle in 1856. Upon her mother’s death in 1861 she moves with her father to Killiney, near Dublin, and is his constant companion until his death at Bangor, Gwynedd in 1864.

From 1864 O’Brien lives at Cahirmoyle with her brother Edward, tending his motherless children, until his remarriage in 1880. She then goes to live at Foynes on the River Shannon and there devotes herself to literary pursuits. She has already published in 1878 her first novel, Light and Shade, a tale of the Fenian rising of 1867, the material for which had been gathered from Fenian leaders. A Tale of Venice, a drama, and Lyrics appear in 1880.

By 1881 her interests and pen are absorbed in Irish political affairs, in which she shares her father’s opinions. She contributes articles to the Nineteenth Century on The Irish Poor Man (December 1880) and Eighty Years (March 1881). In the spring of 1881 the attitude of the liberal government towards Ireland leads her to address many fiery letters to The Pall Mall Gazette, then edited by John Morley.

Another interest, however, soon absorbs O’Brien’s activities. The disastrous harvest in Ireland in 1879, combined with Irish political turmoil, leads to much emigration to the United States. At Queenstown, the port of embarkation, female emigrants suffer much from overcrowded lodgings and robbery. She not only induces the board of trade to exercise greater vigilance but also founds in 1881 a large boarding-house at Queenstown for the reception and protection of girls on the point of emigrating.

In order to improve the steamship accommodations for female emigrants, and to study their prospects in America, O’Brien makes several steerage passages to America. She also establishes in New York a similar institution to that in Queenstown for the protection of girls. Many experiences during this period find expression in her Lyrics (Dublin, 1886), a small volume of poems, which gives simple pictures of the emigrants and contains some stirring nationalist ballads.

On her retirement from active public work in 1886, O’Brien returns to Ardanoir, Foynes, on the bank of the Shannon, devoting her leisure to writing and to study of plant life. She contributes much on the flora of the Shannon district to the Irish Naturalist and joins the Roman communion in 1887.

Charlotte Grace O’Brien dies on June 3, 1909 at Foynes, and is buried at Knockpatrick. Selections from her Writings and Correspondence is published at Dublin in 1909. Her verses have dignity and grace, her polemical essays are vigorous and direct, and her essays on nature charm by their simple style.

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The Catalpa Rescue

catalpaThe whaling ship Catalpa is given a tumultuous welcome as it sails into New York harbor on August 19, 1876. She has no whales on board, but a far more valuable cargo, six Fenian prisoners from the British penal colony of Western Australia.

Clan na Gael‘s John Devoy, with the help of his friend John Boyle O’Reilly, a Fenian who had once escaped from Australia himself and editor of the Boston newspaper The Pilot, plan the escape. Somehow maintaining the secrecy of the mission, the two arrange to buy and crew the whaler Catalpa, purchased in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for the attempt.

The Catalpa sets out in April 1875 with most of the crew unaware of their actual mission. They reach western Australia in March 1876.

The first intended day for escape from the penal colony is April 6, but the appearance of HMS Convict and other Royal Navy ships and customs officers quickly lead to a postponement. The escape is rearranged for April 17, when most of the Convict Establishment garrison is watching the Royal Perth Yacht Club regatta.

Catalpa drops anchor in international waters off Rockingham and dispatches a whaleboat to shore. At 8:30 AM, six Fenians, Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston and James Wilson, who are working in work parties outside the prison walls abscond. They are met by Fenian agents John Breslin and Thomas Desmond and picked up in horse traps. A seventh Fenian, James Kiely, is left behind. The men race 12 miles south to Rockingham pier where Captain George Smith Anthony awaits them with the whaleboat. A local named Bell he had spoken to earlier sees the men and quickly alerts the authorities.

As they row to the Catalpa a fierce squall strikes, breaking the whaleboat’s mast. The storm lasts until dawn on April 18 and is so intense that Anthony later states that he did not expect the small boat to survive. At 7:00 AM, with the storm over, they again make for the Catalpa but an hour later spot the screw steamer SS Georgette, which has been commandeered by the colonial governor, heading for the whaler. The men lay down in the whaleboat and it is not seen by the SS Georgette. The SS Georgette finds the Catalpa, but in Captain Anthony’s absence the First Mate refuses to allow the colonial police to board as the ship is outside the colony’s three-mile limit. The steamer is forced to return to Fremantle for coal after following the Catalpa for several hours.

As the whaleboat again makes for the ship a police cutter with 30 to 40 armed men is spotted. The two boats race to reach the Catalpa first, with the whaleboat winning, and the men climbing aboard as the police cutter passes by. The cutter turns, lingers briefly beside the Catalpa, and then heads to shore.

Early on April 19 the refuelled and now heavily armed SS Georgette returns and comes alongside the whaler, demanding the surrender of the prisoners and attempting to herd the ship back into Australian waters. They fire a warning shot with the 12-pounder cannon that had been installed the night before. Ignoring the demand to surrender, Anthony raises and then points towards the U.S. flag, informing the SS Georgette that an attack on the Catalpa will be considered an act of war against the United States, and proceeds westward.

Governor William Cleaver Robinson has ordered the police on the SS Georgette not to create an incident outside territorial waters. After steaming around threateningly for about an hour, the SS Georgette heads back to Fremantle and Catalpa slips away into the Indian Ocean.

The Catalpa does its best to avoid Royal Navy ships on its way back to the United States. O’Reilly receives the news of the escape on June 6 and releases the news to the press. The news sparks celebrations in the United States and Ireland and anger in Britain and Australia, although there is also sympathy for the cause within the Australian population. The Catalpa arrives in New York Harbor on August 19, 1876. Clan na Gael and the Fenians achieve one of their greatest victories over the British Empire.