Fenians in the Swan River Colony

The Fenians: Irish political prisoners

Most convicts sentenced to transportation to the Swan River Colony were found guilty of crimes of violence, theft, or damage to property. An unusual event in the history of the Colony occurred in 1868, when a group of 62 Irish political prisoners known as Fenians were sentenced to transportation to the Colony. They consisted of 45 civilian and 17 military prisoners. All had been charged with treasonable acts arising from their opposition to British government, and the fight for home rule in Ireland.

Founded in America in 1858 by John O’Mahoney, the movement, known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood was bankrolled through support from many Irish immigrants who migrated to America after the potato famine in the 1840’s. In Ireland, James Stephens worked with O’Mahoney, organising Irish soldiers as recruits for the Brotherhood. Their plan was to infiltrate the British Army to overthrow British rule in Ireland by armed rebellion.

The discovery of Fenian activity in 1865 led to the arrest of many Irishmen, who were charged with treason-felony, an offence against the state. The death sentence was commuted to transportation for these men.

On 9th January 1868, the Fenians arrived in the last contingent of convicts to be sent to the Colony, aboard the ship Hougoumont. It was noted that “the summer heat which greeted the Fenians when the Hougoumont dropped anchor off Fremantle on 9th January was most distressing for the prisoners.” One of the Fenians, Patrick Wall wrote about the Fenians’ dispersal to road camps. His party of 20 endured a two day march with an overnight stay in Perth, before they arrived to work at a stone quarry near Guildford. The remainder of the Fenians were sent to the Fremantle or Bunbury convict depots.

Warder McGarry, who also arrived on the Hougoumont, was in charge of the quarry party west of Guildford.  Some Fenians under his supervision included Patrick Wall, Jeremiah O’Donovan, Con Mahoney, Hugh Brophy, Martin Hogan, Joseph Nunan (or Noonan), brothers Luke and Laurance Fulham, and James Reilly.

Despite receiving a sentence of life in exile, there had been such an outcry in England, Ireland, and also locally in the Swan River Colony about imprisoning and transporting the Fenians, that Queen Victoria decreed some of the Fenians should be pardoned. Instructions dated 26th March 1869 and received in the Colony in May were sent from England to the acting Governor of Western Australia, to grant the 34 civilian Fenians the benefit of the royal clemency without delay. “They were assembled as soon as possible at Guildford where on 15 May 1869, they received their free pardons”. (Erickson, page 139).

Many of the pardoned Fenians immediately left the Colony and made their way to Sydney or Melbourne. Some returned to Ireland, or escaped to America, a safe haven to continue making plans for Ireland’s freedom from British rule. The Irish Republican Brotherhood was the forerunner of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the continuing ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland in the 20th Century.

The Fenians who chose to remain in the Swan River Colony included Jeremiah O’Donovan, who was employed as a groom to W.L. Brockman at Guildford. Con Mahoney worked as a clerk in Guildford.

Joseph Noonan, convict number 9837, was described as 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall, with brown hair, blue eyes and a long face, fresh complexion and healthy appearance. Distinguishing marks were noted as a cut on the ball of his thumb, two teeth protruding from his palate and a boil on his left thigh.

Hugh Brophy photographed in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin Ireland in 1866

Noonan went into partnership with Hugh Brophy, establishing a successful bridge building and construction company.  They won a number of contracts from the Catholic Church, the government, and private enterprise, and hired ticket-of-leave men to do stone cutting, carpentry and labouring.  Their buildings include Walter Padbury’s store and residence in Guildford, the Greenough Flats police station, the convent for the Sisters of Mercy in Goderich Street Perth, and St. Patrick’s church in York.  It is believed that Noonan was involved in planning the Perth Town Hall.  Noonan remained in Western Australia, living in Howick Street Perth, and maintaining his republican beliefs throughout his life.  He died on 18th May 1885, and is buried in East Perth Cemetery.

Hugh Brophy had left the partnership in 1872, and settled in  Melbourne.  He died on 11th June 1919, and is buried at Melbourne General Cemetery.

Australian Dictionary of Biography
The brand on his coat: biographies of some Western Australian convicts. Edited by Rica Erickson. University of Western Australia Press, 1983.