You don’t need to be Irish to know the story in the lyrics of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ – a father being transported on a ship to serve hard labour on the other side of the world for petty crime. We all know the story of Ned Kelly, himself not a transported convict, but rather, his father John Kelly, allegedly for having stolen two pigs. Between 1788 and 1868, around 162,000 British and Irish convicts were transported to the penal colonies of Australia, often for very small crimes. Figures vary, but it’s believed that somewhere between 12 and 24 per cent of those convicts were Irish. And while the stereotypical case was that of Michael from Athenry, the profiles of some of those Irish transported may surprise you. To mark the anniversary of it being 160 years since the end of British transportation to the colonies, below are the stories of four surprising Irish convicts transported to Australia.
Many rebels were transported to Australia in the aftermath of various famous uprisings in Ireland: the 1798 rebellion, 1803, 1848 and 1868 – 1868 being the last year of transportation to the colonies. And among them was William Smith O’Brien.
Now this convict might surprise you – he was far from the stereotype of the impoverished farmer who stole some corn to feed his children. He was actually the son of Sir Lucius O’Brien, and was born in 1803 in Dromoland Castle, County Clare. Despite being descended from Brian Boru, the Gaelic O’Brien’s were then part of the Protestant landed elite, and William was educated in public school in England, and later Cambridge University. Taking his seat in the House of Commons in 1828, he was a strong supporter of Catholic emancipation, but not of Irish self-government. He stance changed however when the British government imprisoned his rival Daniel O’Connell. Now Deputy-Leader of O’Connell’s Repeal Association, he led the Young Irelanders out of it in 1848 when O’Connell advised against the use of force. In 1848, he led the Young Irelanders into rebellion in Tipperary.
Convicted, he was originally sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life transportation to Tasmania. But political prisoners in the colonies had a different status to most convicts. They got special ‘ticket-of-leave’ treatment, largely due to the efforts of Colonial Secretary Earl Grey who felt that the Young Ireland rebels deserved gentlemanly status. ‘Ticket-of-leave’ was a type of parole issued to convicts, who could be trusted with certain freedoms.
O’Brien initially refused the ‘ticket-of-leave’ status, because that meant he couldn’t try to escape. So he lived on Maria Island, the most remote outpost of the penal settlement. A bungled escape attempt in 1850 let to him being transferred to Port Arthur. He was fairly isolated there, and wrote lots about his experiences to his family, especially his wife Lucy.After three months at Port Arthur, he successfully applied for a ticket-of-leave.
He was to spend 2.5 years in lodgings near Hobart, and play a big role in drafting a model constitution for the Tasmanian Legislative Council.
Conditional pardon came his way in summer 1854. He departed Tasmania after five years away and lived in Brussels until his full pardon in 1856, when he returned to Ireland to a heroes welcome, passing away in 1864.
LAURENCE HYNES HALLORAN
From nationalist rebel, to unordained clergymen, the list of unusual Irish convicts just grows. Laurence Hynes Halloran was to become famous as a controversial writer and schoolteacher in Sydney, but not before leading a life of crime and false claims. Born in Co. Meath in 1765, Halloran was orphaned at a young age, so he ran away to join the Navy. Aged 17, he was jailed for stabbing a fellow midshipman in 1783 (to death). He was acquitted the next year, moving to Exeter where he married and ran a school. It was during this time that he began to make his first steps on the literary stage, publishing Odes, Poems and Translations (1790), and Poems on Various Occasions.
Claiming to be an ordained minister, he managed to re-enter the navy though as a chaplain, and was installed at the Cape of Good Hope. But after running afoul of his boss, he was removed from his position. He then published a satire Cap-abilities or South African Characteristics. Proceedings were taken against him and he was banished from Cape Town and returned to England, not before the governor of the colony had to declare valid those marriages conducted by Halloran during his time there. Back in England, and once again posing as a clergyman under various aliases, in 1818 he was convicted of forging a tenpenny frank and transported to Sydney.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Halloran’s rebellious streak had run out by then – but no. Upon his arrival, he was given a ticket-of-leave by the local governor. Despite having a wife and six children back in England, he decided that he and his niece would pose as his wife, and they are alleged to have had issue. Upon his niece’s death in 1823, he married bigamously, fathering even more children.
But that didn’t stop him getting embroiled in even more lawsuits. Bankrupt, he served a prison sentence for debt, some of which was petitioned to found a Public Free Grammar School – for which he had called for the establishment of. Upon the opening of the school, the Sydney Gazette reported that Halloran was constantly drunk, constanlty swearing, and telling student stories about fighting and his perpetual drunkenness. Halloran was jailed once more, and the responsibility of running the school passed elsewhere.
His story doesn’t stop there, however – upon his release, Halloran started his own newspaper – which failed – largely because he wrote most of the articles himself, and they were mainly about he libel suits issued against him. Upon the fail of that business, he was briefly appointed as Sydney’s coroner. He was removed from that position when he threatened to start publishing more libelous articles. He died soon after that, in 1831, having led a varied and colourful life.
HENRY BROWNE HAYES
(A big thank you to the authors of http://www.sirhenrybrownehayes.com/foreword.html for their wonderful site which helped me greatly with my research on Henry Browne Hayes).
Another breaker of the stereotype convict is Henry Browne Hayes, a captain of the South Cork Militia, a sheriff, a Freemason, and a Knight! This may be one of the most colourful of Irish convicts. Ironically, as Sheriff of Cork he processed the first shipment of Irish convicts to New South Wale. Knighted in 1790, and then widowed in 1797, and struggling to take care of his children, he decided to kidnap a wealthy Quaker heiress named Mary Pike and force her to marry him., even bringing in a man dressed as a priest to perform the ceremony. Pike was rescued by her family, and a bounty put on Haye’s head, so he had to go into hiding. Declared an outlaw, he could be shot on sight. A government reward of £200 was offered for his capture and ₤50 for each of his accomplices.
After three years hower, he gave himself up for trial. Knowing the price that would be awarded to whoever reported that Hayes had turned himself, Hayes offered himself up to his friend Charles Coghlan, a fellow freemason. Hayes was found guilty and was given a death sentence which was later changed to a life sentence in Australia.
Arriving in New South Wales in 1802, Hayes was immediately put in jail for misbehaviour on the ship, which included harassing the ship’s surgeon. He was linked to an uprising a few years later in 1804, after he successfully founded the roots of Freemasonry in Australia. Whether or not he actually had the authority to set up the Freemason’s is up for debate, but the meeting he held in Sydney in 1803 is nonetheless regarded as the founding of the Freemasons of Australia.
Hayes was to purchase Vancluse House, which was turned into a national monument and became known as a snake-free property thanks to an age-old Irish commodity – turf! It turns out turf was a very successful reptile repellent, and Vancluse House was surrounded with it. (You can read more about Vancluse House on this site: http://www.sirhenrybrownehayes.com/)
Finally pardoned in 1809, Hayes returned to Ireland in 1812, and died in 1832. In Australia, he was noted to be “a restless, troublesome character”…you can see why, in fairness.
One of the earliest Irish transportees was George Barrington was transported to New South Wales in 1791, just three years after Australia became a convict colony. Barrington was infamous pickpocket with a very colourful track record.
Born in Kildare, his crime sprees began early when he stabbed a fellow student with a penknife at age 16. He later robbed his schoolmaster and ran away from school. After a period with a touring theatrical company in Drogheda, he arrived in England and was to became one of London’s most colourful pickpockets in the 1770s – managian to mix with the upper classes and the elite, getting arrested numerous times, but managing to get acquitted. One of his most famous exploits was the attempted theft of a diamond studded snuff box, allegedly worth £30,000 from the Russian Prince Orlow at Covent Garden, but he pleaded his case with such a display of emotion that the prince refused to press charges.
He also once posed as a clergyman and removed the diamonds from the clothing of a member of the Knights of the Garter.
But his luck ran out in 1790, when he was sentenced to transportation for theft of a gold watch. Arriving in Sydney in September 1791, he spent a year labouring on a Toongabbie farm. He could never stay at the same thing for long, with his ‘irreproachable conduct’ gaining him an absolute pardon after just a short time. He was then trusted with the job of watching over crucial supplies for the new government. Five years after his transportation, he became a police constable in Parramatta, Sydney. Quite a turnaround!
Sadly, he was declared officially insane in 1800, and died four years later. However he did leave a major legacy on the literature of the early colonies. Credited with writing a number of texts, including a history of New South Wales, his name is attached to many others that in reality he had nothing to do with, EG texts that were actually about political items but to make them more salesworthy they became attached to the pickpocket who stole diamond-encrusted snuff-boxes!