‘Catalpa’ - the most audacious Australian prison break of 1876 at The Source

Catalpa, an American whaling ship, brought together an oddball crew with a dangerous mission: to free six Irishmen from a jail in western Australia in 1876.

Catalpa, an American whaling ship, brought together an oddball crew with a dangerous mission: to free six Irishmen from a jail in western Australia in 1876.

‘Catalpa’ tells the story of the daring 1876 whaleship rescue of six Irish prisoners from Fremantle penal colony in Australia - all in the vibrant imagination of a screenwriter, the best movie never made.

‘Catalpa’ is about heroes and visionaries, political intrigue and personal loyalty, romance, mixed-up rebels and battles at sea.

Donal O’Kelly’s one-man play ‘Catalpa’ made serious waves when it was first produced in 1995.

It won a Fringe First Award at Edinburgh and sailed around the world for performances. To mark its 20th anniversary O’Kelly is touring it around Ireland including a once only performance at The Source Arts Centre this June.

The penal colony in Freemantle was at the end of the world. No one had ever escaped from it. To the east lay unchartered desert, to the west shark-infested waters. James Wilson, a prisoner in the colony smuggled a letter “a voice from the tomb” to John Devoy, the Fenian leader exiled in the United States. Devoy hatched a plan, to spring Wilson and five of his fellow political prisoners from captivity.

John Devoy put together “an Ocean’s Eleven team to get these men out of the grave,” describes Booker Prize winning author, Thomas Keneally. A task that took two years to accomplish, required the financial assistance of over 7,000 Irish Americans and depended upon the ingenuity of three pivotal characters to pull off the greatest propaganda coup in Fenian history. George Anthony, John Breslin and John Devoy.

On the day of the escape, Breslin’s carefully planned prison break seemed perfect. What should have been a discreet four-hour row to the waiting ship turned into 48 hours of harrowing drama in which the rescue party were challenged time and time again.

The Catalpa escape created a massive international sensation in its day. Its articulate heroes were celebrated as models of Irish wit and ingenuity and their story was handed down to the generations that followed them.

Today, the rescue is largely forgotten and its real legacy remains unacknowledged.

Ten years ago Australia commemorated the event with a sculpture of six wild geese taking flight, initiated by an Irish-Australian Perth citizen, the late Francis Conlan.

Donal O’Kelly’s play has been described as “a rip-roaring one-man adventure” and a “brilliant unravelling of the heroic epic . . . a masterpiece”.

Don’t miss ‘Catalpa’ at The Source Arts Centre in Thurles on Friday, June 5th at 8pm.

For all bookings and enquiries please call the box office on 0504-90204 (Tuesday to Friday 10am to 5pm, Saturday 2-5pm) or book online at

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