Think that we have been nearly nine years in this living tomb since our first arrest and that it is impossible for mind or body to withstand the continual strain that is upon them. One or the other must give way.
– Letter from James Wilson to John Devoy, 1873
NOTE: This is part 2 of a series. If you missed last week’s post, make sure you go back and read that before you read this week’s post!
The eyes of the men around me were clouded with anxiety and infection, strained with sleeplessness and helplessness. What premature joy we’d celebrated in escape when we first boarded the small boat had been eclipsed by the recent gale and now by the British naval steamer, the Georgette, which loomed not too distantly over our pathetic craft unawares, scanning the waters for her “convicts of the British crown.” At that moment, the whole expedition seemed an endless in-between, an unbearable limbo. It had become clear to us that this would be our last and only chance to escape the penal colony at Fremantle—a feat that had only been accomplished once before, but accomplished indeed, and by an Irish patriot. No, we would never return to the white-washed cells of Fremantle, whether we boarded the Catalpa or not. We were bound for America or the after-life and we’d have it no other way.
Hogan had been eying me blankly for quite some time now from his cramped space by the mast, with that morosely reminiscent smile on his lips. It brought me back nine long, painful years to the night of our arrest. That same gloomy smile had been on his lips, but an intensity of fire had been his eyes that he had since lost. It was the eve of revolution, and we had been awaiting the call to action from the dank, musty attic of a Fenian-run pub in Dublin. We had waited in that in-between for days—already deserters but not yet revolutionaries. And that night we waited still, in restless reverie from within our scratchy sheets, and we prayed to God above for liberty from beneath our heavy, anxious eyelids. We waited for the faint rapping of an Irish fist on the rot-beaten door which would signal the start of our revolution.
But instead of a faint rapping came an intrusion; instead of an Irish revolutionary, there was an army of redcoats at the door come to drag us off through our own streets and throw us into our own prisons. And instead of greeting daybreak with pistols and demands of Irish Liberty, we watched the sun rise from behind locked gates, the prison yard overtaken by stretched-out shadows of the tall, wiry, fence which kept us in. And as they filled the prisons up with the others, our hearts filled up with sadness. It was not a sadness for our own loss of freedom—for we had yet to be exposed to true suffering. No, it was a sadness rather for Ireland, and for the chance at freedom she lost with the imprisonment of her soldiers. Many of the brotherhood got away with exile, or limited sentences. But the prison in Dublin was just our first stop. For us military Fenians, for us who’d donned and later ditched the royal red coats, for the deserters, it was life. Life. That is what they called it when they shipped you to the end of the earth to rot in a tomb with the worst of the worst.
Hogan turned to survey the Georgette with a disdain that harbored a surprising vivacity given the condition we were in. The possibility of a fight was a sure thing for bringing the color back to his face, even a fight against the Georgette, which would doubtless prove fatal to our crew if it ever took place. The jagged scar on his left cheek stood in pale contrast to his leathery, sun-burnt complexion. He clutched his fists around his pistol—we’d each taken arms at the rendezvous point. We’d been swift to reload them with dry ammunition following the gale, and not one of us let go of our arms after that.
“Water?” Herrington managed out of a half-consciousness, moving his head slowly to catch Hogan’s eye. The sun was now casting blinding reflections off of the slow, calm water. Hogan, like Cranston, had an extra measure of sweat and grease glowing off of his body, evidencing the unfaltering audacity he’d shown during the storm. He and Cranston had bailed water from the boat in a rhythmic fury throughout the night, each hurl with the bucket accompanied by a verbal or implied oath against drowning or being ripped to shreds in these shark infested waters, their gaunt figures measuring pathetically against the flooding boat, but somehow managing to keep her afloat.
“Dumped, with the rest of the ocean,” Hogan replied. Herrington remained motionless, allowing his face to assume a sort of eerie stillness that bothered me a great deal. It was good to see the others’ faces after a night of blind thrashing about to keep the boat afloat. It was good to know that the sea hadn’t flung one of us overboard in her chaos. But in all honesty we looked like a graveyard. We all looked far beyond our years, and this picture of Herrington barely hanging on to consciousness gave me a particularly awful feeling.
While the rest of us had been retired to easier jobs such as gardening and clerical duties within the prison walls, Herrington—the eldest of us at forty-eight—continued hauling lumber until the last day. His frame had looked natural, almost robust, against the backdrop of the road gang. But now, set among the well-fed crew-men (which, I would later find out were actually the smallest of Anthony’s crew, chosen so that the boat wouldn’t sink when we were added), he looked like he’d escaped from very literal tomb, all teeth and bones and hair, and worn thin by a stubborn case of dysentery and who knows what else.
Sitting over him with an arm stretched out on the boat’s walls just below the gunwales, Cranston blankly studied the tattoo which hung faithfully on the bicep of his outstretched arm. The Fenian cross, in my imagination, offered itself as a sort of floating tombstone above Herrington’s head.
Come back next week to hear more about the Catalpa escape. I promise it eventually gets a little less depressing… but like all good Irish stories, it does maintain some of its gloominess throughout.