Last convict ship of Irish prisoners arrived in Perth 150 years ago

Ten-day 'Fenians, Fremantle and Freedom Festival' celebrates connection between Ireland and Perth

Traditional music, poetry, contemporary film, art, family events and a long table communal feast are at the heart of what is being billed as “Australia’s first 10-day Irish festival”.

The Fenians, Fremantle & Freedom Festival takes place in the city, which is in the Perth metropolitan area, on January 5th-14th.

It gets its name from the arrival in Fremantle on January 10th 1868 of 62 Irish political prisoners, sent to Australia for their part in the Fenian Rising of 1867. They arrived aboard the Hougoumont, Australia's last convict ship.

Descendants and relatives of the Irish passengers, who were sent to Fremantle prison once the ship docked after its voyage from Portsmouth, have been invited to a 150th anniversary commemorative event which is part of the festival and takes place on January 10th.

Joanna Robertson, an Irish artist and National College of Art & Design graduate, is artistic director of the festival.

“When my friend Margo O’Byrne and I heard about this extraordinary journey and important moment in Irish/Australian history, we felt, as Irish women living in Fremantle, that we must do something to mark this occasion and to honour the spirit and love of their Irish culture of these men,” Robertson said.

"They had endured the hell of being transported to the end of the world on a convict ship. Despite their atrocious conditions and appalling circumstances, some of them wrote extraordinarily beautiful diaries and contributed poetry and eloquent and often amusing anecdotes to a newspaper they started on the ship, which they called The Wild Goose, and taught each other songs and had concerts."

Joanna Robertson moved to Perth in the late 1980s and established an independent art centre in Fremantle’s Bathers’ Beach. “I set up Kidogo Arthouse as place where emerging and established artists could exhibit at. It has become an extremely busy and high selling art gallery. We were delighted to have a sell out show by Achill Island artist, Padraig McCaul.”

One of the Fenian passengers on board was the poet, journalist and activist, John Boyle O'Reilly. O'Reilly later escaped captivity and travelled to Boston, where he became editor of the Boston Pilot and wrote several books of poetry.

In 1999 a request to grant O'Reilly a pardon was made by then Western Australian opposition leader, Geoff Gallop, to British prime minister Tony Blair. It was unsuccessful and the Fenians Fremantle and Freedom organisation, which is staging the festival, continues to seek pardon for O'Reilly and other Irish political prisoners who were sent to the city.

Fenians Fremantle and Freedom (Inc), was set up last year “to honour the Fenians, their arrival in and departure from Fremantle, and the impact their lives had on Irish, Australian and US culture and history”.

The wide ranging programme of events for the festival includes music, art exhibitions, cultural events, and literary gatherings. Traditional Irish musicians Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, poet Tony Curtis, singer songwriter Declan O'Rourke, and Pogues tribute band The Rogues are among the performers taking part.