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The Catalpa

traditional Australian song
composer unknown

This song describes the escape of six prisoners from the Fremantle Prison in April 1876.

The Clan na Gael (America's Irish Republican Brotherhood) raised money from the Irish in the USA and Australia to finance a daring rescue of Irish compatriots in the Fremantle Prison. They bought the cargo ship the Catalpa in Massachusetts, USA for $US 5,250 and refitted it for $US 15,000 as a whaler. They set sail and did some whaling eventually arriving in Bunbury.

The captain along with a Fenian agent posed as businessmen and sailed to Fremantle on the coastal steamer the Georgette. There they made contact with the Irish prisoners and told them of a plan to rescue them. The prisoners' escape was made when they were in a work party outside the prison on Easter Monday, 17 April 1876.

The water police tried to stop the escape, but the Catalpa was too far away. So they sent for the steamer Georgette, still in port, to help. She caught up to the Catalpa and demanded the prisoners be returned. They were not onboard the Catalpa yet. Due to bad weather they were still at sea awaiting rendezvous with the Catalpa. The Georgette, running low on  coal, was forced to return to Fremantle to refuel. When the Georgette returned to the chase, she found the prisoners being hauled on board the Catalpa.

She was a Yankee whaleship,
Called the Catalpa by name,
Came out to Western Australia
And stole six of our convicts away.

So come all you screw warders and gaolers,
Remember the Perth Regatta Day,
Take care of the rest of your Fenians,
Or the Yanks they will take them away.

The Georgette well manned with bold warriors,
Went after this Yank to arrest,
But she hoisted her star-spangled banner,
Saying 'You'd better not board me I guess'.

For seven long years have they served you,
And seven or more would have stayed,
For defending their country, Old Ireland,
It was for that they were banished away.

You kept them in Western Australia
Till their hair began to turn grey,
When a Yank from the States of America
Came out here and stole them away.

Now Remember these Fenians colonial,
And sing o'er these verses with skill,
And remember the Yankees that stole them
And the home that they left on the hill.

For they're now in the States of America
Where all will be able to cry,
'We will hoist the Green Flag with the Shamrock,'
Saying, 'Hurrah for Old Ireland we die.'



The Catalpa quickly left with the Georgette in hot pursuit. It wasn't until the next day that the Georgette caught up. Shots were fired across the Catalpa's stern and bow. Both ships stopped. The Catalpa's master claimed they were in international waters under the American flag. He stated that they would be creating a diplomatic incident if the police tried anything. England had recently lost a 3 million pound court case concerning a situation with an American ship in similar circumstances.

Since the police were unsure if they were truly in international waters, they let the Catalpa leave with the escaped prisoners.

What the words mean

  • gaolers ~ jailers. A gaol is a jail.
  • yanks ~ people from the USA
  • Fenian ~ the Fenian movement, or Irish Republican Brotherhood, was a secret society in the 1860s. They participated in armed rebellion against British rule in Ireland.

More information

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