Nant Estate, in Bothwell, in Tasmania’s southern highlands, was settled by Welsh agriculturists in 1821. Today it is famous for its whisky. World-renowned, Nant whisky is Australia’s only highland single malt distiller of the beverage known as the ‘water of life’. At one stage in history, it housed Irish revolutionaries.
A man known as ‘Nicaragua’ had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land with a mission: gaolbreak. Of the six Young Irelanders sent to V.D.L. for treason, William Smith O’Brien was the only one holed up on an island goal. The oldest and most respected of the Irish convicts (having just turned 46 when he arrived), he had refused a better deal on a matter of principle. The others hadn’t. They had accepted a ticket-of-leave, which gave them a good – if restricted – life.
John Mitchel was the first Young Irelander to be sentenced, if the last to arrive after a short stay in Bermuda. He’d been a solicitor, but threw it in to start his own newspaper, the United Irishman, which supported a forced dissolution of the union with England. For his work, he copped a fourteen year sentence of transportation.
While Smith O’Brien suffered, though, Mitchel and the others rather enjoyed their exile. Their only rule was to not to leave their police district. However, John Mitchel was allowed to share a cottage on the Nant estate at Bothwell with another rebel, John Martin; and they managed to arrange meetings at Lake Sorell with two more, O’Doherty and Meagher, where two more districts fortuitously met.
In June 1851, John Mitchel’s wife Jane and their children arrived at Bothwell. Mitchel moved out of the Nant cottage. Martin remained. William Smith O’Brien was still in gaol.
Enter Nicaragua – real name, P.J. Smyth – an Irishman in the U.S.A., working as a New York Tribune correspondent. A body of Irish sympathisers arranged for him to come to Van Diemen’s Land with the idea of retrieving one or more of the Young Irelanders captive there. John Mitchel’s eyes went wide as saucers when he saw Nicaragua.
John Mitchel kept a diary that he called the Jail Journals. His phrases are full of Romantic ornamentation, poetic in their praise of the island’s beauty. And why not? He was free to ride his horse, exploring and hunting throughout the Bothwell region's sublime landscapes. Thus it was Smith O’Brien, not Mitchel, for whom the gaolbreak plan existed. He was the one with the raw deal. But the plan to get him out of the island prison failed; he was double-crossed by the captain of a schooner who’d been employed for the purpose.
And so it was Mitchel who was freed. Boldly, he went with his gun into the Bothwell police station, and gave up his ticket-of-leave. Nicaragua had arranged everything: Mitchel escaped on horseback, got on a vessel at Hobart, and went – via Sydney, Batavia, and San Francisco – to New York, arriving at last in November 1853, to a hero’s welcome.
William Smith O’Brien was eventually pardoned, reuniting with his wife and seven children in Brussels in 1854. He returned to Ireland two years later.
Another Irish convict was Thomas Meagher. Thomas, his wife, and his child all died on separate continents.
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