Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • The Nant Rebels: Part II

    The Nant Rebels: Part II

    Last week, this column followed the story of Irish rebel John Mitchel, who escaped from Bothwell in Van Diemen’s Land, with the assistance of a man nicknamed ‘Nicaragua’.

    Mitchel had lived at Nant Estate, alongside a fellow Irish political prisoner, John Martin. Today, the estate is the home of an exceptional whisky distillery. It was John Mitchel who noted in his Jail Journals that “Tasmanian honey is the best in the world”. This reporter agrees – but Mitchel would no doubt be shocked to discover that nowadays, Tasmanian whisky is highly-esteemed too, one single-malt batch earning the official epithet “World’s Best” in 2014.

    While Mitchel high-tailed it, he had left his own wife, Jane, and their children high and dry. In the end, they made it back to Ireland.

    Mitchel’s roomie at the Nant cottage, “Honest” John Martin, remained at the estate. No doubt the other Young Irelanders were under heavy suspicion after Mitchel’s brazen escape, but they did not make attempts at escape. And in 1854, they each received a conditional pardon – they were allowed to leave the island, and go wherever they wanted, so long as it wasn’t Ireland.

    John Martin went to Paris, albeit through an incredible overland journey, beginning in Ceylon. And two years later, along with the other Young Irelanders, the British Empire bestowed unconditional pardons upon the rebels. They were free to go back to their home.

    The roommates Martin and Mitchel reunited in Paris in 1859. It had been over six years since Mitchel’s sudden departure. Stories were no doubt bandied around, perhaps flowing more freely with the aid of some liquid lubrication. Reminiscences of their days together at Nant, with its “vast view of endless mountains, covered with wood” may have brought tears to the eyes. Martin would have borne news of the other revolutionaries, all of whom had made it back to the motherland; Mitchel was privy to the political turbulence of America, where he was still a political agitator. Mitchel would fight for the Confederates in the American Civil War, claiming that slavery was “good in itself” and that blacks were inherently inferior to whites.

    They kept in touch, but didn’t meet again until seven years later, in 1866. Perhaps by then, the stories had gotten grander. Their lives were becoming more settled. They were, after all, getting older. And perhaps, amid all the laughter and bluster and exaggeration of their reunion in ’66, there was a serious word, too. For shortly after that rendezvous, John Martin finally became engaged – to wed his old roommate’s sister, sweet Henrietta Mitchel.

    He was 56. The next year, John and Henrietta went to New York, for a magnificent Mitchel-Martin family reunion. Corks popped, and their captivity in beautiful Van Diemen’s Land must have seemed a million lifetimes ago.

    Oddly, the New York Irishman known as “Nicaragua” – journalist P.J. Smyth – had remained in V.D.L. too. In the most unlikely of circumstances, he had fallen in love. It was the New York Irish Directory who had sent him on the mission to free the Young Irelanders, under the guise of employment with the New York Tribune; Nicaragua never went back to New York, though. He met a lass in Hobart by the name of Jeannie Regan, and they got married in the lovely sandstone confines of St Josephs Church, on Macquarie Street.

    Nicaragua and Jeannie returned to Ireland to live out their days.

    And John Martin died aged 62. His honoured widow lived far longer; even longer lived a mysterious lady by the name of Miss Thompson, to whom “Honest John” wrote politically-themed letters over his lifetime. Perhaps the story of Miss Thompson is one even more fascinating – if we only knew it.