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.

  • The Nant Rebels: Part I

    The Nant Rebels: Part I

    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.

  • Love Life of an Irish Rebel

    Love Life of an Irish Rebel

    Thomas O’Meagher (born as simply Thomas Meagher) was an Irish rebel. He was the leader of the Young Irelanders during the infamous Rebellion of 1848. He had been to France as a student of revolutionary movements, and returned with the new flag of Ireland – the tricolour of green, white and orange. At the Battle of Ballingarry, he and his cohorts were captured by the English. Public outcry saved the necks of a few of them. They received clemency, and were sentenced to transportation. Off to Van Diemen’s Land.

    As political prisoners, they had a strange deal. For convicts, the Irish rebels were comparatively free, but were forbidden from meeting. They also had to give their word that they would not attempt to escape without first informing the authorities. O’Meagher was sent to Campbell Town, then Ross, in the Midlands of the island; it was decent farming land, but O’Meagher was not impressed. He did, however, fall in love. On February 22, 1851, the Irish revolutionary married the daughter of a highwayman, Katherine ‘Bennie’ Bennett.

    The other Irishmen disapproved. They had been secretly meeting on occasion, at a special lakeside retreat. Almost immediately after their wedding, Katherine fell ill. Before a year of their marriage was completed, Thomas O’Meagher sent a letter to the authorities, informing them that within twenty-four hours, he would consider himself a free man. Katherine was pregnant. O’Meagher escaped to New York City.

    The infant son was buried here at St. John’s Catholic Church in Richmond. It is the oldest Catholic Church in Australia.

    In the U.S., Thomas O’Meagher became a citizen, studied law and journalism, and joined the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Incredibly, Katherine was able to reunite with them – albeit only briefly. She returned to Ireland pregnant with another child, a son who would bear his father’s name. It was a name that was to become famous, but Thomas jnr. would never meet his father. O’Meagher became the Governor of Montana, and married a Protestant girl. At the age of 43, he died, falling into the Missouri River and being swept away, his body never recovered.