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.

  • Windsor Castle

    Windsor Castle

    It was hard not to fall in love with him. To say that he had red hair and blue eyes doesn’t say enough about what a devilish face he had; and with that bowler’s hat on his head, Paddy was a handsome rogue.

    So soon enough Lucy Hanson fell for him and became Lucy Hartnett. She had heard all the stories about him – how he and his brother had kept a Maori paramour in the mountains for a time – but she knew he was strong, literate, and hard-working, and that’s what was important to a girl from Waratah in those days. They were married with Catholic rites and then headed up to Pelion Plains. That’s where they would make their money, Paddy had said.

    He knew what he was talking about: possum furs were suddenly selling big in Europe. The work was hellishly hard, though. They’d go up in winter, when the furs were thickest, and live in the huts Paddy pulled together from king billy. This one they called ‘Windsor Castle’. Skins would dry along the inner walls. If they’d left them outside, the ‘hyenas’ – thylacines, Tasmanian tigers – would come to get them.

    Sometimes Paddy got lost in the snow; if so, he’d make a fire and sleep on the coals. He used his bowler hat – not the nice one he’d been wearing when he met Lucy in the town, but the battered old thing he wore in the bush – to scoop water out of the rivers from. Lucy and her son would make bread and boil potatoes and help beeswax his clothes for waterproofing.

    Back in the town, Paddy would drink something shocking. Occasionally he’d barter a fur for a glass of cheap whiskey. Lucy didn’t put up with that for long; she set the boys down at the hotel straight, and started taking charge of the mercantile operations in the family. Paddy didn’t like it, but he couldn’t argue – he was a pisspot, and Lucy had her head on straight.

    Seasons changed; trapping didn’t earn so much anymore. Paddy moved onto the osmiridium fields, and he took a daughter with him too, dressed up as a bloke. The booze had buggered him though. He lost an eye one drunken night; then he had a stroke. Finally, delirium tremens, and death.

    Lucy, two sons, and five daughters survived him.

     

    Another bloke who lived in highland huts was WWII veteran Boy Miles.