Irish Convict Lives, Bob Reece (ed.)(Crossing Press, £18)

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 4 (Winter 1995), Reviews, Volume 3

Irish Convict Lives, a sequel to Exiles from Erin, aims to explore the personal aspects of the Irish convict experience in Australia. The eight essays present pictures of a small sample of the men and women who received sentences of transportation and who responded to their new involuntary environment in different ways. Men like Andrew Byrne prospered to a degree that would have been unthinkable had they remained in Ireland; others, such as the sixteen-year-old Mary Sullivan, who was hanged in Hobart in 1852 for the murder of a baby, were clearly less fortunate.
The essays deal with the period 1799 to 1853 and cover a broad geographical spectrum, dealing with convict experiences in New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), Western Australia and along the coast of Queensland. This collection is especially praiseworthy in that it draws on the expertise of specialists from a number of disciplines, as well as some from outside the academic world.
The first essay by Ruán O’Donnell is a very scholarly reassessment of the career of Michael Dwyer, examining both his participation in the rebellion of 1798 and his subsequent contribution to the society of New South Wales. Dwyer has been the subject of almost hagiographical commentaries since the first centenary of the rebellion in 1898 and while this essay presents a more sober account of his life, it is done without the author resorting to denigration.
Sir Henry Brown Hayes, the subject of a biographical essay by Hugh Anderson, was in many ways exceptional. He was a scion of a prosperous Cork family. Ten years before his transportation for the abduction of a Cork heiress he had been high sheriff of Cork city and was responsible for the dispatch of the Queen, the first Irish convict ship bound for Botany Bay. Unlike most of his fellow convicts he enjoyed a relatively comfortable passage to Australia, thanks to a bribe paid to the unscrupulous captain. His return voyage was more hazardous but he lived to see his native land once again, in contrast to the other convicts whose lives are covered in this book.
Larry Turner’s account of the life of Andrew Byrne describes in some detail how a rebel transformed himself into a pillar of New South Wales society through a judicious mixture of innate commercial acumen and the exploitation of the legal confusion concerning titles to land and property.
John Mulvany throws some welcome light on the activities of the Dundalk convict John Graham who absconded from the Moreton Bay settlement for secondary offenders in 1827 and lived for six years amongst the Aborigines of the Queensland coast. He subsequently played a vital role in the rescue of the shipwrecked Eliza Fraser from these tribes. Mulvany is successful in disentangling the factual threads from the fibres of fiction, many of which had been spun by Mrs Fraser herself. He also remarks upon the tremendous adaptability of men like Graham in the face of the daunting challenges of an alien environment and culture.
The events leading to the transportation of James McGrath and their roots in the sectarian violence of County Tyrone in the 1820s are covered in a piece by Pat McDonnell. His contribution demonstrates the important role for Irish local studies within a much broader arena.
The female experience of transportation is dealt with in two excellent contributions. The first, by Jennifer Harrison, is a case-study of the Irish women who were sent to the Moreton Bay penal settlement. Most were poorly educated girls who had been originally transported for minor, non-violent crimes of an economic nature. Richard Davis looks in greater detail at the lives of three convict women in Van Diemen’s Land. All three suffered violent deaths, two at the end of the hangman’s rope, while Eliza Callaghan enjoyed a spectacular but transient spell of respectability as the wife of John Batman, a prosperous farmer and one of the founders of Melbourne.
The last paper describes the intolerable sufferings of the passengers on board the ships Robert Small and Phoebe Dunbar which set sail for Fremantle in 1853. Fatalities on board transport ships were taken for granted but these two vessels had the unenviable distinction of having the highest mortality rates of all the vessels used for transferring convicts to Western Australia. The hardships endured by men and women who had witnessed the horrors of the Great Famine were not attenuated by the fact that transportation to Australia as a punishment was approaching its end. Paul Weaver also demonstrates the greed, cynicism and startling incompetence which combined to heighten their ordeal.
Of these convict lives, that of the haughty Henry Hayes was undoubtedly exceptional. Andrew Byrne’s success-story was not unique but was nevertheless uncommon. The life of Eliza Callaghan also highlighted how volatile the achievement of comfort could be, and such oscillations of fortune, though on a lesser scale, were probably typical.
This book is without doubt successful in conveying the complexity of the convict experience and Bob Reece is to be commended on bringing together these eight essays which provide, both singularly and collectively, an important contribution to Irish and Australian history.

Ciarán Parker


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