Australia bound – Irelands convict transportation

Today marks the 6th successive commemoration of one of the most important events in modern Irish history.  The 1848 Tricolour celebration marks the first raising of our national flag, at the Wolf Tone Club, 33 the Mall Waterford. The man responsible and who conceived the flag, was of course the Waterford native Thomas Frances Meagher.
I’ve written several stories about Meagher down the years and today I wanted to look at his transportation to Van Diemens Land following the Young Irelander rebellion of 1848. Indeed Meagher was lucky to have had a death sentence commuted at the time, thanks to the intervention of the English monarch, Queen Victoria.
A nonchalant looking Meagher standing on the right
at Kilmainham 1849

Transportation to Australia commenced in the year 1787/8, following the loss of the American colony. It was used as a punishment for even the most basic of crimes and many were transported even from our own city and harbour.  According to historian Ged Martin, 3 Waterford people were among the first to be transported on a ship called the Queen. Two of them, Sarah Brazile and Michael Murphy were just 18. After the 1798 rebellion, prisoners held at New Geneva were marched along the Crooke road to Passage East and via lighter downriver to an awaiting ship at Duncannon.  To prevent escape, cannon were trained on the lighters from Duncannon fort.(1)  I’d imagine the ship would transport the prisoners to Cork for the deep sea voyage.

The First Feet arriving at (Port Jackson) Sydney January 1788
accessed from

The British took possession of Van Diemens Land in 1803 when 33 convicts and 16 soldiers and officials established a small settlement on the Derwent River. Convicts were initially transported in ordinary merchant ships where conditions were basic, if not outright inhumane. Men and women were housed below decks, sometimes behind bars, and fresh air and exercise was at the discretion of the Captain. Many died on the trips from scurvy, dysentery and typhoid, although many others must have perished from harsh treatment and neglect. From the 1840’s a more “enlightened routine” was employed and Captains were paid a bonus on the basis of getting convicts safely to the colony.

Australian chain gang accessed from:
Meagher however was spared any such difficulty.  As a political prisoner, and a gentleman, he and his compatriots were held at Kilmainham jail and subsequently transferred to Richmond Prison. Like the men of ’98 they were brought by armed guard to an awaiting warship in the Liffey called the Dragon and hence to Dun Laoighre, then Kingstown.  Awaiting them was HMS Swift, and under heavy guard due to concerns of a rescue attempt they were transferred aboard. It was a tense scene. Crowds had gathered both ashore and afloat to wave off the rebels. Meagher, O’ Brien and party departed for the southern oceans from Dun Laoighre on July 9th 1849 and via the cape, arrived at Hobart Town on October 27th the same year.  Their trip however was at variance to most prisoners journeys. They had a private sitting room, separate cabins which were well lighted and ventilated and allowed on deck to exercise between 8am-8pm.  The main complaint was the food, but it was a complaint often shared by most on such journeys at the time.

Meagher initially settled down to a gentleman’s existence but would later escape and go on to even greater exploits in the Americas. Transportation would still be a penalty for the most basic of crimes up to 1868. Between the dates of 1788 and 1868 its estimated that 162,000 souls endured transportation. A further estimate says that 1/4 of that number were Irish. In an effort to distance itself from its convict past, Van Diemens land was renamed Tasmania in 1856.

Many of those who went as convicts went on to have happy and productive lives after their sentence was served, many of them from Waterford. But none I think can be said to have had such a lasting legacy nationally or internationally as Meagher. For all he gave his native land however, he was never to set foot on Irish soil again.

For a full list of the events happening this weekend in Waterford visit the 1848 tricolour webpage

My thanks to James Doherty for information on Meagher.

(1) Jim Hegarty. Time and Tide.  A short history of Passage East

My previous blogs on the Meagher family:
The Rebel Students return 1843
The man with four graves but no body

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