I beseeched the winds to hasten the Elizabeth Thompson. But her white sails didn’t rise from the haze of Bass Strait, and I feared I might perish. Of traffic in that narrows there was a plenty, and time and again I built a signal fire, only to watch the cloud of canvas slide past and sink over the horizon along with my heart.
With each passage, and every hour, my peril increased. I was a wanted man, yea, a celebrated and wanted man, and I knew that Governor Denison would stop at nothing to thwart my escape. Behind me, Van Diemen’s Land crawled with the Queen’s constables and spies, all determined to catch O’Meagher and put him in the lockup for life.
But the merchant vessel didn’t rise. And all through those fierce summer days of January, in the third year of my exile, I sweated and roasted, thirsted and hungered on that barren strand. I saw vessels bloom out of the haze when there were none, spotted sails that proved to be only a shimmer of light, scoured the empty seas with sun-blasted eyes, and all the while looked over my shoulder, fearful of the royal constables rowing out to Waterhouse Island.
It was a botched job. Something had gone wrong. I’d either die or spend my life in chains at Port Arthur, regretting my rashness. I didn’t think much about Catherine, and sometimes wondered why not. I should have pined for her, but I didn’t, and I had no trouble consoling myself about our separation.
She was safe, and would join me in the American Republic by and by, along with our child who would soon come into this world. I was not running from her, and a curse upon any man who said I was! I comforted myself by remembering my larger purpose, which was to lift the chains of oppression from Ireland. I was not escaping for my own sake, but for Ireland’s.
The Barrett brothers, true friends of Ireland, had sailed me to this place in their rude boat. They fished the strait and knew every cove. They brought food enough for two days, and from the ruins of wrecked ships and rotted sails we built a hut and feasted on smoked herring, cheese, and ship biscuit until time ran out, and they had to return lest their absence awaken suspicions. We had spotted vessels rising over the main, built smoky signal fires, danced and flagged and waved on the beach, but no bark had paused, and each ship posed the chance of betrayal. We were seen and ignored.
Then I was alone, with little enough to eat, no way to escape, and the clock of fate was ticking. What was left? Gnawing doubt, miserable meals of boiled beach crabs and shellfish, and lurking regrets which I manfully banished from my mind.
So many had helped me. I was oath-bound not to escape unless I revoked my parole, my promise to the penal authorities not to attempt to escape, but that did not prevent me from laying plans, or recruiting the assistance I needed. I was honor-bound not to escape, but I had never given my oath that I would make no plans. I am sure some will accuse me otherwise. I am a man of honor and I will personally flog the man who says I am not.
But it was a fine line, the one that separates planning from doing, and I pride myself that I drew it carefully, and adhered to that code of conduct that befalls all civilized men. The means by which I arrived on this desolate beach were impeccable, and I suffer no shame for it. I will escape this accursed prison island, this desolating countryside that harbors the human sewage of England and Ireland, transported here for decades and prevented from leaving by their conditional paroles—and the forbidding sea.
They sent me here in eighteen and forty-nine, after first sentencing me to death by hanging, drawing and quartering, for rising against Queen Victoria. They caught almost all of Young Ireland, we who had fomented revolution, and tried us, and the packed juries found us guilty not of sedition but of treason. It was in Clonmel, in the county of Tipperary, they sentenced me, but the sentence was commuted to transportation after a great uproar among the civilized nations, and I was brought here, along with the rest of Young Ireland, including my friends George Mitchel, Kevin O’Doherty, Smith O’Brien (that direct descendent of Irish kings), and Terence MacManus: those of us who dreamed of justice and sought liberty.
We were offered a ticket of leave, limited freedom to live outside of prison walls, upon giving our parole that we would not escape, and I took it, though O’Brien did not, and for his stubbornness he was sentenced to solitary confinement in a miserable cottage on Maria Island, one of the Queen’s special hellholes for the intractable, and there he starved nearly to his doom in solitude until good men intervened.
And so began our sojourn at the bottom of the world. I was confined to the Campbell Town district, where I was free to roam. I disliked that stolid little crossroads, found Ross more to my liking, and finally settled in a cottage on Lake Sorel, in the uplands, where I lived freely and in comfort, along with a vast boredom, which is the true affliction of the exiled. At least I could ride and hunt, but that didn’t quiet my restlessness. I hired a convict named Egan to look after me, and there I whiled away my dull days.
It was there, by and by, that I met Catherine Bennett, a comely young woman of nineteen, shy and mannered. One thing led to another. Her father, Byran, was an Irish highwayman, long since emancipated and settled as a rural burgher. She was the governess for the children of my friend Doctor Hall, and I found her fetching, though of course her station was very different from my own, and I had received as well a good schooling at Clongowes Wood, the Jesuit-run college in County Kildare. Some would have said we were unsuited, but I did not see it that way and pursued the match. It suited me to take a wife. And Bennett was pleased to see his daughter receive my attentions.
She knew exactly who I was, Meagher of the Sword, and was flustered by our first meeting, though I rather enjoyed it. The name had been hung on me for a speech I had made, calling for Ireland to make use of the sword to free itself. Well, I married her. Bishop Willson performed the rite. It was a good wedding, and some of my exile friends attended in disguise, looking like bushmen, illegally crossing the penal district lines to be with us.
My Young Ireland friend John Martin asked me searching questions about suitability; he obviously disapproved the union, but I claimed my Kate, and she soon joined me at the lake cottage. She was a perfect whirl of domesticity, attending to the little things that mattered to her, and sharing with me a disdain for the English. I don’t suppose I can ever change matters, because marriage is eternal, and so I find myself wedded to this bucolic woman who fawns upon me. At times I found it oppressive, and fled to the amusements of Ross, but there is no shame in it that I can admit to; these are simply the differences of rank and station.
But I was made for larger things, and I say this without shame. When I proposed escape, she snugged me tight in her arms and said, “Go! I’ll join you in America.” She is subdued by nature and always accedes at once to my plans. She does not share politics, for those are quite beyond her, but is the perfect mate for an active man. There was, and is, nothing to stay her here, she’s a freewoman, and once the child is born and she can travel, I will make sure she has funds to take ship. I won’t be there for the birthing, and that troubles me, but she will be in good hands, with her solid parents and Doctor Hall attending. So why not? Ireland perishes, and I am trapped in exile.
My father will help; he has always helped, whether or not he approves of all I do. He was a partisan of the great liberator, Daniel O’Connell, and is also a man of means, lord mayor of Waterford, and an M.P. The only divide between us is method. He is content to fight for Ireland in parliament; I believe in strong measures. He will be proud of Kate, and the child, no matter that she comes from simpler and more rural stock. Her father robbed a mail coach, but that too was a revolutionary act, and he got caught soon enough and shipped to Van Diemen’s Land. I applaud the old gentleman pirate.
Now I pace the shore restlessly, hunting food, wrestling with the deepening prospect that I might become a castaway here; might slowly starve and die. For all those who might have helped me will be watched. How little they know: it was not only the Irish, but good Scots and Englishmen with great hearts who supplied me with horses and havens as I worked my way westward, riding horses through silver moonlight, to the estuary of the Tamar River, where the Barretts rowed me ever west, toward the sea and my liberty.
On the morning of January 3rd, I sent a note to the constabulary at Ross, by my trusty servant Egan, and he handed it to the police magistrate, Mr. Mason. It said, simply, that I would revoke my parole in twenty-four hours, but would revoke it immediately if I was pursued.
By then of course I was packed and ready. We waited, two or three of us, at my cottage on Lake Sorel, and sure enough, about eight in the evening the constables showed up to arrest me. Mason had sent them immediately. I sat on my horse in some brush, within hailing distance of the cottage where my friends were gathered. I knew one of them, a man named Durieu. He and his fellow officer put up their horses in my little stable, and I sent Egan to let Durieu know I was willing to talk outside the stable, but the constable remained within, looking after his horse.
I thought to myself, O’Meagher, this man’s staying in there for a purpose. The fellow’s willing to avoid a meeting, so I emerged from my shelter of brush, and hailed the man, and took off at a good clip. There was no shame in it; I did the right and honorable thing, and let no man say I broke my parole, having revoked it before fleeing. The matter is not on my conscience, and never will be, and my witnesses were there to attest that it was done right.
So I galloped off into that fading light of a long summer’s day, rounding the shore of the lake, and stopping at the cabin of an old timer to shave off my moustache. It would profit me to change my appearance whilst I could, and the quickest way was with the razor. Then I made my way westward through the high country, sheltered by sturdy families whose admiration for Meagher of the Sword bound them to help me.
So here I am, pacing the lonely strand, hiking the confines of this barren isle, waiting for my salvation from the sea, and always watching its landward side for the thing I dread most, a vessel bearing the constabulary.
In my solitude, I realized that there was one thing I had not properly thought through in the preceding weeks. If I surrendered my parole and escaped, I could never go home again for as long as I lived. O’Brien was determined to stick it out and win a pardon and go back to his beloved estate in Ireland. I had chosen a different and more fateful course. Never, as long as the British ruled my island, could I see my ancestral home, or Waterford, or walk upon the soil of my birth. I might escape this penal colony, but not exile. The die was cast, and that made my choices all the more painful. I had said good-bye to Ireland forever.
Then, one awful morning, I beheld an eight-oared boat with half a dozen men in it bobbing my way, the four men on the oars pulling hard against the ocean swells. There could be only one explanation: they knew I was here, and they were coming for me.
Copyright © 2003 by Richard S. Wheeler