The Wicklow United Irishmen in New South Wales - PART 1


Wicklow’s export of Political Prisoners

From April/May 1797 when the Society of United Irishmen first made inroads into west Wicklow and the Arklow area, county Wicklow played a pivotal role in the rebel organization in Leinster. Its 14,000 sworn members comprised the largest force in the province and a relatively high proportion of these men turned out to fight in May 1798 when the Rebellion prematurely commenced.(1) After Wexford, Wicklow sustained the most damage of any county to experience the Rebellion and was unique for its high level of insurgent activity until 1804.(2) These are among the principal factors why- it seems that Wicklow sent more political prisoners to the penal settlements of New South Wales than any other part of Ireland.

The advent, course and aftermath of the Rebellion of 1798 presented the Government with a huge logistic problem of prisoner disposal. A major element in defeating the United Irishmen had been the generous Amnesty Act introduced by Lord Cornwallis in July 1798 which enabled most rebels to absolve themselves of high treason and avoid its consequences by swearing an oath of allegiance to the king. Weapons were also generally surrendered in return for a certificate of pardon called a ‘protection’ which enabled the bearer, at least in theory, to return to pre-Rebellion pursuits.(3) Ironically, this legislation pardoned veteran rebels who had waged war against the state but did not apply to men compromised before the Rebellion and imprisoned on charges such as administering or taking illegal oaths, robbery of arms and sedition. Some of these men were paroled, exiled, permitted to emigrate or pardoned but the vast majority were either pressed into the British and Prussian armed forces or were transported to New South Wales.(4)

Over 1,000 men were sentenced to transportation by court martials convened while Martial Law was in force and an unknown number received the same sentence by magistrates who invoked the power of the Insurrection Bill to transport suspected rebels without any formal trial.(5) In early May 1798 Rev. Charles Cope and Henry and Francis Moreton sentenced 21 blacksmiths and rebel ‘principles’ to transportation in southern Wicklow.(6) Although dispatched to the convict depot at Waterford’ s Geneva barracks the outbreak of Rebellion prevented the journey taking place and the men were diverted to Carnew Gaol. William Young of Ballinacor, a prominent rebel organizer was among the 35 or so executed on 2 June.(7) Another substantial group of Wicklowmen were sentenced at the winter assizes of 1797 and Spring assizes of March 1798 of which no records are extant.

Conscription or Transport

The preferred method of prisoner disposal was not in fact transportation but enforced service in the Royal Navy, marines and infantry regiments posted abroad in places like the West Indies. Luke Cullen, the Bray born nineteenth century historian of the Rebellion, was informed that sometime in April 1798 ‘at an unusual[ly] early hour one morning’ a ‘great number’ of prisoners in the guardhouse at Bray ‘were marched off to Dublin to augment His Majesty’s forces’.(8) None of these men had actually committed acts of violence against the state and it is unlikely. that any formal court proceedings were entered into. A common verdict reached at courtmartials in 1799 and 1800 was for the defendant to ‘serve abroad’ in a regiment stationed or earmarked for service outside of Britain and Ireland. This convenient punishment removed malcontents from Ireland while exploiting their martial potential in the cause of the Government. Units like the 87th Royal Irish Fusiliers were dubbed ‘croppy’ regiments for their high complement of such men and as it was at least 30% of the personnel in the armed forces were recruited in Ireland.(9) A further group of 365 men were sent to the army of Britain’s continental ally Prussia, most of whom were put to work in mines until conscripted to fight the French. Some managed to defect to the Irish Legion of the French army during the revolutionary wars and were reunited with their comrades.(10)

The number of prisoners actually sentenced to transportation and held in depots awaiting the outfitting of convoys, however, far exceeded the capacity of the available shipping to convey them into exile and they were too numerous for the struggling and often unwilling colony in New South Wales to absorb.(11) Inadequate record keeping has ensured that the precise number of those embarked is unknown‘ although between 1800 and 1806 eight ships landed 1023 men and 173 female prisoners who survived the ardous voyage to the colony.(12)

The lack of systemization of shipping indents makes it impossible to identify every convict in terms of county of origin, crime, sentence and other details although full indents survive for several ships and much information can be reconstructed using census data, prisoners’ petitions, land grant registers and other documents compiled in Australia. This approach is not entirely satisfactory, however, as the Australian archive material contains many anomalies. Prominent United Irishmen like Peter Ivers of Carlow, that county’ s delegate to the Leinster Committee, is not mentioned in any convict muster or Colonial Office papers yet having been transported on the Minerva in 1799 he is known to have assisted at Mass in the colony.(13) Clearly, Ivers adopted an alias while in exile as did Peter Walsh of Coolgad, Co.Wicklow. Although allegedly a participant in the United Irish sponsored mutiny of the Nore in June 1797 Walsh was transported under his mother’s maiden name Maguire, possibly the name he had enlisted under.(14) It is also probable that many prisoners accepted whatever version of their name the clerks transcribed and the British officials were evidently prone to error when confronted with Irish surnames and accents. Such mistakes may not have been apparent to or unduly concerned illiterate prisoners and may well have been beyond their power to correct.

Biographical details are also problematic as prisoners frequently nominated different counties as their place of origin and trial dates and trial places can differ in successive petitions.(15) This confusion is compounded by the prevalence of men bearing the same surnames. There were, for instance, two Michael Dwyers of Liverpool, New South Wales and elsewhere in the colony three or four other Tipperary men sported the name.(16) Having accepted that a definitive and accurate record cannot be compiled of Wicklow United Irishmen it is possible to pinpoint at least seventy-eight men with Wicklow associations, most if not all of whom were natives of the county or claimed to be so. This figure represents the number who actually arrived in New South Wales and is consequently almost certainly an underestimate given that mortality rates on the ships between 1800 and 1806 tended to be extremely high. Of the 320 persons put on board the Atlas (Captain Brooks) and Hercules (Captain Betts) in the summer of 1802, 127 died en route and many more were so emaciated that they died shortly afterwards.(17) According to Wicklow tradition a man named ‘McDonnel McKitt of Munduff’ was transported for ‘14 years (18) although no such person arrived by that name. As the reference is unambiguous and the sentence plausible, the equivalent of the ‘life’ sentences generally given to political prisoners, it is likely that McKitt was one of those who died before reaching the colony. It is notable that there were apparently no Wicklow rebels on board the Rolla of 1803 and this supports the theory that political prisoners were deliberately excluded from the ship. This, conversely, highlights the fact that a particularly large percentage of Wicklow convicts on other transports were political and not criminal offenders.

A Host of Notable Commanders

Wicklow is further distinguished by having sent the highest ranking United Irishman to Australia, General Joseph Holt of Mullinaveigue (Roundwood) and also the most famous political prisoner of all, Michael Dwyer of Imaal whose reburial in Sydney in May 1898 attracted up to 200,000 spectators.(19) Lesser known transportees include Thomas Brady of Tigrony, a senior figure in the preRebellion organization, James Hughes, a notorious rebel captain and bandit leader and James Dempsey, a veteran pikeman who arguably contributed more to the establishment of Catholicism in the colony than any other layman. As a sample group their stories represent the varied experiences of Wicklow rebels of differing ranks, social background and outlook tin the ?edgling colony. Whereas Dwyer’s experiences and to a lesser extent Holt’s have attracted much attention in the past, Dempsey’s is virtually ignored outside Australia and neither Hughes nor Brady have hitherto aroused any great interest. I wish to concentrate here on information concerning these Wicklow rebels that has not previously been brought to light.

The prosecution of Thomas Brady of Tigrony at the Wicklow assizes of March 1798 was one of the most significant blows dealt to the United Irishmen in the barony of Ballinacor prior to the Rebellion. As early as June 1797 he was swearing in recruits to the conspiracy who worked at the Ballymurtagh and Cronebane mines in Avoca where he was employed as a clerk. Brady was a forty three year old family man in 1797 with a wife, Catherine and eight children, one of whom was a soldier.(20) His relative maturity in an organization composed in the main of young farmers sons and labourers may have contributed to his high status in the Ballinacor sector although such prominence a full year before the Rebellion is indicative of longstanding disaffection and radicalism. John Tyson of Cronebane was told in June 1797 on being initiated by Robert Miller and Samuel Judd in the mine stampyard that he would have to take a second oath from the man ‘who had the authority.’(21) He was accordingly taken to Tigrony Hill to meet Brady who ultimately administered the oath which bound Tyson to join the French when they landed and to ‘overturn the Government.’ Tyson also alleged that Brady warned him that he would ‘certainly be murdered’ if he revealed the secrets of the United Irishmen.(22)

It seems likely that Brady organized the comprehensive infiltration of the three yeomanry corps raised in the mines district in October 1796 by the Camac brothers who ran the managing Hibernian Mining Company with Howard Kyan. John Camac captained the Castlemacadam cavalry, his brother Turner Camac the Castlemacadam infantry and Abraham Mills the Cronebane infantry.(23) When the extent of United Irish membership was revealed in January 1798 the cavalry corps was disbanded and the rump of the infantry corps re-organized as the Rathdrum Yeoman infantry, also known as the ‘bandmen’ or ‘bondmen’ of Cronebane.(24) The discovery of this fifth column led to the introduction of the test oath for all Wicklow units and the publication of a list showing which corps had declined to swear the loyalty oath. Even the Camac brothers themselves were not above suspicion and many of their employees played prominent roles in the Ballymanus division of Wicklow United Irishmen.(25) Whatever Brady’s role in this conspiracy he was certainly treasurer of the mines United Irish societies and collected weekly and monthly dues from them of six and a half pence which was forwarded to the baronial committee for disbursement. Men in this position were prime candidates for election as captains although it is unknown whether or not Brady was actually returned.

His arrest was triggered by the statements of Tyson and John Kavanagh of Knockanna, a miner and publican, who in January 1798 made a series of statements to ex-High Sheriff of Wicklow Thomas King of Kingston, Rathdrum.(26) King had been involved in several mining operations in the county and in 1798 was an active magistrate and captain of the Rathdrum yeoman cavalry. Brady was brought to trial in Wicklow town at the controversal March assizes where the illustrious John Philpot Curran destroyed the credibility of the main prosecution witness, William Cooper, and secured the release of almost 100 rebel prisoners. One of those released was William Young of Ballinacor who would have been acquainted with Brady from his efforts to prepare the barony’ s United Irishmen for war.(27) The evidence against Brady, however, was not reliant on Cooper’s suspect testimony and he was convicted of administering an illegal oath which carried the penalty of transportation for life. He was first lodged in Dublin’ s New gate prison and then transferred to a prison hulk moored in Dublin Bay awaiting the outfitting of the convoy to take him to New South Wales.(28) The outbreak of Rebellion in May 1798 prevented his early transportation and it was not until February 1799 that having been shipped to Cobh from Dublin on the squalid tender Lively he was put on board the Minerva and commenced the six month voyage.(29) His wife made an unsuccessful appeal to the viceroy for permission to accompany him into exile with their family. Brady’s fate was also sealed by the inclusion of his name on the Fugitive Bill of August 1798 which made it a capital offence for the individuals to return from exile without official sanction.(30)

With Brady on the Minerva was Joseph Holt who having held out in the Wicklow mountains against overwhelming forces until the winter of 1798 surrendered to the authorities on 10 November and was permitted to exile himself in New South Wales without facing trial. Holt managed to secure the passage of his family due to the financial and moral backing of the in?uential La Touche family of Bellvue with whom he was acquainted from his days as a baronial subconstable and with whom his wife Hester was also connected. Unlike Brady however, Holt had also received tacit assurances of lenient treatment from Lord Powerscourt and other Rathdown gentleman magistrates when negotiating his capitulation. Concessions may also have been granted in return for a number of unsworn statements to the authorities outlining his thoughts on and experience of the Rebellion.(31) This process was similar to the compact agreed between the Government and the so called State Prisoners, the top ranking United Irishmen arrested prior to the Rebellion. While Holt did not enjoy the full benefits of a free settler in New South Wales he did reserve an element of independence that was not shared by many other political prisoners and this enabled him to weather the disputes he became embroiled in and eventually enjoy a measure of prosperity.(32)

It is evident that Holt and Brady were acquainted before the Rebellion and this relationship makes their seditious activity in the colony more explicable. Holt’s original home at Ballydonnell near Redcross and later in Ballymoneen above Castlemacadam placed him for a time in the same locality as Brady and if the two were not then acquainted a specific link emerged in 1797 at latest when Holt’s younger brother William, a mason at the Cronebane works, infiltrated the mines’ yeoman infantry on Brady’ s instructions.(33) Holt was, like Brady, a leading United figure in the barony of Ballinacor even though his main energy was apparently expended liaising with the Dublin committees. More revealing perhaps is Holt’ s inclusion of Brady, in his memoirs, in a list of what he described as ‘six proper resolute men.’(34) and a later reference to him as a ‘very respectable’ prisoner.(35) As Holt’s comments on his other comrades tend to be dismissive and disparaging, if they are mentioned at all, this can be taken as an indication that the two were on friendly terms. It is also noteworthy that Holt also thought highly of Richard Byrne, a co-defendant of Brady’s at the Wicklow assizes and the ships carpeneter Martin Short, both of whom hailed from Wicklow. Short was probably related to the two other men from Wicklow listed on the Fugitive Bill bearing his surname but not transported and along with Brady, Holt and Byrne he was to feature in virtually every ‘Irish Plot’ to occur in New South Wales between 1800 and 1804.

Minerva Reaches Southwales

When the Minerva reached Sydney, New South Wales in January 1800, the ?rst convict ship to arrive since 1798, the town had only 2,500 inhabitants of whom almost half were convicts. The other major settlements at Parramatta and Toongabbie had only 1,500 residents between them, two-thirds of whom were convicts while the predominately free settlement on the Hawkesbury river had fewer than 1,100.(36) Minerva and its convoy mate Friendship which arrived on 16 February 1800 brought 276 live prisoners to the colony most of whom had been transported for involvement in the Rebellion. Holt provocatively spent his first night in exile at the home of Maurice Margarot, one of the ‘Scottish martyrs’ who was transported in 1793 for treasonable practices when secretary of the republican London Corresponding Society.(37) Margarot’ s home was described as ‘the most seditious house in the country’ by Captain George Johnston and his activities were under constant scrutiny.(38) Margarot’s diary confirms that Holt and Brady were frequent guests in his house and they soon con?rmed Governor King’s suspicions that they were not tired of intrigue.(39) Brady was employed on arrival as a clerk at the commissary’s office while Holt’s agricultural talents were put to use as a manager of William Cox’s estates, a matter in which he had more discretion than his Wicklow comrade in consequence of the terms of his negotiated surrender.

Coup Attempt

The first of many United Irish plots to be revealed came to light in August 1800 when it became apparent that rebel convicts who had arrived on the Minerva were preparing to take over the colony. Judge Advocate Richard Dore examined the conspiracy between 4 and 12 September, made several arrests and ordered the flogging of suspects to elicit further details of the plot.(40) Roger Gavan of Roscommon and Peter McCann of Monaghan divulged what they knew and implicated the rebel priest Fr. James Harold of Rathcoole.(41) While Harold apparently shielded other conspirators by claiming the sanctity of confession prevented such disclosure, he did confirm the existence of the plot and claimed that pikes had been manufactured. In the course of the investigation it emerged that Richard Byrne, Martin Short and Farrell Cuffe of King’s County were the main ringleaders and that another one, Michael Cox, had travelled to Holt’s workplace at Canterbury farm on 2 September and offered him the chief command.(42) When interviewed Holt claimed he declined the offer but according to Cox the Wicklowman assented.(43) As the most experienced rebel leader in the colony Holt would have been the obvious choice for the position and his retention of the title ‘General’ in exile together with his insistence on cutting his beard in the style favoured by the United Irishmen and uttering seditious toasts would have signalled his sympathies to friends and foes alike. Holt’s connections with the acknowledged leaders has already been established but it is worth pointing out that Cuffe, although not a Wicklowman, had been employed by Holt to tutor his son Joshua on the voyage from Ireland.(44)

Holt was arrested on 5 September and lodged in Sydney Gaol and the authorities believed there were sufficient grounds to exile him to Norfolk Island, a secondary place of punishment in the Pacific Ocean. The order to send him to the island was rescinded by the provost marshal Thomas Smyth who according to Holt was swayed by his protestations of innocence backed by a hunger strike.(45) There were, however, other factors involved, not least that while Holt did not inform on his co-conspirators he followed Fr. Harold’s line in admitting a plot existed and that he had been approached. Furthermore, Holt’ s friend Andrew Byrne of Seven Churches (Glendalough) was assigned to Smyth and may have put in a good word for him. Despite Cox’s incriminating information and the suspicions of the authorities Holt managed to avoid corporal punishment for his involvement in the affair but eighteen others including fourteen Minerva men, received sentences of between 100 and 500 lashes.(46)

Foiled Plot

Towards the end of September the now leaderless plotters who had not been arrested or betrayed attempted to recruit new figureheads to carry out the plot. Their feelers were rebuffed and attracted the attention of the authorities who in early October carried out another bout of ?oggings. Holt was obliged to be present at the execution of the sentences at Toongabbie and his record of the event is among the most quoted passages in Australian historical writing:

‘….their arms [were] pull[ed] round a large tree and their breasts squeezed against the tree so the men had no power to cringe or stir. Father Harold was ordered to lay his hand against the tree…There was two ?oggers – Richard Rice and John Johnson, the Hangmen from Sydney. Rice was a left handed man and Johnson was right handed so they stood at each side, and I never saw two threshers in a barn move their strokes more handier than those two man killers did…though I was two perches from them, the ?esh and skin blew in my face as they shook off of the cats.’(47)

Thirty six men were exiled to Norfolk Island on 21 October 1800 where Major Fouveaux of the New South Wales Corps presided over a regime of infamous harshness. Their arrival brought the number of convicts there to 231 men who were guarded by 100 soldiers and 26 constables.(48) These odds proved tempting to the unrepentant rebels who planned another revolt for December and began to make pikes amidst great secrecy. Again, Short, Byrne and Cuffe were prominent in the leadership and were unfortunate to be betrayed in the late stages of preparation by a non-political prisoner, Henry Grady. Foveaux had two men summarily executed to intimidate the plotters and passed sentence of 500 lashes on all those who were identified.(49)


1. Ruan O’Donnell, ‘General Joseph Holt and the Rebellion of 1798 in County Wicklow’, unpublished MA thesis, (National University of Ireland, 1991).

2. Commons Journals, Ireland, XIX, pp. clviii-cccxcviii.

3. Ruan O’Donnell, Protections and Amnesty in Leinster, 1798′, unpublished essay read to Irish Historical Students Association, Galway, 1989.

4. Irish Statutes at Large, vol 18, 1054.

5. A.G.L. Shaw, Convicts and the colonies (Melbourne,1978), pp.169-73 and Castlereagh to Portland, 6 March 1799, Public Record Office of England, Home Office 100/86/36.

6. William Moreton to John Lees, 24 May 1798, National Archives, Rebellion Papers, 620/37/139. .

7. O’Donnell, ‘Holt’, p. 139.

8. Luke Cullen, Insurgent Wicklow, I 798, the story as written by Bro. Luke. Cullen, O.D.C., (ed) Myles V. Ronan, (Dublin, 1948), p.16.

9. Charles Dickson, The life of Michael Dwyer (Dublin, 1944), pp.316-7.

10. George Rude, Early Irish rebels in Australia’ in Historical Studies, vol. 16, 1974-5, pp.17-35, p.21-2.

11. Hunter to Portland, 20 March 1800 in Historical Records of Australia, II, pp.472—5.

12. Rude, ‘rebels’, p. 17 and Charles Bateson, The Convict Ships (Glasgow, 1959), Chapter 8 and A.G.L. Shaw, Convicts, pp.166-84.

13. Mitchell Library, Sydney, MS A2002, p.484.

14. Joseph Holt, A Rum Story, The Adventures of Joseph Holt, Thirteen Years in New South Wales (1800-12), edited by Peter O’Shaughnessy, (New South Wales, 1988), p.90.

15. Petition of Andrew Byrne, 1810, Archives Office of New South Wales 4/1846, p.35.

16. Michael Dwyer to Major Goulbourn, 21 November 1825, AO 4/1788, p.132. The death notice of Michael Dwyer of Imaal appears in Sydney Gazette, 25 August 1825.

17. Governor King to Hobart, 23 July 1802 in HRA, III, p.531.

18. Cullen, Insurgent, p.42.

19. Syndney Morning Herald and [Sydney] Freeman’s Journal, 28 May 1898. For Holt and Dwyer in New South Wales see Holt, Rum Story, Sheedy, Upon the Mercy of Government and Ruan O’Donnell, ‘General Joseph Holt’ in Bob Reece (ed), Exiles from Erin, Convict lives in Ireland and Australia (London, 1991), pp. 2756 and Ruan O’Donnell, ‘Michael Dwyer, The Wicklow Chief’ in Reece (ed), Irish Convict Lives (Sydney, 1993).

20. Petition of Catherine Brady, 9 March 1799, National Archives, State Prisoner’ s Petition, no. 436.

21. Information of John Tyson, 17 January 1798, N.A., State of the Country papers, 1017, p.62.

22. lbid.

23. 31 October 1796, List of Yeomanry corps raised in Ireland.

24. Holt MS, PP-115-7 and Luke Cullen, N.L.I., MS 8339, p.190.

25. Information of Fr. John Martin, 16 June 1798, 620/38/126.

26. Tyson, 17 and 20 January 1798, S.O.C., 1017/61 and Information of Hugh Ollaghan, 2 January 1798, S.O.C. 1017/62. ‘

27. O’Donnell, ‘Holt’, pp.l09-11, Cullen, Insurgent, p.20 and Byrne, Memoirs, pp.19-20.

28. Petition of Catherine Brady, 9 March 1799, SPP, no.436.

29. Holt, Rum Story, pp. 31-2. I

30. August 1798, H.O. 100/66/340.

31. O’Donnell, ‘General Joseph Holt’, pp.37-40, Information of Joseph Holt and 16 November 1798, 620/41/39A.

32. O’Donnell, ‘General Joseph Holt’, p.39.

33. Ollaghan, 2 January 1798, S.O.C. 1017/62.

34. Holt, Rum Story, p.43.

35. Ibid., p.50.

36. HRA III, p.749.

37. Faulkner’s Dublin Journal, 30 January 1794.

38. Holt, Rum Story, p.50.

39. G.R. Rusden Scrapbook, ‘The Scottish Martyrs’, odd notes, Margarot Journals, ML B1374/II, pp.39-49.

40. Papers relating to the Irish conspiracy and General Orders, September l800,HRA, II, pp.575-83.

41. Harold Perkins, The convict priests (Victoria, 1984), pp.29-38 and HRA, II, pp.637-41.

42. Patrick Kennedy evidence, 6 September 1800 and Holt examination, 7 September 1800, HRA, II, p.580-1.

43. AO/5/1156, pp.l63-73.

44. Rum Story, p.39.

45. Holt, Rum Story, pp. 59-62.

46. Holt, Rum Story, p.61 and HRA, II, pp.582_-3.

47. Rum story, p.61.

48. State of the Settlement at Norfolk Island on 6 November 1800, HRA, IV, pp.252-3 cited in Whitaker, p.69.

49. Holt, Rum Story, pp.88-9 and AO 5/1156, pp.138-51.

Wicklow Golf Pavilion 1913

Comments about this page

  • Gary we must be related. He’s my gggggg grandfather!

    By Alison ferry (22/01/2024)
  • Richard Byrne ( my gggg grandfather) arrived back in Sydney from Norfolk Island and became a successful builder in the colony. His home site is a preserved archaeoligical site at The Rocks in Sydney. The Hart Pub built by him still operates

    By Gary Porter (08/01/2021)

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