East Cork's Australian Heritage Trail

Fáilte Ireland, the country's national tourism authority, reports that in 2008, 224,000 Australians came to Ireland either on business or as holidaymakers. This account of East Cork connections with Australia was compiled as a contribution to a possible tourism leaflet to encourage Australian visitors to explore the area.





East Cork's Australian connections are not all about convicts and rebels - but the story starts with the very first Irish felons to be transported, and the three of Ireland's great national uprisings, in 1798, 1848 and 1867, loom large in the picture.


Our Heritage Trail starts at Cobh, the emigration port on Cork harbour. In the 18th century, it was simply known as 'the Cove of Cork'. When Queen Victoria visited in 1849, it was renamed 'Queenstown'. After Ireland won its independence in 1922, the town reverted to its old name, in its Irish-language spelling.

The story of Irish-Australia began at Cobh on 16 April 1791, when the convict ship Queen sailed for Botany Bay, carrying 133 male prisoners and 22 females, accompanied by four children. The youngest of the children, little Margaret Brennan, was only two years old: her mother, 20-year old Sarah Brennan, had been sentenced to seven years' transportation by a court in Dublin the previous year. Among the convicts, the oldest was a 64-year-old Limerick man, Patrick Fitzgerald, sentenced to seven years' exile for stealing clothing valued at four shillings and sixpence. The hardened offenders condemned to leave Ireland included David Fay, aged 11, James Blake, aged 12 and Charles Marshall, aged 14, all from Dublin: one in seven of this first cargo of convicts was under the age of 19. Blake had stolen a pair of silver buckles; Marshall, despite his youth, was an accomplished jewel thief.

The despatch of the Queen was accompanied by corruption and incompetence. In response to public demands to empty Ireland's prisons of criminals, the government in Dublin provided funds for the transportation of 175 convicts - but only 155 were rounded up from gaols the length of the country. It seems that the ship's commander, a British naval officer called Lieutenant Samuel Blow, was diverting the spare cash to a syndicate of corrupt local officials, who included the Sheriff of Cork, Sir Henry Browne Hayes.

Hayes was certainly hard up. In 1797, desperate for cash, he kidnapped a wealthy heiress and tried to force her into marrying him. The plot failed, and Hayes was himself later sentenced to be transported to New South Wales for his crime. (A fine double bow-fronted house on Cork's Grand Parade, facing the South Mall, is said to have been built with the reward money offered for his arrest.) When he arrived at Sydney in 1802, the authorities did not know what to do with a gentleman convict. Although he spent a period in prison and served a term of forced labour in the coal-mines at Newcastle, Browne Hayes used his connections (he founded Australia's first Masonic Lodge) to secure a privileged life. He was allowed to build his own house, at Vaucluse on Sydney Harbour. It was said that to keep Australia's venomous snakes at bay he surrounded the house with a rampart of earth imported from Ireland - because St Patrick had banned all reptiles from Irish soil. Today, Vaucluse House is one of Sydney's finest old buildings. Sir Henry Browne Hayes returned to Cork in 1813.

Ten days before the Queen set sail, one of its unwilling passengers, who signed as 'An unhappy Convict', smuggled a letter of protest to the commander of a British warship anchored nearby, complaining about 'the deplorable State of the Convicts … perhaps the most dreadfull instance of Cruelty you ever heard of'. He complained that the inmates were getting only a half-pound of beef and six potatoes every 24 hours (the Irish, of course, were enormous consumers of potatoes), with no liquor 'except bad water', and 'the Cruel Captn' was opening their letters! The Irish in Australia have a long history of protest: it began here in Cobh. The British Admiralty eventually decided to sack Lieut. Blow and replace him with a more efficient officer - but by the time his replacement arrived, the Queen had long since sailed, with the cruel Blow in charge.

The ship arrived at Sydney in September 1791, with 148 convicts still alive - a good survival rate for those days. But nobody had thought to send out any documentation about the terms the prisoners were to serve. Most had been sentenced to seven years, and were entitled to include time they had spent waiting in prison before they were transported. It took eight years for the bureaucrats in Dublin to supply the official records. This was one of the grievances that sparked Australia's first uprising, the Castle Hill rebellion of 1804, in what is now one of Sydney's western suburbs.

Spike Island, opposite the Cobh waterfront, was long used as a prison depot where convicts awaited transportation to Australia. John Mitchel, an educated man and one of the leaders of the failed national uprising of 1848, was brought here by ship from Dublin. He found it a 'rueful-looking place', but the governor greeted him politely: 'Mr Mitchell, I presume'. When the door of his cell closed behind him, Mitchell recalled, 'I flung myself on the bed, and broke into a raging passion of tears - tears of wrath, pity, regret, remorse'. Mitchell found it particularly hard to be in prison in such a beautiful place as Cork Harbour: 'nothing is to be seen but the high walls and the blue sky. And beyond these walls I know is the beautiful bay lying in the bosom of its soft green hills.' Thousands of convicts must have shared his feelings. On 'a raw, damp morning' in June 1849, he left for exile in Tasmania. Four years later, he made a memorable escape and headed for the United States. Spike Island remained in use as a prison until recent times.

Cove/Queenstown/Cobh was for long a major port for emigration to Australia. Rachel Henning, whose letters are a valuable source for life in early Queensland, called here in 1861 on her way home from a holiday in England. She enjoyed an excursion in the countryside, where friendly local people waved to passers-by in the green fields, but she was shocked by the poverty in which they lived.

Cobh has one of Ireland's finest heritage displays, the Queenstown Story. It tells the story of the thousands of emigrants who left from here for Australia and America.


The unofficial capital of East Cork, busy Midleton was the birthplace, in 1820, of James Martin, an important figure in 19th century New South Wales. James's father, John Martin, came from nearby Fermoy, which was a British garrison town. In 1821, the commander of the troops there, General Sir Thomas Brisbane, was appointed governor of New South Wales. (The city of Brisbane was named in his honour.) John Martin was a skilled with horses, and the new governor invited him to bring his family to Australia and work as his trainer. Because he had left Ireland as a baby, young James identified with the rising generation of 'native-born' Australians. He became a successful lawyer and made a massive fortune at the Bar: he spent £20,000, the equivalent of many millions today, on his house at Point Potts on Sydney Harbour, as well as building a lavish holiday home in the Blue Mountains. Unfortunately, his wife thought Point Potts was unhealthy, and their marriage all-but broke up over the issue. Martin entered politics and was Premier of New South Wales three times between 1863 and 1873. He was hailed as the first Catholic to rise to the colony's highest office, although the richer he got, the more Sir James, as he became, inclined towards Protestantism. In 1873 he was appointed Chief Justice: twelve years later, he was described as 'a stout, round-faced, remarkable old man'. When he died in 1886, a Sydney poet wrote:

He scaled the summit while the sun
Yet shone upon his conquered track,
Nor faltered when the goal was won
Nor, struggling upward, once looked back.

The fine Main Street of Midleton contains many buildings that date from the early 19th century. James Martin too is remembered in an imposing street: Sydney's Martin Place / Martin Plaza, the home of the city's General Post Office.

Tom Horan was born in Midleton in 1854 but left with his family for Melbourne in childhood. In 1877, he played for Australia in the first-ever cricket Test Match between England and Australia. Horan top-scored in Australia's second innings and Australia won by 45 runs. In 1885, after the regular Australian cricket team went on strike over pay, Horan was drafted in as captain of a novice Test side, to become the country's third Test captain. He retired from the first-class game to become a cricket journalist, writing for Melbourne newspapers under then pan name, "Felix".


The quiet little town of Cloyne was one of the earliest religious sites in East Cork. It still boasts St Colman's Church of Ireland cathedral, of medieval origin. The old church contains an intriguing monument to Paul Lawless, born in Cloyne in 1817. He and his brother Clement settled in Queensland in the 1840s, during the early days when it was known as the Moreton Bay District.

Paul Lawless retired to Ireland in 1865 but died soon afterwards. His brother, Clement, was killed in a hunting accident at Cloyne in 1877.

The monument, which is thought to date from soon after Paul's death, is interesting because it is flanked by carvings of a kangaroo and an emu. These symbols of Australian identity form part of the Commonwealth coat of arms, but this was not adopted until after federation, almost thirty years after Lawless's death. Thus here in Cloyne we see a very early example of an Australian national symbol.


At Shanagarry we encounter for the first time Father Peter O'Neill, a Catholic priest who was transported to New South Wales for alleged involvement in Ireland's 1798 rebellion. Fr Peter returned from exile and in 1814 built the first Catholic parish church at Shanagarry. His picture appears in the west window (go up the stairs to the gallery) with an inscription in the Irish language, which was spoken in parts of East Cork until recent times. The inscription, which is written in the old script, refers to him by the Gaelic version of his name, Peadar O Néill, and notes that he was exiled in 'san Astrail 1800-3'.


Ballymacoda and Knockadoon Head form a promontory that remained a stronghold of the Irish language until well into the 20th century. The area is associated with two attempts at nationalist uprisings, both linked to Australia. In 1798 it was a hotbed of the revolutionary secret society, the United Irishmen. A Ballymacoda man called Patrick Murphy, who was suspected of planning to reveal the conspiracy to the authorities, was murdered and his body buried on the beach. Fr. Peter O'Neill was accused of having planned the killing, and of granting absolution to the assassins. He confessed - but how the confession was obtained we shall see when we get to nearby Youghal.

Knockadoon was the scene of another attempt to liberate Ireland by armed revolution, this time in 1867. Another secret society, the Fenians, resolved to trigger a national uprising by simultaneously attacking symbolic targets around the country one night in March. Unluckily, given Ireland's mild climate, they chose the night of an unexpected snowstorm. However, one party seized the coastguard station on Knockadoon Head, and captured a supply of guns stored there. The revolt failed, and many of the rebels were packed off to Western Australia, the only colony that would still accept transported convicts. In 1876, six of them were dramatically rescued from the dockside at Fremantle by a whaling ship which took them to America.

A ruin today, the Knockadoon coastguard station is only a short walk from the road. There are superb views along the Cork and Waterford coasts, and inland to the town of Youghal and beyond to the Knockmealdown mountains. Just east of Ballymacoda village a steep overgrown path leads to the Hill Cemetery. A giant Celtic cross marks the grave of one of the Fremantle men, Thomas Bowler Cullinane. He returned to his home village where he lived until 1928.


Pronounced 'yawl', this is one of the oldest towns in East Cork, possibly founded by the Vikings. It retains most of its medieval walls to this day. In 1777, the town rebuilt one of ancient gatehouses as the Clock Gate, with its upper floors used as a prison. This superb building still straddles the Main Street. In 1798, it became a focal point of the vicious crack-down on the United Irishmen. Father Peter O'Neill was brought here to be forced to confess his involvement in the plot: his interrogation consisted of a flogging, 275 lashes with a whip that contained knotted strips of sharp tin. Legend says he was dragged up the stone steps on the north side of the Clock Gate and flogged in a ball alley (like a modern squash court) alongside the town walls. Fr Peter, as we have seen, was transported to New South Wales and late returned to build the Catholic church in Shanagarry. Today the same walk up the Gaol Steps gives peaceful views over Youghal's timeless townscape.

A later Youghal man took his dreams of a better world to Australia, and Thomas Walsh is an interesting personality since we know so little about most of the ordinary men and women who left Ireland to make a new life in Australia. Walsh (the surname is very distinctive of Youghal where it is pronounced 'Welsh') was born in 1871, the son of a local shoemaker. His mother died when he was a small boy. Family poverty meant that he had little formal education, but Tom Walsh read widely and thought a lot. Youghal was a busy port in those days, and it was natural for him to go to sea. In 1893 he arrived in Brisbane, where he tried to join an expedition to found a visionary colony called 'New Australia' which was to be established in Paraguay. Instead, he became an official of the militant seamen's union, based first in Cairns, northern Queensland, and later in Newcastle, NSW. His first wife, an Irish-Australian woman, died of tuberculosis. During the First World War, Walsh campaigned against Australian participation in what he regarded as a British imperial conflict. One of his fellow campaigners was an English woman, Adela Pankhurst, daughter of the celebrated Mrs Sylvia Pankhurst who led the militant campaign of the 'Suffragettes', demanding the right of British (and Irish) women to vote at elections. In 1917, Tom and Adela married while on remand in a Melbourne prison for defying a wartime ban on demonstrations. Briefly they were inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and became founder members of the Australian Communist Party. Both soon became disillusioned with revolutionary politics, and moved to the right in politics. By 1940 they were arguing that Japan, not Britain or America, was Australia's natural ally in the world. Unfortunately, they had picked badly once again, and when war broke out with Japan in 1941, she was interned as a security risk. By this time Tom was too ill to be locked up, and in 1943 he died. Alternately pro-Communist and pro-Japanese, Thomas Walsh is an unlikely figure to come out of the quiet town of Youghal. But if he had unlucky judgement in politics, he is an example of the human talent that was so often lost to Ireland in those days of poverty and ignorance. In the 1920s, when he lived in Melbourne, Walsh was described by a prominent bookseller as one of the two best-read men in the city.