WRAP - No prison in Westbury

Westbury’s Irish History

These notes were contributed by Heather Donaldson, Westbury

The area to Westbury’s east was once named Pensioners Bush. It was settled by Irish soldier settlers from the British army, unable to return home because of the famine. They were granted 5 acres, a house, a well, a cow and a pear tree. The area still bears street names, Five Acre Row, Veterans Row, Pensioners Row… There are a couple of the old cottages left, some wells, the last pear tree, thankfully no cows.

By the 1850s, Westbury was mostly Irish and mostly free settlers. At this time Westbury was central to a story that ABC agree will one day be told as a blockbuster movie or as an exciting TV series.

This amazing story spans three continents and three important periods in history –

  • the Great Famine in Ireland, the Young Ireland movement and the 1848 rebellion;
  • the end of convict transportation in Van Diemen's Land and its name change to Tasmania;
  • and the American Civil War.

Two million people died during the Great Famine in Ireland (1/4 of the population). Another one and a half million were forced to emigrate. A movement emerged as a result of the appalling conditions of the time. It began as an intellectual and literary movement and became an armed uprising. Its leaders were imprisoned, killed or fled to America. Seven of these patriot leaders were exiled to Van Diemen’s Land. They were: Thomas Francis Meagher, John Mitchel, William Smith O’Brien (of Smith O’Brien’s cottage at Port Arthur), Terence McManus, John Martin, Kevin O’Doherty and Patrick O’Donohue.

The story of these men in Tasmania is incredibly interesting, exciting and historic. They are woven into the history of this island with blood and tears.

John Michel's wife and children joined him here and their sixth child was Tasmanian born. She outlived her entire family.

Meagher married a Tasmanian girl and their baby son lies in a tiny grave beside the door of the Catholic church at Richmond near Hobart.

Four of them escaped from Tasmania, with adventures more exciting than any fiction.

Westbury was central to these escapes, with help from its mainly Irish population, who sheltered them here and risked their own lives helping them to freedom.

John Michel
John Michel

Thomas Francis Meagher married a Tasmanian girl and lived with her at Lake Sorell. He designed the Irish flag. In Tasmania he launched a boat on Lake Sorell on St. Patrick's Day 1850. It was called Speranza, the pen name of a Young Ireland woman writer, Jane Elgee, later mother of Oscar Wilde. Speranza means hope. He escaped January 1852. Over the mountains to Westbury where he spent some time with Westbury’s first priest, Father Hogan, then with help from Westbury locals, out to the coast and on to America. Meagher went on to found the Irish Brigade and became a Brigadier-General in the American Civil War, and later Governor of Montana. He was about to lead troops against the Sioux leader, Red Cloud, when he disappeared overboard in the Missouri. It is believed that the Vigilantes got him. He was 41.

John Mitchel wrote his escape story in a book, Jail Journal. It is one of the best escape stories ever told. Living in the highlands at Bothwell, he bought a horse from the police magistrate, boldly rode it to the police office, handed in his ticket-of-leave, leapt on the horse and galloped away. In midwinter he rode across the mountains, with help from sympathetic locals. He was hotly pursued but managed to reach Westbury where he was helped and hidden until a suitable ship could be arranged.

Westbury locals who helped these men to escape included Westbury’s first priest, Father Hogan, Westbury’s first mayor, Dan Burke, and Thomas Field, an Englishman, of Westfield, later Westbury’s first representative in Tasmania’s first parliament. Dan’s brother, John Burke, Dan O’Meara, David Rose, Michael O’Keefe and Dan Foley. Many of their descendants still in Westbury and Deloraine.

(At the first modern Westbury St. Patrick’s Festival in 1995 the Tasmanian Mountain Cattlemen (and women) did a re-enactment of Mitchel’s epic escape ride across the mountains from Bothwell, arriving in Westbury to lead the parade, carrying the Australian and the Irish flags. They took 5 days through still wild country and were amazed at Mitchel’s 2 day journey. They were followed by media, including The Age, and TV crews, one of whom got lost in the mountains.)

Many adventures and many close calls ensued for John Mitchel over the following few weeks, from Westbury to George Town, to Bakers Beach, to Launceston… Finally, this Presbyterian gentleman, the most wanted man in all Tasmania, boarded a public coach to travel from Launceston to Hobart, dressed as a Catholic priest, in the clothes of Westbury's Father Hogan. He found himself sitting opposite the ex attorney general of the colony who had met him, but did not recognize him. Finally he was smuggled onto a boat offshore in the Derwent and off to America. Mitchel was also greeted in the USA as a hero. One of his sons fired the first shot in the American Civil War. He lost two sons in that war, and a third lost an arm. His grandson was Mayor of New York during World War 1. Mitchel and Meagher were on opposing sides in the Civil War. There are statues in the streets in Ireland and America to these men (and a silhouette of them on Westbury’s Village Green).

Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher
Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher (1823-1867)

Silhouette of Mitchel and Meagher on Westbury's Village Green
Silhouette of Mitchel and Meagher on Westbury's Village Green. Click on photo for an enlargement.

In 1995, Westbury’s St. Patrick’s Festival was launched. Thousands of people poured into our village for the 3 days of the festival. All events were booked out in advance. 120 mobile homes stayed on our sports ground and nearby, for a week. They came back for years. Westbury’s St. Patrick’s Festival has become one of the major summer festivals in Tasmania and gave the profile of the town of Westbury an important boost. Within 2 years it won Meander Valley Community Event of the Year. The festival celebrates its 25th anniversary in March 2020.

Thomas Keneally at Rosaville, Birralee Rd
Thomas Keneally at a property on Birralee Road reading from John Michel's description of Westbury. Heather Donaldson showed him all the places Mitchel and Meagher stayed when he was researching his book about Irish history, "The Great Shame" (published 1999).