Donal O’Kelly staging one of the greatest Irish stories ever told

Catalpa tells the incredible true tale of the vessel that sailed to Australia in 1875 to break six Fenians out of jail, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.

Donal O’Kelly staging one of the greatest Irish stories ever told

DONAL O’Kelly’s one-man play, Catalpa made serious waves when it was first produced in 1995. It won a Fringe First Award at Edinburgh, and sailed around the world for performances. To mark its 20th anniversary, O’Kelly is touring it around Ireland, including a performance in Cork tomorrow.

The play is based on a famous jailbreak. In 1874, James Wilson, a prisoner at a British penal colony in Western Australia, smuggled a letter — “a voice from the tomb” — to John Devoy, the Fenian leader exiled in the United States.

Devoy hatched a plan, which was two years in the making, to spring Wilson and five of his fellow political prisoners from captivity.

The penal colony in Freemantle was at the end of the world. No one had ever escaped from it. To the east lay unchartered desert, to the west shark-infested waters.

Devoy put together “an Ocean’s Eleven team to get these men out of the grave,” said Booker Prize-winning author, Thomas Keneally. The group included John J Breslin, a Fenian ‘mastermind’ who “brooks no knaves”, and a mercenary American whaler, George Anthony, who piloted the Catalpa, the trawler that ferried them from America to Australia.

The mission was beset with problems. A third of Anthony’s crew had deserted by the time he had reached the Azores.

During O’Kelly’s research it was the human element of the story that excited him, having first learned of it while touring with another show at the Perth Festival in 1992. “Somebody sent me some pages that had been photocopied from a book by Keith Amos that was published by New South Wales University Press, and which had access to police papers that were only released 100 years later — in 1976.

“He had the story about Marie Tondut, a French serving girl who had a liaison with John Breslin, and had a child, as a result. I thought: ‘I can’t believe this — that it was known at the time’.That made the story much deeper than the normal epic-hero story.”

Anthony had personal dilemmas, too. He took the job to feed his wife and baby daughter, and left them at home for a year and a half, while he dealt with a disgruntled crew on the waves. He was a noted whaler.

“I remember one really vivid image from his ghost-written account of his time whaling,” says O’Kelly. “He said when the whale’s windpipe is cut, it’s like the sound of 20 steam engines — the sound that comes out because it is so big.”

O’Kelly is a virtuoso at one-hander plays, having scooped another Fringe First Award, in 2013, for Fionnuala, which is about the Corrib Gas controversy. In Catalpa, O’Kelly performs all the roles, including seabirds, horses and waves.

He offers some insight into the suspension of disbelief that a one-man play demands of its audience.

“People don’t realise that watching film and television has changed the way our imaginations work. It’s no problem for people to understand that dialogue is taking place, even though they’re watching a one-hander. “Because we’ve got so used to holding the camera shot in television, all the time that it only takes a change of eye-line and a small change in gesture and posture and a bit of imagination to make it work on stage.”

The mini-dramas that unfold on the deck of the Catalpa run their course over 90 minutes and two acts, and preserve the memory of one of the great escape adventures.

“To show how important an event it was in Irish history, 40 years later Éamon de Valera went to the United States fundraising, in 1919, for the new Irish independence movement and one of the orations he gave was at the grave of George Anthony, looking back to one of the daring successes of the Fenian era, and possibly its only triumph,” says O’Kelly.

  • Catalpa, by Benbo Productions, is on nationwide tour until March 6, including tomorrow at the Everyman, Cork, and Garter Lane in Waterford, February 13-14. For further information, see:

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