The Catalpa Memorial
Speech: Dedication of Catalpa Memorial Rockingham WA 9th Sep. 2005
We are here today to celebrate the concept of Freedom. Freedom from oppression, freedom from bondage, freedom of thought and to commemorate some of the people who made it possible to gather here in this especially peaceful place that we are all so privileged to live in.
The history of the Catalpa Escape is well known in WA as the story of a great adventure which indeed it was. The story, however, has a grander theme, that of freedom of the spirit, emancipation and social justice. The Catalpa Memorial commemorates this truly heroic tale; a David & Goliath story of the ultimate triumph of the small and helpless over powerful and insurmountable odds. It encapsulates the essence of the heroic tale of the flight to freedom of these six Fenian prisoners who, in 1876, after six long years, followed their leader, John Boyle O’Reilly, to America.
This is a tale which ranks amongst the great escape stories of the world has put Rockingham truly on the map.
However, it is also a much greater story than of purely this exciting moment in time, extending beyond the boundaries of these shores to America, Ireland and symbolically reaching out to the world, to all those who espouse the ideal of freedom.
‘The Tree of liberty will never enfoliate and bear fruit unless it be watered from the well of justice, independence and fair play in the hearts of the people’.
These words of John Boyle O’Reilly echo down through the years and distils the essence of this whole endeavour and what the Fenians stood for. John Boyle O’Reilly was the great Fenian leader who fought tirelessly for the oppressed and downtrodden of his time, not only in his own Country of Ireland but in America, where amongst many other civic endeavours he championed the civil rights of Native and African Americans. The influence of his unstinting efforts is testified to by the many monuments built in his honour, not especially as an Irishman but as a great human being who had enormous influence on the development of social justice as a ideal, in his day.
It was after the suppression of the 1867 Uprising that John Boyle O’Reilly and 62 Fenians were transported to WA on the last convict ship, the Hougoumont. In 1869, John Boyle O’Reilly escaped and most of the others were given amnesty, except for these six remaining, who are the particular subject of this memorial. This is the ethos of the Catalpa Memorial, expressed in various symbolic elements.
But there are also many layers of symbolism which we have incorporated which will resonate with Irish and Irish-Australians as well as reaching out into the wider community as symbols common to all humanity.
As we go further back in history, the goose and indeed birds of all kinds became synonymous with the Celts. Indeed birds are symbolically important in all Cultures as emblems of freedom from earliest times. They represent transcendence, freedom from earthly cares, the endeavours of man to overcome his everyday concerns and enter into a higher state of being.
The impression of birds ascending through flight has long been associated with other-worldliness and purity of thought. To the Celts, birds were particularly sacred symbols, messengers of the gods and harbingers of good fortune, enchantment and healing. The mythical ‘Tuatha’ appeared as birds of brilliant plumage. Water birds, reflecting the ephemeral link between air and water are especially spiritual. The goose, said to follow the sun, represents the idea of migration as a natural phenomenon, symbolising light, inspiration and the eventual flight home.
The bronze ‘Wild Geese’ sculpture which expresses all these layers of symbolism are set upon a pillar, clad with local granite. The pillar represents the Catalpa Tree after which the ship they escaped on was named, itself a (Jamaican tree) and the Tree of Life, which to the Celts, with it’s roots and branches forms a continuous symbol of Eternity. The granite panels bear images of the six Fenians and their individual history’s. This pillar in turn is supported with ballast stones collected from the holds of the many ships that transported people to WA.
The entire setting is based on a circle, echoing the Sacred groves in which the Celtic people of Europe worshipped.
Other pillars with bronze plaques bear pages from the ‘Wild Goose Journal’, inscribed directly as they were written and embellished on that long voyage to WA., taking the metaphor of this whole story back to the ocean’s edge.
Joan Walsh-Smith & Charles Smith:
9th Sep. 2005