Previously writing on the Ballymacoda History Project, I have covered the 1867 Fenian rising and the involvement of Ballymacoda men Peter O’Neill Crowley and Thomas ‘Bowler’ Cullinane. In this post I’ll delve into the story of another contemporary of O’Neill and Cullinane – Jeremiah (Jerry) Aher – who as well as being involved in the raid on the Coastguard station during the rebellion, was also later associated with one of the most famous Fenian prison breaks of the time – the Catalpa rescue.
Some records list Jeremiah Aher as being born in Ballymacoda in 1841, but he was more than likely born in 1844. This is corroborated by:
- Parish records – there is a Jeremiah Aher listed as being baptized on September 4th 1844.
- The 1867 Irish prison register – Jeremiah Aher is listed as being 23 years old in 1867, at the time of his arrest for participation in the Fenian rising.
- The 1882 California voter register (where, as we will see later, Jeremiah lived for many years), lists his age as 38, again pointing to a birth year of 1844.
Jeremiah was the son of William Aher and Mary Crowley, and it was through his mother that he was a cousin of the aforementioned Peter O’Neill Crowley, who led the rising locally in 1867. Jeremiah had four brothers – John, Timothy, Thomas and William, and two sisters – Johanna and Mary.
The raid on the coastguard station at Knockadoon took place on the night of the Fenian rising – Tuesday March 5th, 1867. The raid, in which Aher, Cullinane and others were involved was led by O’Neill Crowley and John McClure, an American born veteran of the Civil War. The primary goal of the operation was to secure arms, and it was successful, with John Devoy calling it “the neatest job done by the Fenians in the Rising“. While the raid in Ballymacoda was successful, the rising nationally was ultimately a failure and as we have seen previously O’Neill Crowley met his fate at Kilclooney Wood on the morning of Sunday March 31st, three weeks after the rising.
Jerry Aher was tried along with the other captured Fenian rebels in Cork and was convicted of treason on May 2nd 1867. He was sentenced to 7 years penal servitude. While they were awaiting trial, Aher and many other Fenian prisoners were held in Mountjoy jail in Dublin.
He and his fellow convicts were deported first to England, to be held in the infamous Millbank prison in London (now the site of the Tate Britain gallery), which was used as a holding area for those awaiting deportation to Australia. Aher and the other prisoners were held at Millbank until October 1867. His prisoner record from Millbank actually lists him as being removed from there on September 30th, and also records a visit from his father. After Millbank, they were to be deported to Western Australia aboard the prison ship Hougoumont.
The voyage of the Hougoumont lasted 89 days, with the vessel arriving in Western Australia on January 10th 1868, and was of particular historical significance in that it was the last convict ship to carry Irish prisoners to Australia. David Joyce (from the Garryvoe area) and Edward Kelly were aboard the same ship, as well as Thomas ‘Bowler’ Cullinane. The Fenian prisoners, 62 of the 289 convicts that arrived aboard Hougoumont, were taken to Fremantle Prison, and Jerry Aher became convict number 9645. Conditions for the men in Fremantle Prison were very poor. When not completing back-breaking labor, or seconded to work parties assigned to the hard labor of road building in searing temperatures around Fremantle, the Fenian prisoners were confined to their small cells. Before the rising and his arrest, Jerry Aher had been a carpenter and his skills were put to use in the colony.
Aher’s prison record lists multiple disciplinary actions during his stay in Fremantle, all occurring in February and March 1869. On February 3rd 1869 he was sentenced to 7 days bread and water for ‘mutinous conduct‘. He was sentenced to the same punishment again on February 19th and March 6th for ‘refusal to work‘. On March 20th, he was sentenced to ‘indefinite solitary confinement‘, again for ‘refusal to work‘. It is not clear how long he remained in solitary.
In early May 1869, Aher and other Fenian prisoners were granted an official pardon, signed by the British Home Secretary, Henry Austin Bruce. This was largely due to the sustained campaign for a Fenian amnesty at home in Ireland. Records show that Jerry Aher received a free pardon on May 15th.
While some of the Fenian prisoners left immediately, for example as in the case of Thomas ‘Bowler’ Cullinane who left for Sydney soon after their pardon, Jerry Aher stayed on in the Perth/Fremantle area. In 1873, he met and married Mary Ann Brennan, herself an Irish emigrant. Their first son, William Joseph Aher was born in July 1874. In the next phase of Jerry Aher’s life, he would participate in one of the most daring Fenian prison breaks of the time, the Catalpa rescue.
With the Fenian pardons issued in 1869, and another round in 1871, only a small number of Fenian prisoners – those deemed most militant by the British – remained in captivity. One of those was James McNally (also known by his alias James Wilson), a Fenian from Newry, Co. Down. McNally had a letter smuggled out of the prison and sent to John Devoy in America. Devoy, an ardent Fenian, had himself been granted amnesty in England in 1871 on the condition that he emigrate to America and never return.
Dear Friend, remember this is a voice from the tomb. For is not this a living tomb? In the tomb it is only a man’s body that is good for worms, but in the living tomb the canker worm of care enters the very soul. Think that we have been nearly nine years in this living tomb since our first arrest and that it is impossible for mind or body to withstand the continual strain that is upon them. One or the other must give way. It is in this sad strait that I now, in the name of my comrades and myself, ask you to aid us in the manner pointed out… We ask you to aid us with your tongue and pen, with your brain and intellect, with your ability and influence, and God will bless your efforts, and we will repay you with all the gratitude of our natures… our faith in you is unbound. We think if you forsake us, then we are friendless indeed.Letter from James McNally to John Devoy, which prompted the Catalpa Rescue
Devoy consulted with other exiled Fenians in America – John Boyle O’Reilly, himself an escapee of the same prison colony in Australia which held the remaining Fenian prisoners, and Thomas McCarthy Fennell, a Fenian who had left the colony after being pardoned in the 1871 amnesty. All were members of Clan na Gael. It was Fennel who suggested that a ship be purchased and sailed to Australia to rescue the remaining imprisoned Fenians. The rescue was funded by Clan na Gael. What they purchased was the Catalpa, a three-masted merchant bark, 90 foot long, and the ship sailed for Australia from New Bedford, Massachusetts on April 19th, 1875, as a legitimate whaling expedition, under Captain George S. Anthony. Most of the crew were unaware of the real intent of the voyage. In parallel with the sailing of the Catalpa, Devoy had enlisted two Fenian agents to travel to Western Australia – John Breslin and Thomas Desmond – to begin preparations in advance of the arrival.
Jerry Aher had secured work as a carpenter, and encountered Desmond who told him of his mission in Western Australia – that is how he became involved in the Catalpa rescue. While there is no information available on exactly how Jerry Aher contributed, his local knowledge and contacts were no doubt invaluable to the Fenian agents and the overall escape plan. On March 29th, 1876 the Catalpa berthed at Bunbury, Western Australia, and Captain Anthony along with Breslin and Desmond, who had met the ship on arrival, sailed for Fremantle on board the steamer Georgette. The plan was to secure escape of the remaining Fenian prisoners while they were part of a work party, and this was executed successfully. Having been pursued for a time by the authorities, the Fenian prisoners and the Catalpa eventually escaped, and the men were finally free. The Catalpa sailed triumphantly into New York in August 1876, carrying the escaped Fenian prisoners.
In May 1876, passenger records show that Jerry Aher sailed for Melbourne with his wife and child onboard the Northern Light. Later that year he travelled to San Francisco, California, where he settled permanently. This is corroborated by multiple items if historical evidence. The 1880 United States Federal Census shows Jerry Aher living at 38 Larkin Street, in San Francisco. His occupation is given as ‘House Carpenter‘, which indicates he once again fell back on his pre-rising/incarceration occupation. The 1882 Voter Register for California, shows that he became a naturalized US citizen on February 27th, 1882. Twenty years later, the 1900 United States Federal Census shows the Aher family living at 1411 Bush Street in San Francisco, and at 158 20th Avenue in the 1910 Census.
I have found no records to indicate that Jerry Aher ever returned to Ballymacoda.
Jerry Aher died in California on January 29th 1926, having lived an extraordinary life. He was buried in Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma, San Mateo County. Mary Ann died on December 28th 1930.
References & Further Information
Amos, K., The Fenians in Australia, 1865-1880, Sydney, 1988
Australian Convict Transportation Registers – Other Fleets & Ships, 1791-1868
Ballymacoda & Ladysbridge Parish Records, Entry for baptismal of Jeremiah Aher, September 4th, 1844
Ireland, Prison Registers, 1790-1924
Millbank Prison Record for Jeremiah Aher – UK, Prison Commission Records, 1770-1951
Australia, Marriage Index, 1788-1950
The San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco, California, Tuesday, December 30, 1930 (Obituary for Mary Ann Aher)
1880 United States Federal Census
California, U.S., Voter Registers, 1866-1898
1900 United States Federal Census
1910 United States Federal Census