Thomas ‘Bowler’ Cullinane: An Exile’s Return

In the last post, we looked at the events surrounding the 1867 Fenian rebellion in Ballymacoda, in particular the successful raid on the coastguard station at Knockadoon, led by John McClure and Peter O’Neill Crowley, and O’Neill Crowley’s subsequent death at the hands of the crown forces at Kilclooney wood. Thomas ‘Bowler’ Cullinane was a member of the party that raided the coastguard station, this is the story of his exile after the rising and his later return to Ballymacoda.

After the rising of March 5th, Cullinane was tried along with McClure, Edward ‘Ned’ Kelly and David Joyce, on the charge of high treason in front of a Special Commission in Cork. At the trial, presided over by Lord Chief Justice Monahan, Mr. Justice Keogh, and Mr. Justice George, all four were initially sentenced to death at the conclusion of the proceedings on May 24th 1867. The sentence passed down by Lord Chief Justice Monahan was for each of the men to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This medieval punishment had been the statutory penalty for anyone convicted of the crime of high treason against the English crown from 1352 onwards, and was not abolished until 1870.

It only now remains with me to pass the awful sentence of the law upon you, and that sentence is that you and each of you be taken hence from this place from whence you came, and that you shall be from thence drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution, and there be hanged by the neck until each of you be dead, that afterwards your heads be severed from your bodies and that your bodies be divided into four parts, and that those parts be disposed of as her Majesty or her successors shall think fit. This sentence shall be carried into execution on Wednesday, the 19th of June.

The sentence handed down to McClure, Cullinane, Kelly and Joyce by Chief Justice Monahan, on May 25th 1867 at the Special Commission sitting in Cork.

After lobbying efforts by a group of prominent citizens and large protests across Ireland against the execution of the Fenian rebels, the death sentences handed down to many of those involved in the Fenian rising, including McClure, Cullinane, Kelly and Joyce, were commuted to life imprisonment.

Entry in the Irish Prison Register for Thomas Cullinane, listing his crime of high treason

Cullinane was first imprisoned in England, at Millbank Prison in Westminster, London. In October 1867, records show that he was transported to Australia, departing from London on October 12th aboard the prison ship Hougoumont under master William Cozens. The voyage 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 and Edward Kelly were aboard the same ship, as well as another Ballymacoda native, Jeremiah (Jerry) Aher, who had received a 7 year sentence for his part in the raid of the coastguard station at Knockadoon.

The Fenian prisoners, approximately 62 of the 289 convicts that arrived aboard Hougoumont, were taken to Fremantle Prison. After being allowed a few days rest, the prisoners were taken in groups to commence the hard labor of road building in searing temperatures outside Fremantle. The Fenian workgroups were segregated from general prison population. At times the men were lodged in road camps and required to stay close to the site of their work away from the prison. Patrick Wall, another Fenian who was transported on the Hougoumont described the conditions in a letter to his parents. Thomas Cullinane was very likely in one of these working groups, as there were only six Fenians assigned to permanent duties in the prison which required them to stay at Fremantle, and he was not one of that group.

On last Saturday evening we were marched five miles with bed and bedding on our backs, to our rude habitation, which consists of four miserable twig huts and a tent. I sleep with twelve others in the tent. We are sure of nocturnal visits from mosquitoes, and a species of very small lively insect which takes the greatest delight in playing with you until morning, waiting for the next night’s entertainment to renew the sport. We work pretty hard all day under a burning sun; the only comfort the place affords us is that we are near the sea shore, where we bathe after our day’s labor.

Description of the conditions in a Fenian workgroup, described by Patrick Wall in a letter to his parents, quoted in newspaper ‘The Irishman’ in April 1868.

The convict records available for Fremantle Prison record Thomas Cullinane as ‘Thomas Bowler‘, prisoner number 9671. His record also mentions as a note, ‘character bad‘, and records ‘mutinous conduct‘ in February 1869 for which he was sentenced to 7 days bread and water. In early May 1869, Cullinane and other Fenian prisoners were granted an official pardon, signed by the Home Secretary, Henry Austin Bruce. This was mainly due to the sustained campaign for a Fenian amnesty at home in Ireland. Thomas ‘Bowler’ Cullinane was mentioned specifically in the text of the pardon.

I have the honor to inform you that Her Majesty’s Govt. have decided upon granting a Remission to Thomas Cullinane or Bowler and the other prisoners named in the accompanying Warrant under the Royal Sign Manual, who were convicted of Treason or Treason Felony in Ireland and who are now under sentence of Penal Servitude in Western Australia.

Partial text of the pardon of the Fenian exiles, a link to the full text is available in the references below.

Upon his release, records show that Cullinane first travelled to Sydney in New South Wales aboard the ship Rangatira on September 21st 1869, then to London aboard the Suffolk on October 26th.

Excerpt from The Freeman’s Journal, February 1870 mentioning the return of Fenian prisoners, including Thomas Cullinane

Some time after his release, Cullinane travelled to America where he was to remain until returning to Ballymacoda in 1910. I have found little trace of his activities in America. There are three main reasons as to why the records are difficult to trace. Firstly, Cullinane was known to use the alias ‘Bowler’, which he may also have used in America. Secondly, records of the day use many alternative spellings of his last name e.g. ‘Cullinan’. Finally, it is very difficult to conclusively determine a birth year due to conflicting references, which would be useful for filtering US naturalization records etc. for Cullinane:

  • His headstone says he died in March 1928, aged 84 (giving a birth year 1843 or 1844).
  • His convict record from Australia lists his birth year as 1844.
  • His death record from ‘Civil Registration Deaths Index, 1864-1958‘ lists his age at death as 88 (giving a birth date of 1839 or 1840).
  • Newspaper sources mentioning his return to Ireland from June 1910 give his age as 72 (giving a birth year of 1837 or 1838).
  • The Irish prison register entry for June 1867 lists his age as 22 (giving a birth year of 1844 or 1845).
  • The 1911 Census of Ireland taken in early April lists his age as 73 (giving a birth year of 1837 or 1838).
  • Searching the Ballymacoda & Ladysbridge Parish baptismal records for Thomas Cullinane yielded no matches, however some records are barely legible given the age of the documents.

Regardless of his life in America, which as mentioned above is difficult to piece together, there are numerous sources that confirm Thomas Cullinane returned to Ballymacoda in 1910. He was unmarried, and planned to spend the rest of his days living with his sister Johanna (O’Brien) in Ballymakeigh. Newspaper sources from the time indicate that there was a homecoming event for Cullinane in Ballymacoda, with this description being published:

Though he had been a long time away, his heart always reverted to the land for which he strove so nobly, and lately he returned to his native district of Ballymacoda. To signalize the homecoming and to give him a welcome worthy of his patriotic record a meeting was held in Ballymacoda last week. A platform, over which Stars and Stripes floated, was erected for the proceedings, which were marked with the greatest enthusiasm.

Description of the homecoming of Thomas Cullinane, published widely at the time (this instance from ‘The Courier-Journal’, Louisville, Kentucky, June 26th, 1910).
Excerpt from The Irish Standard, July 2nd 1910 mentioning the return of Thomas Cullinane

The 1911 Census of Ireland confirms Thomas as living with his sister Johanna at Ballymakeigh.

1911 Census of Ireland record showing Thomas Cullinane

Thomas Cullinane died on March 18th 1928 and is buried in the Hill Cemetery in Ballymacoda.

The grave of Thomas ‘Bowler’ Cullinane, at the Hill Cemetery, Ballymacoda

References & Further Information

The Gaelic American – Vol. III No. 24 June 16, 1906, Whole Number 144, Villanova University, Falvey Memorial Library

Claim a Convict, details for the ship Hougoumont (1868)

Fremantle Prison Convict Database

A Gerringong Fenian, The Story of John O’Neil Goulding and the 1867 Kerry Uprising by John Graham, Published 1999

The Great Amnesty Campaign of 1869, Irish History Podcast

Convict Records available on UNE, the repository for research outputs of the University of New England at Armidale, NSW Australia

Ancestry.com. Ireland, Prison Registers, 1790-1924 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA:

Historic Graves, Thomas Bowler Cullinane

The Freeman’s Journal, published in Dublin, February 2nd, 1870

The Irish Standard, Saturday July 2nd, 1910

Full text of the Royal pardon granted to Thomas Cullinane and other Irish convicts under sentence of penal servitude in Western Australia

Amos, K., The Fenians in Australia, 1865-1880, Sydney, 1988

The Story of Thomas Ahern

This is the story of an emigrant from Ballymacoda, Thomas Ahern, who ended up founding a famous department store chain, which became an institution in Western Australia.

Thomas Ahern was born in Ballymacoda on 23rd December 1884, the son of Patrick Ahern (1849-1910), a native of Ballymacoda, and his wife Mary, née McGrath (1853-1946) from nearby Killeagh.

Thomas had six siblings. Two sisters – Ellen (1886-1897) and Catherine (Katie) (1887-1900), and four brothers – John (1888-1962), Simon (1890-1978), Patrick (1892-1944) and Michael (1894-1957).

Searching the 1901 census records available online when Thomas would have been 17 years old doesn’t yield any results that are a match for him specifically in the Ballymacoda area. The census records do indicate a household in Ballymacoda where his parents names, Patrick and Mary, and his brothers names John, Patrick and Michael match, as do their ages.

1901 Census Record Showing Likely Household of Thomas Ahern in Ballymacoda Village – link

The absence of Thomas here likely means that he was in another household on the day of the census, as a record would be added for each person in the household, family or otherwise, when the census form was being completed. A wider search of the census records for Cork at that time show a few matches for someone that would be Thomas’s age, such as the record below from a house in nearby Midleton, where there is a Thomas Ahern listed as a ‘Servant‘ as was common for workers listed in census forms at the time.

1901 Census Record Showing Thomas Ahern in House in Midleton – link

So, no direct matches for Thomas Ahern in the 1901 census records in the Ballymacoda area that seem to match. But, we do know that Thomas was apprenticed to a draper in Midleton at this time, due to the farm in Ballymacoda not being able to support everyone in the family. Therefore, the above census record for a household in Midleton is very likely referring to the Thomas Ahern whom we are interested in.

Thomas’s father Patrick died in October 1910, before he left for Australia. Records kept at the time, specifically the ‘Calendar of Wills and Administrations, 1858-1920‘, indicate that Patrick left the sum of ‘£333 18s. 4d.’ and that his wife Mary was sole beneficiary.

Will details of Patrick Ahern, Thomas’s Father from the Calendar of Wills and Administrations

Thomas was employed in Tipperary and later Dublin, and in 1911 was living on Usher’s Quay in the city. In 1910, Patrick had applied for assisted passage to Australia, in place of a colleague who couldn’t make the trip. Thomas arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia in February 1911. Records available online, specifically ‘Fremantle, Western Australia, Passenger Lists, 1897-1963‘ indicate that Thomas arrived from Bremen, Germany aboard the vessel ‘Grosser Kurfürst‘ at that time.

Thomas initially worked at Brennan’s drapery in the town of Boulder. He married his fiancée Nora McGrath (coincidentally with the same maiden name as his own mother) in Perth on 19th June 1912, and subsequently started working as a departmental manager for clothing retailer Bon Marche. The 1916 electoral role for the division of Fremantle in the state of Western Australia shows a record for Thomas and Nora, living at Shenton Road in Claremont, with Thomas listed as a draper and Nora’s occupation listed as ‘home duties’:

1916 Electoral Role for Fremantle, Western Australia (image quality impacted by age of document)

In 1918, Thomas became the manager of the Brennan’s store in Perth.

The first Archbishop of Perth, Patrick Clune, himself an Irishman from County Clare, had a hand in advising the family of P. F. Quinlan to invite Thomas Ahern to manage their drapery and furniture store in Perth. Thomas insisted, were he to take on the role, on a controlling partnership and thus was the beginning of Aherns Department Store in Western Australia on 15th May 1922. Later electoral records show Thomas and Nora living at Airlie street in Cottesloe, with Thomas still listed as a draper:

1931 Electoral Role for Fremantle, Western Australia

Aherns Department Store started out with 50 employees and grew to over 500 quickly under the astute management of Thomas, across 5 different stores in Western Australia. Over time, Thomas bought out all the remaining shares in the business and become sole owner of the now thriving business.

Ahern’s Department Store in Perth in 1938

As he grew older, Thomas maintained an active role in his business until his death in Perth on 22nd May 1970. He was survived by three sons and two daughters, with Nora having passed away in 1959. He was buried in Karrakatta cemetery, of which he had previously been a trustee from 1938-1942.

Ahern’s in Perth in the 1980s

Ahern’s department store chain continued as a functioning business until 1999, a time when it employed 1,500 people, when it was sold to rival department store David Jones for $29 million, an amazing end to the legacy of a man that had been born on a farm in a small village in the south of Ireland. I have found no evidence that Thomas ever returned to his native Ballymacoda, that would certainly be interesting to know. There are multiple travel records that indicate he left Australia many times to travel to the UK, so there is certainly a likelihood that he returned to Ballymacoda during his lifetime.

Portrait of Thomas Ahern

A further history of Thomas Ahern and the department store chain he founded is captured in the book ‘Ballymacoda to Binduli: the story of Aherns W.A‘ by William Mahoney (a descendant of Thomas Ahern), published in Australia in 1997.

Ballymacoda to Binduli

In 2013, Thomas Ahern was named one of the 100 most influential Western Australian businesspeople.

References & More Information

Note: Links provided where available.

National Archives: Census of Ireland

Calendar of Wills and Administrations, 1858-1920

Western Australia – Shipping and Passenger Records

Fremantle, Western Australia, Passenger Lists, 1897-1963

Fremantle, Western Australia, Electoral Role, 1916, 1931

Metropolitan Cemeteries Board, Government of Western Australia, Bio of Thomas Ahern

Thomas Ahern on Wikipedia

Google Books: Ballymacoda to Binduli: The Story of Aherns W.A.

The West Australian, 100 Most Influential Business Leaders, 1829-2013