It’s 1970s Fremantle.
To be exact, it’s an array of red brick classrooms with corrugated roofs, and wooden verandas running past solid sliding doors winking through squares of opaque grid-lined glass. The distinctive odour of Gestetner toner wafts into the airless, dim-lit, summer halls mingling with the sweet odour of post-playground sweat and sounds of sighing boys trudging back into class. By contrast, the girls skip in; those eager monitors sending the thin printed song books thudding onto each wooden desk. Teachers stand with thumb and index finger poised. The inconspicuous grey box with its dull metal dial attached to the wall is about to perform its weekly magic. The box speaker, always lurching off its plug above the blackboard, crackles into life. ABC Sing! is on the wire and a bunch of tiny inharmonious West Australians are trilling out their history:
A noble whale ship and commander
Called the Catalpa, they say
Came out to Western Australia
And took six poor Fenians away
So come all you screw warders and jailers
Remember Perth regatta day
Take care of the rest of your Fenians
Or the Yankees will steal them away …
The West Australian on 5 February, 1902 includes an early fragment of “The Catalpa” song, and furthermore claims that it “was being sung with great gusto in the streets” a week after the escape. It is certainly a tale that deserves gusto, not least for its capacity to tap into the Australian “underdog” trope, where sheer audacity is often met with applause. As a Fremantle girl raised within the shadows of the very prison walls from which the escape was made, the Fenians (courtesy of the ABC Sing! version of this historical ditty) wormed their way into my non-Irish-small-WA-child consciousness, and lodged there.
So it was on another typically hot and airless Freo day that I found myself intoning “The Catalpa” sotto voce and leading my own contributions to WA’s growing population on a tour around the Fremantle streets, taking in the offerings of the Fenians, Fremantle & Freedom Festival (according to the publicity, a ten-day Irish cultural festival to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Australia’s last convict ship – The Hougoumont – with John Boyle O’Reilly, and sixty-one other Irish freedom fighters: the Fenians). Thanks to this old earworm, I could provide a reasonably detailed explanation of the history behind what we were all trudging around in the sun to commemorate, and thanks to that other ’70s classic (Prisoner), I had since come to learn the meaning of a “screw warder” (I think ABC Sing! glossed over that one!).
Crooning “The Catalpa” (I even had the kids singing along in
the end – classic earworm!) took us from the Maritime Museum to Bathers’ Beach, and the true highlight of the Festival from the perspective of at least one wanna-be Fenian. The promo billed the evening as:
… an epic Céilí (dance party) for all ages and experience levels on the iconic boardwalk of Bathers’ Beach as the shining sun melts into the Indian Ocean. Joined by some of Western Australia’s best traditional Irish musicians including Rob Zielinski, Jennifer Doyle, Catherine Higgins and Donough O’Donovan, Hilary (McKenna), will guide everyone through a series of fun and easy dances that all will enjoy.
How could anyone with feet to dance, resist?
Well, I’m here to tell you that resist the people of Fremantle did not! Burly guards had a hard time quelling the throng that gathered. So impressive was the crowd of erstwhile “Riverdancers” that I’ve no idea who Hilary McKenna might be (a disembodied voice in the distance for the most part), but the wonderful music was audible enough and, once we picked out the Irish national in the bright orange kit who seemed to know better than most where the twirls and pas-de-bas were meant to come in, we were good to follow along.
Far be it for me to wax lyrical about a few thousand sweaty adults and umpteen over-enthusiastic children ricocheting from heel to arm, but there was something decidedly “epic” in sharing the tradition of dance with strangers from all walks of life on a boardwalk that I have seen develop from a sandpit to a jetty to a marina over my lifetime, where many suns have melted into the sea; just perhaps not quite like this one. It was eerily fitting that the sun set orange that afternoon as the fiddle and flute sang to the sea, and falling feet pounded in concert with the bodhrans. Communal movement has a powerful effect and perhaps in such moments, we can more easily appreciate the price and the prize that is freedom.
So remember those six Fenians colonial
And sing o’er these few verses with skill
And remember the Yankee that stole them
And the home that they left on the hill
Now they’ve landed safe in America
And there will be able to cry
Hoist up the green flag and shamrock
Hurrah for old Ireland we’ll die.