‘In 1800 and 1801 many hundreds of Irish prisoners arrived, pushing the percentage of Irish to more than one-third of those under sentence and one-quarter of the white population. Governor King nervously estimated that more than half of the recent arrivals were Catholic ‘Defenders’, summarily transported  for their part in the massive Irish rebellion of 1798′. Marian Quartly, Creating a Nation 1788-1990, Chapter 2, 1990

1800 – September, Sydney: Governor Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN succeeded Governor Captain John Hunter RN who had been recalled to England took up his commission on Hunter’s departure in September 1800.

King found himself juggling many balls; an unruly soldiery, a tsunami of grog, French colonial ambition and a simmering Irish rebellion. The Irish, many sentenced to death following the uprisings of 1798 on home soil, were reprieved death on condition of transportation to Australia, and these appeared to pose the most immediate threat.

A mixed bunch most poor illiterates, others were educated men; General Joseph Holt a militant Protestant, Rev. Henry Fulton an Episcopalian minister and Father James Harold a Catholic priest with two (2) British army officers Captains Alcock and St. Ledger.

1800 – 11 January, Sydney: At the beginning of 1800 these five (5) men were among one hundred and ninety-one (191) prisoners, twenty-six (26) of them women, who arrived aboard the convict transport Minerva in January 1800. See: G for Gender

Minerva and another convict ship Friendship sailed together from Cork on 24 August 1799. Friendship with one hundred and thirty-three male (133) prisoners. During the voyage of one hundred and forty (140) days via Rio one (1) in seven (7) prisoners died. Father James Dixon a Catholic priest and Paddy Galvin were among the survivors. See: G for Genocide

1800 – 4 September, Sydney: Governor King convened the first sitting of an inquiry into the ‘Irish question’ that Governor Hunter had established prior to King’s arrival.

Father James Harold was first to be interviewed. His evidence was contradictory, alarmist on one hand, conciliatory on the other. No matter the evidence the outcome was predictable. King reported to London – Duke of Portland, then Home Secretary; ‘the circumstances…were clear and plain…a terrible plot’ was afoot.

1800 – 12 September, Sydney: Governor King ordered sixteen (16) ‘Defenders’ flogged. Five (5) deemed ringleaders received 1000 lashes, four (4) 500 lashes and seven (7) 200.

When it came to James Harold ‘called priest’ Governor King unearthed a ‘legal anomaly’.

Father Harold although deemed implicated, was not flogged with a cat-o’nine-tails but his punishment too was terrible; ‘to put his hands against the tree by the hand of the prisoners‘.

Joseph Holt left an eye-witness account of the punishment meted out to Paddy Galvin and Maurice Fitzgerald; ‘I have witnessed many horrible scenes but [these] the most appalling I have ever seen.

The method of his [Fitzgerald’s] punishment was such as to make it most effectual. The unfortunate man had his arms extended round a tree so that flinching from the blow was out of the question, for it was impossible for him to stir.

Father Harold was ordered to put his hand against the tree by the hands of the prisoners, and two men were appointed to flog, namely, Richard Rice, a left-handed man and John Johnson the hangman from Sydney who was right-handed.

They stood on each side of Fitzgerald and I never saw two threshers in a barn move their flails with more regularity than these two man-killers did, unmoved by pity, and rather enjoying their horrid employment than otherwise. The very first blows made the blood spout out from Fitzgerald’s shoulders, and I felt so disgusted and horrified that I turned my face away from the cruel sight.

One of the constables employed to carry into effect this tremendous punishment, came up to me and desired me to ‘look on, at my peril’ I frowned at the monster with disdain and told him I would demolish him if he attempted to interfere with me.

I have witnessed many horrible scenes, but this was the most appalling sight I have ever seen. The day was windy, and I protest that although I was at least fifteen years to leeward from the sufferers, the blood, skin and flesh blew in my face as the executioners shook it off from their cats.

Fitzgerald received his whole three hundred lashes…[and] never uttered a groan….When it was over, two constables took him by the arms to help him into the cart.

The next prisoner tied up was Paddy Galvin a young lad about twenty years of age; he was also sentenced to 300 lashes. The first hundred were given on the shoulders  and he was cut to the bone between the shoulder-blades, which were both bare.

The doctor then directed the next hundred to be inflicted lower down, which reduced his flesh to such a jelly that the doctor ordered him to have the remaining hundred on the calves of is legs. During the whole time Galvin never whimpered of flinched, if, indeed it were possible for him to have done so’. Joseph Holt, Memoirs, Vol. 2, 1838.

In 1803 King received a despatch, dated 29 August 1802, from Lord Hobart the then Home Secretary instructing that Father Dixon be granted a a conditional pardon and allowed to celebrate the Catholic Mass.

Although King hoped Father Dixon’s attention to their spiritual needs would bring a calming effect he viewed Hobart’s request with some alarm. Approximately two thousand (2000) Irish prisoners, most Catholics were distributed between the population hubs of Sydney, Castle Hill near Parramatta and along the Hawkesbury River

1803 – 12 April, Sydney:  . As settlement was showing signs of restiveness and Governor King took the precaution of ordering all Catholics register their names and addresses.

1803 – 19 April: A few days later Governor King formally announced Father Dixon’s pardon he was now able to openly celebrate Mass.

1803 – 15 May, Sydney: Father Dixon celebrated the colony’s first official ‘Popish’ Mass on 15th May 1803. Subsequently Mass was offered in a three-weekly cycle, Sydney, Parramatta and at the Hawkesbury.

Initially Governor King was pleased with the experiment, however the frustrations of office, combined with constant undermining by the military had taken a heavy toll. In poor physical condition, plagued by gout, his behaviour became ever more erratic and volatile.

On some pretext or other Governor King withdrew permission for the celebration of Mass. But not content with that he insisted all Catholics attend Anglican services; refusal invited the dreadful  cat- o’ nine tails.

This last directive held particular menace, for it must be remembered from 12 April 1803 all Catholics were obliged to register names and addresses.

1804 – March, Castle Hill: ‘Revolution was in the air’.

A gathering of Irishmen clashed with a detachment of troops who, under command of Major George Johnston, had marched overnight from Sydney to Castle Hill to do battle. Father Dixon offered to mediate between soldier and rebel but, fearing he might be fired on, refused to move into their midst.

Phillip Cunningham and William Johnson two (2) rebels moved to middle ground to negotiate with Major George Johnston and voice their demands. However ‘a ship to take them home’ was unacceptable to Major Johnston.

Cunningham and Johnston were seized, Australia’s ‘Battle of Vinegar Hill’ was on. The rebels disorganised, out-gunned and outflanked, the end of the brutal battle came swiftly.

Fifteen (15) Irishmen were killed outright. Lieutenant Laycock’s sword felled Phillip Cunningham. Although Cunningham was near death Major Johnston, without due process that is without trial, ordered the dying man ‘to be hung up’.

Cunningham’s mangled body was left hanging from the gallows in chains for the magpies to pick clean.

‘Not surprisingly no mention of Laycock’s murderously irregular behaviour is recorded in the official reports of this event, which merely states that Cunningham was executed legally and judically’. Lynette Ramsay Silver, The Battle of Vinegar Hill, 1989.

1804 – 5 March, Sydney: Governor King declared martial law this allowed a captured rebel to be tried by the military at court-martial.

Ten (10) rebels William Johnston, Charles Hill, John Neale, Jonothan Place, John Brannon, George Harrington, Timothy Hogan, Samuel Humes, John Burke and Bryan Mc Cormack, found guilty of ‘being under arms’ were sentenced to death.

To spread terror the condemned were executed at Parramatta, Castle Hill and Sydney Town. Like Cunningham their bodies were left to rot on the gibbet.

John Burke and Bryan Mc Cormack received an open-ended sentence ‘respited during ‘Pleasure‘.

1804 – Newcastle: Six (6) were sent to the cruel Coal River penal settlement of secondary punishment where they were put to work in chain-gangs.

1804 – 8-9 March, Sydney: But not before the six (6) Neil Smith, John Griffin, Connor Dwyer received five hundred (500) lashes, David Morrison, Cornelius Lyons, Owen Mc Dermott two hundred (200).

Two (2) rebel semanticists – Bryan Riley and Dennis Ryan – before being sent to the dreaded Coal River established by Governor Hunter, were; ‘punished with as many lashes as they could stand without their lives being endangered’. Lynette Silver. ibid.

Father Dixon’s punishment echoed that of Father Harold’s in 1800; ‘he was forced to watch the bloody spectacle’.

‘Five rebels sentenced to floggings ranged from two hundred to five hundred lashes received the first of them on 8-9 March before a crowd to watch the bloody spectacle of the deftly administrated cat-‘o -nine tails and touch the victims’ lacerated flesh the Irish priest fainted away’. Silver. ibid

1805 – Norfolk Island: General Joseph Holt was transported to the brutal Norfolk Island settlement. Oddly, despite Governor King’s belief he; ‘was the active person in promoting the disturbance’ Holt was back in Sydney by November 1805.


Major George Johnston’s success in putting down the Vinegar Hill rebellion was rewarded with a land grant – two thousand (2000) acres. This was the same Major George Johnston of leafy Annandale who in 1808 would lead three hundred (300) troops of the New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps –  “a base rabble” – against Governor Captain William Bligh RN. See: Australia Day Rebellion, 26 January 1808


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