Kevin Izod O'Doherty (1) referred to his convict past at a meeting of the St Mary's Cathedral Building Fund in Sydney in January 1887. (2) He had no idea that his initial sight of St Mary's, as a political prisoner from the decks of the Mount Stewart Elphinstone, would symbolise his relationship with the clergy during his period of enforced exile in Van Diemen's Land, whereas his presence, in later years, at the meeting of Sydney citizens working for the benefit of their faith, would be representative of his interaction with leading clerics during his period of willing existence in the Australian colonies. In 1849 he merely glimpsed St Mary's, but by 1887 he had become an honoured participant in the affairs of the Catholic Church.
Born in 1823, O'Doherty had completed six years of medical studies when his involvement in the Young Ireland movement and his co-editorship of the nationalist Tribune led to a sentence of transportation in August 1848. The short-lived Tribune was established to continue the work of John Mitchel's United Irishman. (3) O'Doherty's first editorial accused Britain of creating a 'state of slavery' and demanded repeal of the 1801 Act of Union. (4) Of the seven Young Ireland leaders transported to Van Diemen's Land in 1848-49 only John Martin (5) sailed with O'Doherty on the Mount Stewart Elpinstone, while William Smith O'Brien, (6) Thomas Francis Meagher, (7) Terence Bellews McManus, (8) and Patrick O'Donohoe (9) sailed on the Swift, and Mitchel later arrived from Bermuda on the Neptune.
Many Young Irelanders felt that the Catholic clergy were responsible for the failure of their insurrectionary efforts in July 1848. (10) John Mitchel recounted that at the time of his arrest and deportation from Ireland, in late May 1848, 'many of the Catholic clergy had come over to the "Young Ireland" party', but that when
... the final scene opened ... and the whole might of the empire was
gathering itself to crush us, the clergy as a body was found on the
side of the enemy. They hoped more for their Church in a union with
monarchical and aristocratic England than in an Ireland
revolutionized and republican; and having taken their part, they
certainly did the enemy's business well."
When Mitchel met Smith O'Brien at Avoca in Van Diemen's Land on 15 October 1851, he was told that 'when the people seemed to be gathering in force', the priests 'came whispering round, and melted off the crowd like a silent thaw'. O'Brien described:
... old grey-haired men coming up to him with tears streaming down
their faces, telling him they would follow him so gladly to the
world's end--that they had long been praying for that day--and God
knows it was not life they valued: but there was his reverence, and
he said that if they shed blood they would lose their immortal
souls; and what could they do? God help them, where could they turn?
And on their knees they entreated him to forgive them for deserting
him. So they slunk home to take care of their paltry old souls, and
wait for the sheriff's bailiff to hunt them into the
Despite these feelings of resentment, O'Doherty and his colleagues, of varying religious affiliations, continued to cultivate sociable relations with individual Catholic clerics in Ireland, Australia and America.
Understandably, the nature of these relationships in the colonies was influenced by several factors. Of the seven leaders transported four were Catholic: Meagher, McManus, O'Donohoe and O'Doherty. O'Brien belonged to the Church of Ireland, while Mitchel and Martin were Presbyterian. The Catholic clergy regarded the entire group as political prisoners rather than common convicts and believed that they retained their gentlemanly status despite their conviction. Simultaneously the prisoners, by virtue of their unfree situation, were dependent on their religious acquaintances for society and, in certain cases, relied upon them to cushion the effects of convict regulations and to aid in escape attempts. …