In mid-February 1920, people had gathered around a simple gravestone in a New Bedford cemetery where a tall, thin, bespectacled man bent down to lay a wreath in front of the marker. Etched on the face of the stone was the name of “George S. Anthony,” once captain of the whaling bark Catalpa.
Eamon de Valera placed the wreath, straightened and peered somberly, almost reverentially, at that name on the memorial. The famed Irish rebel, after his daring escape from Britain’s infamous Lincoln Prison, had come to plead his homeland’s cause to America in 1919 and 1920. A living symbol of the brutal Easter Rising of 1916, he brought his case to such Irish-American bastions as New York City and raised money to arm and support Michael Collins and the other rebels fighting the British in Ireland. Despite his grueling fund-raising schedule, de Valera had insisted upon a stop at New Bedford to pay his respects to Captain Anthony and to meet the seaman’s widow and family.
Anthony, who had passed away in 1913, held a special spot in the hearts and minds of Ireland’s rebels, for in 1875-76, he had risked everything to lead the daring mission to rescue six Fenian prisoners from their nightmarish confinement in Fremantle Gaol, in Western Australia. Even though he had no blood ties to Ireland, Anthony had embraced the rescue plot of John Devoy, John Boyle O’Reilly, and others because, in Anthony’s words, “it was the right thing to do.” The hair-raising expedition not only succeeded against seemingly impossible odds in large measure because of Anthony’s nerve, resourcefulness, and stunning navigational skills, but it also went on to serve as a major-fundraising source for the very revolutionary movement that had led to the Easter rising.
Recently, James Ryan, the great grandson of Captain Anthony, provided me a photo showing de Valera at the shipmaster’s grave, the future president of the Republic of Ireland flanking the headstone with Anthony’s granddaughter, Phoebe Huggins. The image resonates today with special impact in 2016 – the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.
A reporter captured the solemnity and the poignancy of that wintry New Bedford scene: “Standing bareheaded at the grave mantled in a white covering and with the snow softly falling upon the crowd which came to do honor to Captain Anthony…,” de Valera addressed the gathering.
“I am glad to have this opportunity to pay tribute to the memory of Captain Anthony,” he said. He then went on to praise Anthony’s role in the Catalpa rescue, linking Anthony’s help in Ireland’s fight for freedom a generation earlier as an inspiration for present-day Americans – not just Irish Americans – to remember the “martyrs” of the 1916 Rising and aid the men and women currently struggling for a sovereign Ireland.
Before visiting the grave with New Bedford’s A.O.H., Friends of Irish Freedom, and various local dignitaries and clergy, de Valera had met with Anthony’s widow at their home on Mapleview Terrace. Too ill to attend the graveside ceremony, Mrs. Anthony presented the Irishman with a copy of Anthony’s own as-told-to account of the rescue (“The Catalpa Expedition,” by Zephaniah Pease). An onlooker noted that de Valera “handled [the book] with a certain reverence” and “that he gazed curiously and closely at the autograph on the first page, written in the shaky [handwriting] of age…the name known to all friends of Irish freedom – Captain George Smith Anthony.”
At the bottom of the page, de Valera signed his name. To Mrs. Anthony and the others, he said, “Having been a prisoner myself, I can appreciate what that expedition meant then and now….We are only carrying on in our generation what they set out to further in theirs – the cause of Irish Freedom.”
De Valera also met with two other major figures of the Catalpa Expedition. In New Bedford, he met with the elderly Henry Hathaway, the former whaler who had befriended John Boyle O’Reilly when the Irishman escaped Australia aboard the whaler Gazelle, and had helped O’Reilly, John Devoy, James Breslin, and their fellow plotters find both a captain and a ship – Anthony and the Catalpa.
The other man whom de Valera insisted upon meeting was James Wilson, the only surviving member of the six Fenian soldiers Anthony had plucked from Fremantle. Wilson, who lived in Central Falls, Rhode Island, had penned the heart-wrenching plea from Fremantle Gaol for help from his fellow Fenians, a missive known as the “Voice from the Tomb.” That voice and Captain Anthony’s selfless courage had inspired men and women in Ireland’s struggle for freedom from 1875 and beyond. For Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins, and numerous other Irish, the legacy of the man beneath the New Bedford gravestone still pealed.