1870s prison escape drama announced, based on real-life ‘Catalpa rescue’

An exciting new TV series about an infamous 19th Century prison break is being developed!

The currently-untitled period drama will be set during the 1860s and 1870s in Ireland, the United States, and Australia.

It’ll tell the story of the “Catalpa rescue,” which saw six prisoners escape from a British penal colony in Western Australia in April 1876.

The Irish Fenian convicts had originally been taken by ship to Fremantle in 1868.

Prisoner James Wilson and New York City journalist John Devoy began working on a rescue plan in 1874, and two years later Fremantle escapee John Boyle O’Reilly, now living in Boston, sailed a merchant ship called ‘Catalpa’ to international waters off Rockingham, Western Australia.

At 8:30 am on the 17th of April 1876, Wilson and five other Fenians – Thomas Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, and Robert Cranston – managed to get on board a whaleboat dispatched by O’Reilly, then escaped to New York aboard Catalpa.

A brand new mini-series based on the the events is being made by American filmmaker Dax Phelan (The Other Side of the Wind, Jasmine).

“This is one of the greatest escape stories that I’ve ever heard and, ironically, one of the least known,” the director commented. “The more you learn about it and those involved, the better it gets.”

Phelan has teamed up on the project with former Paramount exec Stratton Leopold, who rather fittingly produced the third Mission: Impossible movie!

“As a filmmaker, I’m always on the lookout for true stories about the triumph of the human spirit over incredible odds,” said Leopold.

“The story of the Fenians’ escape shows the power of human will to accomplish extraordinary things under the worst of circumstances,” he added.

The “incredible true story of one of the most extraordinary and inspirational prison breaks in Australian history” has previously been the subject of a 2019 book by Peter FitzSimons.

Its synopsis reads: “New York, 1874. Members of the Clan-na-Gael – agitators for Irish freedom from the English yoke – hatch a daring plan to free six Irish political prisoners from the most remote prison in the British Empire, Fremantle Prison in Western Australia.

“Under the guise of a whale hunt, Captain Anthony sets sail on the Catalpa to rescue the men from the stone walls of this hell on Earth known to the inmates as a ‘living tomb’.

“What follows is one of history’s most stirring sagas that splices Irish, American, British and Australian history together in its climactic moment.

“For Ireland, who had suffered English occupation for 700 years, a successful escape was an inspirational call to arms. For America, it was a chance to slap back at Britain for their support of the South in the Civil War; for England, a humiliation.

“And for a young Australia, still not sure if it was Great Britain in the South Seas or worthy of being an independent country in its own right, it was proof that Great Britain was not unbeatable.”

Filming is expected to begin on the series in 2024, so we don’t expect to see it premiere for a couple of years still.

Peter FitzSimons’s book The Catalpa Rescue is available on Amazon.