Casey was born on 2 March 1846 (according to the Cork City Gaol website) in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland, into a family of shopkeepers. As a youngster, he became involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the Fenians). Calling himself The Galtee Boy, he wrote letters to the Fenian newspaper, The Irish People, describing the round-up of Cork Fenians in 1865, their trials and their experiences in prison. His exposure of tenant conditions in the Galtee Mountains led to a libel case and helped inspire the Land League. Eventually, he was tried and sentenced himself, and then deported along with 60 other Fenians to Australia in 1867.
In May 1869, Casey was granted a free pardon and sailed for Ireland arriving in February 1870, with nine other released Fenians. Immediately, he threw himself again into the Irish struggle, writing articles on conditions in Australia, and becoming noted for his work on behalf of the tenants of the Galtee countryside. Later in life, he became a Coroner for County Limerick, a position he held until his death in 1896. A little further information is available at the Cork City Gaol and Irish Democrat websites.
In 2004, University College Dublin Press published, for the first time, a memoir written by Casey soon after his return to Ireland, called The Galtee Boy - A Fenian Prison Narrative. It is said to be the ‘most extensive surviving account of Cork Fenianism by a participant’. But another document written by Casey has also survived - a detailed diary he kept during his voyage to Australia. Extracts from this were published in Diaries of Ireland - An Anthology 1590-1987 by Melosina Lenox-Conyngham (Lilliput Press, Dublin, 1998) - a few pages can be read at Amazon.
Lenox-Conyngham’s source was a slim edition of the full text of the diary transcribed/edited by a relative of Casey’s, Martin Kevin Cusack, and published a decade earlier by Dorrance & Co, in the US. This was entitled Journal of a Voyage from Portland to Fremantle on board the Convict Ship “Hougoumont” Cap Cozens Commander October 12th 1867 By John S. Casey, Mitchelstown, Ireland. A few copies are available secondhand, at prices upwards of £50 (at Abebooks for example).
In his introduction, Cusak explains why he wanted to publish the text: ‘It had been my hope for many years to somehow help bring about the opening of this Journal and thereby allow the strength of character, the dedication to freedom, the literary talents, and the enduring faith of John Sarsfield Casey to shine forth as an inspiration to all of us. As a descendant relative of The Galtee Boy, I am proud to identify with his determined, life-long pursuit of liberty. He was a first cousin of my grandmother, Ellen Casey Cusack.’
He goes on to provide further background: ‘It is worth noting that the Journal is regarded as being of great historical interest by scholars and serious students of Irish and Australian history. The Casey Journal has been preserved in the family for 120 years. In May of 1969 it was among the papers of Dan Casey of Mitchelstown, last son of The Galtee Boy. Around the time of Dan Casey’s death, the manuscript was inadvertently delivered into the hands of the Cork County Library. Upon discovering this, a friend of the Casey family, believing he was acting in the family’s best interest, insisted upon its immediate return. It was returned promptly but in those few hours of possession, the Librarian made photocopies of it. The official stamp of the Cork County Library can be seen on the last page before the back cover. It is believed the copying was done without the knowledge of the immediate family and it remained unknown to the rest of us in the family until early in 1987.’
Here are several extracts from Cusack’s book (though, for clarity, I have added a few fullstops and dashes in places where extra spaces in the published text appear to signal a separation of phrases).
11 October 1867
‘Wrote letter - miserable arrangements on board in respect to closets &c - Whilst in port nothing of importance has occured - Rumour that we are to sail on to day (Friday) anchor raised & everything in readiness for sailing’
12 October 1867
‘Sails set - Blue Peter hoisted - 2 PM set sail fair wind. Take a farewell glance at Portland as we sail within one mile of its rock bound coast - Emotions of the pleasant kind. Towed out by the gun-boat “Earnest” - deck crowded with anxious faces eagerly pointing out objects of interest to one another - Pass the evening in playing Chess &c’
13 October 1867
‘Ship rolling very much - feel a little “squeamish” On deck nothing visible but sky and water save a few solitary sea-birds that kept eternally skimming over the crested waves - Had several Interviews with Hr Deleany RCC. Begs of me to serve Mass for him - I consent - Mass on board - I serve with difficulty in consequence of being seasick - Majority of hands troops &c on board Catholics - Mass in main hatchway - wind strong speed 6 knots - still towed out by “Earnest” Eat very little to day - 2 OC exceedingly sick - get some ease by lying in bunk - None sick but myself “spued” off everything I eat - Water distilled & measured out 3/4 pint per man per diem - find I cannot read. Ordered below for night at 4.30. Amuse ourselves every night with a concert.’
25 October 1867
‘Morning cloudy with a slight mist - Convoy still in sight 8 OC. A slight fall of rain till 8.30. Clouds clear off & leave the sun shining brilliantly - Ship’s yards truly square for 1st time - Cannot remain on forecastle for any time - Speed 8 knots under full canvas - 2 OC Air mild and balmy like a glorious summers day in Ireland - Home thoughts crowd upon me of pleasant days spent in the green meadow inhaling the fragrant odour of the newly mowed hay or of pleasant hours spent in company of la bella Maria in Kingstons demesne beside the tinkling stream. Passengers relieving monotony of voyage by various games such as Chess Dominoes Drafts Dice Cards &c. Evening enlivened by music (The Banjo) on deck accompanied with singing & dancing alternately reminds of Scotts lines on Don Roderick: “And to the tinkling of the soft guitar; Sweet stooped the ‘western sun’ bright rose the evening star”. ’
26 October 1867
‘Morning calm breeze light speed, 4 knots 12 OC. Breeze increasing - speed 8 knots - 2 Sail in sight - one of them “our Convoy”. A prisoner received 48 lashes from boatswain to day without wincing for beating another prisoner most inhumanly - At conclusion cheered by his Comerades - got cross irons on his feet - Evening looking gloomy - dark sombre clouds flitting across sky - Sunset very stormy looking - fear a rough night wind increasing sailors furling royals &c. 4.30 All hands below - usual amusements.’
27 October 1867
‘Awoke last night at 11 OC by dreadful noise on deck. Ship pitching - all hands “piped” up - great confusion below for 5 or 7 minutes. Ship tossed about like a cork - Terror increases by Sailors refusing to go aloft - fear a watery grave - cry on deck of breakers ahead - orders given to “bout” ship - sheet lightning flashing in all directions - one of the sails fluttering to the wind another minute & it is carried away - Blowing with terrific violence - ship labouring fearfully & timbers creaking mournfully. Officers mount aloft - Ship stands still for a minute & immediately receives several tremendous dashes of waves which almost capsizes her - sea roaring dreadfully & dashing in over gunwale - wind howling dismally through the rigging - 12 OC - Not much calmer all damage apparently over - Some sailors return to their duty & are working away to the jolly chorus of: Heave haul away, Haul away my dandies.’
4 December 1867
‘Blowing exceedingly hard all night. Speed 12 knots. Not better. Stomach bad - raining very hard all night. All hands obliged to remain below all day - Morning calm, 3 knots - 10 of our lads reported - rope 1 pepper box - 8 deprived of wine for week. Sails hanging motionless.’
5 December 1867
‘Morning dark heavy & inclined for rain - a dead calm - very disagreeable on deck - a thick mist falling. Sailing under a cloud of canvas yet scarcely making any progress.’
6 December 1867
‘Morning cloudy - raining all day - all hands obliged to remain below which is dark damp like hell - the most disagreeable day I ever spent almost becalmed.’
7 December 1867
‘Morning cloudy - raining at intervals with Dr off hospital diet - half starved on it - wind coming in fitful gusts - extremely cold all day & last night - On look out for flying Dutchman - amusing to see passengers with terror depicted on their countenances at idea of meeting him - Sea very rough - Day has a very strange & ominous aspect. The surface of the ocean & glassy & scarcely a breath of air disturbed the solemn stillness that prevailed. The ship lay motionless yielding only to that never ceasing swell that heaves the bosom of the broad Atlantic - the sails reposed uselessly against the masts or flapped to and fro in dead compliance with the breathing sea. The sky vas of a dull grey leaden hue - no clouds could be seen but the XXX XXX vault of heaven was wrapped in one dark impenetrable veil whose dreariness was made much more dreary by reflection in the waters beneath. This universal stillness reigned during the morning broken only by the shriek of the sea bird as it skimmed over the surface of the waters. About mid-day the rain poured down in torrents such as they only who have witnessed can conceive - This lasted for two or three hours yet the sea remained a perfect calm - the air cold thick and still. When the rain ceased all was silent as the grave - 6 OC. Ignorant of danger we sat down to our customary amusements which were only interrupted by an XXXXXXX ocassional wish to have a breeze spring up - At 6 OC Sails were shortened & everything on deck and aloft made ready for a wild night. At 7 OC the ship was sailing under closely reefed topsails & Mr J Flood who came down informed us that the hatchways were nailed down - At 8 OC we retired to rest but scarcely had two hours elapsed before a dull roaring sound was heard in the distance growing louder and louder as it approached until it seemed to burst over us. In a few minutes the sea dashed into fury & the ship speeding through on a gale of terrific violence - Sleep was impossible - The noise on deck.’
6 January 1868
‘Glorious morning promising another broiling day - Still a dead calm - ship scarcely moving - went about 5 knots per hour during the night. Spanish vessel still in sight about 5 miles to NE of us. Mass on board. Dread that this calm will continue for some time - 12 OC - Not a ripple on the surface of the waters shining like a plate of fretted gold. How slowly creep the hours in those calms especially as we are so near our destination. Nothing to read - nothing to discuss - nothing to while away an hour with except to sit in a state of dreamy thoughtfulness watching the sea birds skimming over the surface of the water - your thoughts wandering back to the green hills the shady groves & the pleasant valleys of “That beautiful land far away; That isle of the blue sea carressed; Where the fields are so green & the mountains so grey; In this isle far away in the West”.
Such a life is intolerable. 4 OC - Supper - Cry on deck of - A Shark A Shark - all hands rush on deck in a state of great excitement and in an instant bulwarks & forecastle are crowded. I too rush up and from the forecastle obtain a glimpse of the huge monster as he slowly glides through the blue waters beneath his green eyes gleaming with a fierce and ominous expression and his body assuming the most gorgeous colours - the principal being a bright emerald green. Two immense fins project beneath the jaws. A bait is thrown out attached to a strong iron hook - in an instant he perceives it & slowly and noiselessly glides towards it. When within two feet of it he turns on his back XXX opens his voracious jaws - exhibiting to the spectators two rows of sharp saw like teeth.’
9 January 1868
‘Blowing hard all night, sailing under scarcely fifty yards of canvas. All hands on deck and hard at work during the night. 6 OC Strong breeze glorious morning. Sky clear - speed 10 knots - On look out for land since 4 OC - 7.45 Land Ahead - on our lee bow a long low range visible surmounted by a lighthouse - Rottenest Island [. . .] The misty outline of the coast is more defined to the R of Island. The mainland appears low & sandy - the range surmounted by “Bush”. The pilot boat appears in the distance - 7 men in her - Fremantle now visible after dinner - a few merchant vessels in roads - prospect cheerless in the extreme - A sober sadness now assails me at idea of being separated from many of my comerades. Look in vain for the emerald green hills dotted with sheep - the waving meadows - the yellow corn fields bowing beneath the golden ear, the broad transparent river meandering through the deep garment of fairest green and the darkly shadowed mountains in the background which gladdened the sight on nearing the shores of Holy Ireland - There all is grand - Here all is dreary desolate & cheerless. How many of the stout hearts now beating are destined to lay their bones in this land. How many will again tread the fair hills of Holy Ireland. Oh! for a dip into the gloomy dark future!’
The Diary Junction