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Sunday 22 October 2017

President serves time in Australia's 'Fenian' prison

LOCKDOWN: President Michael D Higgins visits Frematle jail. Photo: Maxwell's Dublin
LOCKDOWN: President Michael D Higgins visits Frematle jail. Photo: Maxwell's Dublin

Kirsty Blake Knox in Perth

With 243 relatives living in Queensland, 24 speeches to make, two "smoking ceremonies" to participate in, countless plaques to be unveiled, and thousands of hands to shake, President Michael D Higgins began his exhaustive 24-day tour of Australia this weekend.

Having arrived in Perth, considered to be the third windiest city in the world, President Higgins began with a visit to Fremantle Prison.

The imposing fortress was once home to Irish convicts and political prisoners.

It is also the setting of one of history's greatest prison escapes when a Quaker whaling captain, a Fenian newspaper editor, and an Irishman masquerading as an American millionaire sailed half way around the world from Boston to Perth to free six Fenian prisoners.

"Did the prisoners not sleep in beds?" Sabina Higgins asked, peering through the doors of one of the cells.

Inside the cramped cells, hammocks hung listlessly.

In another, the room was covered in delicate sketches that a man, incarcerated for forgery, had etched on the walls.

Both Sabina and the President said that visiting the prison, particularly the solitary confinement cells, was a sobering experience. President Higgins has close ties to Australia. Even before the final ship of Irish convicts was sent to Fremantle, his great great uncle Patrick Higgins, a champion ploughman, had arrived in Australia.

Patrick Higgins was the first person to drive a steam plough in Australia, and won numerous prizes for his ploughing skills in the Darling Downs.

He settled and had a large family. As a result, President Higgins can now boast of having close to 250 relatives in Queensland alone.

It seems unlikely he will manage to meet up with all of them, but he plans to visit the family plot in Warwick Cemetery.

Today President Higgins will attend the Australasian GAA Championship Games before the formal State visit begins in earnest tomorrow when he will be a guest at Government House in Perth.

Sunday Independent

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