John J, Breslin was born in Drogheda, County Meath, Ireland in 1833 into a family of three brothers and two sisters. Little else is known of his early life with respect his upbringing , how his family made a living, how or where he was educated. Nonetheless, it can be surmised from his business acumen and successful exploits that he was a very sophisticated and educated individual. As did he, none of his siblings stayed on in Ireland.; all of them came to the United States and took up residence in New York City.
Breslin first came to public notice in 1865 when he made a spectacular debut on the international stage as Hospital Superintendent at Dublin's notorious Richmond Prison. It was here that he arranged with a colleague, Daniel Byrne, the prison's night watchman, to rescue the most famous of England's political prisoners, James Stephens. Stephens was the leader of Ireland's independence movement, the Fenians. Unknown to the British, both Breslin and Bryne were sworn and loyal members of the Fenians.
Stephens had founded The Irish People Newspaper in 1863, with a staff that included Thomas Clarke Luby, Charles Kickham and Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa. In 1865 the paper was suppressed and the staff arrested. All were charged with felony-treason and sentenced to long prison terms. Stephens was placed in a remote wing of the heavily guarded Richmond prison for safe keeping.
The fact that Breslin had access to the pass keys for all of the prison's interior doors and that Byrne had keys of all the outside doors seemed to suggest that an escape for Stephens was quite apparent. The fact that Richmond was heavily guarded and that Stephens, its prized guest, was locked up in the prison's isolated wing underscored the limited potential for a successful escape and the degree of the odds facing Breslin and Byrne -- a daring challenge.
At a pre-arranged time, Stephens was escorted from his cell by the two plotters, into the jail yard. The dark and stormy night provided ideal conditions for the escape. Stephens climbed over the high prison wall by rope that was thrown over the top by outside co-conspirators and was off to freedom. With the discovery of the escape, Byrne was immediately a suspect, but in court the case against him lacked evidence to convict him. Meanwhile, the charmed life of Breslin was already underway: not under suspicion, he continued working at the hospital for several months until his departure from Ireland to the United States where he gave a full account of the exploit.
Upon arrival in the US, Breslin first lived in Boston where he worked as a freight agent at a Worcester freight depot. During this time period he was an active member of Clan na Gael.
After relocating to New York he was hired by John Devoy as business manager for the Irish Nation Newspaper. By 1873 Breslin was enlisted by Devoy to carry out the daring and ambitious plot to rescue six Fenians -- officially known as military prisoners -- from England's gulag at Fremantle. Fremantle was located over 10,000 nautical miles away, on the west coast of Australia. The men had been convicted of enlisting fellow-Irishmen into the Fenian Brotherhood while serving in the British Army. This type of recruitment was a process well known to Devoy who himself had enlisted many others into the Brotherhood within the British forces. The men that were the subject of the escape were , James Darragh, Martin Hogan, Michael Harrington, Thomas Hassett, Robert Cranston, and James Wilson known as "Fremantle Six" who had been convicted with desertion and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Breslin, together with Thomas Desmond set sail for Australia in September of 1875. After arriving in Fremantle, Breslin assumed the identity of an American businessman. He was able to hoodwink the local authorities into believing that he had finances available to invest in land for forestry and mining operations in the Fremantle region. His subterfuge worked so well that he was given a guided tour of the prison to inspect the slave labor that would be available when he ready to start operations. The tour of the prison convinced Breslin that the prison was so heavily guarded that he could only spring the Fenian prisoners when they were working outside of the jail.
In 1876 the whaling ship Catalpa,
the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, was purchased by Devoy and Clan na Gael. It was made ready for the voyage to the coast of Australia, ostensibly a routine commercial venture -- but in fact one that would startle the entire British Empire, make headlines around the world and gain for the brave Captain Anthony the everlasting gratitude of the Irish people. Captain Anthony demonstrated his undaunted bravery and superb seamanship in that challenging endeavor and would be identified with the men who sought only freedom and independence for their island nation.
When the Capalta arrived in Fremantle, Breslin sent word to the prisoners to prepare for rescue on the following Monday. The six prisoners, having won the confidence of their jailers, were allowed to work outside on the prison grounds. As far as the prison authorities were concerned this did not pose a problem, as there was nowhere to escape to. The topography was deserts to the east and shark-infested waters to the north and west.
Breslin and Desmond took full advantage of that misguided belief by extracting the six prisoners and making good their escape on Easter Monday.
The hour-by-hour story of the escape is a complex one. Suffice to say, that when the Catalpa was boarded by the escapees just off the coast of Fremantle, it was spotted by the British who vigorously pursued the whaler. Captain Anthony proceeded without hesitation, ignoring a challenge to stop and give up the escapees. The good captain brazenly hoisted the Stars and Stripes and calmly with tongue in cheek announced to the British captain that he had no prisoners aboard, only free men! After several months at sea, including a diversion to haul in several whales, the gallant captain and his passengers arrived in New York harbor to ecstatic receptions by ships in the bay and numerous ceremonies, parties and national press coverage
After the Catalpa rescue, Breslin's remarkable life went on in his businesslike fashion, continuing his conspiratorial ways with Devoy that was finally was capped off by his liaison with the inventor, John Holland. It was Holland whose Fenian Ram submarine was one of several prototype models developed in large part with funds from Clan na Gael. Holland’s submarine project culminated several years later in the construction of two under-water ships commissioned by the U. S. Navy.
John J. Breslin was a republican to the end. He passed away on November 18, 1887 at his residence in New York.
Tomás Ó Coısdealha
the headstone inscription to enlarge
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