A moving novel

• Fenians descendent Anne Golden, event creator Joy Lefroy and author Margo O’Byrne beside a plinth featuring O’Reilly’s writing, and the Orient Hotel where the Fenians’ escape was plotted.

A UNIQUE event featuring a complete reading of Irish author and activist John Boyle O’Reilly’s historic novel Moondyne, will be one of the highlights of the 2019 Fenians Festival.

O’Reilly was a charismatic poet transported to the Swan River Colony aboard the last-ever convict ship Hougoumont in January 1868 after being found guilty of treason for supporting an Irish republic.

Having already tried to escape from numerous English prisons, he finally slipped his shackles in Australia and was whisked to America where he became a journalist and writer – and a key conspirator in the Catalpa escape.

The reading of Moondyne during the festival will take place over a full day and in key sites around Fremantle.

Joy Lefroy, who dreamed up the reading walk, says she believes O’Reilly’s novel, first published as a serial in the Boston Pilot, was the first set in WA.

“To me that makes it very important,” Ms Lefroy says.

“It was beautifully descriptive and it’s very much of the period.”

Festival chair Margot O’Byrne says much of the novel had to have been based on O’Reilly’s own experiences, rather than notorious local bushranger Moondyne Joe. She believes O’Reilly had probably only heard the name and appropriated it for his main character, as the real Moondyne’s exploits weren’t all that well known at the time.

Ms O’Byrne believes O’Reilly’s time in the bush down south, where he delivered mail, probably brought him into contact with the local Noongar people and she says it’s clear he got some fascinating insights into their culture.

“After escaping he missed his rendezvous with the Vigilant and had to survive in the bush for several days, and knowing that particular markings on a tree indicated that a possum was hiding there, and that if you slit its throat and drank its blood that would quench your thirst–he would only have known that from talking to the Aboriginal people,” she says.

• John Boyle O’Reilly

There’ll be a cast of dozens of volunteer readers on the day, including Dr Fiona Stanley, comedian Peter Rowsthorn and former premier Peter Dowding.

Ms Lefroy says she’s tried to match each reader to an appropriate passage where possible, so Dr Stanley will read a section about a child’s grave, and says some of the coincidences this has unearthed have been – well, unearthly.

“I reckon the spirit of the Fenians is alive and well in the streets of Fremantle and they want their story told,” Ms O’Byrne throws up as a theory.

One of the readers is Anne Golden, whose ancestor John Gouldon was a Fenian who came to Australia aboard the Hougoumont with O’Reilly.

“The bit I read last night was about the Hougoumont itself and the conditions during the voyage, and I visualised John Gordon being in the same spot,” Ms Golden said.

“It certainly is an appropriate bit of text to be reading.”

The first reading will be at Fremantle Prison at 7am on Sunday February 24, and the last at Kidogo Arthouse on Bathers Beach at 8pm. While this is all free, cough up $22 and you’ll also get entry to a special commemoration of O’Reilly’s life including a talk, some poetry and a panel discussion at the Orient Hotel at 1pm.

Tickets for everything at eventbrite.com.au

The festival kicks off Friday, February 22 with Irish musician Sharon Shannon at John Curtin College. There’s a Family Day at the WA Maritime Museum on Saturday February 23, and Gaelic Gumbo helps finish things off on Sunday from just after 7pm at Kidogo Arthouse.

by STEVE GRANT

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