EJANZH: Irish Ribbonmen in Tasmania

Mel Keenan

The following study sets out to sketch the profile of the average ribbon transportee to Tasmania by investigating those convicts who advised the Tasmanian authorities that they had been transported for offences relating to “ribbonism”. The University of Tasmania’s John Williams Irish Convict Data Base (ICDB) yielded thirty names when explored for data using the term ribbon in the offence heading. This included offences such as “having ribbon papers in his possession”, “ribbonman”, etc. Of the thirty names produced, ten had been transported for stealing ribbons. The find was thus limited to twenty convicts. listed in Table A below:

Table A

NameYearShipOccupationAgePlace of BirthPlace of Trial
Michael McGrath1840EgyptianShoemaker56Co. KingsLongford
Thomas Maron1841British SoveriegnFarm labourer34Tyrone
John Rogers1841WaverlyPublican37Tyrone
Michael Eoan1841KinnearFarm labourer20Longford
Andrew Gill1841KinnearFarm labourer30Longford
Pat Kirk1842Richard WebbFarm Labourer42Tyrone
Pat McDonald1842Richard WebbLabourer42Cavan
* Pat McSorley1842Richard WebbLabourer30Tyrone
John Brady1843NavarinoFarm Labourer30Armagh
Thomas Grehan1843NavarinoFarm Labourer46Sligo
Henry Hughes1843NavarinoHorse Dealer34Armagh
# James McCone1843NavarinoFarm Labourer46Armagh
Hugh O’Hare1843NavarinoMiller33Co. DownArmagh
John Rice1843NavarinoFarm Labourer45Co. MonaghanArmagh
John Walsh1843NavarinoGroom24Mayo
Francis McCanna1843North BritonRoad Maker32Longford
John Hanlon1844Cadet ~Dyer30Monaghan
Michael Rogers1844Cadet ~Shoemaker23Meath
John Hoar1849Pestonjee BomangeeFarm labourer47Roscommon
James McCormick1850HyderabadFarm labourer34Meath

* Given as “McGorley?” in ICBD – discovered to be McSorley in the State Archives of Tamania Convict Files and the ITR
# Given as “mCGuire ???” in ICDB – discovered to be McCone in the State Archives of Tasmania Convict Files and the ITR ~ Given with a question mark in the ICBD – confirmed by the State Archives Convict Files. By examining the details of these convicts, it was possible to come up with twenty possble candiates, the characteristics of which sometimes correlated with, and sometimes differed from, the typical ribbon offender.

The concept of ribbonism has been gradually refined within the academic community, so that the term is now used in both a wide and a narrow sense. Originally the expression covered the gamut of the manifestations of Irish agrarian social upheaval, and was used as a “conyenient generic label for peasant disturbance in general (1).” The term is now used more specifically to denote those clandestine organizations which used quasi-Masonic secret signs and symbols to discern their initiates and which were determined to overthrow British rule in Ireland by means which were never particularly well defined. Despite being a mass movement in search of a leader, by the 1840’s ribbon societies had established a loose organization not only throughout Ireland, but in Scotland and England as well, in cities where large numbers of working class Irish had congregated. It would appear that the convicts produced by the ICDB search fall within the narrow definition, and this is certainly the case with respect to the sub-group placed under closer examination – the Armagh Five.

Due to their subversive nature, these ribbon societies were proscribed by British law, and it was not necessary for any acts of violence to be committed in furtherance of their cause, but it was an offence simply if a person had “ribbon papers” in their possession or was proved to be a member of such an organization. Consequently, convicts transported for ribbon offences were by no means hardened criminals. With the exception of the Armagh Five, nothing is known of the previous records of the convicts whose names were generated by the ICDB. However, it is noteworthy that all but two of the transportees received the standard sentence of seven years, the anomalies being one sentence of fifteen years and one for life. Using this together with the number of offences committed by these particular convicts whilst in the colony as a yard-stick, it does not appear that the Tasmanian ribbon transportees were inclined to criminality. Seventeen out of the twenty re-offended three times or less. Also, all convicts were recorded as being well-behaved on the voyage to Hobart.

Another manner in which the ICDB convicts fit the mould of ribbonmen was their place of origin. Ribbonism was “strongest in Dublin, the counties of the eastern seaboard and parts of Ulster (2).” Of the four birthplaces given, three are in Ulster and one in Leinster. Moreover, eleven of the convicts were tried in Ulster, six in Leinster and three in Connacht. Although it requires a not unreasonable assumption that the offenders were tried in the localities of their birth, this shows that they neatly fit the characteristic geographic spread of ribbonism, with not one transportee from the province of Munster.

Nonetheless, there is one peculiarity in this group of convicts in relation to the “typical” ribbonman. Whereas ribbonism “found its strongest support among tradesmen and had a strong urban bias (3)” , twelve of the twenty convicts gave their previous occupation as “labourer” or “farm labourer”. One transportee from Tyrone was a publican, which is hardly surprising considering that much of ribbon organization was based on licensed eremises, and the closest to “artisan and lower-middle class” were two shoemakers and a dyer (4). However, this should be read in the light of the assertion in the coverage of the trial of the Armagh Five in the Freeman’s Journal that a number of the accused were in fact men of comfortable means, with fairly considerable rural holdings.

The Armagh Five

Once the list of ribbon transportees had been produced, and an idea of the profile discerned, the next step was to decide which convicts to more specifically research. Two disparate types of convict lent themselves to such investigation. The first was the one convict transported for life and then executed. The other was a group of convicts (John Brady, Henry Hughes, James McGuire [???] Hugh O’Hare and John Rice) who all arrived in Tasmania in 1843 upon the Navarino and who had all been tried in Armagh – the “Armagh Five”. The first step was to turn to the Irish Transportation Records (ITR) to glean whatever further information on the trials and sentencing could be found.

The information in the ITR was quite limited, but by using the generalized search for the locality of sentencing rather than the specific search of the full name of the convict, it revealed names of some of the convicts which had been incorrectly recorded in the ICDB (See Table A above). Most important was the name “James McCone” instead of “James McGuire” amongst the Armagh Five. Of these five, the ITR recorded that four had been tried on 21 July 1842, with the exception being John Brady who had allegedly been tried on 23 July 1841. This appeared to confirm the suspicion that at least four of the convicts had been tried in relation to the same incident.

Having regard to the number of persons involved, it seemed reasonable that the trial might have been reported in the Freeman’s Journal. The microfiche held by the University of Tasmania revealed that the Armagh Assizes of 21 July 1842 had indeed been covered in great detail over two days (due to restrictions of space) starting on 25 July 1842. It was then discovered that John Brady had also been tried at the same Assizes, and not in 1841.

The charge on the indictment was that on 7 October 1841 at Middleton, Co. Monaghan, the accused

did act as members of a certain illegal society, whose members were known to each other by certain secret signs and passwords, by attending a meeting of such society, and for holding correspondence and intercourse with members of said society.(5)

The prosecution of the Armagh Five was conducted by Attorney General Blackburne himself, with a jury consisting of ten Protestants and two Catholics. The trial was held before Judge Crampton whose address to the jury laid the foundations for sentences of transportation, should the accused be found guilty:

…Now gentlemen of the grand jury, the number of prisoners, as I have already stated, is small; and I hope that on the termination of the present assizes little addition will be made to the number already in jail…(6)

Having established that these convicts had been tried together, the next step was to piece together the course of their period of transportation. The convict records held by the Tasmanian State Archives register these details according to the ship upon which the convict arrived, and it was therefore necessary to resort to the record of the Navarino. Some sketchy details of the convict’s family could be obtained, together with the masters to whom the convicts were assigned, although it was often very difficult to make sense of the crabbed handwriting. Some additional information on the family connections was also gained by a perusal of the Ship Indents held by the Archives. More significant, however, was the emerging pattern in the convict records of ribbon transportees whose life in the colony followed a fairly straightforward path of release from probation, through granting of Ticket-of-Leave, to approval of Conditional Pardon. (See Appendix A below ). The latest Conditional Pardon was that of James McCone on 9 January 1849.

After the granting of Conditional Pardon the convict records fall silent on the Armagh Five. The Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages for the late nineteenth century is very sparse in detail. Although there is no record of place of birth, by taking the approximate age of the transportees from their convict records, registered deaths were discovered to match the name and age of two of the convicts. It can be conjectured that John Brady died at Westbury in 1854 “by a limb falling from a tree” – presumably onto him – which would correlate with death at the relatively early age of forty-one. Similarly, it appears that Henry Hughes died from “senility” at Launceston in 1873, at approximately sixty-four.

However, this left three convicts absent and unaccounted for. Recourse was then had to the Departure Records held by the Tasmanian State Archives, which proved to be very valuable. Each departure from the colony recorded not only the destination, date of departure and the name of the ship, but the name of the vessel on which the passenger had originally arrived in Tasmania. It was therefore simple to ascertain that James McCone and Hugh O’Hare left for Adelaide on the Halcyon in 1849. Henry Hughes left for Melbourne on the City of Melbourne in 1851, presumably returning to live in Tasmania at an unrecorded date prior to his death, although no evidence could be found relating to his return.

The remaining convict was John Rice, for whom neither death nor a more temporary form of departure from the colony could be found. The only record which may relate to him is the request of a John Rice to marry one Honora Balam at Trinity Church in Launceston in 1853, bearing in mind that Rice was single on his arrival in 1843 and would have been approximately fifty-five at the time of the marriage. However, this remains a matter of guesswork, as John Rice is not an uncommon name, and there is also no other Registrar-General’s record relating to Honora Balam.

Michael Rogers (aka Rodgers)

In stark contrast to the orderly conduct of the Armagh Five was the career of Michael Rogers. At first glance he appeared to deserve attention due to the fact that he was recorded in the ICDB as having been sentenced for life on a charge relating to ribbonism, rather than the usual seven years. Secondly, he was listed as having been executed in the colony.

Although the ITR revealed that he had been sentenced at Meath on 26 February 1844, a search of the Freeman’s Journal for the following weeks found no reporting of the Meath Assizes of that date. Therefore no details are known to provide a reason for his unique sentence. However, Rogers’ convict records in the Tasmanian State Archives indicate that he had been previously convicted, and this conviction (or convictions) must have been sufficient in the eyes of the sentencing judge to warrant transportation for life.

The convict records also showed a sequence of offences escalating from misdemeanour to crime over a period of two years [See Appendix B] and culminating in the wilful murder of Joseph Howard in February 1848. The murder was accompanied by “robbery and putting in bodily fear”, and the germ of an idea that Rogers might have been a bushranger came in to being.

No reference to the events surrounding the murder were contained in the Archives’ convict records, nor was their any registration of the death of Rogers (or Rodgers) in the Registrar-General’s records. Apart from the convict record, the only official entry of his death was found in a search of the records of the Supreme Court of Tasmania in the Archives which list executions. This confirmed that Rogers was hanged and dissected.

The only avenue remaining was the Hobart periodicals of the time, held by the State Library. By the late 1840’s there may have been a policy of not reporting judicial executions, as no reporting of Rogers’ actual hanging could be found in the Hobart Town Courier, the Hobart Town Advertiser or the Hobart Town Guardian. Nonetheless, the convict records had dated the murder as 20 February 1848 and the trial as 6 and 7 December 1848, and by looking at the following weeks in the newspapers the events surrounding the murder could be pieced together. The Hobart Town Courier reported on 26 February 1848 that Rogers had been bushranging with Patrick Lynch and John Riley in the Sorrell district, and referred to them as the “Fingal bushrangers”. Noting that they were all Irishmen, the paper reported that the group was led by Riley (aka Reilly). This is somewhat surprising, given his subsequent acquittal on the murder charge for which both Lynch and Rogers were condemned.

The victim, Joseph Howard, was a police constable on the lookout for the men. The coverage of the trial in the Hobart Town Advertiser of 12 December 1848 alleges that his murder at the hands of the bushrangers occurred on 24 February 1848, rather than 20 February 1848. It further reported that on the following day the bushrangers went to the house of a Mr Muir, “tied up the residents and ransacked the place.” Hence the second charge of placing in bodily fear related to a second incident and it was this offence for which Riley received a sentence of ten years on Norfolk Island.

On sentencing Lynch and Rogers for the murder of Constable Howard, Mr Justice Horne stated that they were “sentenced to die without hope of mercy, and their bodies to be dissected and anatomised (7).” Rogers was executed on 3 January 1849.

Drawing conclusions from a sample of only six out of a total of twenty convicts is naturally fraught with academic peril. It would be of great benefit to historians of nineteenth century Tasmania to subject each of the ribbon transportees to the investigative process applied to Michael Rogers and the Armagh Five. Nonetheless, the first noteworthy point is the manner in which the convicts match the characteristics of ribbonmen generally. The classic ribbonman was a lower-middle class Roman Catholic male from northern or north-eastern Ireland – not necessarily “criminal” but socially alienated from the British rulers of Ireland – and was active in the years preceding the famine. With the exception of class as deduced from the profession given by the convicts, the evidence confirms that this profile typifies the Tasmanian ribbon convicts.

The second point is the pattern of the convicts’ penal servitude. Although one other convict has eight convictions whilst in the colony, it is fair to suggest that Michael Rogers is the exception to the rule of relatively uneventful service of the transportation sentences. This too corresponds with the nature of ribbonism as a form of “social offence”, which was likely to involve men not innately criminal.

It has been shown that at least three out of the Armagh Five left the colony at an early opportunity. It would be interesting to see whether the other ribbon transportees also fit that paradigm of Irish convicts leaving Tasmania for the mainland which denuded the colony of much of its Irish-born population by the late nineteenth century. Although it is purely conjecture, given that the median age of the convicts is 36.5 years as at the date of their transportation, it would not be surprising if the lure of gold in Victoria and New South Wales had in fact prompted most of the convicts to leave Tasmania.

With respect to methodology, the original difficulty with the ICDB search has been noted above, as has the limitations of the ITR. In the Tasmanian State Archives, the fact that the convict records are arranged according to the vessel of transportation was naturally of great assistance when researching those convicts transported together on the Navarino. Unfortunately, little can be done in relation to the obstacle of reading the often-scrawled entries in the records themselves, which was a source of much frustration. There were some small triumphs, however, such as reading two records together in order to confirm dates and matters such as the assignment of Hugh O’Hare and James McCone to the same masters. The Ship Indents were also some help in filling in details of the convicts’ lives prior to arrival in the colony. The Departure Records, while very straightforward and to the point, as mentioned previously were very important in giving conclusive evidence as to the length of the convicts stay in Tasmania. Perhaps the most disappointing was the Registrar General’s records, with a paucity of detail for the later nineteenth century.

The ultimate aim was to carefully use all of these sources, together with the Freeman’s Journal and the local newspapers, to cross-check with one any information gleaned from another, in order to add to the total amount known about a specific group of convicts chosen from the ICDB collated by the late John Williams. This I believe has been as successful as was possible, given the weaknesses of the various sources, and it is hoped that it may be the impetus to further study of these social offenders and their impact on the course of nineteenth century Tasmanian history.

Appendix A – The Armagh Five

Brady, John Born Co Cavan ca 1813 “2 Chiles” (?) Hugh and Ellen; Brothers Hugh and Philip; Sisters Bess, Ann, Mary, Margaret

Tried Armagh : According to ITR 23 July 1841, but reported as 21 July 1842 in Freeman’s Journal; Sentenced to seven years Plowman and Farm labourer

1843 Transported on Navarino; General conduct on board good 10 January 1845 Released from first stage of probation No further offences 28 July 1846 Granted Ticket of Leave 11 November 1848 Conditional Pardon approved

18 September 1854 Died at Westbury, Tas. [?] “by a limb falling from a tree”

Hughes, Henry Birthplace unknown ca 1809 Parents Francis and Eileen in Co. Monaghan; Four brothers and two sisters 21 July 1842 Tried Armagh; Sentenced to seven years Horse Dealer Good report in prison 1843

Transported on Navarino 10 January 1845

Released from first stage of probation No further offences 28 July 1846 Granted Ticket of Leave 26 September 1848 Conditional Pardon approved 11 October 1851 Departed Launceston for Melbourne on the City of Melbourne “Steerage passenger – free by servitude” 6 May 1873 Died at Launceston, Tas. [?] of “senility”

McCone, James Born Co. Armagh ca 1797

Father James – transported in 1821 t?] – “…at whose house in this town, some twenty years ago, a number of delegates, from fifteen to twenty were arrested; seven of them were transported in 1821.” Freeman’s Journal 26 July 1842

Brothers George and Anthony; sister Ann Wife [?] Mary; daughter t?] Isabella Brother-in-law Arthur Dounelly (?) at Port Phillip…with her both…at Port Phillip who keeps there”(?) 21 July 1842 Tried Armagh; Sentenced to seven years Plowman and Farm labourer

1843 Transported on Navarino

10 January 1845 Released from first stage of probation 1 February 1845 Assigned to Mr G.Jones of Westbury 8 November 1845 Assigned to Mr Lyons 13 November 1845 Offence : “Being illegally at large. Discharged to the service of his master” 28 July 1846 Granted Ticket of Leave 9 January 1849 Conditional Pardon approved

Departed Launceston for Adelaide on the Halcyon26 May 1849

O’Hare, Hugh Born Co. Down ca 1810 Father Lawrence; brother Daniel Tried Armagh 21 July 1842 ; Sentenced to seven years Miller

Transported on Navarino

1(?) January 1845 Released from first stage of probation 1 February 1845 Assigned to Mr G.Jones of Westbury 8 November 1845 Assigned to Mr Lyons 13 November 1845 Offence “Being illegally at large (discharged to the service of his master) 28 July 1846 Granted Ticket of Leave 4 July 1848 Conditional Pardon approved

26 May 1849 Departed Launceston for Adelaide on the Halcyon

Rice, John Born Clontibrit [?] Co. Monaghan ca 1798 Brother Michael; sister Sally

21 July 1842 Tried Armagh ; Sentenced to seven years Farm labourer
1843 Transported on Navarino 30 January 1844 Offence “Misconduct in losing part of his bedding. Rep[rimanded?]” 10 January 1845 Released from first stage of probation 30 January 1845 Assigned to Bernard Fox 28 July 1846 Granted Ticket of Leave 10 September 1846 Assigned to T.Lewis, Constable 26 August [?] 1848 Offence “Constable Richard of Misenes (?) – Misconduct in using disrespectful language to the C.P.Constable. Record to be dismissed to the police” (?) 16 January 1849 Conditional Pardon approved

30 June 1853 Applied for licence to marry Honora Balam at Trinity Church in Launceston [???]

Appendix B – Michael Rogers (aka Rodgers) Born ca 1821

Tried on 26 February 1844 at Meath for an offence involving one William Dorendy (?) – Previously convicted Sentenced to transportation for life Detained at Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, in March 1844 Shoemaker

“Well conducted” in gaol Arrived 1844 on Cadet

6 January 1846 “Misconduct in having a pair of boots improperly in his possession – thirteen days solitary” 11 August 1846 “Misconduct in having some Boot Tools improperly concealed in his hut…term of probation to be extended six months” 15 August 1846 “Inspection Bay (?) – Misconduct in losing or making away with his [word which looks like “Governments”] Case dismissed” 25 May 1847 “Misconduct in having a kangaroo skin improperly concealed…period of probation to be extended by six weeks” 11 June 1847 “Refusing to work. Six days solitary” 13 September 1847 “Larceny – œ5 thirty days solitary” 14 November 1848 “Hobart. Wilful murder of Joseph Howard …committed for trial….Robbery and putting in bodily fear…committed for trial” “Tried Hobart Town 6 & 7 December 1848. Wilful Murder of Joseph Howard on the 2Oth Feb. last. Guilty. To be hanged and dissected” 3 January 1849 Executed at Hobart


1. M.R. Beames, ‘The Ribbon Societies: Lower class nationalism in Pre-Famine Ireland’, Past & Present, vol. 97, p. 128.

2. Beames, p. 128.

3. S.J. Connolly, ‘Aftermath and adjustment’, in W.E. Vaughn (ed), A New History of Ireland. Volume V: Ireland under the Union 1801-1870 (Oxford: 1989), p.19.

4. Connolly, p.19.

5. Freeman’s Journal, 25 July 1842.

6. Freeman’s Journal, 25 July 1842.

7. Hobart Town Advertiser 12 December 1848.


Primary Sources

Archival Material Convict Records, Tasmanian State Archives. Departure Records, Tasmanian State Archives. Registrar-General’s Records, Tasmanian State Archives. Ship Indents, Tasmanian State Archives. Supreme Court Records, Tasmanian State Archives.

Irish Transportation Record, State Library of Tasmania.

John Williams Irish Convict Data Base, University of Tasmania.

Freeman’s Journal
Hobart Town Advertiser
Hobart Town Courier

Secondary Sources


Beames, M.R. “The Ribbon Societies : Lower class nationalism in Pre-Famine Ireland”. Past & Present. Volume 97. 128-143.

Garvin, T. “Defenders, Ribbonmen and others : Underground political Networks in Pre-Famine Ireland”. Past & Present. Volume 96. 133-155.


Beckett, J.C. The Making of Modern Ireland 1603-1923. London : Faber & Faber. 1981.

Edwards, R.D. An Atlas of Irish History. London : Methuen & Co. 1973.

Vaughn, W.E. (Ed.). A New History of Ireland. Volume V. Ireland Under the Union 1801-1870. Oxford : OUP. 1989.