By Thomas Acres
Transportation of convicts from Ireland began in 1791, but is was the rebellion of 1798 which sent a stream of Irish political prisoners pouring into New South Wales. The majority of the Irish were, of course, Catholics, but no provision was made for their spiritual welfare. The general religious state of the settlement was appalling. A few Protestant chaplains, appointed to the colonial gaol, had little influence. Their compulsory services were part of the penal discipline, and religion was largely identified in the minds of the prisoners with cruelty and suppression. The chaplains were officials, three of them were magistrates, while the others were engaged in farming, milling, and raising sheep. Thus when the settlement was established, the Catholic Church of England and Ireland was still under the oppression of the Penal Laws.
There had been some three hundred Catholic in the First Fleet as well and an Ossory priest, Father James Walsh, had unsuccessfully tried to obtain permission to accompany them. Among those transported for the rebellion of 1798 there were three priests, Father James Harold, James Dixon, and Peter O'Neill, but they were forbidden to exercise their ministry.
The deporting of Father Peter O'Neill caused such a stir in Ireland that the charges against him were dropped and he returned to Ireland in 1803. In 1800 a group of Irish prisoners formed a foolish plot to capture Sydney, seize the H. M. Buffalo, and make their escape. The plan was discovered and easily stopped. The first man examined by the Commission of Enquiry was Father James Harold, who had tried to talk the rebels out of their foolhardy plan. The Commission recommended that five, who were regarded as ringleader, be flogged with five hundred lashes and that James Harold 'called priest,' be forced to watch it. He was later sent to Norfolk Island, where he remained without recognition till his departure in 1810, when he returned to Ireland, became a parish priest and died in Dublin in 1833.
With the arrival of the convicts following the Irish rebellion of 1798, the local Protestant's fears and prejudices were roused. Between January 1800 and June 1802 five hundred and sixty-five Irish convicts arrived, thus Catholics formed one-third of the population. Governor King called them ruthless, violent and turbulent characters with diabolical schemes for destruction of all industry, private and public property, order and regularity. But even he was moved to clemency, for to his surprise they were not what he thought after all, but many of them were of good conduct, uniformly good, thus to some he granted conditional pardons.
All this said and done, he drew the line when it came to the practise of their religion, allowing only Father James Dixon, who was a peace-loving man, to hold religious services. This was of course provided that a certain number of police would be stationed at or near the places of worship to ensure strict decorum. Father's first Mass was celebrated on May 15, 1803. A Catholic convict made a small chalice of tin; there was no altar stone, and some old damask curtains were made to serve as vestments. The consecrated oils had to obtained from Rio de Janeiro.