Phil Cunningham: A Forgotten Irish-Australian Rebel

Andrew Moore

This is the text of a presentation delivered at ‘Remembering Vinegar Hill’ seminar, Blacktown City Council, 7 March 2004.

No one could accuse Ireland of lacking martyrs to the cause. British colonialism in Ireland over many centuries ensured a ready supply of nationalist rebels. In its formative years the shadow of Irish martyrdom loomed over colonial New South Wales when at least 300 and probably more than 600 United Irishmen were transported to the infant thief colony for their part in the disastrous rebellion of 1798.

In relation to the 1798 Rebellion the names of illustrious leaders trip off the tongue easily. These include the likes of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Wolf Tone and to a lesser extent Henry Joy McCracken, who led the revolt in the north. The name of Robert Emmett is frequently honoured in regard to the 1803 uprising. A small forest of trees disappeared last year in Ireland in relation to Emmett’s Bicentenary. One historian alone – Ruan O’Donnell of the University of Limerick but well known in Australia as he wrote his PhD at ANU – published no less than three books on Emmett and there were seminars and colloquia across the country, one of which I was lucky enough to attend. (Ruan spoke rapid fire, as only Dubliners can, for no less than 90 minutes without a sign of a note!) The name of William Smith O’Brien is very well known in Tasmania. The leader of the Young Irelanders of 1848, Smith O’Brien was incarcerated at places like Maria Island and Port Arthur, where his house still stands. The wreck of the Katalpa and Fenian John Boyle O’Reilly is another sad story well enough known in this country, partly of course due to the popularity of Tom Keneally’s The Great Shame.

Australians who have some interest in modern Ireland would also be familiar with the names of the rebels of 1916, Padraic Pearce and so on, or more recently the Hunger Striker, Bobby Sands. For many people on the left in Australia the cause of Irish nationalism is an issue close to their heart, even though for me it is all down hill after the United Irishmen of ‘98 failed. Eamon de Valera killed Erskine Childers, the brave gunrunner of Howth in 1914, not the British. As a distant relative of Childers I find this hard to forget. The complications of Irish nationalism are labyrinthine. Nor is it any recommendation that a well-known reactionary Sydney Morning Herald columnist is named after Pearse.

Much of the iconography of Irish martyrdom conforms to a familiar pattern. Particularly in regard to the nineteenth century, the martyrs to the cause of Irish nationalism tended to be highborn, educated, wealthy and articulate. The fact that William Smith O’Brien wrote his journal as a convict in Tasmania assisted his reputation to endure. O’Brien, in fact had a wonderful time in Tasmania – in the Derwent Valley at New Norfolk – often being invited to dinner by the locals and being admired by more than one young lady for more than his educated mind. It did not of course suit his purpose to mention any of this to his avid readers in Ireland. Apart from the Irish public who needed to be reassured that O’Brien was a true Irish martyr, being flogged and degraded in Tasmania, no doubt his wife would not have been too impressed if she knew about the story of O’Brien with his trousers down in the close company of the daughter of the prison superintendent at Maria Island!

That people like Emmett, Lord Fitzgerald and O’Brien were all high born members of the Irish elite served to underline the tragedy of their fall. It underscored the extent of their patriotism, emphasised the purity of their motives and dedication to the cause. For these were all men who had plenty to lose. It would have been easier for them to collaborate with the British, or be pragmatic. Instead they gave up their lives, both in a physical and material sense, for their country.

This brings me to the story of Phil Cunningham. The main leader of the Irish convicts at Vinegar Hill in 1804, Cunningham may well have some claim as the least remembered Irish martyr of them all. That Cunningham has been largely forgotten in popular memory asks fundamental questions about the Castle Hill uprising itself. Was it, for instance, an unworthy event; an uprising of rabble rather than rebel convicts possessing neither principles nor a clearly articulated political agenda? Compared to Eureka, which, so the narrative goes and as Dr Evatt assured us, ushered in liberal democracy, Vinegar Hill is a poor relation. Sometimes it is forgotten altogether. 1 Why don’t we know more about Cunningham?

It helps, I think, to put on record what we do know about Cunningham. Phil Cunningham was born at Glenn Liath, Moyvane, (in the modern parish of Molahiffe) County Kerry, though we do not know when. Both a stonemason and a publican in Clonmel, a thriving town of some 5000 residents in Tipperary to which he moved in the 1790s, Cunningham was not born to a position of great social standing. While this sharply differentiated him from the likes of Lord Fitzgerald, the rank and file of the United Irishmen was strongly comprised of people of such middling social status.

We do not know much about the details of his involvement in the tumultuous events of 1798, though it is probable he helped to coordinate the United Irish insurgency in the Clonmel district, perhaps holding the rank of captain. In Clonmel he was regarded as ‘an articulate man who moved in high social circles’. The Mayor of Clonmel, Richard Moore, provided a character reference at Cunningham’s trial. It is not hard to find glowing accounts of Cunningham’s intellectual acumen and personal magnetism. Kerry tradition has it that Cunningham was ‘a man of great stature and commanding appearance…a born leader of men and a man who commanded loyalty and got it’ and that he had a ‘sharp mind’.

As a policeman would have it, Cunningham first came to notice when he helped to re-organise the United Irish network in the south of Ireland in early 1799, a reminder that thinking about ‘1798’ as a one year event only is misleading. It began much earlier and did not end until the early 1800s, in reality not until the disastrous military engagement at Vinegar Hill, New South Wales in March 1804. In 1799 Cunningham was involved in rescuing prisoners and conducting arms raids, as well as sporadically attacking the Clonmel yeomanry on the ‘retaliate first’ principle. The Tipperary rebels continued to await the arrival of the French and tried to re-establish the lines of communication, deficiencies in which had hamstrung the success of the main event the previous year.

On the evidence of an informer, that great bane of Irish history, Cunningham was captured and charged with sedition at Clonmel 9-11 October 1799. A legal technicality caused the death sentence to be commuted to transportation to Botany Bay for life. In 1800 he was placed abroad the Anne, a 384 tonne foreign-built vessel, the third transport to carry rebel prisoners to New South Wales. Among the fellow prisoners was a veritable rogue’s gallery of United Irish rebels, including Manus Sheehy and Thomas ‘Captain Steel’ Langan of the Kerry/West Limerick United Irishmen, as well as Fr Peter O’Neill of Cork whose back was badly lacerated following a severe flogging.

Unsurprisingly there was a major mutiny. On 29 July 1800 Manus Sheehy seized the captain and first mate as they went into the ship’s prison to supervise fumigation. About thirty prisoners on deck sprang into action. Cunningham was one of the plotters. The mutiny, however, was unsuccessful. The ship’s crew quickly reasserted their authority. There was hell to pay for the mutineers. For his part Cunningham was dispatched to the hellhole of Norfolk Island, though he did not stay there long. His skills as a stonemason were needed in New South Wales and this probably saved him from further punishment. Assigned to duties in the government farming settlement at Castle Hill Cunningham ultimately became the overseer of government stonemasons.

Phil Cunningham did not knuckle under. Nor was he the most successful of rebels. With the fellow Anne convict, Conor Sheehan, in October 1802 Cunningham tried to abscond, seeking to join a departing French vessel. They did not get very far. Both were apprehended in Parramatta and received 100 lashes.

In 1804 Cunningham was reputedly building his own stone home, but the attractions of home ownership did not dissuade this rebel to modify his views. On 4 March he became the principal leader of the Irish rebels and uttered the republican battle cry, ‘Death or Liberty’. After addressing his followers at Toongabbie’s Constitution Hill Cunningham dispatched several columns to obtain guns and men prior to the planned attacks on Parramatta and Port Jackson. The tactics used by the United Irishmen in ’98 – massing centrally controlled forces on high ground sites-were again deployed.

After limited skirmishes and several successful raids in the Seven Hills/Pennant Hills areas, George Johnson of the NSW Corps staged a tactical coup by taking the battle to the rebels. Cunningham and his colleagues, William Johnson and Samuel Hume, two Protestant United Irish from the north of Ireland, had expected more of a lull in which to rally their troops. They sought a cease-fire. Johnson initially agreed, but then reneged, ordering his troops to open fire. Estimates of the numbers of casualties vary. Ruan O’Donnell says that 30 rebels were killed. The ‘official’ Vinegar Hill Bicentenary view is that fifteen rebels died. Martial law was declared for the first time in Australian history. Nine of the rebel leaders were hanged. A similar number was flogged. Dozens more were sent to Van Dieman’s Land or Coal River, working the coal mines beneath Fort Scratchley, thus founding the city of Newcastle. The event O’Donnell styles ‘the most serious insurrectionary challenge directed against the Australian state’ was over.

Typically, there is debate about what happened to Cunningham. One tradition has it that during the cease-fire negotiations with Johnson a certain Lieutenant Laycock, struck Cunningham with his rifle or shot him in the back, either the blow or the bullet killing him. Laycock was a giant of a man, six foot six tall, but he had the heart and human decency of a pea and was mentally unbalanced, perhaps partly due to syphilis. Another tradition has it that Cunningham initially escaped, perhaps wounded, but was captured on a patrol later that night or early on the morning of 6 March, whereupon he was taken to the Hawkesbury and hanged in a storehouse. It might be that the two theories can be married. Given the early nineteenth century notions of exemplary justice it is possible that Laycock did kill Cunningham, and the gibbeting of his body followed in order to show all the other croppy boys that the likes of George Johnson would take no prisoners. I’m pleased to note that as part of the present Bicentennial commemorations of Vinegar Hill, an historic marker has been unveiled on the site of the 1803 Government Store, at the corner of Windsor Road and George Street, Windsor, the site of Philip Cunningham’s hanging. It is also comforting that a wreath has been laid at the nearby convict burial ground where Philip Cunningham is believed buried.

The effect of the state repression was indeed salutary. Vinegar Hill extinguished the dying embers of rebelliousness among the Irish convicts, or at least their willingness to take up arms. The fighting of 1798 was at last over, on the hard ground of the Cumberland Plain in New South Wales rather than the lush fields of Ireland. Subsequently enjoying the patronage of Lachlan Macquarie, the Irish rebels excelled in other areas, in commerce, surveying, construction and exploration, and later formed the backbone of the Catholic Church. Even the most famous of all the transported United Irishmen, Michael Dwyer, the ‘Wicklow Chief’, largely confined his political activities to singing rebel songs in the pubs of the Hawkesbury. The United Irishmen who are remembered to the present day were the successful ones – the likes of Jimmy Meehan, the explorer and deputy surveyor general – who were strongly deferential to authority and politically quiescent. In the conservative narrative of nation building the incorrigible rebel Phil Cunningham is profoundly inconvenient. Even in Ireland the Castle Hill Rebellion continues to occupy a relatively low profile.

The case of Phil Cunningham supports Anne-Maree Whitaker’s analysis of the character of the uprising. In her outstanding book, , Dr Whitaker rebuts Patrick O’Farrell’s suggestion that the Irish were led to rebel at Castle Hill by semi-mystical impulses, ‘frustrations, sickness of heart, and impulses of afront in a word pride’. Cunningham was not just some silly Irish peasant; rather he was a hardened revolutionary. What he was on about, it seems, was returning to Ireland in order to assist Robert Emmett. News of Emmett’s rebellion had reached New South Wales in the prelude to Castle Hill. There is a way of telling the story of the Irish rebels’ rallying call, ‘Death or Liberty (and) a Boat Home’ that makes Vinegar Hill sound like a bad Irish joke. In reality it was a practical expression of the aspirations of Cunningham and his colleagues. The rebels were not merely homesick romantics, as Lynette Ramsay Silver also implies. For the likes of Phil Cunningham the attachments of home were not simply the familiar sights of Clonmel and Co Tipperary, the soft light and verdant landscape of Ireland, or the delights of family and community, but the important political agenda of liberating their country from its colonialist oppressor.

Ruan O’Donnell, “Marked for Botany Bay”: The Wicklow United Irishmen and the development of political transportation from Ireland 1791-1806’, PhD thesis, Australian National University, 1996.
Ruan O’Donnell, ‘Philip Cunningham: Clonmel’s Insurgent leader of 1798’,
Tipperary History Journal, 1998. (For this reference I am extremely grateful to Dr Ann-Maree Whitaker.)
Ruan O’Donnell, ‘Liberty or Death’: The United Irishmen in New South Wales 1800-4’ in Thomas Bartlett, David Dickson, Daire Keogh and Kevin Whelan (eds) 1798. A Bicentenary Perspective, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2003, pp.607-619.
Ann-Maree Whitaker, Unfinished Revolution, Crossing Press, Sydney, 1994.
Patrick O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia, NSW University Press, Sydney, 1987.

(1) H.I. Jensen, ‘The Darwin Rebellion’, Labour History, 11, November 1966, p. 3 claims: ‘Australia has had only three uprisings against constitutional authority. The first was the Rum Rebellion in 1808, the second the Eureka Stockade in 1854, and the third was the Darwin uprising in 1919’.