By Sean MacGlade
‘There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Duggan was his name
He was born and bred in Ireland, near a place called
Actually the real hero of the ballad was called Jack Donohue, and he was from Dublin. But the composer could be excused his artistic licence for the subject of the song was a notorious outlaw and any words in his honour would be seriously frowned upon by the authorities.
Jack was a member of that lawless breed of men known as bushrangers, who were the terror of Australia in its early days. These men were often of Irish background (as indeed were the police and troopers who hunted them) and very often had suffered transportation for sometimes fairly minor crimes. Jack Donohue was a typical case. Convicted at the age of 19 for ‘intent to commit a felony’, he was sentenced to exile in Australia.
During his imprisonment there he was twice given fifty lashes for infringement of prison rules before making his escape with two other inmates called Kilroy and Smith.
Together they formed a gang called ‘The Strippers’ due to their practise of stripping their wealthy victims of all their possessions. They were popular with the common folk who supplied them with information as well as food and shelter.
In 1828, Donohue was arrested with his accomplices on a charge of robbery. Kilroy and Smith were hanged but Jack once again made his escape and a reward of £20 was posted for his capture – raised just a year later to £200.
The fugitive joined up with about a dozen other desperados called the ‘Wild Colonial Boys’, who roved the outback on a mammoth crime spree.
Eventually, Donohoe was tracked down by the forces of law and order, dying during a shootout with troops in Bringelly, New South Wales. He was 26 years old.
Another man in the same mould was Harry Power. He was born in Waterford but grew up in England from where he was transported to Australia at the age of 21 for theft.
After serving his time, he was freed and moved to Sydney where he went straight for a while, until two troopers tried to wrongly arrest him.
A struggle ensued, and Power fled the scene having shot and wounded both officers. Another spell of imprisonment followed this episode, and Power had reached the age of 50 by the time he was again free.
Undaunted, the luckless Irishman resumed his career in crime with the aid, it seems, of a certain sixteen year-old desperado called Ned Kelly.
For a while Power flourished at his profession, but he was finally betrayed by an acquaintance and went back to jail again. Ironically, on his release he took up a job as tour guide on the prison hulk, ‘Success’ – one of his many previous places of incarceration. He died from drowning in the Murray River whilst engaged in the peaceful pursuit of fishing.
Another in this canon of criminality is Andrew Scott – better known as Captain Moonlight. Born in Rathfriland, Co. Down, he was the son of an Anglican clergyman. The family moved to New Zealand in 1861 and Scott served in the Maori Wars as an officer, being wounded at the Battle of Orakau.
Claiming to be repelled by the horrors of war, he aspired to follow his father into the priesthood but somehow got sidetracked into committing bank robbery under the pseudonym of ‘Captain Moonlight’. He was jailed for this but escaped with the aid of another prisoner, seized a warder and released several other convicts in a mass breakout. Recaptured, he spent six years behind bars but immediately resumed his villainous ways upon his release.
When he and his criminal gang were cornered and captured, Scott nobly tried to take all the blame for their wrongdoing. This was partially successful as only the leader himself was hanged along with the most senior member of his band.
The other, younger men were spared the noose and given another chance to redeem themselves as honest citizens. For Captain Moonlight, the respectable clergyman’s son, it was perhaps the only honourable way to end his life of shame.
By the end of the 19th century and with the advance of civilization, the trade of bushranging was on the decline but there were still a few lawless diehards who persisted in the old ways. Known as the ‘last of the bushrangers’, brothers James and Patrick Kenniff were the sons of an Irish immigrant who enthusiastically took up the career of cattle and horse thieving. In 1902 a warrant was issued for their arrest and a posse track them down to a remote campsite in the Australian outback.
James was apprehended but Patrick escaped and later returned to rescue his brother and gun down his captors.
For this crime, he was hanged the following year while James served out a sentence of twelve years before dying in 1940, aged 71 – very probably the final living ‘Wild Colonial Boy’.