In 1802 The Union of Ireland and Great Britain came into being and the Irish Parliament was abandoned. Bitterness between Protestants and Catholics increased and class divisions between nobility and peasants resulted in an unsettled population. In the midst of this, a generation of nationalist intellectuals began plotting in an attempt to upset the political status quo.
Daniel O’Connell, the great Irish liberator, and pacifist enabled, in 1829, the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Bill, meaning that Catholics could sit alongside Protestants in the British Parliament. O’Connell’s fight for the repeal of the Act of Union between Ireland and Great Britain and the subsequent formation of the Repeal Association resulted in the birth of the Young Irelanders movement. Unlike O’Connell’s association, the Young Irelanders were a more radical group of intellectual activists.
By 1846, and with Ireland in the grip of a devastating famine, Thomas Mitchell, a leader of the Young Irelanders, wrote about the intolerable situation whereby Britain exported grain and meat for monetary gain rather than allowing the Irish farmers to retain sufficient food from their farms because they were obliged to sell in order to pay high rents to landlords.
The Young Irelanders, tired of O’Connell’s moderate approach, broke away from the Repeal Association and formed The Irish Confederation. O’Connell’s death on May 15th, 1847 enabled Thomas Mitchell to push towards rebellion. He established the United Irishmen newspaper in which his articles encouraged the use of force to oppose the British imperial politics.
To further stir nationalistic sentiments the Tricolour flag of the confederation was raised by Thomas Meagher, another Young Irelander, on March 7th, 1848, in Waterford.
On May 13th, 1848, Mitchell was arrested for treason and was sentenced to 14 years transportation. In June he was shipped to the prison hulks in Bermuda and eventually he was sent to Van Diemen’s land in 1850. His arrest and transportation, however, did not end the rebellious thoughts but instead stirred the Confederates into action. And so on July 29th, 1848, in Ballingarry, County Tipperary, William Smith O’Brien was among a group of Irishmen, mostly peasants, who attempted an uprising that failed dismally.
O’Brien and Thomas Meagher, Terence MacManus, Kevin O’Doherty, John Martin, and Patrick O’Donohoe were all arrested and were all sentenced to death, however, a massive campaign for reprieve saw their sentences commuted to life imprisonment and they were all, in July 1849, transported to Van Diemen’s Land.
After the July 1848 Ballingarry Uprising, in which he was not directly involved, P.J. Smyth escaped to America where he worked as a journalist and became involved with the New York Irish Directory, a group of sympathetic Irish Nationalists who wanted to see the Young Irelanders freed from Vaan Diemen’s Land. With their encouragement, he traveled to Van Diemen’s Land to arrange the escape of one or more of the Young Irelanders..
Patrick Smyth arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in January 1853. He met with Mitchel and the pair later met with O’Brien as well. Mitchel made the decision to escape. Mitchel and Smyth returned to Bothwell to make plans. Mitchell had given Patrick Smyth the nickname Nicaragua after P.J. had described his support for American plans to build a railroad in Nicaragua. In order for his escape to be honourable it was agreed that Mitchell would inform the authorities of his intention to escape and the withdrawal of his ticket of leave. P.J. Smyth needed to bribe the police to enable the escape because a tip-off had seen many police arrive in Bothwell and delay their plans. Mitchel handed over his letter to the Assistant Police Magistrate and strode from the door of the police station where he mounted a horse, and together with P.J., rode triumphantly down the main street of Bothwell. Mitchel, having missed the original ship, hid in the bush for six weeks, assisted by colonists. Several failed escape attempts followed before a disguised Mitchell re-connected with Smyth in Hobart Town and his passage on the Emma was organised. Also on-board the passenger ship were P.J. Smyth, Jenny Mitchell, and her children.
William Smith O’Brien was incarcerated on Maria Island for refusing to accept a ticket of leave, probably because he knew that escaping would contradict his parole conditions, and thus he would be branded an escaped felon. His first escape attempt was financed by the Irish Directory and involved him boarding a ship, bound for California when it docked at Maria Island. As O’Brien waded out to a waiting dinghy he was apprehended by the local constable and was subsequently transferred to Port Arthur. He eventually accepted a ticket of leave and was able to meet up with Mitchell, MacManus, O’Donohoe, and O’Doherty.
Terence MacManus was the first to escape. With the help of sympathetic locals, he was able to smuggle himself on board the clipper Elizabeth Thompson bound for San Francisco. Thomas Meagher, who had married a local girl, made his escape also. Having advised the local magistrate by letter of his withdrawal of his parole and his intention to escape, he was able to escape on the Elizabeth Thompson. After disembarking in Brazil he then made his way to New York and received a rapturous welcome.
O’Brien, Martin, and O’Doherty received pardons in 1854. PJ. Smyth was in Melbourne when the news of the pardons arrived. He had returned to Australia to try and organise their escape but instead, he traveled to Van Diemen’s to arrange O’Brien’s departure from the Island.
Patrick Smyth married a Tasmanian girl, Jeannie Regan, at St Joseph’s Church, Hobart, in 1855 and in 1856 he returned to Ireland where he worked as a newspaperman, briefly owning The Irishman. He was made a chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. became involved in politics and was elected to Parliament as a member for Westmeath and later Tipperary before his death in early 1885.
On his return to Ireland, Smyth was elected a Home Rule Party Member of Parliament for Westmeath at a by-election on 17 June 1871, and was re-elected in 1874. At the 1880 general election, he did not seek re-election in Westmeath, but stood instead in Tipperary, where he was elected unopposed. He left the House of Commons at the end of 1884, when he was appointed as Secretary to the Irish Loan Fund Board.
In 1871, Smyth was made chevalier of the Légion d’honneur.