Major exhibition explores New Bedford’s curious role in Irish history from the 18th century through the famous “Easter Rising” in 1916

Famine, Friends and Fenians opens October 21st

A Symposium on Irish Affairs will be held on October 22nd

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. – Famine, Friends and Fenians, a major exhibition at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, explores New Bedford’s curious role in Irish history from the 18th century through the famous “Easter Rising” in 1916. Famine, Friends and Fenians opens on October 21, 2016 and runs through October 2017. The Whaling Museum hosts an opening reception on Friday October 21 beginning at 6 pm. This is a free public event. A symposium on Irish and Irish-American history takes place at the Museum on Saturday, October 22, 9 am-5 pm. To register for the symposium call 508-997-0046 ext. 100. Symposium tickets are $50 for Museum members; $65 for non-members.

Famine, Friends and Fenians is a story that can only be told in New Bedford. It weaves through three centuries of struggle both in the US and in Ireland, starting as early as 1776 and running up to the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916. The exhibit looks at New Bedford’s extraordinary charitable role during the Irish famine, and how that Quaker community supported efforts to relieve the plight of starving peasants in Ireland.

It continues through Frederick Douglass when he left the US and went to Ireland for fear of being captured and returned to the south as an escaped slave. He met Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s “Great Liberator” who through political means wrangled political freedoms for Catholics. During the US Civil War, Irishmen like General Thomas Meagher, commander of the famous 69th Battalion, won fame on the battlefield. Meagher is recognized for unfurling the Irish tricolor for the first time in 1848.

At sea, Confederate raiders targeted New Bedford whalers. Following the war, reparations were sought from Great Britain for outfitting these raiders. The law offices of Crapo, Gifford and Gifford argued this case along with Senator Sumner of Massachusetts. He argued for a hefty sum in compensation and added that Canada should be thrown in as a down payment. Militant Irish-Americans, battle-tested in the Civil War, heard this demand and yearned to strike a blow at the Crown. They invaded Canada twice in 1866 and 1870. While both attacks failed, these attacks acted as a spur for the confederation of Canada.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, militants schemed to throw off the shackles of British rule. As often was the case, these treasonous acts were uncovered and the ringleaders either executed or sent to jail with harsh prison terms. John Boyle O’Reilly and other militants were sent to Australia, sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor. He escaped with the aid of Captain Gifford and Henry Hathaway aboard the New Bedford whaler GAZELLE. What happened soon after is perhaps the greatest prison break story of the 19th century. O’Reilly, along with other Irish Americans devised a daring plan to outfit another whaler, the CATALPA, and under that ruse of whaling off Fremantle, Australia sprang six prisoners from under the noses of the authorities. The daring rescue is described in detail in the exhibition. The captain of the CATALPA was Captain George Anthony, a New Bedford Quaker by birth with no Irish ancestry. When threatened by cannon, he proclaimed “if you fire on this ship, you fire on the American flag.” He came home as the conquering hero and his actions were so highly regarded that in 1920, Eamon DeValera, the President of Ireland visited New Bedford expressly to lay a wreath on Anthony’s grave.

The Whaling Museum is partnering with these organizations and institutions to present Famine, Friends and Fenians: National Museums Ireland, Collins Barracks, Dublin, Ireland, Irish National Park Service, Ballycroy, Co. Mayo, Belvedere College, Dublin, Ireland, Parks Canada, Crossing the Lines Films, Australia, Essential Media, Australia, Fremantle Prison, Western Australia, John Boyle O’Reilly Association, Western Australia, Boston College High School, Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, Fort Tabor Military Museum, Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University, Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, New Bedford Historical Society, The Charitable Irish Society, The Egan Maritime Institute, The Eire Society, The Standard Times.

Contact: Gayle Hargreaves
Director of Marketing
New Bedford Whaling Museum
508-997-0046 Ext. 139 (office)


About the New Bedford Whaling Museum
The New Bedford Whaling Museum is the world's most comprehensive museum devoted to the global story of human interaction with whales through time, and the history and culture of the South Coast region. The cornerstone of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, the Museum is located at 18 Johnny Cake Hill in the heart of the city's historic downtown. Museum hours April through December: Daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Museum is open until 8 p.m. every second Thursday of the month. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is: Free for Museum members and children aged three and under; adults $16, seniors (65+) $14, students (19+) $9, child and youth $6. For more information, visit



Bark CATALPA. By Charles Sidney Raleigh. Donated by Mrs. James A. Ryan in 1961.



Cutting in a Sperm Whale, Bark CATALPA. By Charles Raleigh. Gift of Mr. Benjamin Cummings, 1918; conservation treatment made possible through the interest of Mrs. Alfred I. DuPont and Charles Sidney Raleigh.



The Catalpa: The Rescuers and the Rescued. Lithograph



Medal for Heroic Services in the CATALPA Expedition presented to Samuel Smith, First Mate.