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Image credit: "Escape of Fenian convicts from Fremantle, West Australia" 1876 by unknown creator. Credit: State Library Victoria

Reverend Dillon: Cockatoo Island’s controversial clergyman

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During Cockatoo Island’s convict era (1839-60), inmates atoned for their crimes through hard labour. For a brief period of time, the God-fearing could also confide in – and seek spiritual absolution from – Reverend George Francis Dillon.

As volunteer researcher Michele Harper writes, Reverend Dillon’s tenure as Cockatoo Island’s Roman Catholic Chaplain was supposedly cut-short due to his views on the Crown.

Reverend George Francis Dillon was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1836 and, in his 25th year, departed his home country to serve as a Catholic missionary in Australia. Three years later, in 1864, he was appointed to St Augustine’s in Balmain and also as a visiting Catholic clergyman to Cockatoo Island.

Dillon’s dismissal

In February 1867, newspapers reported rumours that Reverend Dillon had been removed from his office on Cockatoo Island.

Specifically, it was said that Reverend Dillon was removed for “having given expression to sentiments in favour of the Fenian movement in Ireland” and for taking the Sisters of Charity with him on visits, “in defiance of several remonstrances”. The Fenians were a secret brotherhood dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland and, at the time, there was widespread distrust of Irish Catholics in the colony.

The Catholic press

No official reason was given by the Government for the removal of the Reverend Dillon from Cockatoo Island. At the time, the Catholic Church decided not to appoint a replacement as it would imply wrongdoing by Dillon. Meanwhile, Catholic newspapers reported the consequences of Dillon’s withdrawal for the Island, which included the lack of religious instruction, convicts dying without Catholic rites, and the increase of bad language and behaviour. 

Henry Parkes, the Colonial Secretary, was blamed for the dismissal of Dillon from his post at Cockatoo Island with Catholic newspapers calling for an enquiry.

Later life and work

Dillon moved to Rome in 1882 because of ill-health and was made a ‘Monsignor’ by Pope Leo XIII two years later. Dillon published a number of books on religious topics, including An Irish missionary in the Australian bush; his life, labours and death. Dillon later died on 29 January 1893 in Rome.

About the image

This engraving depicts the escape of the Fenian convicts from Fremantle, Western Australia. 

While this image depicts Fenian convicts in Western Australia, Fremantle prison it has thematic ties to this story. In addition to Reverend Dillon's supposed position on the Fenian movement, both Fremantle prison and Cockatoo Island's are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list as Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Properties


  • The Sydney Mail, Saturday, February 23, 1867, page 2
  • The Goulburn Herald and Chronicle, Wednesday, February 27, 1867, page 4
  • The Queenslander.  Saturday 30 March 1867, Page 9
  • The Freeman’s Journal, Saturday June 8, 1867, page 8
  • National Museum of Australia, Reid, Richard, Not Just Ned:  A True History of the Irish in Australia.  Irish in Australian Background.

Article was originally published on 16 June 2022.


Reverend Dillon was controversially removed as visiting Catholic Chaplain to Cockatoo Island.


– Michele

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