Antipodal Ireland and Tasmanian Underworlds: John Mitchel and William Moore Ferrar


The Central Highlands of Tasmania is an unlikely antipodes of Irish writing, but it is a region that has complex representations by exiled and immigrant Irish writers. The picturesque landscape of the Highlands in the Young Irelander John Mitchel’s Jail Journal (1856) is well known; less well known is the writing of William Moore Ferrar, born in Dublin in 1823 and who emigrated to New South Wales, then Van Diemen’s Land, as a free settler in 1843. His novel Artabanzanus: The Demon of the Great Lake: An Allegorical Romance of Tasmania: Arranged from the Diary of the Late Oliver Ubertus (1896) represents a vision of an ideal surface world and a hellish underground. Dedicated to Arthur James Balfour, and dramatising the issue of Irish home rule, Ferrar’s novel is an eccentric but multi-faceted instance of the Irish-Tasmanian imaginary.  

This article explores the seemingly chance parallels between the lives of Irish political prisoners sent to Van Diemen’s Land in the mid-nineteenth century, some of whom wrote about their experience in Tasmania, and an instance of the literary re-imagining of the geography and landscape of central Tasmania by the Irish immigrant writer William Moore Ferrar. These originally Irish transplants to Tasmania knew little, if anything, about each other even though they lived in close proximity over several years and in one of the most remote locations of British colonial settlement. This discussion begins with the associative literary links in their writings between both the political contentions of the subjugated Ireland they had experienced, and that they remembered, and the remote locations in which they found themselves, sometimes by choice and for life, sometimes for shorter periods of imprisonment and exile. These writers’ literal and literary geographies vary in their calculus of representation: in John Mitchel’s Jail Journal there is a constant shift of the mind and affect between the diaristic world of his everyday life and the imaginary translation of his island prison (McMahon 7). William Ferrar’s novel Artabanzanus: The Demon of the Great Lake is entirely enclosed in the generics of fantasy and its geography of surface and underworld. The experience and history of Irish nationalism is a disruptive force in both these instances of the Tasmanian insular imaginary.

Political Prisoners

Fifteen ‘Young Irelanders’ were transported to Tasmania between 1849 and 1850. These political activists were a very diverse group, some of them well educated, some Irish gentry, a mixture of Protestant and Catholic. Their leaders, William Smith O’Brien, John Mitchel and Thomas Meagher had all been active in the legal, political and journalistic organisation of the Young Ireland movement and in the lead up to the rebellions of 1848. After their conviction and transportation for various crimes of sedition and treason Mitchel, John Martin and Meagher were sent, on provisional tickets of leave, to police districts in the Tasmanian highlands near Bothwell and Ross. Others of the Irish transportees were incarcerated at Maria Island or Port Arthur (like Smith O’Brien) or sent to other districts of central Tasmania such as Campbell Town and Oatlands (Kevin Izod O’Doherty). Mitchel lived at Nant cottage, to the north of Bothwell. In his Jail Journal, published serially in New York in the Citizen in 1854 and later that year as a book, he wrote about arriving in Tasmania in the convict transport Neptune in April 1850. Here he describes the approach to Hobart via the d’Entrecasteaux Channel:

The mountainous southern coast of Van Diemen’s Land! It is a soft blue day; soft airs, laden with all the fragrances of those Antarctic woods, weave an atmosphere of ambrosia around me. As we coast along over the placid waters, passing promontory after promontory, wooded to the water’s edge and ‘glassing their ancient glories to the flood’, both sea and land seem to bask and rejoice in the sunshine. (The Gardens of Hell 32)1

Mitchel’s perception of Van Diemen’s Land is divided from the beginning, between his romantic evocations of the geography and a hyperbolic view of the English penal settlement:

We are becalmed in the channel; but can see the huge mass of Mount Wellington ending to the eastward in steep cliffs. In the valley at the foot of those cliffs as they tell me, bosomed in soft green hills, bowered in shady gardens, with its feet kissed by the blue ripples of the Derwent – lies that metropolis of murderers and university of burglars and all subter-human abomination, Hobart Town. (The Gardens of Hell 33)

The Romantic scene of the Interlaken district was where Mitchel would rendezvous secretly, at a shepherd’s hut, with his fellow political prisoners Martin, O’Doherty and Meagher, on the borders of their police districts. Their conversations as related in Mitchel’s journal were always about Ireland and the politics of nationalism. The imagery of upper and lower worlds in Mitchel’s perception of his residence in the high lake country allows him a kind of transcendence over the underworld of the penal settlement:

One charm of the lake country is its elevation; high above all the odious [convict] stations, and townships, and the whole world of convictism and scoundreldom, we find ourselves, as we float on these aerial waters amongst the very mountain peaks, two thousand feet nearer to the stars than the mob of gaolers and prisoners that welter and wither below. So are we among them, but not of them. (The Gardens of Hell 72)

Mitchel’s journal has a number of memorable passages celebrating the natural beauty of the Tasmanian central highlands, often with poetic citations: ‘why should not Lake Sorell also be famous [as European Romantic landscapes]? Where gleams and ripples, purer, glassier water mirroring a brighter sky? Where does the wild duck find securer nest than under a tea-tree fringe, O lake of the south!’ (Jail Journal 286).2 Sometimes, though, Mitchel’s writing about Tasmania is the reverse of Romantic. He also thinks of Tasmania as illegitimate and deformed: ‘a small misshapen, transported, bastard England; and the legitimate England itself is not so dear to me that I can love the convict copy’ (Young Irelanders). For Mitchel, though, even this sense of Van Diemen’s Land’s hellish nature is inflected by its literary aspects:

The subterranean and altogether infernal mood of mind is helped by some of the names that the early colonists have given to hills and rivers. In Bothwell district we have a ravine called ‘Hell’s Gates’, through whose dismal shade you pass to a hill overlooking the junction of two rivers, a steep and grassy hill, embowered with thickets of mimosa, but bearing the awful name – ‘Hill of Blazes’. Into the Derwent, near New Norfolk flows the river ‘Styx’; and Charon’s ferry-boat never touched the bank of Asphodel meadows so fair as the tufted hills that are laved by the crystalline waters of this Tasmanian hell-stream, named of hatred. Flows here, too, the real Lethe, and men grow like Lethe’s own fat weeds, that rot themselves at ease. There is darkness around us, and a sulphury smell. (The Gardens of Hell 79)

The Tasmanian highlands, then, were the mid-nineteenth-century site of the ambivalent experience of transportation and exile for leading figures in the history of Irish political independence.3 Mitchel’s embroidering of the hellishness of the Tasmanian toponymy reflects, in an equivalent investment of imaginative energy to his Romanticising of the lacustrine highlands, the other half of the duality of Van Diemen’s Land in the transported imagination.

Of the Irish political exiles Ferrar, an Irish free settler who had lived and travelled in the same district from the late 1840s, mentions only Thomas Francis Meagher – ‘he of the drawn sword and “Irish Invincible”’ – in his novel Artabanzanus: The Demon of the Great Lake.4 Ferrar would have known about the Irish exiles in his district from various press reports, but it does not appear he had any contact with them. Ferrar had migrated to Van Diemen’s Land from Dublin in the early 1840s and settled in the midlands in 1847. Artabanzanus was published in 1896 and is subtitled ‘An Allegorical Romance of Tasmania, Arranged from the Diary of the Late Oliver Ubertus’. As non-realist narratives of re-imagined geographies, cross-cultural politics (colony and empire) and fraught relationships, allegorical romances belong to a hugely diverse genre with a classic era that stretches across the nineteenth century. Ferrar’s fiction, a frame tale embedded within the story of a family and its settled English locale, imagines the antipodean settler-pastoralists’ Tasmanian highlands as the entrance to underground worlds, both heavenly and infernal. This geo-imaginary setting is the stage for a moral allegory of ‘kind, liberal, charitable, and sincerely religious’ power versus the ‘follies and vices of mankind’ personified in the demons of an underworld and their leader Artabanzanus (Artabanzanus, ‘Epilogue’ 314). Ferrar’s narrative, though, relies at crucial points on disruptions from the transported politics of Irish nationalism.

Antipodal Tasmania

The Van Diemen’s Land that Mitchel and Ferrar wrote about was one of those ‘blank space[s] of delightful mystery [. . .] for a boy to dream gloriously over’ on European imperial maps that Conrad’s narrator Marlow refers to in Heart of Darkness (14). From its discovery by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642, Van Diemen’s Land, only much later Tasmania, was one of the richest locales of the northern geo-imaginary in the southern hemisphere, a fragment of a coastline. With its startling appearance in the imaginary cartography of the frontispiece to the first edition of Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Tasmania is a kind of geo-literary zygote, an embryonic image of one of the antipodal inception points of the English novel. Then with its long history of insularisation, which took until one hundred and sixty years after Tasman’s discovery to complete, Tasmania eventually merges into the vast discourse of islandology and Island Studies (see Shell; McMahon). As the last outpost of human settlement for Edgar Allen Poe’s hero in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1837) on his expedition to the Antarctic, Tasmania appears in a further guise as the Ultima Thule of the southern hemisphere. Another overlay involves the various retro-fittings of southern hemisphere geography that reflect Dante’s influential cosmography, as in A. D. Hope’s poem ‘Ascent into Hell’. Hope’s poem is a kind of clinamen of the first canto of the Inferno, beginning as it does with an imaginary address to the first person of Dante, swerving away into the theme of childhood memory and switching Dante’s metaphorics of light and dark:

I, too, at the mid-point, in a well-lit wood

Of second-rate purpose and mediocre success,

Explore in dreams the never-never of childhood,

Groping in daylight for the key of darkness.

Like Dante, Hope is a pilgrim who has lost his way but who is impelled on a different journey. This connection of The Divine Comedy’s opening to the Tasmanian imaginary is also plain in Peter Conrad’s Down Home: Revisiting Tasmania (1988) which begins: ‘About halfway through my life – at least I hope my sums are right – I began to wonder about what I had lost’ (3). In Hope’s ‘Ascent into Hell’, though, more consistently antipodal than Conrad’s, the poet refers to the fictive realm of childhood as ‘the never-never’, alluding to a distant, uninhabited interior, a spatial representation of the self with recognisably national toponymy. There is also a secondary meaning of never-never, possibly with Indigenous provenance, as the abode of the dead, that is perhaps an association, in Hope’s mind, with Dante’s mythic geography of Hell. Hope’s reimagining of Dante provides the strange dualities of the poem: childhood and birth, Tasmanian dreamscapes, death and Hell. Conrad was born and grew up in Tasmania, while Hope spent most of his childhood there, but neither acknowledges the full hemispherical geography of Dante’s narrative, with the emergence of Dante and Virgil out of hell on to the reedy marshland at the base of the southern Mount of Purgatory. Though with Van Diemen’s Land’s later convict history it is easy to see how it becomes figured by various writers, such as Mathew Kneale in his English Passengers (2000), as either Hell or Purgatory, whatever their immediate knowledge of Dante. After the conflicted dreamscape of dread and violence that Hope’s poem about childhood enacts, it ends with a line the speaker of the poem is barely able to enunciate, out of fear: the quotation from the Inferno that ends the poem is the final line of the inscription on the lintel above the door into the underworld, or in Hope’s antipodal nightmare, the ‘birth-gate’ or imagined entry into the world, a place that looks and feels like Hell: ‘Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate,’ Abandon hope, all who enter here.

Fantasy Island

There are many aspects to the literary geo-imaginary of Tasmania but here I emphasise the particular nexus of Dante, the underworld and various antipodal refigurings because of its dynamic role in the work of Ferrar. Ferrar’s fiction is an instance of the conflicted geo-imaginary of Tasmania, written from the colonised global south but relying on the antipodal generics of northern allegorical romance. Ferrar was born in Dublin in 1823, the son of a medical practitioner. He attended:

Dr Geoghegan’s School, after which he commenced employment as a bank clerk. At the age of nineteen he immigrated, first to Sydney and then to Tasmania, having accepted the invitation of his Dickson cousins to take up residence and assist with farm duties at their pastoral estate, Plassy [Plassey], on the outskirts of Ross, in the northern midlands [of Tasmania]. (Adkins 197)

Ferrar’s relatives, the Dicksons, had immigrated to Van Diemen’s Land from Ireland, in 1830, where the father, Bassett Dickson, had been a cotton-mill proprietor in Limerick. They were granted 2,000 acres in the Ross district:

After only a few months, in 1843 [Ferrar] was appointed assistant superintendent of the Salt Water River Probation Station on [the] Tasman Peninsula. He returned to Plassy [Plassey] in 1847 [so he was four years as convict station superintendent], marrying the eldest daughter, Eliza Dickson, and subsequently taking ownership of Plassy [Plassey], where he and Eliza lived for the rest of their lives. (Adkins 197, fn. 3)5

Ferrar is of interest to historians of settler Tasmania because some of his diaries and farm journals, spanning the years 1840 to 1873, have survived. They record personal, family and farming matters of life at Plassey but they are also a detailed record of his reading and book ownership and are therefore of interest to book historians such as Keith Adkins, who has published in Script & Print about Ferrar’s books and reading.6 Adkins’s analysis of the diaries evidences Ferrar’s lifelong reading of Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Bulwer Lytton, Plutarch, Pope, and many others. Adkins also tracks the circulation of books in colonial Tasmania and thus Ferrar’s purchasing of books from Hobart and Launceston (and also directly from London), his borrowing from ‘community or subscription’ libraries in Ross and Evandale, and also his borrowing and buying of books from friends. Ferrar’s diary entry for 9 March, 1868, for example, gives a description of such a visit:

Started in dogcart with Eliza and Janey to pay a visit to Mr Robert Bayles at Vaucluse, called Eggleston, got to Vaucluse in time for dinner. It is a princely residence. Mrs Bayles played on the harmonium, rowed in a boat on the South Esk with Miss Williams, Eliza and Janey. Mr and Mrs Joseph Bayles were there. Turned over some of the books in the library, where there are several thousand. (Adkins 204)

This would have been a full day’s journey by horse and cart. The story of such a remote colonial outpost, north-east of Campbell Town, on the South Esk River, being home to ‘several thousand’ books reflects the book buying and borrowing networks of settlers like Bayles and Ferrar and, in Ferrar’s case, the assiduity of his literary pursuits. Ferrar’s diaries also record his reading of The Quarterly Review and the popular weekly Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal.

Ferrar published a number of fictional works, beginning with his first novel, The Maxwells of Bremgarten, A Story of Tasmania [Founded on Facts], about an Irish family that migrates to Tasmania and is granted land in the Vale of Avoca. The Bayles’s ‘Vaucluse’ was at the western end of the road into the Vale of Avoca.7 This first full-length novel to appear in a Tasmanian newspaper was first published in twenty monthly subscription instalments (1/- each) commencing 1859 (under the pseudonym Ferdinand Ferntree) and then in serial form in the Launceston Examiner (commencing 6 April, 1867). The advertisement in the Hobart Town Courier (19 November, 1858) announced that ‘This Work is intended to illustrate the early History of Tasmania, and will be found of great local interest’ (Maxwells of Bremgarten). Clearly the narrative draws on the histories of the Dickson family and Ferrar and their Van Demonian settler lives, as well settler friends such as the Bayles. But it is also ‘deeply indebted to the romantic fiction of Sir Walter Scott, whose tales of border outlawry, and of honour precariously maintained, are transported to Van Diemen’s Land at the time of Governor Arthur’, when there was frontier violence with Aboriginals and bushrangers (Pierce 92–93). Real historical figures such as Governor Arthur and Jorgen Jorgenson make appearances and the overall perspective is one of presenting the first era of settlement from twenty or so years in the past. The ‘Letter of Introduction’ to the Examiner serial version reassures the reader, though, that this narrative, now that Tasmania is a free colony, ‘thanks to the liberal policy of the English nation’, aims to ‘avoid as much as possible’ the ‘painful and delicate subject’ of convict transportation, at least as is consistent with the ‘unbiased narrative of the facts upon which my story is founded’. Likewise, the killing times belong to the past: ‘outrages upon life and property, though still sometimes committed, are far less numerous than they formerly were’ (Maxwells of Bremgarten). This serial novel is an historico-realist narrative about the dispossessing ‘class of enlightened settlers – honest, courageous, and hospitable, who having commenced with small capitals and no small share of resolution, are now possessed of great wealth’ (Maxwells of Bremgarten). But it does include a lot of detail about the geography of Tasmanian settlement. In the 1870s, Ferrar also published The Dream of Ubertus (J. Walch & Sons), a ‘short fantastic tale’ about an imaginary city, Sparta (not the classical Greek city, but a version of Launceston as his diary suggests) and the ‘romance’ of its volunteer militia. Then in 1885 he published The Sun of Righteousness and the Dark River: An Essay on Christianity and Freethought (Elliot Stock, London and J. Walch & Sons, Hobart) (Adkins 209, 208). This three hundred and sixty-two page book was dedicated to Ferrar’s brother the Rev. Edward Ferrar, Prebendary of White Church, Diocese of Ferns, Ireland (County Wexford) (Adkins 208).

Lakeland and Below

Ferrar’s most notable work is his final novel, Artabanzanus: The Demon of the Great Lake. An Allegorical Romance of Tasmania. Arranged From the Diary of the Late Oliver Ubertus, published in London in 1896. The novel comes with a dedication to ‘the right honourable Arthur James Balfour’ that makes its political positionality very obvious. Balfour was the Scottish-born Chief Secretary for Ireland in the Conservative Disraeli government and later leader of the government under Lord Salisbury, then Prime Minister from 1903 to 1905. He was responsible for some reform of the absentee landlord system in Ireland (Land Acts) but, at the same time, was against Home Rule. The dedication to Balfour is one of the lines of connection between the novel and the politics of nineteenth-century Ireland. Ferrar recorded in his diary in 1895 writing to a cousin in Ireland, that the novel ‘was against Home Rule in humorous fashion’ and asking his cousin to see if it could be ‘reviewed in some Unionist papers in Belfast and Dublin’ (Adkins 211).

The novel begins with a fourteen-year-old narrator, Willie, recalling the unheralded visit of an ancient relative to the family home in ‘one of the most beautiful recesses of the coast of Devonshire’ (2). Willie’s (and his sister’s) great-grandfather, Oliver Ubertus, had been born ‘not far from this very place, exactly ninety-five years ago’ (3). Ubertus, who had immigrated to Tasmania, has left his small estate there to the narrator’s parents and it is therefore ‘destined to become mine’ he writes (6). The narrative that follows is the autobiographical work which the boy’s great-grandfather tells him, ‘a history of the trials and temptations to which I have been exposed. My great enemy is living still, and as active and determined as ever. Whether he is the king of evil himself, or merely a satrap of his empires, I cannot tell. The work I leave behind me fully describes him, and the conflicts I had with him’ (6). The story is set in the lakeland of the Tasmanian highlands, initially around Lake Sorell where the Young Irelanders Mitchel, Martin and Meagher were exiled. Ferrar seems oblivious to the presence of the Irish exiles and their struggles for Irish independence in his own adopted district in Tasmania, although references to Irish Home Rule appear in the novel at a number of crucial, dramatic turns in the narrative.

Oliver Ubertus is a ‘wool-grower and visionary’ (8) who writes at the beginning of his narrative, on a visit to Lake Sorell, that ‘some idea of writing and publishing a book about these wonderful Tasmanian lakes, that would astonish the world and shake it up to the centre of its cold, selfish heart, entered into my mind and became a dreamy fascination which I could not shake off’ (10). This is where the first of the Dantesque allusions of the narrative occurs: ‘I am travelling now through a very thick, dark forest, along a snake-like track which winds round the northern shore, and I find myself booked for a weary, solitary tramp of at least twenty miles. I thought I should never get out of that forest . . . (10). He sees a ‘phantom island’ in the lake, suspended like the black hull of a huge ship, rising only a few feet above the surface of the water, and yet seeming to be suspended over it like the flying island of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (12).8 There are bushfires raging at Interlaken, between Lake Sorell and Lake Crescent. Later that night Ubertus ventures back to the lake, where he is overcome by a mesmeric trance, and where a ‘superior being’ asks him to step into his ‘sumptuous vessel’ (20). He is transported to one of the subterranean worlds of the narrative, a place of palaces, multitudes of men and women, a magnificent library, an enormous octagon tower, large gardens and intricate passages. Turns out this is the great city of ‘Eternity’ (25) where Ubertus, in an affecting scene, meets his father and mother. Ubertus is introduced as a visitor from Earth to a group of ladies who say they would ‘be happy to hear one of’ his personal compositions. He recites a ten-stanza long ‘Jubilee Ode’ which he had ‘written in honour of our gracious Queen’ (28). Musicians then play ‘a charming symphony, with astonishing variations on “God Save the Queen”’ (32). So, in one of the reverse-Dantesque moves in the narrative, Ubertus is lost in a dark forest but finds his way out into a paradisal world. Ubertus’s ‘conductor’ through the City of Eternity explains ‘what it is permitted to but few mortals to see. We lead here a charmed and enchanted life. We can scarcely form a wish that is not instantly gratified or feel a want that is not instantly supplied. Pleasure lingers long, pain follows not’ (32). Soon Ubertus is transported back to the shores of the lake ‘whence the vessel had borne me’ and his vision of the city of Eternity gradually fades in the smoke of bushfires floating over Lake Sorell (34).

Some months later, looking to repeat his visit to the city of ‘Eternity’, Ubertus visits a grazier friend Solomon Pepper on the shores of Lake Sorell. Pepper advises him this time to visit the Great Lake ‘far larger and more beautiful than Lake Sorell’ (35). But ‘a great peril’ befalls him there (35). Here he encounters the ‘Demon of the Great Lake’:

the appearance of this awful being [Ubertus writes], far more repulsive than that of a real live yahoo, nearly drove me frantic with terror and despair, tempered with something like detestation [. . .] He was about seven feet in height. His face was frightful, and of a deep chocolate colour; his nose was hooked like an eagle’s claw [. . .] His robe was the rough waterproof hide of a bunyip [. . .] on his left arm he bore what appeared to be several folds of the tail part of a boa-constrictor. (39)9

This is clearly a racialised figure epitomising in a nightmarish form Indigenous Tasmanians, which speaks to persistent fears among settlers. Perhaps he is even locally reminiscent of the historical figure of Eumarrah (Kahnneher Largenner) (1790s–1832), who as chief of the Tyereernotepanner tribe from the North Midlands in 1826–27 led many successful raids on farms and huts around Campbell Town. He was wounded and captured by a roving party in 1828 but never yielded to the colonial authorities and during the Black Line of 1831 attacked settlers in the Esk Valley and the north-east (McFarlane). In the Maxwells of Bremgarten Ferrar had referred to ‘outrages upon life and property’, a frontier euphemism for murder and dispossession, from an earlier period of Van Diemen’s Land settlement. In Artabanzanus the racialisation of the Tasmanian underworld is a grotesque sign of the persistence of this memory of colonisation. The Aboriginal survivors of the Black War in the Midlands and lakeland highlands, where Ferrar lived and travelled, had been rounded up by George Augusttus Robinson and forcibly removed to the Wybalenna settlement on Flinders Island in 1834, a little more than a decade before Ferrar came to live near Ross.

Artabanzanus is ‘the Demon of the Great Lake of Tasmania, and the Emperor of the World’ (43). He kidnaps Ubertus saying that he will be his new ‘private secretary’ (43) and whisks him off in his steam-punk balloon, and then a ‘strange-looking coach, drawn by six black horses’, through a vast chasm, ‘black as Erebus’, into the underworld below the Great Lake. Here he enters the city of Pandopolis, the domain of Artabanzanus, a vast city of lead, with sections like the ‘Department of Sensual Pleasure’ and the ‘Hall of Inexpressible Delight’. He meets the treacherous General Astoragus, ‘commander of [a] brave brigade of Larrikins’, and the seductive Bellagranda, Artabanzanus’s daughter and an avatar of Clytemnestra. The crowds in the city appear ‘yellow and coffee-coloured, thin and unhappy looking beings’; again the persistence of racialised imagery for the denizens of Artabanzanus’s city (57). In Pandopolis, dark, violent and terrible scenes from human history are constantly re-enacted and Ubertus sees an immense concourse of ‘emperors, kings, dukes, governors, councillors, who delighted when they lived on earth, in war, in tyranny, and in shedding the blood of their fellow creatures’ (78). In this theatre of hell, he witnesses scenes ‘dark and terrible indeed in the history of our unhappy planet’ (77). Some of the punishments, or at least eternal performances of these former tyrants and criminals, reflect Dante’s contrapasso, or counter-penalty, where the punishment reflects the crime: the ‘covetous and unjust rich were punished by being condemned to wander about for certain seasons with rolls of lead on their backs’ (176).

Ubertus meets one of the Demon’s close advisors, ‘Dr Julius Rabbitonius, M. D. M., R. C. S .L., etc., [. . .] Minister of Scientific Possibilities in the city of Pandopolis’ (115). Dr Julius is an exception to the other denizens of Pandopolis, a Mephistophelian figure, but who nevertheless has died. He has been in Pandopolis for one hundred and eighty years and his ameliorative occupation is ‘setting these men up again who have been struck down in battle, and trying to heal the diseases of other poor wretches’ (128). He befriends Ubertus and in fact saves his life a couple of times. He recognises the anomaly of Ubertus’s position, like other mythical narratives of living persons who visit the underworld:

‘It is a great wonder certainly that you were not killed outright. But how on earth did you get down here? It is the most extraordinary thing I ever heard of – a living man to come here without having died, and expect to go back again – for that, I believe, is your expectation?’

‘It is,’ said I. ‘the Demon, who took me by surprise on the shore of the Great Lake in Tasmania, and brought me here against my will in a gigantic balloon, promised to take me back again.’ (97)

Ubertus gets into various scrapes and also learns, in a dream, of the heavenly Helen St. Clair, Dr Julius’s great love. The narrative includes very long digressions, such as Dr Julius’s story of his life, going back to the time of the English civil war. One of these digressions consists of a discussion about current affairs in the overground world between Ubertus and Dr Julius. Two of Ubertus’s obsessions emerge during this conversation, his views on colonial administration, including Tasmania’s, and the question of Home Rule in Ireland. His long account of Tasmania begins with its natural beauty and temperate climate, its extensive wilderness, and the wealth of its ‘small proportion of agricultural and pastoral land’ (13–31). The problem with the colony though is over-government, ‘eighty millions of sterling’ in public debt which is constantly increasing, and heavy taxes. There is a long discussion between Ubertus and Julius about this Tasmanian government which ‘intends, doubtless that we should all be happy and rich, yet it passes Acts which command what I must call tyranny and robbery’ (135).

This part of the conversation segues, at Julius’s instigation, into the topic of ‘your Irish people, and the Home Rule which you told me they are going mad about’ (138). For Ubertus this is ‘a most painful and delicate subject’ which in ‘every well-balanced mind creates nothing but sadness and bitterness’ (138). ‘Ireland’, he asserts, ‘is on the verge of a revolution, clamouring loudly for Home Rule’ (129). He fears that Ireland’s ‘large majority’ of inhabitants think that she is, or ought to be, a nation within herself, entirely distinct and separate from the English nation’ (138). He is sharply censorious about Irish ‘patriotic leaders’, such as those exiled, forty years previously, to the area of Tasmania he inhabits ‘and who are gifted with the power of speaking in public, but who have greater talents for political disturbance than for governing any country to its satisfaction; whose love of self is far stronger than their love of peace; and they fan into a flame the fierce anger and ambition of the multitude’ (139). This is the national and patriotic party ‘boiling over with hatred of England’ (140). While Ubertus admits that Ireland has been ‘treated with great severity in the past’ [. . .] ‘she brought much of her trouble on herself’ (139). Julius concurs at this point with support for Cromwell, remembering ‘a rebellion’ from his time, no doubt the 1641 rebellion that led to the Irish Catholic Confederation (139). The conversation breaks off after Ubertus’s assertion that the ‘British Islands were intended, by Him who formed them, to be one united nation, great and powerful in our little world’ and able to make itself ‘respected’, and to insist on peace to ‘the farthest parts of the earth’ (139–40). But at this point, Julius has become anxious about the presence of the Demon’s balloon driver Obeltub and Ubertus retreats to his cell, where he hears a ‘sardonic laugh’, clearly a response to his sentiments of national and empire unity, ‘ringing through the vaulted chambers’ (140).

The underground city of Pandopolis also includes a Parliament, over which His Majesty the Demon presides and which is the scene of an absurd ruckus involving Ubertus and supporters of the Demon’s. Once again, the issue of Irish Home Rule turns out to play a role in the disturbance. The scene revolves around a bill introduced by the Demon for consideration by the Parliament for the construction of a new city around the Great Lake. From all his travels in the above ground world, the Demon has selected the ‘strange and far-off island, called affectionately by its inhabitants Tasmania’ as the site of a ‘splendid metropolis with a glorious future and from where the Demon will effect the Federation of the World’ (216–17). A horrid whisper arises in the assembly that becomes a ‘tumultuous roar’ for Ubertus, ‘we will hear Ubertus’ (221). He is called upon to speak to the bill, given his knowledge of the Great Lake area and is forced to stand on the chamber’s table. He begins with an irrelevant and farcical taunt to the parliament about Irish Home Rule. Ubertus’s associative logic is that the hellish misrule of the assembly of devils and of their overlord Artabanzanus would be like Home Rule for Ireland: ‘Home Rule is, I have no doubt, in high favour with this most Honourable House’ (223). By analogy Home Rule for Ireland would mean the rule of ‘Old Scratch’ (the Devil) as he announces, to a ‘tremendous uproar and cries of “Knock him on the head!”’ (224). Home Rule represents the hellish threat of misrule, led by a diabolical figure who also embodies the memory of Van Diemen’s Land’s violent, dispossessive past. Ubertus continues to insult and provoke the assembly: ‘I defy you all; if your grand city shall ever be built round the Great Lake of my darling Tasmania, I hope to see the day when it will be buried ten miles deep in the Pacific Ocean’ (225). There follows a ‘hurricane of rage and abuse’ and out of this turmoil one of the ministers, Sir Dashmy Partigan, challenges Ubertus to a duel (225–26). Julius takes over the organisation of the duel and gets Ubertus to disguise himself as a sheep, and pretends to eat grass as he is ordered. Partigan approaches, also disguised, but as a Bengal tiger. As Paritgan leaps at Ubertus he triggers a wire, set up by Julius and linked to a magazine blunderbuss, that blows Partigan into a ‘thousand fragments’ (242).

Ubertus and Dr Julius escape the enraged Demon, by various subterfuges and wash up on the shores of the Great Lake. Here Dr Julius recounts more about his family history and the relationship with Helen St. Clair, who had died as a young woman. John Milton makes an appearance, Zelig-like, in this part of the story, saving Julius from a sectarian plot that would have led to his execution. In the final chapter while Ubertus and Julius are walking away from the Great Lake, Julius has a premonition that he will die a second time. At that moment, Helen descends from the Eternal City and Julius turns into a luminous cloud to mingle with her, ascending into the air (310).

In the ‘Epilogue’ to the novel Ubertus confesses that the ‘exuberance of imagination’ which some may find in his work is at least ‘excused by illustrious examples such as have been set by Virgil, Dante, Milton, or as may be found in the “Pilgrim’s Progress”, “Vathek”, “King’s Solomon’s Mines” and works of a similar class’ (311). The contrast between Ferrar’s other writing and the fabulist Artabanzanus is its obvious fascination with the representation of hell. The ‘Eternal City’ takes up only a short section at the beginning of the story, while the bulk of the narrative consists in the ‘description of Hades’, which is not, he writes in the Epilogue, ‘half so shocking as I might have made it’ (312):

It has been, and is, known on paper, and by oral tradition, under such names as the ‘Infernal Regions’, the ‘Pit of Acheron’, the ‘Shades of Tartarus’, the ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ and ‘Hell.’ Dante has painted it in extraordinary and almost unimaginable colours, with vivid and revolting horrors, which one would think no human being could have possibly conceived. Milton has peopled it with billions of fallen angels, who are condemned to live amongst rocks of ice and lakes of fire, with fearful monsters and leviathans to bear them company. (312)

Ferrar’s novel contributes in contrary, even eccentric ways to the literary figuration of Tasmania as hell on earth – an effect which includes many convict narratives – but by burying that hell underground and keeping the surface geography of Highlands Tasmania picturesque and pristine. But it is also an antipodal reversal of the schemata of the underworld, whose entrance is traditionally in the northern hemisphere and whose exit is in the south. There are only minor presences of the convict past on the surface for example, in the story of ‘Murderer’s Hill’ on the side of the Great Lake that Ubertus relates in the last chapter, just before Julius’s transformation into a luminous cloud and his ascension. As the Epilogue makes plain in its mention of Dante and Milton, and its attention to the figures in the novel such as the ‘instrument of temptation’, Bellagranda, Ferrar is most interested in the literary geography of a Christian hell, albeit inflected by farce and slapstick. The hell below the Great Lake, for instance, overshadows in extent and action the heavenly city under Lake Sorell.

The ‘allegorical romance’ of Artabanzanus, then, the antipodal adventure of Oliver Ubertus in Hell about which he lives to tell the tale, is also framed by the colonial awareness of British imperialism. For this world view, imagined from within the history of Van Diemen’s Land and Tasmania, Irish Home Rule and Indigenous Tasmanians are the other, to be repressed, feared and ridiculed. For John Mitchel, brutally convicted by that imperial rule, and writing in his Jail Journal, less than fifty miles away from where Ferrar lived and worked, Van Diemen’s Land was a hellish version of England, but visible on the surface in its social and political life as a penal colony. Through Mitchel’s autobiographical lens it was an upside-down landscape in which Hell was above ground in British settlements, a spoliation of the Romantic and salubrious landscapes of the d’Entrecasteaux Channel, Mount Wellington and the Romantic lakelands. But for Ferrar, through the refractions of allegorical romance, the landscape of the Tasmanian Highlands overlay, in imperial security, the underworlds of religious, racial and political opposition. There are no literal or biographical lines of communication, it seems, between these geo-imaginaries, despite their temporal and spatial coincidence. What is notable though is their rhetorical, political and temporal filiations that reflect the literary imagination’s complex and historically shaped engagements with geography.


I would like to thank Dr Tony Stagg for his assistance with research for this paper.


  1. The quotation of poetry is from the German philosophical poet Christoph August Tiedge (1752-1841) from his poem ‘The Field of Kunnersdorf’. Mitchel would have known this poem from J. C. Mangan’s translation. Mangan was part of the Nation community of writers during Mitchel’s time with that paper under its editor Charles Gavan Duffy.

  2. Christopher Koch’s 1999 novel Out of Ireland is closely based on Mitchel’s life and writing. Koch’s version of Mitchel, Robert Devereux, also a diarist, writes effusively about the lakeland highlands: ‘The Lakes! Like my friends, I believe, I’ll grow addicted to them; their virginal enchantment is already working on me. Sorell’s blue-grey mirror, steadily inviolate as we three rode and shouted, seemed always to contain a mystery just beyond vision, somewhere on the edge of unvisited space [. . .] Up on that tableland, my comrades and I have a freedom that’s real, and not “comparative”: a freedom where we can’t be spied upon’ (323).

  3. Meagher and Mitchel both escaped Tasmania for America, Meagher in 1852 and Mitchel a year later, both eventually to New York.

  4. Ferrar is referencing here Thackeray’s description of Meagher after a famous, passionate speech in Dublin in 1848 in support of violent opposition to English rule, a speech at which both Smith O’Brien and John Mitchel were present (see Baker, ‘Meagher, Thomas Francis’).

  5. Basset Dickson was a published writer and poet (see AustLit: He committed suicide by shooting himself in January 1869.

  6. See also Adkins, Reading in Colonial Tasmania.

  7. The road from Campbell Town to Falmouth, on the east coast of Tasmania, runs through Fingal and Avoca, beside the South Esk River, and is remembered by A. D. Hope, in ‘Ascent into Hell’ and in his reminiscences of childhood, as the road his family travelled for holidays in Falmouth, by horse and buggy, from Hope’s father’s home at the Presbyterian manse in Campbell Town. Like John Mitchel, A. D. Hope was the son of a Presbyterian minister.

  8. Thomas Meagher farmed a small island in the middle of Lake Sorell, which he reached by boat. Mitchel’s Jail Journal recounts incidents on the lake and the route taken to reach Meagher's cottage (Young Irelanders).

  9. Stories about bunyips inhabiting the Great Lake had been in circulation since at least the 1860s (see Jetson 64–65).

Published 30 September 2021 in Special Issue: The Uses of Irish-Australian Literature . Subjects: Allegory, Australian landscape - Literary portrayal, Convict transportation, Poetry, Van Diemen's Land (1803-1856), Irish-Australian Literature, Life-Writing, Political Prisoners, Dante, John Mitchel, William Moore Ferrar.

Cite as: Mead, Philip. ‘Antipodal Ireland and Tasmanian Underworlds: John Mitchel and William Moore Ferrar.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.9685696bb9.