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Dwyer, Michael (1772–1825)

by Ruan O'Donnell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Michael Dwyer (1772?-1825), Irish revolutionary and political exile, was the eldest of seven children of John and Mary Dwyer of Camera, Wicklow, Ireland. The family moved to a mountainous twenty-four-acre (9.7 ha) farm at Eadestown, Glen of Imaal, in 1784. Schooled at Bushfield, then Ballyhubbock, Michael worked as an ostler for the Morris family and helped his father to tend sheep.

In the spring of 1797, with scores of relations and friends, he joined the Society of United Irishmen. Rebellion broke out in Wicklow on 23 May. After fighting at the battle of Arklow, he was promoted 'captain' on 24 June. Dwyer killed at least one Welsh cavalryman in an ambush at Ballyellis on 30 June. In mid-July, as the rebellion waned, he joined the militant rump commanded by Joseph Holt, which rejected amnesty terms, hoping for military assistance from France. Actions later in 1797 established Dwyer's reputation as a dynamic rebel leader. A core group attached to him kept fighting after Holt surrendered in November 1798.

On 16 October that year Dwyer had married Mary Doyle, of Cullentragh. He supported the conspiracy by Robert Emmet for an attempted coup d'etat in July 1803. After severe measures against the rebels were introduced in November his extended family was facing transportation and, to alleviate their situation and save other comrades from execution, Dwyer surrendered on 14 December 1803, anticipating migration to the United States of America. Instead, he was gaoled at Kilmainham pending deportation to New South Wales as an unsentenced exile.

With his wife and the two eldest of their six children, Dwyer reached Port Jackson in the Tellicherry on 14 February 1806; the other children were left with relations in Dublin. He was allocated 100 acres (40.5 ha) of uncleared land fronting Cabramatta Creek, adjacent to grants to his comrades Hugh 'Vesty' Byrne, John Mernagh, Arthur Devlin and Martin Burke. In February 1807 Governor Bligh arrested several of the group and on 11 May Dwyer was tried for sedition. Although acquitted, he was ordered to be sent to Norfolk Island, an act of injustice that aggrieved elements in the New South Wales Corps. In January 1808 he was moved to the Derwent settlement, Van Diemen's Land, where he spent a year before being allowed back to Cabramatta by the anti-Bligh clique. Governor Macquarie confirmed favourable decisions extended to Dwyer by William Paterson in 1809, paving the way for his full integration into colonial society in 1810. In August Dwyer became constable of the Georges River district and in December 1812 poundkeeper.

Active in the colony's Catholic community, in 1821, having amassed 610 acres (246.9 ha), he contributed £10 to St Mary's church building fund. He was appointed chief constable of Liverpool in May 1820 but was dismissed in October for drunken conduct and mislaying important documents. In December 1822 he was sued for aggrandizing his farm with Ann Stroud's. This spurred a major debtor Daniel Cooper to demand restitution of some £2000 invested in Dwyer's popular Harrow Inn. Bankrupted, he was forced to sell off most of his assets, although this did not save him from several weeks incarceration in the Sydney debtors' prison in May 1825. Here he evidently contracted dysentery, to which he succumbed on 23 August 1825.

Originally interred at Liverpool, his remains were reburied in the Devonshire Street cemetery, Sydney, in 1878 by his grandson John Dwyer, dean of St Mary's Cathedral. In May 1898 the coincidence of the planned closure of the cemetery and centenary celebrations for the 1798 rebellion suggested the second re-interment of Dwyer and his wife in Waverley cemetery, where a substantial memorial was erected in 1900. The massive crowds attending Dwyer's burial and the subsequent unveiling of the monument testified to the unique esteem in which Irish-Australians held the former Wicklow hero.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Dickson, The Life of Michael Dwyer (Dublin, 1944)
  • G. Cargeeg, The Rebel of Glenmalure (Perth, 1988)
  • K. Sheedy, Upon the Mercy of Government (Dublin, 1988)
  • R. O’Donnell, The Rebellion in Wicklow, 1798 (Dublin, 1998)
  • R. O’Donnell, Aftermath: Post-Rebellion Insurgency in Wicklow, 1799-1803 (Dublin, 2000)
  • R. O’Donnell, ‘Michael Dwyer: The Wicklow Chief’, in B. Reece (ed), Irish Convict Lives (Syd, 1993).

Citation details

Ruan O'Donnell, 'Dwyer, Michael (1772–1825)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dwyer-michael-12896/text23301, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 23 March 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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