Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Denis Nunan (1842–1885)

by Robyn Taylor

This article was published:

Joseph Denis Nunan (1842-1885), patriot, convict and architect, was born in February 1842 at Rathcormack, County Cork, Ireland, one of at least three sons of Denis Noonan, carpenter, and his wife Joanne, née Murphy. Trained by their father in his trade, on completion of their apprenticeships Joseph and his brother Frank established their own firm and became successful contractors, with buildings in Cork and County Kerry.

In 1864 Joseph joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood, better known as the Fenian Brotherhood. In February 1867 he was identified as being with two other Fenians, one of whom had shot and wounded a constable. Noonan fled to England, where he was arrested on 30 April. During the return journey he escaped from the train but was recaptured and taken to Ireland. He was tried on a charge under the Treason-Felony Act at the Kerry Summer Assizes, Tralee, on 25 July. Mercy was recommended and on 8 August Noonan was sentenced to seven years penal servitude.

One of some sixty-two Fenians and more than two hundred other convicts transported to Western Australia in the Hougoumont, he helped to organize musical and dramatic entertainments during the voyage and contributed to a newspaper, 'The Wild Goose'. He wrote a humorous account of his escape, recapture and trial, entitled 'A Leap for Liberty', for the first issue. Arriving on 10 January 1868, the prisoners were taken to the convict establishment at Fremantle. 'Joseph Noonan 9837' was described as 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall, with brown hair, blue eyes and long face, fresh complexion and healthy appearance. Distinguishing marks were noted as a cut on the ball of his thumb, two teeth protruding from his palate and a boil on his left thigh.

Pardoned (as Joseph Nunan) in May 1869 as a result of the Gladstone government's new conciliatory approach to Ireland, he chose to remain in Western Australia and undertook to further his knowledge of architecture. That year he and fellow Fenian and builder Hugh Brophy, from Dublin, formed a highly successful partnership as general contractors, carpenters and joiners. They won a number of important contracts for the Catholic Church, the government and private enterprise, hiring ticket-of-leave men to undertake stone cutting, carpentry and labouring. Buildings included Walter Padbury's store and residence at Guildford, and the Greenough Flats police station. Reputedly Nunan was also involved in planning Perth Town Hall. In October 1871 the firm successfully completed the convent for the Sisters of Mercy in Perth. St Patrick's Church in York, 'a gem of pure Gothic architecture', has been claimed as the finest example of Nunan's work. All the buildings named still survived in 2005. Brophy left the partnership and went to Melbourne in 1872.

On 21 June 1871 at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Perth, Nunan had married Anne Marie Farrelly, from a respected family. He continued to be involved with Fenian affairs, was one of the nominated trustees of the relief fund set up to assist unreleased Fenians, and attracted unjustified criticism for allegedly failing to advance funds to assist escaping prisoners. Contracting tuberculosis, Nunan wished to return to Ireland but died on 18 May 1885 at his home in Howick Street, Perth, and was buried in East Perth cemetery with Catholic rites.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Erickson (ed), The Brand on His Coat (Perth, 1983)
  • Australian Irish Heritage Association of Western Australia, Journal, 5, no 4, Summer, 1997, p 44
  • Studies in Western Australian History, 20, 2000, p 59
  • Western Australian Catholic Record, 21 May 1885, p 5
  • Times (London), 30 July 1867, p 11
  • 31 July 1867, p 10, 13 Aug 1867, p 9
  • convict records, AN358, Acc 1156 (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • Wild Goose copies, Acc 1675A (State Records Office of Western Australia) and MSS 1542 (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Robyn Taylor, 'Nunan, Joseph Denis (1842–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Noonan, Joseph

February, 1842
Rathcormack, Cork, Ireland


18 May, 1885 (aged 43)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Passenger Ship
Convict Record

Crime: insurrection
Sentence: 7 years