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Michael Hayes (1767-1825) – Rebel, Convict, Merchant, Bigamist?

The Battle of Vinegar Hill, Wexford, 1798

The story of a man transported to Australia for his role in the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 who made his mark by bringing Catholicism to the penal colony, and an allegation of bigamy.




Michael Hayes (1767-1825) grew up in Wexford Town on the south-east coast of Ireland but was later transported to Australia. We are fortunate to have fourteen letters which Michael wrote in Sydney between 1799 and his death in 1825, sent to one of his brothers in Ireland, which are now held by the Franciscan Archive in Dublin.

Michael was the eldest son of Richard Hayes, a man of property, who lived ‘opposite Mount Street’ in Wexford town. About his mother Mary (née Broe), we know little. Richard appears to have passed away when Michael was young as he had succeeded to the family home by the time the doomed Rebellion of the United Irishmen erupted in 1798.

Wexford was the most volatile county in Ireland during this unhappy period. David St L Kelly, an expert on early NSW cabinetmakers, advised me in April 2013 as follows: “Michael Hayes was tried in Wexford by Court Martial shortly after Wexford Town was re-taken by the British near the end of the 1798 Rebellion. He was convicted of administering the United Irishmen oath, and was sentenced to transportation for life.” [1]

Michael was transported to Australia. He sailed from Queenstown (Cobh), County Cork, on the Friendship on 24 August 1799 and arrived in Sydney on 16 February 1800. When he left Ireland, he bade farewell to his mother, Mrs Mary Hayes, three brothers Patrick, Richard and John, and four sisters, Mary, Elenor, Margaret and Catherine. Was his brother Richard the Richard Hayes mentioned by Saunders’s News-Letter on 16 April 1799 as per:

‘Monday last Counfellor Sutton, Mr. John Brennan, of Caftlehayes-town, and Mr. Richard Hayes, of Wexford, were brought prisoners into Waterford, having been sentenced to transportation for being concerned in the late rebellion.’

Michael received a conditional pardon in June 1803 but was arrested for distilling spirits contrary to Colonial regulations in his home at Farm Cove and sent to Norfolk Island in September 1805. His arrest came at an inconvenient time as he has just established himself as a factor in Sydney and was representing two prominent whaling and sealing merchants, George Bass and Charles Bishop.

Nonetheless, he made use of his adversity and set himself up as a factor on Norfolk Island. He primarily worked for the County Down-born merchant Thomas Jamison, surgeon of the First Fleet, but also independently as a salesman of salt pork and soap to Sydney’s well-to-do. He befriended Captain John Piper, acting commandant of Norfolk Island, and fellow 1798 rebel Joseph Holt.

When the British government closed down the settlement and transferred its inhabitants to the mainland or Van Diemen’s Land, Piper permitted Michael to maintain his business on the island. Piper also put in a good word for Hayes with Governor William Bligh, he of the Bounty fame, and the Irishman was permitted to return to Sydney.

In about 1807 he married Elizabeth Baker, only child of William Baker (1761-1836) and Susannah Huffnell; Elizabeth was born in Sydney on 1st January 1789.[2]

Michael and Elizabeth had seven children. As his descendant Joanne Horniman observes:

‘The thing that puzzles me about Hayes is that in the accounts of his trial there is reference to a wife Eleanor Dempsey, and three children, in Ireland. So if he was, by all accounts, a devout Catholic, how was he able to marry again in Australia? I understand that other convicts separated from spouses re partnered in Australia, and in any case most probably did not formally marry, as was common among poorer people in Britain anyway. But Hayes’ letters home refer disparagingly to the immorality in the colony, so there seems a disconnect here. Was he a bigamist? I know he was torn between wanting to return to Ireland and staying with his family in Australia. And what did his family in Ireland, one of them a priest, think of his new situation?’ [3]

Joseph Foveaux (1767-1846), who pardoned Michael Hayes in 1808. He was Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales from September 1796 to September 1799, and Lieutenant-Governor of Norfolk Island from 1800 to 1804.

Like many convicts, he may have simply tried to start a whole new life, with a new family as part of that. However, as Joanne adds, there is a certain irony here in the way that Michael’s letters have been ‘used as a comment on the immorality in the colony.’ He is quoted in Robert Hughes’ ‘The Fatal Shore,’  as well as an unpublished thesis available online about life in the colony, and pnd possibly elsewhere. Yet, no one ever mentions the first wife. One wonders if Michael still has descendants in Ireland who know not their colourful ancestry.

On 21 September 1808, Michael Hayes received an absolute pardon from the ‘pleasant looking and handsome tho’ very corpulent’ Lieutenant Governor Foveaux, later confirmed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie.

By the time Michael returned to Sydney in 1808, he was still owed a considerable amount of money by those he had done business with before his arrest. Aided by his Norfolk Island profits, he set up a general goods shop and boot factory on Pitt’s Row. In February 1810 he was one of 20 people granted a licence to retail wines and spirits in Sydney. His pub on George’s Street North was later occupied by the remarkable Lancashire-born merchant, Mrs Mary Reibey.

By June 1811, Michael’s name was on a list of persons due to receive grants of land in different parts of the Colony as soon as they can be measured. He obtained an absolute pardon on 29 February 1812, the same year that he was granted 120 acres on the Nepean at Airds, perhaps in salutation of his regular work as a juror. However things appear to have turned sour again at this time. He lost money through ‘speculation, bad debt and the loss of the George Bass in 1812’. Supporting his seven children also greatly impacted on his wealth. He constantly, and unsuccessfully, wrote to his brother in Ireland urging him to either come out to New South Wales and help him, or to otherwise send money by way of an investment. These fourteen letters, preserved in the Franciscan Archives, Dublin, reflect both his homesickness and his attachment to the colony.

Roman Catholics in New South Wales did not have the right to practise their religion. Michael Hayes was closely involved in a movement to redress this wrong and frequently spoke out against the immorality prevalent in the colony, the lack of educated churchmen, and the scarcity of books. He repeatedly wrote to another brother, the Rev. Richard Hayes, the representative of the Irish Catholic Association in Rome.

Jeremiah Francis O’Flynn (1788 – 1831)

In 1817, his efforts bore fruit when the Rev. Jeremiah O’Flynn, a Kerry-born diocesan, or secular priest, arrived on an unauthorized mission to the Colony of New South Wales and assumed the role of Vicar Apostolic of Botany Bay. He began performing baptisms and marriages as well as celebrating Mass secretly in private homes. Michael helped keep O’Flynn hidden for a while and when O’Flynn was finally rumbled and sent packing, Hayes wrote a strong letter of protest to Dr Poynter, the vicar-general in London, who replied that he felt O’Flynn’s was insufficiently educated and had too weak a command of the English language to be a missionary. [4] However, while O’Flynn’s mission may have ended in failure, it did prod the New South Wale authorities into permitting the first authorized Catholic mission in 1820.

In February 1820, Michael’s signature topped the list of those who signed a petition urging Commissioner Thomas John Bigge to give Roman Catholics the rights they deserved, including the establishment of schools for the education of their children. Commissioner Bigge replied directly to Michael, stating that the sole reason why there were not any priests in New South Wales was because they did not yet have any suitable candidates. In July 1820, when Fathers John Joseph Therry and Philip Conolly arrived, Michael was elected to the Committee of Catholics appointed to select a site for the new Roman Catholic Chapel in Sydney. On 29th October 1821 Governor Macquarie laid the foundation stone of St Mary’s Church on a site he had assigned at the edge of Hyde Park, near the convict barracks.

In 1823, the Irish-born merchant spent some time in a debtor’s prison. He was found drowned at Sydney’s Market Wharf in September 1825 at the age of 58. The Sydney Gazette described him as having been once in affluent, respectable circumstances and suggested that he had committed suicide. He was buried in the cemetery at The Sandhills and later reburied at La Perouse. [5]

Michael’s eldest daughter Mary married the French convict Francis Girard, based in Sydney, from whom Joanne Horniman descends.

He also had a son Richard who became a cabinet-maker in New South Wales.

Just over a year later, on 13 December 1826, his widow Elizabeth Hayes (née Baker) married secondly William Kelly at St Phillips, Sydney. We know no more of Kelly’s date of death or whether he was a kinsman of Ned. Her father, William Baker, died at St David’s, Hobart, Tasmania, on 14 September 1836. [6]




With thanks to Father Ignatius, Joanne Horniman, Janet Reakes and David St L Kelly.

Further Reading


Vivienne Kelly, ‘Michael Hayes: The Life of a 1798 Wexford Rebel in Sydney’ (Anchor Books Australia, 2019).

See the essay by Fr Cathaldus Giblin OFM, in The Past, The Organ of the Ui Ceinnsealaigh Historical Society, No. 6, 1950, pp 45-103, called ‘Letters from Sydney of a ’98 deportee’ (that is Michael Hayes). Fr Giblin printed 17 letters in all, 4 of them by F. Girard from Sydney who had married Michael’s sister Mary. Fr Giblin published later most of the Hayes letters here in our publication ‘Collectanea Hibernica’, which ceased publication in 2006 when the editor died.




[1] SRNSW: Bound Convict Indents; [4/4003]; Fiche 615, p 214; Reel 392; [4/4002]; Fiche 625, p 002; National Archives of Ireland: SPP 635 Petition of Michael Hayes , Wexford, 17 August 1799. He obtained a conditional pardon in 1803; and an absolute pardon on 29 February 1812: SRNSW: Convict Pardons, 1791-1825; [4/4486, p 041]; Reel 800. He decided not to return to Ireland. He died by drowning in 1825, aged 58: SG 15 Sept 1825. For further details, see V Parsons, Hayes, Michael (1767-1825), ADB, Vol 1, p 527.

[2] Susannah Huffnell was born in Worcester St Andrew, Worcester, England, on 13 January 1765.

[3] These details are in a Butler Family History blog created by a descendant of another 1798 rebel, Laurence Butler, was a friend of Hayes. The relevant chapters are 22 – The Catholic Community of Sydney and 24 – Rebels Transported to NSW.

[4] ‘O’Flynn returned to Ireland and thence to the West Indies. He was banished from San Domingo and in 1822 arrived in Philadelphia, only to become embroiled in schism. He went to San Domingo in 1823, was again expelled and returned to Philadelphia, where in 1825 he was invited to minister to Irish Catholics in Susquehanna County. There he spent his last years and died on 8 February 1831.’ Vivienne Parsons, ‘O’Flynn, Jeremiah Francis (1788 – 1831)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, Melbourne University Press, 1967, pp 299-300.

[5] Vivienne Parsons, ‘Hayes, Michael (1767? – 1825)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, Melbourne University Press, 1966, pp 527-528. Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 7; Sydney Gazette, 29 Mar 1805, 29 Jan 1809, 15 Sept 1825; Truth (Sydney), 27 Oct 1907; manuscript catalogue under M. Hayes (State Library of New South Wales); M. Hayes letters, 1799-1820 (copies, National Library of Australia and State Library of New South Wales).

[6] Contact Janet REAKES of Hervey Bay, Queensland, for more on this clan.