By Lisa Marie Griffith
This weekend I watched Australian/Irish production The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce (2008) about the infamous Irish convict turned cannibal. Last year I had a complaint from an Australian tourist on my walking tour that I did not deal in enough detail with the Irish transported to Australia but I doubt this was what they had in mind! Alexander Pearce (played by Ciaran McMenanin in the film) is probably Australia/Ireland’s most famous cannibal and his execution in 1824 was reported on around the world. Pearce was born in Clones, Co Monaghan in 1790, and seems to have worked as a farm labourer in Co. Fermanagh. In 1819 he was convicted for stealing 6 pairs of shoes and was transported to Van Diemen’s land to serve seven years for theft. The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce, a made-for-tv-film, looks at how this petty criminal turned into a cannibal. Pearce and seven other convicts escape from the prison and try to strike for the nearest urban settlement. Lost in the vast countryside, their provisions soon run out and the will to survive takes over.
After 50 days crossing Van Diemen’s land Pearce was the only survivor. He made his way to the villate of Jericho but was captured soon after. He confessed his crime but was not believed! Local authorities thought he had invented the story about cannibalism to account for the whereabouts of the other seven escapees and that they were still at large. He was returned to his prison, escaped again and once more turned to cannibalism but this time he had not yet run out of provisions. Pearce was executed for murder 19 July 1824 and the sketch attached is a picture of him by Thomas Brook.
The tale of Alexander Pearce is recounted in the film by his confessor an Irish priest, Father Connolly (played by Adrian Dunbar). The film touches nicely on the relationship between the Irish church and the British government in Van Diemen’s land. By 1824 the Catholic Church was being brought into the confidence of the government in the hope of better governing and pacifying Catholic Ireland. This led to tensions on the ground which the film draws out. Fr Connolly seems happy to dine with representatives of the British government in Van Diemen’s land who view Pearce as a savage and appear to link his behaviour in come way with his Catholic faith and his nationality. Connolly sympathises with his fellow-country man and the suffering he has faced at the hands of the authorities yet struggles to recognise Pearce’s crimes as the actions of a fellow-countryman.
The film is an extreme, yet interesting, look at the effects that transportation and hard labour can have on the mind. I am pretty squeamish and did feel a little nauseous at points. Although little is known about Pearce, considering his notoriety, and how far across the British Empire his story spread, it could easily be argued that he merits an entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. Surely some contemporary news paper accounts could shed some more light on his life? I found a variety of different accounts with slight variances of detail about Pearce’s life but the article on the Independent website seems reliable enough. If anyone knows any more details or sources about the story please leave us a message below. The film can be downloaded here.