Roantree, William Francis (1829–1918), Fenian, was born in Leixlip, Co. Kildare, son of James Roantree, butcher and auctioneer. He had several brothers, some of whom were later involved in the Fenian movement. Details of his early life are scarce and it is believed that he trained as a butcher before emigrating to the USA in 1853. He spent some time in either the US Navy or the Marine Corps before serving with Gen. William Walker during his campaign in Nicaragua (1855–60). During his service with Walker's mercenary army he seems to have held the rank of major and was often referred to as ‘Major Roantree’ in later life. He also joined the Fenian Brotherhood and, after the outbreak of the American civil war, worked for a short time as a sutler with the union army.
In late 1861 he returned to Ireland and based himself in his home town of Leixlip. He was a good organiser and a charismatic figure and had soon recruited over 2,000 men for his Fenian circle, based in Leixlip. During this time he became a close friend of John Devoy (qv) and he went to America in 1863 on a fund-raising mission. On his return he passed on the money he had collected to James Stephens (qv) and then devoted himself to recruiting Irishmen in the British army into the Fenians. He worked from a number of Dublin pubs that were popular with soldiers, and enjoyed considerable success. In 1864 Patrick ‘Pagan’ O'Leary (qv) was arrested, and responsibility for recruiting Fenians in the army passed entirely to Roantree. This was exceedingly dangerous work as he was obliged to reveal his Fenian connections to total strangers in the hope that they were sympathetic to his cause. Ultimately, someone informed on him to the police and he was arrested.
Incriminating letters were found on his person, and a search of the offices of the Irish People and his lodgings turned up more letters and four revolvers. He was charged with treason-felony and in January 1866 was tried before Judge William Nicholas Keogh (qv) and Judge John David Fitzgerald (qv), while his defence counsel was Isaac Butt (qv). The informer Pierce Nagle provided damning evidence against him and he was found guilty on 22 January. He remained defiant to the last, making an impassioned speech from the dock and, when Keogh seemed on the verge of a lengthy summing-up, he interrupted him with ‘Speak up and let me hear the sentence without note or comment’ (Kenny, 190). He was sentenced to ten years' penal servitude.
He was initially lodged in Pentonville before being moved to Portland, a ‘public works prison’, where he was set working in the prison quarries. His health soon deteriorated and he was sent to the invalid prison in Woking, Surrey. Reports of the harsh treatment meted out to the Fenian prisoners were soon circulating in the press, and the government established the Devon committee to investigate. Roantree gave evidence to the committee and, while some of his statements were not believed, the final report stated that the Fenian prisoners were being treated unduly harshly. By this time an amnesty movement had been established and, as the campaign for the Fenian prisoners' release drew more support, the government offered a conditional amnesty in late 1870. Reluctantly, he agreed to the government's terms and in January 1871 he was released on condition that he serve out the remainder of his term abroad. He was one of the second batch of Fenian prisoners to be released, and arrived in New York aboard the Russia in February 1871. They were feted as heroes by the Irish community and were received by President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House on 22 February.
He became a prominent member of the Irish Confederation, a new movement established to unite various Irish factions. Its attempts at reconciliation proved unsuccessful and he later joined Clan na Gael before moving to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he bought a licensed premises called the New York House. He soon moved to Philadelphia, however, where he took a job as a salesman and clerk in the liquor company of John Steward. In 1874 he helped to raise funds for the rescue of Fenian prisoners in Western Australia which resulted in their escape in the Catalpa in 1876. In Philadelphia he worked in concert with Dr William Carroll (qv), and in 1876 established a new Fenian district at Wilkes-Barre, in the Pennsylvania coalfields. It was to be the first of many that he founded in this coal-mining area. He represented Philadelphia in the Clan na Gael convention of 1876, and in 1877 accompanied the remains of John O'Mahony (qv) to Ireland, where he was one of the organisers of his funeral.
He returned to Philadelphia, where in 1878 he welcomed Michael Davitt (qv) to the city during his American tour. He became involved in the dispute between Clan na Gael and the AOH. He was also increasingly suspicious of Gen. Frederick F. Millen (qv) and went to no trouble to hide his hostility towards him. Ultimately he was proved right in his suspicions when Millen was unmasked as a British spy. In 1884 he was elected to the Hibernian Society of Philadelphia. He continued to find occasional employment in the liquor trade, but his financial situation was becoming difficult.
In 1900 he returned to Dublin and in 1903 he was employed by Dublin corporation and attached to the electricity and lighting division. His health was by now in decline, and in 1916 he was pensioned off. He witnessed the Easter rising of 1916 and, according to some accounts, made his way from his lodgings in Gardiner St. to the GPO, where he encouraged the defenders. He died on 20 February 1918 and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery. His funeral was attended by a large crowd that included the lord mayor, Laurence O'Neill, and leading members of Sinn Féin, including George Noble, Count Plunkett (qv); Joseph McGuinness (qv); and Darrell Figgis (qv).
He married (1861) Isabel Casey from Leixlip; they had two daughters. She was a formidable woman and, after her husband's arrest, became a prominent member of the amnesty campaign. She also ran newsagent's shops in both Dublin and London to support herself and her daughters. After her husband's release she joined him aboard the Russia at Cobh and sailed with him to America. She died in Philadelphia around 1899.