Monday, 31 March 2014

Sophie Toscan Du Plantier & The Beauté Sauvage of West Cork

* I've updated this piece from a story I wrote for the Irish Independent newspaper in 2010 about Sophie Toscan Du Plantier, the French film producer who was murdered at her remote home in West Cork, at Christmas, 1996. At the time, the French, exasperated by how the Irish investigation had gone, were trying to extradite Ian Bailey, the Englishman who was arrested and questioned about the murder but has always vehemently maintained his total innocence. As we know, this case is now very much back in the news.

This piece is about Ms Du Plantier, but also about this wild, beautiful part of my home county, a part of Cork which I know very well, having spent every summer there as a kid and teenager, and still making regular visits back. Many of my own happiest memories revolve around Crookhaven, Barleycove, Schull & environs. I think it's one of the most beautiful places in the world. But it has an often dark history - it was almost always desperately poor & isloated, it was was one of the worst hit regions in the Famine - and can be a strange, lonely place in the winter, when the Atlantic storms (or worse, endless days of mist and rain) batter or smother the rolling rocky hills, mountains and coastline....

Toormore is between Schull & Goleen - Bottom of the Map

Sophie Toscan du Plantier 

Talk to the French who have colonised West Cork and they will rhapsodise about its beauté sauvage.

Sophie Toscan du Plantier loved, more than most, that sense of being where the wild things are.

The sophisticated Parisienne often travelled to her isolated farmhouse on the Mizen peninsula in deep winter, when almost all of the affluent French, German and British blow-ins who summer around Schull, Bantry and Glandore were long gone.

West Cork, glorious and vibrant when the sun shines and the yachts are in, is a different country in the winter.

Conditions vary between furious coastal gales and days of thick sea fog and hill mists that suck any sound and light from the landscape.

The glacier-gouged, gorse-scrub landscape, so benign in high summer, can be sinister and claustrophobic as the days shorten.

The harsh landscape is reflected in West Cork folklore, chilling ghost stories and supernatural tales of banshees and menacing fairy folk who abduct unsuspecting travellers in the night.

I remember being in a farmhouse as child, on the Northside of the Mizen in 1979. The homes on this exposed side of the furthest point south in Ireland had only just been connected to the electricity grid. Some were still using kerosene lamps to light their kitchens at night. This was in 1979, as Apple Computers were building their first European manufacturing plant in Cork city - two hours drive away. 

In that same summer, we cowered in our caravan in the sand-dunes as a furious Atlantic storm hit the annual Fastnet yacht race, just offshore, killing 18 people, 15 sailors and three rescuers. The next morning, we walked up to Crookhaven and saw some of the battered yachts being towed in by fishing-boats. 

It is not so long ago. And while new roads and hotels have changed West Cork in the past two decades or so, it the winter, it still feels like a very isolated place.

Once the tourists are gone, many houses are deserted and most of the shops, pubs and restaurants put up the shutters and hang out their faux-cheery "Closed for the Season - See You Next Summer!" signs.

When Sophie flew into Cork, alone, on December 20th 1996, she would have seen the lights go out, one-by-one, as she drove west through Bandon, Clonakilty, Ballydehob and Schull.

By the time she reached the isolated townland of Toormore and turned into the dark, twisting boreen that lead to house in an small valley, she would have felt very alone.

The lights were on in the rustic kitchen, solitary pricks of light in the all enveloping darkness.
Sophie's housekeeper, Josephine Hellen, had lit a fire in the old fashioned grate and placed freshly picked holly, with bright red berries, on the windowsills to give the house a more welcoming, Christmassy feel for the lady travelling alone through the dark.

The night before, the 39-year-old film producer had enjoyed drinks with friends and her husband in chic Paris nightclub Les Bains Doucheson the Rue Bourg-L'Abbé.

Less than 24 hours later, the only light visible from the rocky hillside overlooking Roaring Water Bay was the thin finger probing through the sea mist from the lighthouse on the Fastnet Rock, eleven kilometres out to sea.

Her friends say Sophie loved the light from the Fastnet, she had her bed in the farmhouse's master bedroom specially raised so that she could see watch the narrow beam as it swept across the headlands every five seconds.

The interior of the house is as you would expect from a French woman who loved the idea of having an old Irish farmhouse, antique dressers, side tables and reed-woven stools.

When I returned to this area to write about it several summers ago, Toormore, with its nearby sandy beaches and rocky inlets, was bathed in spring sunshine and the white farmhouse stood out against the green hillsides in a little valley.

But as dusk fell, you got a sense of just how isolated the farmhouse was

Neighbouring holiday homes are often empty and the only light that was visible from the valley is the far off Fastnet lighthouse.

It is a lonely place, far from the main road that skirts the coastline and deadly quiet and dark after sunset.

When Sophie went there in the winter of '96, she travelled to the farmhouse alone, having tried but failed to persuade a couple of close friends to join her for a short Christmas break.

Sophie was not alone over the next 48 hours, she visited close friends and enjoyed a quiet sandwich and a cup of tea in the harbour village of Crookhaven.

But she was by herself when an unknown assailant called to her home in the early hours of Monday, December 23rd.

Her battered body was found, by a neighbour, close to the gate at the bottom of the road leading to her house shortly before ten am on that morning.

She had been dressed as if called from her bed in the early hours of the morning, her torn and bloodied dressing gown was found close to the body, there were bloodstains on the gate as if she had tried to scramble over it during the assault.

Sophie's mother Marguerite told staff at Cork University Hospital that she could only identify her daughter by the distinctive shape of her nose, the only part of her face still intact after the brutal attack.

Sophie's Parents at the home in Toormore - Pic Irish Examiner

When I visited some 13 years on from that winter night, Sophie's family had just taken the latest dramatic step in what has been a tortuous journey towards justice.

Iain Bailey, who has been arrested and questioned twice by gardai in relation to the murder but proclaims his total innocence, was facing an extradition request from
 Paris-based magistrate, Patrick Gachon. 

Gachon was appointed in 2008 ago to carry out an investigation into the murder after a long campaign by Sophie's family that included representations to the French President Nicolas Sarkozy. 

The extradition, as we now know, would not happen.

The white farmhouse in Toormore is today owned by Sophie's son from her first marriage, Pierre-Louis Bauday. 

Soft spoken and polite, Mr Bauday told me in 2010 that the house that so entranced his mother is still a special place for him and remains unchanged from when Sophie was alive.

He still travelled to the West Cork home every summer and when he goes, he passes the spot where his mother died, he sees the small Celtic Cross memorial with the single inscription, "Sophie".

"It was where I stayed with my mother, it has not changed, it is still intact and I prefer to keep it private," said Mr Bauday.

"I still go there, I will travel there in the summer, it is a beautiful place."

Publican Dermot O'Sullivan, who runs the family bar in Crookhaven, was one of the last people to see Sophie alive when she called into the pub on the pier on Sunday 22nd .

Dermot, who speaks French, had chatted with her as he did with most of the French customers who flock to the pub that Sophie loved for its famous seafood and views over Crookhaven harbour.

"We always chatted about the weather and the usual stuff, I got the sense that she was a very private person," said Dermot.

"I think she loved the peace and tranquillity that you get down here and I think she liked the lack of intrusion into her life."

"A lot of the Europeans who come here are looking for that, they tend to live pretty quietly, I suppose it's what they are looking for if they come from a big city."

"We are very busy in the Summer but it can feel isolated in the winter, especially when the weather is bad. But some people are looking for that."

Dermot said Ms du Plantier's death has left a "bit of a shadow" over the area, mostly because of the ongoing pain felt by her family who have yet to see justice done.

West Cork people, possibly because of their isolation, are famously hospitable and feel protective towards those who visit their townlands.

In the summer of 1996, months before the murder, West Cork was being written up in the British press as "the new Dordogne", an Atlantic seaboard colony for discerning celebrities, media industry figures, artists and taste-makers.

The London Independent newspaper and several glossy magazines ran features pointing out how it was now the second-home destination for everybody from Jeremy Paxman and Jeremy Irons to Sir David Puttnam and Edward de Bono. Chatshow host Graham Norton, himself from Bandon at the gateway to West Cork, now has a holiday home near Ahakista, about a half hour drive from Toormore and close to the Sheep's Head peninsula.

The word  from the Independent back in the mid-90s was that "the attractions of Sarlat and San Gimignano have paled besides those of Ballydehob and Skibbereen".

The terrible murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier did not stop the influx of affluent, often powerful people looking for an idyllic, largely unspoilt home.

The stylishly renovated farmhouses and Victorian ex-parsonages and country homes that are hidden away down winding boreens or behind high walls still command big money, that's when they come to the market at all.

But the ghost of Sophie Toscan du Plantier still lingers, a spectral reminder that the savage Atlantic coastline can be baleful as well as beautiful.


Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Omni-GUBU - A Short History of Significant Utterences in Irish Politics.

*Some random thoughts on the lyrical bent & tendency towards catchphrases of Irish Politics. Off the top of my head.

                        * On Mature Recollection, We Are Living Away Beyond Our Means

That Money Was Only Resting In My Account


That infamous acronym is everywhere again. And no wonder. We are in the middle of what the great French diplomat and political theorist Tallyrand once characterised as; "A total feckin' shite-storm".

One of those periodic National Traumas. Don't worry if you've missed it, there'll be another along in a while. Our state motto; "Omni-GUBU Ad Nauseum".

Commissioner Callinan will ride off into the sunset wishing that he hadn't taken the perfectly innocent adjective "Disgusting" and turned it into his professional epitaph.

But it was Charles J Haughey's baroque response to another Irish scandal, the strange series of events (in the summer of 1982) which led to a double-murderer getting caught in the house of the Irish Attorney General, that is still our go-to phrase in times of crisis.

GUBU! .....It was text-speak before anybody had heard of social media or smart-phones. The early '80s equivalent of "WTF JUST HAPPENED!?"

It wasn't Haughey himself who coined it - but he did provide the inspiration. Say what you like about Charles J (try "Corrupt"), the man had a way with words.

When the news broke about on-the-run killer Malcolm McArthur hiding in the apartment of the State's top law official, Haughey spurred his metaphorical horse towards the heights of hyperbole.

"It was a bizarre happening. An unprecedented situation, a grotesque situation, an almost unbelievable mischance." He said.

It was Conor Cruise O'Brien who compressed Charley's thoughts and coined the phrase; GUBU - for Grotesque, Unprecedented, Bizarre, Unbelievable.

And as a handy acronym for describing how our Dysfunctional Republic works, it has never been bettered. Probably never will.

A small scandal breaks - usually by accident - and you can mentally picture the great and the good, the journos who cover them and the public who look on, putting on their tin-hats and bracing for far worse to come.

If there's one thing you can count on with an Irish political scandal, the first plop is always only the muted harbinger of several tonnes of shite about to hit the fan.

Unprecedented and Bizarre? Sure you haven't been paying attention, Make yourself some popcorn 'cos this is about to get EPIC!

It is a small island. And if somebody's been naughty, the chances are he has had the help, connivence or blind-eye of a few others. Who are usually well-connected to the people at the top. Or they are the people at the top.

So it's a good thing, then, that our politicians have a peculiarly Irish talent for minting a memorable phrase.

Sure, the Yanks with their "I did not have sexual relations with that woman!" or "Read My Lips - No New Taxes" are also good at this sort of thing.

But it takes an Irishman (or woman) to add a bit of poetry or drama. Or to bend words so that they sorta/kinda deal with the scandal or crisis, but also put them into the proper perspective. Smooth the events out a bit, point out that nobody is really at fault here, these are events beyond our control. That money was only resting in my account.

Politicians in other countries, when caught out, may try to spin or explain. In Ireland, they rail against cruel fate! Damn the stars that brought them to this sorry pass! They get dramatic, sentimental or lachrymose. They appeal to the plain people of Ireland (yes, those feckers).

Brian Lenihan Snr, on the main evening news, looking a beaten man, trying to explain away being caught out in a lie by turning to "Mature recollection". Looking back now, knowing how sick the man was and how he had been (unknown to himself) betrayed by his great friend, it is a very sad moment.

Another Fianna Failer, Gerry Collins, down on his knees, begging Albert Reynolds (who was out to topple his boss Haughey ) not to "bursht up the party!" Again, on the main evening news (which gets very Oprah more times than you would think reasonable).

It's not always hi-flown or tearful. Sometimes our politicians like to employ playful threat, such as when a Garda who was trying to intervene in a late-night drinking session involving politicians was asked; "You would like a pint or a transfer?"

The language our politicians use can be very revealing. Coalitions are "temporary little arrangements" - exasperated party leaders talk about "the f******g Peace Process".

Or it can be smug. Pee Flynn inviting the Late Late Show audience to try running three homes on an MEP's salary - "I wanna tell you, it ain't easy! You try it sometime!"

That was great TV - watching an odious creature like Flynn dig his own grave with those big shiny horse-teeth.

You'd Never Tire of Slappin' That

Charles J Haughey (again) telling an Austerity Hit Ireland (of another time) that we were "Living away beyond our means"...this from the Lord of the Manor in the Charvet Shirt. Living large on "political donations" and telling his bank, who had been trying to get back a 1 mill "loan" for years, to basically sing for it.

My own favourite? The exchange between the strait-laced company accountant James Gogarty, walking out of Minister Ray Burke's house after his developer boss had just dropped off a "political donation";

Gogarty;"Will we be getting a receipt?"

Boss (with a rueful laugh): "Will We F**k!"

That remains the perfect Irish political vignette. The honest, hard-working bean-counter (god bless his innocence) and the developer who knew how things actually worked.

Will things ever change? Will they F**K.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

The True History and Tragic Demise of the Pirate Luke Ryan (Pt III)

* Hi, if you've been following the story of the Dubliner Luke Ryan, you'll be happy to see that this is the final post.

And it marks the end for the Irish smuggler & pirate turned British Privateer, turned French Corsair and finally, Hero of the American Revolution.

Such was the high-risk, high-octane life that Ryan lived, he could never have expected to have enjoyed an old age surrounded by the chests of gold he took on the high seas....

But despite four appointments with the hangman, our hero came very, very close to winning a comfortable retirement....

A Warning To Others - A Pirate Hangs in Chains at Entrance To London Port

* The History of the Dread Pirate, Luke Ryan, Part III - In which our hero gets a little greedy and ends up with an appointment with the noose....

But by the summer of 1780, such was the mayhem being wrought at sea by the Black fleet and others, the always murky issue of American Letters of Marque had become a major diplomatic problem for the French, British and Americans. With all three nations coming to the realisation that the war would have to end, the French were becoming particularly irritated by actions of the privateers who were turning their waters into a lawless zone. The American Congress, not happy to have the wild Irish plundering international trade in their name, responded to growing pressure from the French and instructed a reluctant Franklin to revoke the commissions given to non-Americans sailing (nominally) under the thirteen-striped flag of the US.

As a Congressman and Ambassador, Franklin was bound by the views of his Government. Those captains and sailors who were not American citizens were going to be cut loose to fend for themselves.

As the politicians manoeuvred in the background, it was business as usual for Ryan, who had by now taken command of the formidable, three-decked, thirty-two-gun frigate Calonne, purchased by Torris from the French navy and crewed by 250 men.  Ryan had also secured French citizenship for himself, as a protection against summery execution as a rebellious Irish pirate. Or so he thought. 

He remained unaware that Benjamin Franklin and the American Congress would no longer offer American protection to “foreign” crewed letters of marque.

The end came for Luke Ryan off the Firth of Forth on the coast of Scotland in April, 1781. In the waters off St Abbe’s Head, Ryan’s frigate Calonne, under French colours and crewed by 250 Irish, Dutch, French and American sailors, had captured a fat little prize, the merchant brig Nancy. Luke Ryan wanted to deal with business quickly and bargained a ransom with the Nancy’s master, a Captain John Ramsay. A price of three hundred guineas was agreed and the Nancy was cut loose. 

Captain Ramsay would stay on board the Calonne as a guest of Luke Ryan until the agreed ransom had been handed over. As dusk began to fall on the evening of 16 April, Ryan’s lookout shouted ‘sail-ho!’ as a number of ships were spotted on the horizon. Ryan was suspicious, a force of ships spotted in enemy waters would certainly give him pause for thought. 

But Ramsey, a quick-thinking Scot, observed to his captor that the ships were bound to be Greenland whalers, on their way to the Arctic. Unarmed whalers meant rich pickings and Ryan fell for what turned out to be expertly proffered bait.

The ‘easy prizes’ turned out to be nothing of the kind. The Calonne was actually running up to the Berwick, a Royal Navy first-rater of seventy-four guns. And worse, the Berwick had an escort, the two-decker, thirty-six-gun Belle Poule, which had manoeuvred in the failing light to come up behind the Calonne and was quickly opening up with broadsides. 

Ryan immediately engaged the Belle Poule, hoping that he could knock away a mast and make his escape before the Berwick could come up and catch him between two fires. But after a heavy exchange of guns, lasting an hour, the Berwick did arrive and Ryan was forced to strike his colours. He could not run. And to fight on meant certain annihilation. No frigate, no matter how well commanded and crewed, could stand the fire of a first-rater and her consort for very long.

Ryan was initially treated as a French officer, until Captain Patton of the Berwick noticed that this French gentleman did not have a great command of his own language, and seemed to speak with what sounded suspiciously like a rough Irish accent. The Calonne was taken into Edinburgh and Ryan, by now suspected to be the notorious Irish pirate, was transferred to Edinburgh Castle, charged with high treason and jailed to await extradition to London. 

The other Irish ‘rebels’ were also imprisoned while the Americans, French and other nationalities (who came from sovereign states that were “officially” at war with Britain) were sent to be exchanged.

On 10 October 1781, Ryan and his first mate Thomas Coppinger were brought under heavy escort to London by road. They were presented at the Admiralty Sessions Court at the Old Bailey and charged with high treason and the piratical taking of vessels. When he came to trial in March 1782, Ryan still insisted on speaking French, even giving his name as ‘Luc Ryan’ and protesting that he was a naturalised citizen of King Louis and therefore liable to treatment as a bona fide prisoner of war.

However, nobody believed him, with one report in the London press wryly noting that while his French was awful, for an Irishman, he spoke English ‘tolerably well’. And as an Irish subject of the British Crown, he couldn't claim French citizenship in any case. Luke Ryan was a traitor and a rebel who could claim the protection of no foreign King.

Any doubts about the identity of Ryan, who was still claiming to be a French officer, were dashed by the appearance of a string of witnesses from his native Rush, Co Dublin, who testified to his real identity when he was eventually brought to trial. The witnesses who swore evidence included local land-owners, merchants some of his cousins and even fellow smugglers from Rush.

There would be payback for those from Rush who helped send Ryan to the gallows. In May 1782, Ryan’s former officer and fellow Rush man Patrick Dowling returned home in the Fear Not privateer. Dowling landed with a large party of men at Skerries and burnt the houses of several witnesses against Ryan, including the home of the Revenue agent Frederick Connygham, in retaliation for the part they played in condemning their shipmates.

 Flags of Privateers 

In London, Ryan and Coppinger had been charged with an eye-watering list of crimes, including mayhem, murder, mutiny, treason and piracy against George III. 

Ryan’s defence was simple: he may indeed have carried out all of these acts, but he did so as a lawful privateer for the Americans and the French in a time of war. The Irish man was not likely to get a sympathetic hearing from the jury or from the notoriously hard Justice Sir James Marriott, a hanging judge if ever there was one.

Judge Marriott - Compassionate looking Chap

While awaiting his fate, Ryan was joined at Newgate Prison by his former shipmate Edward Wilde of the Black Princess who had been captured off the Scillies. The Royal Navy had also apprehended the rest of Ryan’s squadron, officers James Sweetman and Matthew Knight from Rush were also up for trial, and were convicted, in London in the summer of 1782.

Ryan’s trial, in March 1782, effectively turned on his citizenship. If he could prove he was French he would go free. If he was found guilty of being Irish and a subject of King George, he would hang at Wapping.

There were witnesses for the defence who swore that Ryan was the French-born son of an officer serving in Dillon’s Regiment in France and at one stage, they even produced a forged parish register from a little village in France which claimed to prove this. It was a touching story, the infant Luke had been brought to Rush to live with his relatives after the tragic death of his brave father in France. 

Justice Marriot was having none of it. 

Ryan was Irish. And Ryan would hang. 

After three weeks (a lengthy trial for that period) the jury returned a verdict of guilty on all charges. His former shipmate and fellow Rush man, Thomas Coppinger turned state’s witness and earned himself a pardon. Edward Wilde (McCatter) and two other Dubliners, Nicholas Field of Skerries and Edward Duffy of Rush were convicted of piracy and treason along with Ryan.

On 14 May 1782, the four men (along with another officer, Thomas Farrell of the Black Princess) were sentenced to a particularly brutal form of execution and one that was meted out to the worst pirates of the era. They were to be ‘caged’ at Wapping on the London docks. 

Caging involved first partially strangling the condemned man before wrapping him in heavy chains and then locking him into a large iron cage that would be hung over the Thames river.  As the tide rose, the cages would gradually slip beneath the water, drowning the condemned man even as he struggled for his last breath through the upper bars of his small iron prison.

Caged - A Pirate's Death

The condemned men could appeal and were sent back to Newgate prison while the final legal formalities ran their course. At this stage, Ryan was joined in London by his wife and five children, who had lived in Rush through his career as a privateer.

Few could have held out hope for the Irishman. During a lengthy and legally arcane appeal process, he was ordered for execution four times but was reprieved on each occasion. And Ryan still had one card to play.

Negotiations on ending the American Revolutionary War had begun and it seems Ryan still had some friends amongst the Americans and French, who began to put pressure on the British government to offer a pardon to the Irishman. 

The British, who had been forced into a humiliating retreat from their US colonies but were anxious to normalise relations and get on with business, were mindful to hear these appeals. Lord Shelbourne, the Home Secretary, was instructed by the British cabinet to pardon Ryan, but execute one of the other pirates as ‘an example to the others’. Ryan and his four officers would be pardoned, but an unfortunate Irish sailor called Daniel Casey, a first mate from the privateer fleet, would be caged at Wapping.

Hostilities between Britain, the United States and France formally ended on 27 February 1783 and Ryan was finally and formally pardoned and released on February 9th, 1784.

There had been a delay due to the significant legal debts Ryan had run up while defending his life and he had remained in Newgate Prison after his official pardon until the French government liquidated some of Torris’s assets and sent funds to London to clear the lawyers' bills.

The war was over. But the spoils had still to be divided, and Ryan would now face a new fight to regain the money he had won during his brief, but spectacularly successful, career. Now settled with his family in Hampshire, Ryan began legal action against his former agent in Dunkirk, Torris, and his bankers in Roscoff for over £70,000. A huge sum in the 1780s.

There was one final twist in the story. The bankers claimed that a woman, who had presented herself as Ryan’s ‘wife’, had called on them and claimed the Dubliner’s fortune. As The Gentleman’s Magazine of June, 1789 reported, the bankers ‘ having trusted a woman passed on them as his wife, they suffered her to draw the whole out on his conviction, and she defrauded him of every shilling.’ Whether this ‘mystery woman’, who was able to hoodwink a bank that was well accustomed to dealing with pirate money ever existed, we can only guess. Could she have been an ex-mistress? An agent of Torris or of one of his other associates? What is certain is that Ryan would never see his fortune.

The Dubliner was declared bankrupt in late 1788 and arrested on 25 February 1789 by the High Sheriff of Hampshire on foot of a debt of £200 owed to local doctors who had inoculated him and his family against smallpox, using the recently developed Jenner method.  Luke Ryan died in the King’s Bench Debtors Prison in London on 18 June 1789, of blood poisoning caused by an infected wound. He was one year short of his fortieth birthday.

Even then, there were some in France who claimed that Ryan had not died at all and that he had used one last trick to con the British authorities, escape to France and reclaim his fortune. It is a romantic notion. And one that would be in keeping with the story of Luke Ryan.


The Obituary of Luke Ryan, from the Gentleman’s Magazine, London June, 1789

‘In the King’s Bench prison, Luke Ryan, captain of the Black Prince privateer during the war, who captured more vessels belonging to Great Britain than any other single ship during the war. The various scenes he went through are astonishing. He sailed firm the port of Rush, in Ireland, early in the year 1778, in the Friendship, a smuggling cutter of eighteen six-pounders, whose name he afterwards changed to the Black Prince, and did more injury to the trade of these kingdoms than any single commander ever did. He was taken in 1781 by one of our ships of war, tried as a pirate at the Old Bailey, condemned, and four different times ordered for execution, but reprieved; and on peace being made, obtained his pardon through the Court of France. In 1781 he had realized near 20,000l. by his piracies, and lodged this sum in his bankers hands; but having trusted a woman passed on them as his wife, they suffered her to draw the whole out on his conviction, and she defrauded him of every shilling.’

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The True History of The Pirate Luke Ryan & Benjamin Franklin's Black Fleet (PT II)

*This is Part II of the Luke Ryan Story, for Pt I, please see my previous blog.

* Dubliner Luke Ryan had sailed his ship out of home waters as a British privateer to fight the Americans. But he had decided that profit and duty would be best served by turning pirate for the French Crown, and going to war against the British Navy for the freedom of the United States. 

In Dunkirk, he placed himself in the service of a man called Torris - a sort of super-agent for promising young pirates. 

A Model Of The Black Prince - Ryan's Ship

* Jean Francois Torris was an armateur – a middleman who supplied the capital needed to arm, outfit and commission the privateers – and his native Dunkirk was a privateer’s port, as close to a pirate town as you could get in northern Europe in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Privateering in Dunkirk was big business and was administrated by the French civil service; revenue came from charging rewards, fines and duties levied on behalf of Louis XVI. The French government supplied the port facilities for the conversion and fitting out of smuggling vessels and sold former naval ships for privateering. The town was a magnet for rogues and adventurers of all nations, drawn by the prospects of high-rewards for high-risks. And now, through his controlling stake in the Friendship, the Frenchman Torris was in the slightly strange position of owning a privateer crewed and commanded by Irishmen and (nominally, at least) carrying a letter of marque from the English admiralty.

Ships of The Port Of Dunkirk 1760s

The Irish smuggling ship, turned British Letter of Marque was now a renegade French privateer. And it was bound for Dublin in May 1779 with a cargo of brandy and other contraband goods, to turn a profit for its French owner. However, the ship ran foul of the ever vigilant revenue men, who seized the Friendship and its crew at Rogerstown, near Rush shortly after they docked.

Wilde and his crew were thrown into the Black Dog Prison, close to the quays in the heart of Dublin at Cornmarket. Ryan, by now a very worldly twenty-five-year-old, had not been on board when the ship and its crew was seized and soon hit on a plan to free his crew and retake the Friendship. He organised a force of smugglers from Rush to go up the River Liffey in armed river ferry boats, they subdued the guards in the dead of night and sprung Wilde and the rest of the men from The Black Dog.They then boarded the Friendship, cut the anchor lines and sailed her back to Rush, along with a small group of unwilling passengers, Revenue men who had been surprised on board the ship by the sudden arrival of the men from Rush. After taking on additional crew in an inlet in North County Dublin, Ryan sportingly dropped the Dublin Revenue officers across the Irish Sea in Dorset before making away for Dunkirk.

Remains of the Debtors Prison - Close to the Old Black Dog in Dublin

Once out of reach of the British revenue and navy at Dunkirk, it was time for Luke Ryan and the Friendship to change their identities and sign up to help Benjamin Franklin win the War of Independence.

Franklin had been on the lookout for likely vessels to carry American letters of marque. Jean François Torris was able to offer the American ambassador to the court of King Louis XVI some likely candidates, and top of the list was the lightning-fast Irish cutter with its enterprising captain and a crew that, after the Black Dog breakout, owed Ryan their lives and their liberty. Torris sold Franklin on the idea, the Friendship would be renamed the Black Prince and her Irish crew would sail under American colours.

Torris and Ryan wanted profit. Franklin wanted chaos. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement even if there was one slight sticking point.

 As a pirate, wanted by the British, Luke Ryan could not legally command a US privateer. So Torris and the Dubliner came up with a simple solution, an unemployed merchant seaman from Boston called Stephen Marchant would be the nominal captain and front-man for the operation. Ben Franklin was told the Black Prince was sailing under an American captain. But it was a twenty-five-year-old Dubliner, a pirate, smuggler and wanted man, who was really calling the shots.

The Black Prince went to work, sailing from Dunkirk in June 1779 and quickly snapping up eight British prizes which were sailed back to the French port of Morlaix. In July, Ryan and his ship captured a further thirteen British coastal trading vessels, which were stripped of their cargoes and then ransomed back to the English owners. A Waterford brig (a quick and highly-manoeuvrable ship with two square-rigged masts) called the Sally-Anne was one of eighteen vessels brought into the ports of Morlaix and Dunkirk after a particularly productive cruise to the waters off the South West coast of England. In September, the Black Prince, which now included another Rush man as officer, one Patrick Dowling, went on a longer cruise, all the way up to the Outer Hebrides off the far north west coast of Scotland to seize an impressive thirty-four prizes.

Part of the secret of the Black Prince’s success was its ability to stalk its prey while projecting an pacific appearance. Sailing with its gun-ports closed (but with slow-match burning and cannon-fully loaded, ready to be run out at a moment’s command) it could look like an innocent trading vessel.

Privateers like Ryan would go to such lengths as making their ships look scruffy, ill-handled and as different from a tautly sailed and obviously disciplined and dangerous man-o-war as possible.

It was only when you got up close to the cutter that you might notice the extra gun-ports, the 70-odd, evil-looking crewmen packed on deck and the murderous swivel guns bolted to the rails.

By then it was usually too late. Ryan and his crew were close enough and well-armed enough to threaten a broadside that would blow your ship to matchsticks. If you resisted and they were able to board with cutlasses, flint-lock pistols and deadly musketoons (a primitive form of shot-gun, often loaded with glass or old nails) they would make short and bloody work of any resistance. Worthy prizes were sailed back to friendly ports to be stripped, sold or ransomed back to their owners. Vessels that didn’t warrant that effort were burned to the waterline. Ryan, the smuggler, contraband runner and sometimes fisherman, knew the waters around Britain and Ireland like few others.

Benjamin Franklin was impressed. There was consternation in London, where the Black Prince was now causing great dread and distress to the merchants and money men of the City. By this stage, the nominal American captain Marchant had given up his paper command and returned to the US, to leave the Irish to get on with the job. Torris and Matthew Wilde (or ‘McCatter’) sourced a new vessel, which was named the privateer Black Princess and put to sea. Their trusted Rush compatriot   Patrick Dowling would take over the Black Prince under an American commission.

Ryan, who had been ill, now wanted to come out of the shadows. Together with Torris, he wrote to Benjamin Franklin seeking permission to outfit a new privateer with the Rush man as captain, sailing, officially for the first time, with an American commission. Franklin was now in on the secret. He realised that he had been hoodwinked by Torris and Ryan. But the Founding Father was impressed. He recognised in Ryan the kind of successful, leader of men who could get the job done. And it was war, whatever the legal niceties. He responded by buying a new ship, the former French man-o-war Sans Peur (or the Fear Not to her English-speaking crew), making Ryan its official master (though not making him an official commissioned officer of the American navy) and setting her on British shipping. Franklin also presented Ryan with a highly-prized ‘night glass’, a telescope that had been specially adapted to make the most of dim light. Franklin may have been exercising his noted sense of humour as a night glass was the perfect accessory for a pirate.

The Fear Not was refitted and sailed in early 1780 for the Orkney Islands, where she seized sixteen prizes on her first voyage under her new master, Luke Ryan. With eighteen cannon and twelve swivel guns, the Fear Not was a match for many armed ships and could claim to justify her defiant name.

There were now three Irish-commanded and crewed ships sailing under American commission for Benjamin Franklin against the British. And while Wilde and Dowling were doing their bit for the Revolution, it was Ryan in the Fear Not who was really making a name for himself. The ship caused mayhem along the Scottish coast. When supplies ran low, Fear Not sailed into one of the more isolated ports and demanded victualling at the point of  eighteen cannon. On more than one occasion, Ryan was said to have blown up the storehouses of a Scots merchant who was not coming across with the goods.

On 28 July 1780, the Dublin newspaper, The Freeman’s Journal, reported on ‘letters recently arrived from Scotland’, which ‘mentioned that the Fearnought (sic) privateer, Luke Ryan commander, landed at Stornaway, in the island of Lewis, and after plundering the town, carried off the principal inhabitants hostages, as ransomers for the houses.’ To the British, Ryan and his men were fighting for the Americans, but they were not American citizens, they were Irish pirates and rebels. If captured, it was the hangman’s noose in short order. But as one American officer who came into contact with Ryan observed, ‘I have sailed with many brave men, but none the equal to this Captain Luke Ryan for skill and bravery’.

Torris, the hard-nosed French armateur, also appears to have had a soft spot for Ryan. On at least one occasion he is said to have asked Benjamin Franklin to accede to Ryan’s request for a formal commission in the Continental Navy and US citizenship. Ryan himself wrote that he would give ‘the last drop of blood to gain honour for the American flag.’ Franklin never did make Ryan and his men an official part of the Continental Navy, with the protections that this would have brought. They always operated in the para-legal world of the privateer. The American ambassador to the French court may simply have not had the time to formalise Ryan's status further. But it is also possible that when it came to dealing with the British, as it surely must, it suited Franklin and his fellow politicians to have plausible deniability of the Irish privateers. Negotiations with the defeated British would be hard enough without having to raise the issue of Irish rebels and pirates who sailed in shadowy waters between the law and lawlessness.

Franklin may also have been irked by Ryan and his fellow captains’ failure to bring in as many prisoners as he wanted for exchange. Strangely, the Irish privateers seemed to be more intent on treasure than the more complicated business of catching and holding British prisoners.

As the Fear Not joined the Black Prince and Black Princess at sea, the British navy came under increasing pressure to do something. There were reports in the English newspapers that two Royal Navy frigates had been sent out to look for the Irish privateers.

Luke Ryan and his fellow Irish privateers were about to become the victims of their own success. Since the middle of 1779, events had gone Ryan’s way. He had sailed in and commanded five different privateers, Black Prince, Black Princess, Fear Not, La Marechal and Calonne, capturing an impressive 114 prizes. He had ransomed seventy-five captains of British vessels and exchanged over 160 British seamen. He and his fellow privateers from Rush had sailed under three different flags (not counting flags of deception) and fought on both sides of the war, albeit briefly for the British.  In a little over two years, they had been by far the most active and successful captains in a privateering fleet that had destroyed 733 British and Irish prizes with cargoes valued in excess of two million pounds.

During a debate in the British House of Lords at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, peers were told that the actions of Yankee privateers during the recent conflict had cost the British merchant navy an estimated £8m in damages. This did not take into account the huge problems caused to the British war effort and the Royal Navy, which was effectively forced to fight a sea war on the ‘wrong’ side of the Atlantic. Benjamin Franklin’s proxy sea war, fought with American captains and Irish and French privateers, had worked even better than he could have hoped.

* Final Part of the story... Here

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Luke Ryan & The Black Fleet - The Irish Pirates Who Sailed For Benjamin Franklin (Pt 1)

* Going to try something a little different - This is one of my favourite stories from my last book - Murder, Mutiny & Mayhem - The Blackest Hearted Villains From Irish History (O'Brien Press).

It's the story of the Pirate Luke Ryan - a Dubliner who commanded an entire Black Fleet of Irish Privateers, heavily armed, expertly crewed pirate ships, that sailed under the secret orders of Benjamin Franklin, and helped win the War of Independence for the United States.

Luke's story is almost incredible (in the sense that it is hard to believe that he achieved all that he did)

It's a long story - so I'll try and tell it over 3 nights in three parts - hope you enjoy.

Luke Ryan, Benjamin Franklin’s Irish Pirate

The Dread Pirate Luke Ryan

Luke Ryan may not have been the most famous pirate who ever commanded a ship, or even the most successful, but in a profession that demanded quick wits, reckless bravery and the ability to talk your way out of a tight corner, the charismatic Dublin man could certainly have claimed to be among the craftiest.

The mid to late eighteenth century was extraordinary time in Irish, European and American history, when Irish sailors and captains put to sea in heavily-armed, privately-owned and licensed pirate ships, fighting for and against the Yankees, British and French. Some made fortunes; some were strung up or lost in battle or shipwreck. Only one would be remembered as a hero of the American Revolution, even if it was never exactly clear just who Luke Ryan was fighting for; Ryan’s fleet, which included the infamous Black Prince, was part of a private navy (that included three Irish captains and hundreds of Irish sailors) commissioned by Benjamin Franklin to take the war to the British in their home waters.

At a time when the fledgling United States was fighting for its very existence, facing the might of the British Empire, Luke Ryan and many Irishmen like him fought the Royal Navy and targeted   vital mercantile interests in Britain's home waters, offering hope to the hard-pressed Americans and giving King George, his ministers and admirals pause for thought.

Dublin, and especially the smaller ports around it, were a hotbed of smuggling and semi-legal piracy in the period of the American Revolutionary War, offering plenty of chances for men who were willing to take a risk; Dubliner Luke Ryan was one of hundreds of young Irishmen who seized the chance to make their fortunes in uncertain times as Britain, France and the United States went to war.

By the time he reached his mid-twenties, Ryan was the most notorious and most successful privateer captain operating in British waters, even if the British, whom he fought, and the Americans, whom he served, had little idea of his true identity.

Like all the best pirates, Ryan was devious, avoiding the Royal Navy's men-o-war were possible, hiding his true role as captain behind stooges and changing flags, nationalities and his very identity as the situation demanded. However, he would use any tactics he deemed necessary, from fire and murder to jailbreaks, kidnapping, ransom and extortion, to add to his fortune. All ships were fair game to the spectacularly successful young captain born in Rush, Co Dublin.

And when he was finally captured at sea as a self-declared French officer, serving both King Louis XVI and the United States of America, he claimed French and then American citizenship before being tried an condemned to death at the Old Bailey as an Irish subject of the British Crown.

Found guilty of High Treason and the Piratical Taking of Ships at Sea (or ‘mayhem, murder and mutiny’ as the Admiralty Court heard), Luke Ryan would survive four appointments with the hangman, only to lose his considerable fortune to unscrupulous French bankers and then lose his life in a Debtors Prison. When he died, the influential Gentleman’s Magazine of London noted that Ryan’s command had ‘captured more vessels belonging to Great Britain than any other single ship during the war. The various scenes he went through are astonishing.’

Benjamin Franklin’s links to pirates and privateers began in December, 1776, when, newly arrived in France as ambassador for the fledgeling United States of America, he was facing what appeared to be an intractable problem.

Benjamin Franklin - Friend of Pirates

The original thirteen states, former colonies of the British, had only just declared their independence from the mother country.

North America still had significant numbers of people who were loyal to the British crown but from   New Hampshire down the East coast to Georgia, the newly declared states had struck for seemed to be an impossible goal, independence from the vastly powerful British Empire. 

The Americans would find willing allies in Britain's great rival France. But in 1776 ,they were in a desperate, almost hopeless position as they took on what was then the globe’s pre-eminent military and economic power. And while the Revolutionary War raged in Continental America, across the Atlantic in England, hundreds of American citizens, mostly seamen  seized in British ports on on the high seas, were being held in prisons with no recourse to winning their freedom.

Franklin was deeply concerned with the plight of his fellow Americans and arranged for money and supplies to be provided for the men held in two prisons, The Old Mill Prison in Plymouth and Forton Prison in Portsmouth. Some prisoners had been able to escape. And Franklin, a brilliant spy-master as well as scientist and statesman, was able to set up networks that would smuggle these Americans to the friendlier shores of France.

Under the normal rules of war at the time, belligerent states could arrange for the swapping of prisoners and there were regular exchanges of captured soldiers and sailors between France and Britain. However, as the American revolutionaries were seen as merely rebellious British subjects, they were not entitled to exchange. If captured by the British, either on land or at sea, they would be held in one of His Majesty's Prisons, treated as rebels and denied any chance of freedom, exchange or parole.  

To make matters more galling for Franklin and the Americans, any British prisoners captured by American forces and taken to French territory would have to be returned as part of the regular system of exchange between the British and French.

Franklin solved his legal problem by signing the Treaty of Alliance with France on February 6, 1778. This treaty made France and the United States allies in the fight against the British and allowed the Americans, now involved in raiding British sea commerce, to hold British prisoners in French ports. Franklin had won recognition for the United States from the French and effectively forced the British to agree to exchange combatants. All he needed now were some human bargaining chips. And that was where men like Luke Ryan would come in.

Luke Ryan was born outside the Co Dublin village of Rush on 14 February 1750, the only son of Michael and Mary Ryan of the parish of Kenure. As a young man, he had worked on the fishing and trading boats that sailed out of Rush and also worked for the local estate as a stable-hand from the age of ten. At twelve he started work in a local boatyard and was then apprenticed to Edward King of Ringsend as a ship’s carpenter in 1766. Luke appears to have been a restless youth and after giving up his apprenticeship, he found his way to Dunkirk in France to join Dillon’s Regiment, one of the regiments making up the Irish Brigade of ‘Wild Geese’ (Irish soldiers who left for the continent after the Williamite wars of the previous century) fighting in the service of the French crown.

The Wild Geese had been scattered across the continent and the tradition of Irish men fighting under foreign flags, for the French, Spanish, Austrians, and various Italian states, would continue right up to the twentieth-century. This tradition would also see Irishmen fight and die on both sides of the American Civil War, on a number of occasions coming into direct conflict on the battlefield, such as during the terrible slaughter at Gettysburg and at Fredericksburg in December, 1862.

Ryan might have remained as one of the thousands of Irishmen fighting on the continent, if it was not for the outbreak of the American War of Independence. When war started in 1775, the Americans could just about prevent their citizen militias from being overrun and decimated by British forces in the thirteen former colonies. On land, the nascent Continental Army was fighting for its survival against significantly more powerful and experienced British forces. Conventional war at sea against the vast power of the Royal Navy was inconceivable.

But hit-and-run tactics were just about workable for small, fast, heavily-armed and expertly-sailed US ships. And if these ‘experts’ couldn’t be found within the ranks of the US navy proper, then the Americans could use the ancient practice of outfitting and licensing private warships or ‘privateers’, simply by issuing them with ‘letters of marque’ – government licenses allowing the holder to attack vessels owned by the enemy and the bring them before the admiralty. Privateers could also claim the right to act against port installations or even civilian property and goods on enemy land, under the cry of ‘seize burn or destroy’. It was often desperate, cut-throat work, involving long sea chases, brief but bloody engagements, lightning raids, kidnapping-for-ransom and trickery (privateers would carry many flags and use any and all deception to lure in unsuspecting victims).

Though ‘privateers’ with a Letter of Marque worked for profit, it could be considered a patriotic occupation and was certainly considered to be several steps above out-and-out piracy. However, they occupied a hazy legal-ground, half-way between pirates and ships of national navies, and some, like Ryan, were not against acting as smugglers and out-and-out pirates.

A Square Rigged Brig of the Era

By the second year of the War of Independence, the American Continental Navy was already beginning to cause havoc in the channel and the Irish Sea. Commissioned officers such as the legendary Scottish-born captain John Paul Jones (in the Ranger) and the Maryland merchant captain turned US navy commander Lambert Wickes launched daring raids along the coast of Scotland, England Wales and Ireland.

Early in 1777, the Dublin newspapers were carrying alarming reports of three US privateers, the Lexington, Reprisal and Dolphin, sweeping down the Irish Sea and seizing thirteen British vessels, which were either burnt or taken under sail to France. At the same time, there were reports that smugglers in Rush, North County Dublin (home port of Luke Ryan) had attacked and driven off Revenue Men and militia sent to stop their illegal trade. The newspapers carried warning of the great threat to vital Irish Sea merchant trade (including the highly valuable Linen Ships that sailed from Ireland) with reports that crafty Irish smugglers were hoisting American colours, in order to ‘avoid the interruption the revenue cutters might give to their trade’.

Amidst the growing lawlessness, public outcry and dire warnings that Yankee pirates were coming to cut the throats of Dublin merchants while they slept in their beds, the British government came under increasing pressure to act. The Royal Navy, already struggling to supply the forces fighting in the US, began to recruit privateers in Ireland and Britain to meet fire with fire. At the start of 1778, a smuggler turned privateer, captained by John Harding of Loughshinny in Fingal, North County Dublin, was ready to sail from Dublin with a crew of around 150 local men. Their ship was called, fittingly enough, the Dublin. The Fingallian sailors were renowned as some of the toughest and most skilled sailors in Europe, seasoned by long and arduous fishing voyages and ready to turn smuggler and outfox the Revenue men whenever the chance arose. Fast and heavily-armed, the ship had a letter of marque from the English and sailed as an Irish privateer against the Yankees.

Luke Ryan, who had become a partner in a lucrative smuggling operation with a cousin of his called Edward Wilde out of Loughshinny, was soon getting in on the act, converting their smuggling vessel, the Friendship to go to war. In February 1778, the Friendship finished outfitting at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in Dublin and put to sea as a privateer. She was a fast cutter, armed with six eighteen-pounder guns, able to chase down and then close with her prey, which, as she was sailing under a letter of marque from the English crown, was supposed to be American shipping.

A letter of Marque - a licence for Piracy 

However, Ryan, the former French soldier who had connections to the Privateer’s port of Dunkirk in France, must have decided that as Yankee ships were hard to come by (and devilishly hard to take) there were far richer pickings in the British merchantmen who crowded into the channel, bringing treasure and trade from all over the world to the ports of southern England.

Ryan may have set out with a British letter of marque but in early 1779, the Friendship had a secret change of ownership, with Ryan and his partner Wilde (who sometimes went by the nom-de-guerre ‘McCatter’) entering the service of the Dunkirk based businessman Jean Francois Torris.

The Irish owned ship had effectively changed sides and was now acting for French backers against the British, with the American revolutionaries set to benefit from their activities.

Luke Ryan was about to go to war..... 

* Thanks for reading Pt 1 - part 2 Here

Monday, 17 March 2014

Music From The Deep South - Way Down on the Leeside Bayou.

* Sean O'Riada & Jimmy Crowley, a Cork Music Tradition.

* A short post, this, mercifully, says you. And it is very Cork-centric, about the music from my home-town.

It's also about what seemed like the only record we owned, when we were v small kids. I blogged last week about my Grand Uncle Timmy Delaney and the strange sport of Road Bowling, a throw-back to the Williamite Wars of centuries ago. Timmy and my father's family are name-checked in one of the most famous Cork City songs, The Boys Of Fairhill, which also goes into Road Bowling.

Here's a vintage clip of The Song - together with some images of Harrier Dogs & their masters in Cork, another strange sport that is best described as fox hunting for men who can't afford horses. And it still goes on to this day. (There's a song called The Armoured Car about a very famous dog, it's part of the last clip at the bottom)

The Boys Of Fairhill

When we were kids, our family home had an old record player and one of the few LPs we had - until I started getting old enough to buy and play-to-death the 1st Smiths album - was Jimmy Crowley's Boys Of Fairhill LP - a collection of local Cork ballads. I still have it, on CD and MP3 and it gets a run out on a regular basis.

Weirdly, until we started getting more records for the family collection, I kinda assumed that all LPs would name-check members of my extended family - and was very disappointed when my sister's Joan Armatrading LP didn't mention my auntie Mamie.

And on St Patrick's Day, here's a short-ish clip (in Irish with subtitles) about Jimmy Crowley and the music of my home town; Click on the blue link - for some reason I can't get Youtube to work directly.

Jimmy Crowley

Another Corkman was the great Sean O'Riada - who took the Irish folk tradition (although he probably wouldn't be happy with the folk label) and mixed it with the more orchestral tradition of the likes of O'Carolan to create some beautiful music.

Here is O'Riada being interviewed by Danish TV in 1970, comparing some forms of Irish music to Indian ragas - pretty far out there for a music professor from Cork in the early 1970s.

Sean O'Riada

There's not many clips of O'Riada's music being performed in the proper, orchestral setting - but here's some blurry video from Dublin in the 1980s

And now to get VERY Cork - a clip of music & images from the southern city that will probably only be of interest to those who grew up on Leeside.

Clip here; Cork, music and images

So there you go - some very home-centric music and images for the Day That's In It.

And just in case we get accused of promoting Cork supremacy - here's The Dubliners with yet another song about a famous sporting dog - The Master McGrath.

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!