Irish Naval Services

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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Appendix III.

THE only "History of the United States Navy," that has much reputation, is the late Fennimore Cooper's, which is somewhat compendious and inexact. A few points, in relation to distinguished Irishmen in the American service, are here supplied:

The first naval capture made in the name of the United Colonies, was that of the British store-ship Margaritta, in Machias Bay, in June, 1775. This bold attempt was made and effected by five brothers, the sons of Maurice O'Brien, a native of Cork, who then resided at Machias. Two British vessels, the Tapnaquish and Diligence, sent against the rebel village, were captured by the same brave men and their friends. A small squadron, consisting of a frigate, a twenty-gun corvette, a brig of sixteen guns, and several schooners, was next sent from Halifax, but, by the skill and bravery of the O'Briens, and Colonel Foster, was beaten off. An attack by land was decided on; but, on the second day's march from Passamaquoddy, the British troops returned to Halifax, despairing of effecting a passage through the woods.

"This affair," says Cooper, "was the Lexington of the seas; for, like that celebrated conflict, it was the rising of the people against a regular force,—was characterized by a long chase, a bloody struggle, and a victory. It was also the first blow struck on the water after the war of the American Revolution had actually commenced."[1]

The aged father of these heroic brothers could hardly be prevented from accompanying their expedition. After their first success, three of them made the sea their profession. Jeremiah was appointed to command "The Liberty," the armed schooner with which his first capture was made; his brother, William, served as his first lieutenant. John O'Brien served under Captain Lambert, as first lieutenant of "The Diligence." "For two years they did good service on the northern coast, affording protection to our navigation, after which they were laid up."[2] Jeremiah, with others, fitted out a twenty-gun letter-of-marque, called the Hannibal, manned by one hundred and thirty men. She took several small prizes; but, falling in with two British frigates, after a chase of forty-eight hours, the Hannibal was captured. O'Brien was imprisoned in "The Jersey" guard-ship, for six months, and then sent to Mill Prison, England, from which he escaped, after nearly a year's confinement. He retired, after the war, to Brunswick, in Maine, where, at the age of over four-score, he furnished the simple details of his famous beginning, to a generation that had shamefully forgotten him and them.[3]

Of John O'Brien, we find, in the history of the town where he died, at a ripe old age, some thirty years back, the following notice:

"From a journal, kept by Captain John O'Brien, I make a few extracts. On June ninth, 1779, he sailed in the armed schooner Hibernia. On June twenty-first, took an English brig, and sent her in. On June twenty-fifth, had an engagement with a ship of sixteen guns, from three till five o'clock, P. M., when the Hibernia left her, having had three men killed, and several wounded, and was then chased by a frigate till twelve o'clock. On July seventh, took a schooner, and sent her to Newburyport. July tenth, in company with Captain Leach, of Salem, took a ship carrying thirteen four pounders, and on the same day took a brig, and then a schooner, laden with molasses. July eleventh, took an hermaphrodite brig, in ballast; and, having a number of prisoners on board, gave them the brig, and gave chase to another brig that was in sight, and took her. He concludes by saying, that 'if Captain Leach and he had not parted in the fog, they could have taken the whole fleet.' Captain O'Brien was engaged in many enterprises and battles, but was never taken."[4]

Of Lieutenant William O'Brien, I have found no further notice. He probably was killed at sea, or died in prison.

Of particular officers of the navy, except those of the first class, it is difficult to get any full information. Among the first commissions issued by Congress, December 22d, 1775, we find the names of Captains John Fanning, Daniel Vaughan, and John Barry. On the peace establishment, previous to 1801, we find Captains Barry, McNeil, Barron, Mullowney, and James Barron; Lieutenants Ross, McElroy, McRea, O'Driscoll, Byrne, Somers, McCutchen, and McClelland; Midshipmen McDonough, Roach, Carroll, Magrath, Fleming, Hartigan, Hennessy, Dunn, O'Brien, Walsh, Blakely, T. McDonough, T. Moore, C. Moore, Rossitter, McConnell, Blake, Kearney, and Casey,—all Irish, by birth or parentage. Of these, such as rose to high rank in the war of 1812, are specially mentioned in the fourteenth chapter. Those who perished in battle or the storm have also passed away from memory.

The United States Navy, for many years, owed much to the abilities of the late John Boyle, chief of the naval bureau at Washington, from 1813 to 1839. Mr. Boyle was a United Irishman in his youth, and lost his fortune in that good cause. Landing, in 1801, unknown and friendless, at Philadelphia, he earned his first dollar by laboring as a coal-porter in discharging a ship. He afterwards was employed by a merchant in Baltimore, where he married Catherine, great-granddaughter of Ulick Burke, one of Lord Baltimore's Irish settlers, and "the first proprietor of a brick house in the colony." Mr. Boyle obtained a professorship in St. Mary's College, from which he passed, in 1813. to the naval bureau, where, for nearly thirty years, he was the soul of the department. He often acted as Secretary of the Navy, and was generally respected for his talents, judgment, and character. He resigned in 1839, and died at Washington, March 23, 1849, aged seventy-two years. He is worthily represented by his son, Dr. Boyle, a resident at Washington.

The following authentic anecdote of the gallant McDonough, which I find straying about, may aptly close these addenda:

"When McDonough was first lieutenant of the Siren, under the command of Captain Smith, a circumstance occurred in the harbor of Gibraltar indicative of the firmness and decision of his character. An American merchant brig came to anchor near the United States vessel. McDonough, in the absence of Capt. Smith, saw a boat from a British frigate board the brig, and take from her a man. He instantly manned and armed his gig, and pursued the British boat which he overtook just as it reached the frigate, and without ceremony took the impressed man into his own boat. The frigate's boat was twice the force of his own, but the act was so bold as to astonish the lieutenant who commanded the press-gang, and so no resistance was offered. When the affair was made known to the British captain, he came on board the Siren, in a great rage, and inquired how he dared to take a man from his boat. McDonough replied that the man was an American seaman, and under the protection of the flag of the United States, and it was his duty to protect him. The captain, with a volley of oaths, swore he would bring his frigate alongside the Siren, and sink her.

"That you may do,' said McDonough; 'but while she swims, the man you will not have.'

"The English captain told McDonough that he was a young hair-brained fellow, and would repent of his rashness. 'Supposing, sir,' said he, 'I had been in that boat; would you have dared to have committed such an act?'

" 'I should have made the attempt, at all hazards,' was the reply.

" 'What, sir!' said the captain, 'would you venture to interfere if I were to impress men from that brig?'

" 'You can try it, sir,' was the reply of McDonough.

"The British captain returned to his vessel, manned a boat, and steered for the brig. McDonough did the same; but here the matter ended. The English captain took a circuitous route, and returned to his vessel. There was such a calmness in the conduct of Lieutenant McDonough, such a solemnity in his language, such a politeness in his manner, that the British officer saw that he had to deal with no ordinary man, and that it was best not to put him on his metal."

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[1] Cooper's Naval History.

[2] C. P. Ilsley, Portland Eclectic for 1851.

[3] Historical Coll. of Maine, vol. I.

[4] Coffin's Newburyport, p. 407.