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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Capture of Gustavus Conyngham, the Dunkirk Pirate

gustavus-conynghamIrish-born United States Navy Captain Gustavus Conyngham, “The Dunkirk Pirate,” is captured by the British Royal Navy in the waters off New York on April 27, 1779.

Conyngham is born in County Donegal in 1747 and emigrated to British America in 1763 in search of a better life. He settles in Philadelphia in order to work for his cousin Redmond Conyngham in the shipping industry. When the American Revolutionary War begins in 1775 he immediately sailed to France to try to procure supplies needed for the war effort.

The British become aware of Conyngham’s plans and manage to maneuver him out of his ship with the help of the Dutch. After the loss of his ship, he heads back to France, hoping to connect with an ally to the United States. It is there he meets Benjamin Franklin, who helps him in his adventures many times in the future. They form a lasting relationship, and Conyngham eventually awards Franklin the nickname “the Philosopher” for his intellectual fortitude and resourcefulness. Franklin is entrusted with several commissions of the Continental Navy, and on March 1, 1777 Conyngham is appointed Captain of the lugger Surprise.

Conyngham scores a first victory that would warm the heart of any Irishmen, capturing the British merchant ship Prince of Orange on May 3, 1777. Later that year he is commissioned a captain in the Continental Navy and given command of the USS Revenge. He begins a series of highly successful raids into British waters from the port of Dunkirk, thus earning his sobriquet “The Dunkirk Pirate.”

In 1778 Conyngham sets sail for the West Indies and terrorizes British vessels there before finally returning to Philadelphia on February 21, 1779. He and his men had claimed 60 prize vessels in just 18 months. When he sets sail again his luck runs out and his ship is captured by the British vessel HMS Galatea on April 27, 1779. Conyngham was taken to prison in England and treated harshly by his British captors.

After two failed escape attempts, Conyngham tunnels his way out of Mill Prison in Plymouth and manages to make his way to the continent. He joins John Paul Jones on a cruise on the Alliance before returning to the United States. He is captured by the British again in March 1780 and spends another year in Mill Prison.

After the war Conyngham fails in his efforts to continue his naval career or to gain recognition from the United States Congress for his service during the war. He had lost the commission papers given to him by colonial representatives in Paris in 1777. It is said that he assists in the defense of Philadelphia against his old British foes during the War of 1812.

Gustavus Conyngham dies in Philadelphia seven years later on November 27, 1819. Nearly a century later, John Sanford Barnes, a retired navy captain and naval historian, acquires a cache of autographs and documents from a sale by Charavay of Paris. In the collection is Conyngham’s commission from Benjamin Franklin. Barnes publishes his discovery in September 1902, proving that the “Dunkirk Pirate” had never been a pirate at all, but one of the first heroes of the United States Navy.

(Pictured: Captain Gustavus Conyngham, Continental Navy. Painting by V. Zveg, 1976, based on a miniature by Louis Marie Sicardi. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.)


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Benjamin Franklin Begins Visit to Ireland

Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence, commences a visit to Ireland on September 5, 1771 where he later reports he has “a good deal of Conversation with the Patriots; they are all on the American side of the Question.”

At the time Franklin is based in London attempting to negotiate on behalf of the American Colonies. Franklin details his views of Dublin and Ireland in a letter to Thomas Cushing, a lawyer and statesman from Boston, Massachusetts. Franklin has a keen interest in Irish affairs, writing in a letter two years prior to visiting the country that “all Ireland is strongly in favour of the American cause. They have reason to sympathise with us.”

As Franklin tours Ireland in 1771 and is astounded and moved by the level of poverty he sees there. Ireland is under the trade regulations and laws of England, which affect the Irish economy, and Franklin fears that America will suffer the same plight if Britain’s exploitation of the colonies continues. During his visit, Franklin also attends two sessions of Irish Parliament as an observer.

Franklin is struck by the contrast between the grandeur of Dublin city itself and the intense poverty of those beyond its core.

Franklin writes to a friend, “The people in that unhappy country, are in a most wretched situation. Ireland is itself a poor country, and Dublin a magnificent city; but the appearances of general extreme poverty among the lower people are amazing. They live in wretched hovels of mud and straw, are clothed in rags, and subsist chiefly on potatoes. Our New England farmers, of the poorest sort, in regard to the enjoyment of all the comforts of life, are princes when compared to them. Perhaps three-fourths of the Inhabitants are in this situation.”

In 1977, the United States Ambassador to Ireland Walter J.P. Curley presents a bust of Benjamin Franklin to the Bank of Ireland to commemorate the visit. Speaking at the unveiling of the bust, the Ambassador notes that  Franklin’s friendship for Ireland was no fleeting whim. He had said “You have ever been friendly to the rights of mankind and we acknowledge with pleasure and gratitude that your nation has produced patriots who have nobly distinguished themselves in the cause of humanity and America.”


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Death of Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Continental Congress

Charles Thomson, Irish-born Patriot leader in Philadelphia during the American Revolution and the secretary of the Continental Congress (1774–1789) throughout its existence, dies in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania, on August 16, 1824.

Thomson is born in Gorteade townland, Maghera parish, County Londonderry, to Scots-Irish parents. After the death of his mother in 1739, his father emigrates to the British colonies in America with Charles and his brothers. His father dies at sea and the penniless boys are separated in America. Charles is cared for by a blacksmith in New Castle, Delaware, and is educated in New London Township, Pennsylvania. In 1750 he becomes a tutor in Latin at the Philadelphia Academy.

During the French and Indian War, Thomson is an opponent of the Pennsylvania proprietors’ American Indian policies. He serves as secretary at the Treaty of Easton (1758), and writes An Enquiry into the Causes of the Alienation of the Delaware and Shawanese Indians from the British Interest (1759), which blames the war on the proprietors. He is allied with Benjamin Franklin, the leader of the anti-proprietary party, but the two men part politically during the Stamp Act crisis in 1765. Thomson becomes a leader of Philadelphia’s Sons of Liberty. He is married to the sister of Benjamin Harrison V, another signer, as delegate, of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomson is a leader in the revolutionary crisis of the early 1770s. John Adams calls him the “Samuel Adams of Philadelphia.” Thomson serves as the secretary of the Continental Congress through its entirety. Through those 15 years, the Congress sees many delegates come and go, but Thomson’s dedication to recording the debates and decisions provides continuity. Along with John Hancock, president of the Congress, Thomson’s name (as secretary) appears on the first published version of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.

Thomson’s role as secretary to Congress is not limited to clerical duties. Thomson is also noted for designing, with William Barton, the Great Seal of the United States. The Great Seal plays a prominent role in the January 14, 1784 ratification of the Treaty of Paris. Britain’s representatives in Paris initially dispute the placement of the Great Seal and Congressional President Thomas Mifflin‘s signature, until mollified by Benjamin Franklin.

But Thomson’s service is not without its critics. James Searle, a close friend of John Adams, and a delegate, begins a cane fight on the floor of Congress against Thomson over a claim that he is misquoted in the “Minutes” that results in both men being slashed in the face. Such brawls on the floor are not uncommon, and many of them are promoted by argument over Thomson’s recordings. Political disagreements prevent Thomson from getting a position in the new government created by the United States Constitution. Thomson resigns as secretary of Congress in July 1789 and hands over the Great Seal, bringing an end to the Continental Congress.

Thomson spends his final years at Harriton House in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania working on a translation of the Bible. He also publishes a synopsis of the four evangelists in 1815. In retirement, Thomson also pursues his interests in agricultural science and beekeeping. According to Thomas Jefferson, writing to John Adams, Thomson becomes senile in his old age, unable to recognize members of his own household.


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Birth of Charles Thomson, American Revolution Patriot

charles-thomsonCharles Thomson, Patriot leader in Philadelphia during the American Revolution and the secretary of the Continental Congress (1774–1789) throughout its existence, is born in Gorteade townland, Maghera parish, County Derry, on November 29, 1729.

After the death of his mother in 1739, Thomson’s father emigrates to the British colonies in America with Charles and two or three brothers. The father dies at sea, and the penniless boys are separated in America. Charles is cared for by a blacksmith in New Castle, Delaware, and is educated in New London, Pennsylvania. In 1750 he becomes a tutor in Latin at the Philadelphia Academy.

During the French and Indian War, Thomson is an opponent of the Pennsylvania proprietorsAmerican Indian policies. He serves as secretary at the Treaty of Easton (1758), and writes An Enquiry into the Causes of the Alienation of the Delaware and Shawanese Indians from the British Interest (1759), which blames the war on the proprietors. He is allied with Benjamin Franklin, the leader of the anti-proprietary party, but the two men part politically during the Stamp Act crisis in 1765. Thomson becomes a leader of Philadelphia’s Sons of Liberty. He is married to the sister of Benjamin Harrison V, another signer, as delegate, of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomson is a leader in the revolutionary crisis of the early 1770s. John Adams calls him the “Samuel Adams of Philadelphia.” Thomson serves as the secretary of the Continental Congress through its entirety. Through those 15 years, the Congress sees many delegates come and go, but Thomson’s dedication to recording the debates and decisions provides continuity. Along with John Hancock, president of the Congress, Thomson’s name appears on the first published version of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.

Thomson’s role as secretary to Congress is not limited to clerical duties. According to biographer Boyd Schlenther, Thomson “took a direct role in the conduct of foreign affairs.” Fred S. Rolater has suggested that Charles Thomson was essentially the “Prime Minister of the United States.” Thomson is also noted for designing, with William Barton, the Great Seal of the United States. The Great Seal plays a prominent role in the January 14, 1784 ratification of the Treaty of Paris. Britain’s representatives in Paris initially dispute the placement of the Great Seal and Congressional President Thomas Mifflin‘s signature, until mollified by Benjamin Franklin.

But Thomson’s service is not without its critics. James Searle, a close friend of John Adams, and a delegate, begins a cane fight on the floor of Congress against Thomson over a claim that he was misquoted in the “Minutes” that results in both men being slashed in the face. Such brawls on the floor are not uncommon, and many of them are promoted by argument over Thomson’s recordings. Political disagreements prevent Thomson from getting a position in the new government created by the United States Constitution. Thomson resigns as secretary of Congress in July 1789 and hands over the Great Seal, bringing an end to the Continental Congress.

Thomson spends his final years at Harriton House in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, working on a translation of the Bible. He also publishes a synopsis of the four evangelists in 1815. In retirement, Thomson also pursues his interests in agricultural science and beekeeping. Charles Thomson dies on August 16, 1824, in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania. He is buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.