seamus dubhghaill

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


Leave a comment

Birth of Thomas Steele, Engineer & Political Activist

Thomas (Tom) Steele, engineer and political activist, is born on November 3, 1788 at Derrymore, County Clare, the son of William Steele, gentleman, and Catherine Steele (née Bridgeman).

In July 1805 Steele enters Trinity College Dublin, graduating BA in the spring of 1810. He then studies at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he graduates MA in 1820, becoming an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in the same year. In 1821 he inherits Cullane House, near Craggaunowen, County Clare, on the death of his uncle. Of an enthusiastic and adventurous nature, in 1823 he decides to support the cause of the liberals in Spain who had rebelled against the autocratic rule of Ferdinand VII in 1820. Mortgaging the house and lands at Cullane, he purchases a large quantity of arms and ships them to Spain on board the ship Iris. Commissioned in the Legion Estrenjera of the liberal army, he distinguishes himself in the Battle of Trocadero and the defence of Madrid. He later publishes an account of his experiences, Notes on the war in Spain (London, 1824).

Returning from Spain with his fortunes ruined, Steele begins experiments with underwater diving apparatus, patenting “Steele’s improved diving-bell” in 1825. In the same year he becomes a partner in the Vigo Bay Co., which attempts to recover gold and silver bullion from Spanish ships which sank in Vigo Bay in 1702. After extensive diving operations using Steele’s diving-bell, the company is wound up at an acrimonious meeting of shareholders in September 1826. Despite claims by some of the shareholders that bullion had been found, the scheme is a total failure.

Steele is involved in the Catholic Association and, a close friend of Daniel O’Connell, is active in the emancipation campaign although himself a protestant. In 1828 he seconds O’Connell’s nomination for Clare in the general election of that year. Appointed by O’Connell as ‘Head Pacificator,’ he tours the country collecting weapons and discouraging the rural population from engaging in faction fighting. There is a certain irony in this appointment, as Steele’s own volatile temper is well known. A noted duelist, he fights an inconclusive duel in 1829 with William Smith O’Brien, who had opposed O’Connell’s second candidature for County Clare. In 1828 he is a founder of the Limerick Independent Club.

An associate of the diving pioneers John and Charles Deane, Steele dives on the wreck of the Intrinsic, off the Clare coast in January 1836, using their new diving helmet. He then begins developing equipment to provide underwater illumination, and in 1840 dives with the Deane brothers off Plymouth on the wreck of Henry VIII‘s ship, the Mary Rose. Yet he is in serious financial difficulties, which are not helped by some of his more eccentric building projects. It is said of him that “he seemed utterly incapable of rationally estimating the value of money in his own case.” He begins renovating, at great expense, a ruined castle that stands on his land at Cullane. He also later has a large standing stone, known as the ‘Umbilicus Hiberniae’ (‘Navel of Ireland’), removed from Birr, King’s County (now County Offaly), and taken to his house. At Cullane it is set up as an altar and used for mass whenever O’Connell or members of the Catholic Association visit. It is not returned to Birr until 1974.

Known as “Honest Tom Steele,” Steele is deeply devoted to O’Connell, and is one of his key lieutenants during the repeal campaigns of the 1830s and 1840s. He takes his title and responsibilities as O’Connell’s “Head Pacificator” so seriously and generally expresses himself with such long-winded pomposity that he becomes something of a figure of fun for opponents of O’Connell and for many of the younger men in the Repeal Association. Tried on conspiracy charges after the prohibition of the Clontarf monster meeting, he is one of the six “traversers” imprisoned with O’Connell in Richmond jail from May to September 1844. Strongly supporting O’Connell’s repudiation of physical force, he chairs and takes a prominent part in the peace resolution debates of July 1846 in which the Young Ireland group walks out of the Repeal Association.

After the death of O’Connell on May 15, 1847, Steele falls into a deep depression and, financially ruined, jumps from Waterloo Bridge in London on April 19, 1848. Pulled from the river by a Thames boatman, he survives for a number of weeks. Former political opponents, including Lord Brougham, offer financial help but he refuses. He dies on June 15, 1848, and his remains are taken to Dublin, where he is waked at Conciliation Hall, the headquarters of the Repeal Association, on Burgh Quay. He is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, beside O’Connell’s tomb. He appears as one of the figures on the O’Connell memorial in O’Connell Street, Dublin.

Steele never marries, but harbours an unrequited passion for a Miss Eileen Crowe of Ennis, County Clare, and is often to be seen standing on a large rock, which comes to be known as “Steele’s Rock,” on the banks of the River Fergus in Ennis as he tries to catch a glimpse of Miss Crowe, who lives across the river.

(From: “Steele, Thomas (Tom)” by David Murphy, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie | Pictured: (L to R) Thomas Steele, Daniel O’Connell and O’Gorman Mahon by Joseph Patrick Haverty)


Leave a comment

Birth of Molesworth Phillips, Companion of Captain Cook

molesworth-phillipsMolesworth Phillips, sailor and companion of Captain James Cook, is born in Swords, County Dublin on August 15, 1755.

Phillips is the son of John Phillips of Swords. His father is a natural son of Richard Molesworth, 3rd Viscount Molesworth, whence Phillips acquires his Christian name. He first enters the Royal Navy, but on the advice of his friend Sir Joseph Banks he accepts a commission as second lieutenant in the Royal Marines on January 17, 1776. In this capacity he is selected to accompany Captain Cook on his last voyage, extending over nearly three years. He sails with Cook from Plymouth on July 12, 1776, and is with the marines who escort Cook when he lands at Hawaii on February 14, 1779.

In John Webber‘s painting “The Death of Captain Cook” Phillips is represented kneeling and firing at a native who is clubbing Cook. Phillips is himself wounded, but, after swimming back to the boat, he turns back and helps another wounded marine to the boats.

On November 1, 1780 Phillips is promoted to captain. On January 10, 1782 he marries Susanna Elizabeth, third daughter of Dr. Charles Burney (1726-1814), and sister of Frances Burney and of James Burney, Phillips’s friend, who, like him, had accompanied Cook on his last voyage. He has no further active service, but is promoted brevet major on March 1, 1794, and brevet lieutenant colonel on January 1, 1798. From 1784, for the sake of his wife’s health, he lives for a time at Boulogne, but after the French Revolution he resides chiefly at Mickleham, Surrey, not far from Juniper Hall, where Frances Burney entertains numbers of French emigres. From 1796 to 1799, during the alarm of a French invasion of Ireland, Phillips feels it his duty to reside on the Irish estates at Beleotton, which he had inherited from an uncle. On January 6, 1800 his wife dies.

After the Treaty of Amiens, Phillips visits France in 1802, and he is one of those who are seized by Napoleon on the renewal of the war. He is detained in France until the peace of 1814. During this detention he makes friends with the Prince of Talleyrand and other well-known Frenchmen. After his return to England he becomes acquainted with Robert Southey, Mary and Charles Lamb, who describe him as “the high-minded associate of Cook, the veteran colonel, with his lusty heart still sending cartels of defiance to old Time,” and with John Thomas Smith (1766-1833), whom he supplies with various anecdotes for his Nollekens and his Times.

Phillips dies of cholera at his house in Lambeth on September 11, 1832, and is buried in St. Margaret’s, Westminster, where an inscription commemorates him and James and Martin Burney (1788-1852).

(Pictured: Etching of Molesworth Phillips by Andrew Geddes, circa 1825, bequeathed by Frederick Leverton Harris, 1927, National Portrait Gallery, London)


Leave a comment

The 1979 Fastnet Race

fastnet-race-memorialNineteen people lose their lives during the 1979 Fastnet Race, which begins on August 11, 1979. The race is the 28th Royal Ocean Racing Club‘s Fastnet Race, a yachting race held generally every two years since 1925 on a 605-mile course from Cowes direct to the Fastnet Rock and then to Plymouth via south of the Isles of Scilly. In 1979, it is the climax of the five-race Admiral’s Cup competition, as it has been since 1957.

A worse-than-expected storm on the third day of the race wreaks havoc on over 303 yachts that started the biennial race resulting in 24 yachts being abandoned, of which five are lost and believed to be sunk due to high winds and severe sea conditions. The nineteen fatalities consist of fifteen yachtsmen and four spectators.

Rescue efforts begin after 6:30 AM on August 14, once the winds drop to severe gale Force 9 on the Beaufort scale. Emergency services, naval forces, and civilian vessels from around the west side of the English Channel are summoned to aid what becomes the largest ever rescue operation in peace-time. This involves some 4,000 people, including the entire Irish Naval Service‘s fleet, lifeboats, commercial boats, tugs, trawlers, tankers and helicopters.

The handicap winner is the yacht Tenacious, designed by Sparkman & Stephens, owned and skippered by Ted Turner. The winner on elapsed time in the race is the 77-foot Condor of Bermuda, skippered by Peter Blake, which gains around 90 minutes on the leader at the Fastnet rock, the Kialoa IV, by chancing a spinnaker. Jim Kilroy of the Kialoa IV has broken his ribs and there is damage to the yacht’s runners. Condor of Bermuda breaks the Fastnet record by nearly eight hours (71h 25m 23s).

The disaster results in a major rethink of racing, risks and prevention.

(Pictured: Memorial to those who died in the 1979 Fastnet Race, Lissarnona, Cape Clear Island, Cork, Ireland)


Leave a comment

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.)