seamus dubhghaill

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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Death of General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert

jean-joseph-amable-humbertGeneral Jean Joseph Amable Humbert, French soldier and French Revolution participant who leads a failed invasion of Ireland to assist Irish rebels in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, dies on January 3, 1823 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Born in the townland of La Coâre Saint-Nabord, outside Remiremont Vosges, Humbert is a sergeant in the National Guard of Lyon. He rapidly advances through the ranks to become brigadier general on April 9, 1794 and fights in the Western campaigns before being allocated to the Army of the Rhine.

In 1794, after serving in the Army of the Coasts of Brest, Humbert serves under Louis Lazare Hoche in the Army of the Rhin-et-Moselle. Charged to prepare for an expedition against Ireland, he takes command of the Légion des Francs under Hoche, sailing in the ill-fated Expédition d’Irlande against Bantry Bay in 1796, and is engaged in actions at sea against the Royal Navy. Contrary weather and enemy action force this expedition to withdraw. The trip home ends in a naval battle, the Action of 13 January 1797, during which Humbert, on the French ship Droits de l’Homme (1794), narrowly escapes death. As the ship is destroyed and sinks, hundreds of men perish, but Humbert is among the last to escape.

On his return to France, Humbert serves in the Army of the Sambre-et-Meuse, before being appointed to command the troops in another attempt to support a rising in Ireland in 1798. His command chiefly consists of infantry of the 70th demi-brigade with a few artillerymen and some cavalry of the 3rd Hussars, however by the time he arrives off the Irish coast the United Irish rising has already suffered defeat. The expedition is able to land in Ireland at Killala on Thursday August 23, 1798, meeting with initial success in the Battle of Castlebar where he routs the Irish Militia. Humbert subsequently declares a Republic of Connacht, with hopes of taking Dublin. However, Humbert’s small force is defeated at the Battle of Ballinamuck by the Irish Royal Army and he is taken as a prisoner of war by the authorities. The British send the French officers home in two frigates and then massacre their Irish supporters. Humbert makes no attempt to save the Irish who bravely supported him.

Humbert is shortly repatriated in a prisoner exchange and appointed in succession to the Armies of Mayence, Danube and Helvetia, with which he serves at the Second Battle of Zurich. He then embarks for Santo Domingo and participates in several Caribbean campaigns for Napoleon Bonaparte before being accused of plundering by General Brunet. It is also rumored that he engages in an affair with Pauline Bonaparte, the wife of his commanding officer Charles Leclerc. He is returned to France by order of General Leclerc in October 1802, for “prevarications, and liaison relationships with organisers of the inhabitants and with leaders of brigands.” A committed Republican, his displeasure at Napoleon’s Imperial pretensions lead to him being dismissed in 1803 and he retires to Morbihan in Brittany.

In 1810, after brief service in the Army of the North, Humbert emigrates to New Orleans, where he makes his acquaintance with French pirate Jean Lafitte. In 1813, Humbert joins the revolutionary Juan Bautista Mariano Picornell y Gomila in an unsuccessful attempt to foment rebellion in Spanish Mexico, but the effort fails. In 1814, Humbert again leaves New Orleans and joins the rebelling forces of Buenos Aires, briefly commanding a corps, before returning home. Humbert last fights the British at the Battle of New Orleans, as a volunteer private soldier in U.S. ranks, in the War of 1812, wearing his Napoleonic uniform. General Andrew Jackson thanks him for his assistance there after the American victory in January 1815. Thereafter Humbert lives peacefully as a schoolteacher until his death on January 3, 1823.

A monument to General Humbert depicting Mother Ireland stands on Humbert Street, Ballina, County Mayo. In 1989, sculptor Carmel Gallagher unveils a bust of General Humbert in Killala, Ireland, to mark the upcoming bicentennial of the Irish Rebellion of 1798.


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Death of John McElroy, Founder of Boston College

Death of Jesuit John McElroy, the founder of Boston College, at age of 95 in Frederick, Maryland, on September 12, 1877.

McElroy is born on May 14, 1782 in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, the younger of two sons. In the hopes of providing a better life for John and his brother Anthony, their father, a farmer, finances their travel to the United States. In 1803 the two young men board a ship leaving the port of Londonderry and arrive in Baltimore, Maryland, on August 26. McElroy eventually settles in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., and becomes a merchant.

In 1806, McElroy enters Georgetown College in Washington, D.C., the same year he enters the novitiate of the Society of Jesus as a lay brother. He eventually manages the finances of Georgetown College and in 1808 erects the tower building. He managed the school’s finances so well that through the period of economic hardship following the War of 1812, he is able to send several Jesuits to Rome to study.

McElroy is ordained in May 1817, after less than two years of preparation. As a new priest, he is assigned to Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown as an assistant pastor. In his short time at Trinity, he contributes to the growth of the congregation and enlarging of the church building. This is achieved by increasing the monthly subscription for congregation members from 12½ cents to $12.50 on July 3, 1819. The following day he travels to most of the congregation members’ homes and collects $2,000 in pledges. He immediately sets to work having the Church modified to include two lateral-wing chapels, which are first used on October 3, 1819.

On January 11, 1819, McElroy is granted United States citizenship. Also in 1819, McElroy starts a Sunday School for black children who are taught prayers and catechism simultaneously with spelling and reading, by volunteer members of the congregation. McElroy spends his remaining years in Georgetown teaching the lower grades.

In 1823, McElroy begins negotiations with the Sisters of Charity in Emmitsburg, Maryland, for the establishment of a school for girls in Frederick. In 1824, the St. John’s Benevolent Female Free School is founded by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph at 200 East Second Street in Frederick. In 1825, McElroy sets to work replacing the pre-American Revolution log cabin that houses the school with a modern building large enough to also house an orphanage.

McElroy’s next task is to found an educational institution for boys. On August 7, 1828, the construction of St. John’s Literary Institute begins. The following year the construction is completed and the school is opened, a school which is currently operating under the name of Saint John’s Catholic Prep.

In October 1847, McElroy is welcomed in Boston, Massachusetts, by the Bishop of Boston, John Bernard Fitzpatrick, to serve as pastor of St. Mary’s parish in the North End. Bishop Fitzpatrick sets McElroy to work on bringing a college to Boston.

In 1853, McElroy finds a property in the South End where the city jail once stood. After two years of negotiations the project falls through due to zoning issues. A new site is identified and city officials endorse the sale. In 1858, Bishop Fitzpatrick and Father McElroy break ground for Boston College, and for the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Classes began in the fall of 1864, and continue at this location until 1913 when the college moves to its current location at Chestnut Hill. Initially Boston College offers a 7-year program including both high school and college. This joint program continues until 1927 when the high school is separately incorporated.

In 1868, McElroy retires to the Jesuit novitiate in Frederick, Maryland. He visits Georgetown for the final time in 1872 to celebrate his golden jubilee. His eyesight is failing and while moving through his home he falls, fracturing his femur, which eventually leads to his death. Father John McElroy dies September 12, 1877 at the Jesuit novitiate in Frederick, Maryland. For some years leading up to his death, he is regarded as the oldest priest in the United States and the oldest Jesuit in the world. He is buried in the Novitiate Cemetery. In 1903, the Jesuits withdraw from Frederick and the graves are moved from the Frederick Jesuit Novitiate Cemetery to St. John’s Cemetery.


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Birth of Commodore Thomas Macdonough

thomas-macdonoughCommodore Thomas Macdonough, American naval officer noted for his roles in the first Barbary War and the War of 1812, whose family is from Dublin, is born on December 31, 1783, in the New Castle County, Delaware town then known as “The Trap,” but now renamed McDonough in his honor.

Before joining the U.S. Navy, Macdonough, for unknown reasons, changes the spelling of his last name from “McDonough” to “Macdonough.” He joins the Navy in 1800 as a midshipman and spends the first years of his naval career fighting pirates, including the famous Barbary pirates operating out of Tripoli. When the War of 1812 breaks out, Macdonough, then a lieutenant, is made the commander of all the Navy’s forces on Lake Champlain, an extremely important post due to the threat of British invasion from Canada. The opposing sides build their fleets on the Lake through most of 1813.

In August of that year, British General Sir George Prévost begins his invasion from Canada. Moving along the western edge of Lake Champlain, he hopes to use the guns of his fleet to help cover his advance. The British army outnumbers the Americans better than two to one, but Prévost needs to use the Lake to supply his army, thus the fleet of Thomas Macdonough becomes a prime target of the British fleet on Lake Champlain.

The two fleets are fairly evenly matched, but the guns of the British ships have an advantage in range. Macdonough comes up with a brilliant plan to negate this advantage. He anchors inside Plattsburgh Bay in such a manner that the British can not fire at them from long range and have to come around Cumberland Head and approach them head on, presenting their bows to the American guns. From there it becomes a close-range slugging match, more to the liking of the Americans.

On board his flagship, the USS Saratoga, Macdonough fires the first shot, hitting the HMS Confiance, the flagship of Captain George Downie, commander of the British fleet. Macdonough continues to work the gun through the fierce 2 ½-hour battle. Twice his men are sure he has been killed as he is knocked out and lay on the deck. But twice he rises and returns to action. Finally, with Captain Downie dead, and their ships devastated, the largest ships of the British fleet strike their colors, and their gunboats run for home.

On land, General Prévost has engaged the American land forces as the British fleet attacks. When it becomes apparent the American fleet is victorious, Prévost knows that further movement south is futile. He breaks off the attack and retreats toward Canada. Thomas Macdonough’s fleet has ended the British invasion. It is one of the greatest victories in the history of the U.S. Navy.

For his enormous contribution to the momentous victory, the United States Congress has a medal struck in Macdonough’s honor, and New York and Vermont present him with huge tracks of land. He continues his Navy career after the war.

On November 10, 1825, Macdonough dies of consumption aboard ship while commanding the USS Constitution as it is passing Gibraltar. His body is returned to the United States and is buried in Middletown, Connecticut. He is laid to rest alongside his wife Ann Shaler, a lady of a prominent family in Middletown, she having died just a few months earlier.