A legend to rival the Marie Celeste


A maritime mystery links a missing ship with pirates' booty and Dublin's captains of commerce - John Moran examines the legend of the Ouzel

" . . . or carried of cloud from land of locust, in ouzel galley borne"

- Finnegans Wake, James Joyce

Most people are familiar with the legend of the Marie Celeste, a brigantine discovered adrift on December 5th, 1872, halfway between the Azores and the Portuguese coast. The vessel was found to be in pristine condition but without a soul on board. For some unknown reason, she had been hastily abandoned, and items found included unfinished meals, some steaming cups of tea, a clock reading backwards, and a strange cat.

That account of the ship's fate had its origins in a short story, J Habakur Jephson's Statement, which purported to be an eyewitness account of the ship's fate. It was published in Cornhill Magazine in 1884 under a pseudonym by a young surgeon named Arthur Conan Doyle. The British attorney general in Gibraltar who had been in charge of the salvage of the Mary Celeste (Mary not Marie was the vessel's true name) - later ruled the Statement "a fabrication from beginning to end".

Nonetheless, Doyle's version of the ship's mysterious fate was believed by many to be a true account, and over the years it inspired numerous articles, books, television dramas and a Hammer horror film, The Phantom Ship, aka The Mystery of the Mary Celeste.

While the Mary Celeste provided a wonderful maritime adventure story, an even more fascinating one occurred much closer to home. It concerns a ship that sailed out of Dublin at the end of the 17th century and into Ireland's most baffling nautical legend. It, too, contains an unresolved central mystery, the unravelling of which would have required the keenest attentions of Arthur Conan Doyle's later creation, Sherlock Holmes.

Dubliners tend to be in far too much of a hurry these days to notice a curious little emblem carved in Portland stone above a door on Dame Street, directly across from the Pen Corner shop. The bas-relief depicts a sailing ship whose circular shape opens a portal into a distant past and the story of a merchantman that bore the name of Ouzel Galley.

According to the best-known account, on an autumn day in 1695 the Ouzel sailed out from Ringsend in Dublin, under its captain, Eoghan Massey from Waterford, who was to take her on a trading mission to the port of Smyrna (now Ismir) in Turkey. She had 37 tried and trusted crewmen and three first-rate officers, and she was well armed, with brass canon and enough small arms to meet most contingencies.

Little could it be guessed that she was sailing into a great adventure. Of all the stories about Dublin, one historian wrote, "the strangest is that of the Ouzel Galley". For the Ouzel did not return the next year, or the year afterwards, and after three long years it had become the settled view that she had been lost at sea with all hands. In 1698, a panel comprising Dublin's most eminent merchants was set up to settle the question of insurance. It deemed that the Ouzel was indeed lost and that its owners and insurers should receive compensation. For the families in the maritime communities of Ringsend and Irishtown, the ruling brought only sadness.

But then, the story goes, on another autumn day, five years after she sailed away, a battered and torn Ouzel listed up the River Liffey, and was greeted by first a sense of disbelief, then to scenes of wild dockside jubilation. Exhausted oarsmen rolled to the strains of an old sea shanty as they heaved her toward the howling crowd on the quay. After the excitement had abated, it was discovered the heavy load under which the crew had laboured was more than worth their efforts. Along with exotic goods and spices, hidden in the hold was a fortune in booty from the plunder of pirates!

How did the crew gain possession of the booty? According to the captain and crew, on the Ouzel's outward journey she had fallen victim to "Algerine corsairs" who overwhelmed the crew and took them as captives to North Africa. There, they were forced to man the ship to harass and plunder vessels returning from the West Indies and those plying the busy Mediterranean shipping lanes.

For all those years, according to this account, the men dreamed of making an escape, "while all about them the African jungle breathed its perpetual menace", and nothing could be heard but the "barking ape, the hag-scream of hyenas or the coughing roar of the lion".

Then one night the opportunity for freedom at last presented itself, as the drunken corsairs caroused in their citadel after the Ouzel's return from sea. When the signal went up, "Irish skean met Damascan blade," but the stupefied pirates were no match for the plucky Irish sailors, and soon, the story goes, the Ouzel was homeward bound.

"Hmmph, a likely story," snorted many a jaundice-eyed Jackeen. And of course, soon a dark whisper was abroad that it had been the very officers and crew of the Ouzel who had been playing away at piracy. Whichever the case, there would be no cut for the crew, as the law covering the proceeds of piracy deemed them ineligible. Later it was reported that an arbitration body of the city's foremost captains of commerce decided that monies remaining after ship-owners and insurers had been compensated should form a fund for the alleviation of poverty among Dublin's "decayed merchants" .

But things would only get worse for the unfortunate shipmates. Some had returned safely from their hellish experiences only to discover their wives had taken new husbands - and some had new children! Indeed to this day in Ringsend, it has been noted that children born in unorthodox circumstances are known as "ouzelers". (Doesn't the Dublin slang for youngsters, "chizelers", seem suspiciously like a loose liaison between the words children and Ouzel?)

Versions of the above account of the ship's missing years have been around a long time but were known mostly to a small circle - a few academics, some nautical historians, students of arbitration and a discreet society of business people.

But can any of this be true?

Well it is true that in 1695 a ship called the Ouzel Galley went missing for so long that insurance was paid out. It is also true that five years later she arrived back in Dublin docks with a more valuable cargo than expected, the ownership of which became a matter of some dispute. It is also true that the arbitration body which decided on the insurance payout two years previously was reconstituted because it had a proved a cheaper and faster option than enriching "rapacious attorneys". And it is true that this arbitration body was made permanent in 1705 and called itself the Ouzel Galley Society, which today is still afloat (see below).

But, what of the pirates' booty? The jury is still out on this element of the story, since reliable newspapers did not appear until well into the second decade of the 18th century and any other contemporaneous accounts have yet to be discovered. Early records of the Ouzel Galley Society, strangely, have all been mislaid or destroyed. There are some scattered references in early history books, one of which seems to have fanned the flames of legend. There was also a novel published in 1876 that is important. And in 1940 a slim volume appeared which examined some previously published references and provided much of the above account. There are also some important fragments of information in other publications, which, when placed together, offer a more complete picture than known heretofore.

Perhaps the earliest reliable reference to the origins of the Ouzel Galley is contained in Warburton, Whitelaw and Walsh's History of Dublin (1818), which states, "Early in the year 1700, the case of a ship in the port of Dublin excited much controversy and legal perplexity, without being drawn to a satisfactory conclusion." As to the "controversy" alluded to, however, there was no elaboration.

Apart from any oral tradition - and Joyce's references to both theOuzel Galley ship and the Ouzel Galley Society in Finnegans Wake points to some general familiarity - it seems that the first historical account linking the Ouzel and piracy did not appear until 1904. C Litton Falkiner's history of 17th-century Ireland, Illustrations of Irish History, states that the ship's bumper cargo included not only the usual exotic merchandise from the Levant but also "piratical spoils".

However, as had been the case with the Mary Celeste, the story of piracy had appeared earlier in fiction - in this case in the novel The Ouzel Galley or Notes From an Old Sea Log, by WHG Kingston in 1875. Kingston was a popular and prolific author of more than 150 novels. In his novel, the Ouzel was indeed commandeered by pirates, and its crew held captive - but in the Caribbean, not North Africa. And it arrived in Dublin without any booty.

For further elaboration on the piracy element, we must turn to a curious little publication from 1940, The Ouzel Galley, which is part fact, part imagination. Its author was an Irish surgeon, Dr George Little. While Dr Little does reference much of the available research, he too engages in romantic flights of fancy, and a good deal of his account could have derived from Falkiner's history and Kingston's novel.

However, we discover an intriguing clue to the mystery in the small-print Notes section at the back of Dr Little's book. Here we notice, hiding among a long list of members of the Ouzel Galley Society, one Sir John K James, who we shall meet later.

In his preface to The Ouzel Galley or Notes of an Old Sea Log, WHG Kingston wrote, "Having once been invited to dine with the officers and crew of the Ouzel Galley, I naturally became curious to learn more of the history of the vessel from which the society derived its appellation." His claim to have discovered the ship's log is a literary device, similar to Conan Doyle's claim that the Jephson's Statement was an "eyewitness account".

However, Maurice Rooke Kingsford's biography, Life of WHG Kingston, confirms Kingston's visit to Ireland in 1856 and 1857. Kingsford also makes an intriguing revelation - that WHG Kingston had a very important contact in Dublin, Sir John Kingston James (Bt). Sir John, who had been the city's lord mayor on two occasions, would have been in an excellent position to inform the writer's curiosity about the society's and the ship's history. He was the "Sir John K James" listed as a long-standing member of the Ouzel Galley Society in Dr Little's Notes.

Kingsford's biography also reveals that Sir John was a cousin of the writer. So when WHG Kingston attended an Ouzel Galley Society dinner, most likely in November of 1856, it is almost certain he was there as guest of his cousin. Over one of the society's renowned "convivial dinners", no doubt Sir John and the other members would have been happy to confide in the famous maritime author all they knew about the society and the ship. Kingston may even have been given sight of some of the, now missing, early records of the society, which may also have revealed a skeleton or two.

Had the Ouzel operated as a pirate vessel in the Caribbean, Sir John Kingston James would have been a valuable source, since a history of the Bank of Ireland reveals that apart from being a wine merchant, his other business interests were in the West Indies. Could it have been that, because of the society's tradition of extreme discretion, the author might have been prevailed upon not to divulge the source of his information? Perhaps so, because even though the industrious Kingston wrote an average of five books a year for more than 30 years, he would allow 20 years to pass between his visits to Ireland and the publication in 1876 of The Ouzel Galley.

Furthermore, Sir John died a year before publication. A coincidence? Or could it be that to protect him and the society from any taint of scandal, WHG Kingston had agreed to forestall publication until after his cousin's death?

Might it also be possible that rather than being a work of imagination, The Ouzel Galley or Notes from an Old Sea Log, however disguised, could contain much that was true about the ship's absence, including its reference to piracy?

Former captain and current Ouzel Galley Society member Pat Loughrey has always had a hunch that Kingston's location for the adventures of the Ouzel, in the West Indies rather than the Barbary Coast, has a ring of truth to it. "At that time, Irish ships were legally prohibited from trading in the West Indies, so it could be that the Ouzel's captain falsely declared Turkey as his destination. At that time, the West Indies was infamous for piracy and pirates' ports." It was also far from unknown to find Irishmen - and indeed the odd woman - among the bands of pirates plundering the region.

References to Waterford by WHG Kingston and Dr Little also fit in with a West Indies connection, given the port's long association with the Caribbean. Furthermore, the great distance back to Ireland, combined with treacherous transatlantic weather, could help explain the Ouzel's lengthy absence from Dublin.

Alas, due to the paucity of historical records, we cannot say with any certainty what really happened, or indeed where the Ouzel was during its lost years at sea. Nor is it known what became of her afterwards. And so, more than 300 years since she sailed from Dublin docks, unless fresh evidence is discovered, the Ouzel Galley will keep her little secret behind that enigmatic emblem set in stone above a door in Dublin's Dame Street.