Loyal to the sea: the Derry sailor who fought in WW1, joined IRA and International Brigade

Charlie ‘Nomad’ McGuinness ran guns and rum and was a pearl fisher and polar explorer

When one considers the millions of books published worldwide each year it is no surprise that most will inevitably be forgotten. The bestsellers are not even guaranteed passage across the generations. It takes something very special for readers to keep coming back decade after decade to pick up a tattered copy of a classic novel or work of nonfiction. Sometimes, however, a particular moment or event can spark interest in forgotten tales.

Who and what we remember is often largely determined by the politics and atmosphere of the times. For instance, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement resulted in a campaign of digging for historical examples of Protestant/Catholic co-operation. During the bicentennial of the 1798 Rebellion significantly more attention was drawn to the unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter than to memories of a sectarian massacre in Wexford. Interest in Irish participation in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War also peaked after 1998. Working-class republicans, unionists and socialists fought together against fascism in Spain from 1936 to 1939. The life and legacy of one Irish veteran of the International Brigades, Charlie “Nomad” McGuinness, defies the neat packaging that the present often attempts to wrap the past in.

McGuinness came from a sea-faring family in Derry and spent his childhood making multiple attempts to stow away on the ships that crowded into the quay of the busy port city. In 1908, his parents relented and permitted him, at the age of 15, to take up work on a ship sailing around Britain and Ireland. This maiden voyage marked the beginning of an extraordinary life at sea, broken only by the most incredible adventures on land. His shipping and sailing work brought him across the world, both to its greatest cities and its most remote corners. He was shipwrecked on a Pacific island and fell in love with the tribal chief’s daughter. Following this, he became a pearl fisher on the South Seas and at the outbreak of the First World War joined the British navy. He deserted after hearing news of the Easter Rising and made his way back to Ireland via South Africa and China.

McGuinness immediately joined the IRA on his return home in 1920. He fought in his native city and subsequently took command of a flying column in Donegal. He made the tongue-in-cheek claim that he was the founder of the Irish Navy after shipping large consignments of weapons from Germany to Ireland during the Truce period. His exploits during the War of Independence earned him the respect of his comrades across Ireland and made his name recognisable to many Irish people in the early 1920s.


His activities thereafter only cemented his legend in the public mind. He was a leading figure in the Byrd expedition to the South Pole in 1928-30 and was honoured by the US president at a White House reception on his return. In the early 1930s he ran rum into the speakeasies of New York but decided to then explore what life might be like in Soviet Russia. Even his time in the International Brigades proved controversial, as on his return he penned a series of articles in the Irish Independent criticising his former comrades. His final years were spent in controversial circumstances. He was interned by the Irish government during the second World War due to association with German spies. Taking a standard shipping job on his postwar release, he was killed during a shipwreck off the Irish coast in 1947.

The name Charlie McGuinness is not unknown in his ancestral homes of Derry and Inishowen. A proud extended family have kept his memory alive and retain many of his possessions and newspaper scrapbooks about his exploits. The upsurge in interest in the International Brigades at the beginning of the 21st century ensured that the legend of Nomad was spread a little further than might have been the case. A biography was written by two Derry authors and published by a radical press in 2002, for instance. Despite McGuinness’s connections and the efforts made to remember him both in the north west and through a memorial sculpture in Waterford, his story still surprises most people who hear it.

When one of the editors at new publisher Merdog Books was working on a history of Derry in the 1912-23 period, he struggled to find a copy of McGuinness’s 1934 memoir. Published as Nomad in London and Sailor of Fortune in New York the following year, the memoir is an exciting tale of youthful adventure that also gives an insight into the mind of an active guerrilla and gun-runner during a pivotal time in Irish history. It tells McGuinness’s story from his childhood until he makes the decision to try his luck in Soviet Russia. It is a provocative, sometimes challenging and unsettling story full of suspense, action and intrigue. When our editor finally located a copy in the non-lending heritage section of Belfast Central Library, he immediately pitched it as a statement of intent for Merdog Books. A renewed version of Nomad was published by Merdog in late 2018 and is the first in a planned series of republications of forgotten, yet important and interesting books about Ireland and its people’s past. Merdog Books also intends to publish original fiction and nonfiction with three books scheduled for 2019 and plans for an extended catalogue in future years.

Nomad tells the story of one extraordinary man, but when the excitement is stripped back, Charlie McGuinness’s story shows the complexity of life in the early 20th century. Simple theories of what motivated men to fight in the first World War or join the IRA can result from concentration on the lives of those we remember most clearly from that time. The recovery of forgotten stories, like that found in Nomad, can significantly alter our understanding of history and remind us of the complex and sometimes contradictory actions of those who fought for Irish independence. Charlie McGuinness’s loyalty to people and causes was more often than not conditional. One constant in his life was his loyalty to adventure. More importantly, he was loyal to the sea.