Excerpts from "Irish in the American Revolution," by James Francis Smith
When news reached the 29-year-old Luke Ryan that while he was satisfying the whores on the waterfront, his ship, the Friendship, and his entire crew were captured by a British revenue cutter. A sour feeling in the pit of his stomach warned that his smuggling days were over, and he had better flee.
Going back to sea was his only option.
Then loyalty, ingrained since childhood, took command. He realized not one trustworthy seaman would sail with him while his crew rotted in Dublin’s infamous Black Dog Prison. Meanwhile his only possession, the Friendship, was impounded at the King’s Customhouse at Poolberg.
As the hours passed, the whiskey he had consumed dulled his thinking while his imagination and courage soared. First, he had to rescue his crew. Then regain possession of his ship. As though it was a sign from the Almighty, a passing cleric provided him the inspiration he had found lacking. He found the tight Roman collar almost unbearable, and wished he had stolen the cassock from a well-fed priest of whom Dublin had more than her share. After confronting the sleepy guards and demanding that prisoners had a right to confess their sins before facing the hangman, he threatened the guards with the fear of dying with the stain of Mortal Sin on their souls.
Never was the giant redhead Chris Kelly, his equally colossal brother Pat, the fire-eater Pat Dowlin, and Bostonian Ed Mccatter so delighted to see a priest, particularly one who resembled their ship’s captain. By the time the clock turned to midnight, they had subdued the lethargic guards, raised the sails, and were on their way to France before any alarm was sounded.
Docking the Friendship at Dunkirk, which he planned to rename the Black Prince. Ryan set out for Paris to locate Benjamin Franklin, America’s representative, pledge his allegiance to the United States in order to secure a Letter of Marqué. This would entitle him to attack and capture British ships as a privateer, not a pirate.
Perhaps the following was his greatest con:
Ryan, drinking in his favorite tavern with Dowlin and Mccatter, listened as they bemoaned the lack of potential targets. Dowlin dominated the conversation. “The blighters are all cooped up, riding anchor off The Downs, waiting for armed escorts. Like chickens in a coop, sitting around for an axe to cut off their heads.”
“And there’s no way we can get to them,” added Mccatter.
Then both quieted down for they could tell by the grin on Ryan’s puss that he had something in mind. After having his friends beg to know what he was thinking, the Admiral, as they referred to him, invited them into his roguish mind.
“Instead of waiting on the outside and letting them come under escort to us, why don’t we join them before they take off?”
“Are you mad?” Mccatter asked.
“Sure as hell trying to be. But just t’ink about it. We’ll be like the fox hiding in the hen house, waiting for the choicest to make their move. With over a 100 ships to escort—and with too few escorts—bound for dozens of different ports, many are doomed to stray.”
“We’ll fly the English colors, glide into the harbor, nestle ourselves among them, and wait,” Mccatter added.
Taking a final sip and ordering another round, Ryan cautioned. “This calls for patience, and I’m wondering how to pull it off with the most impatient men I know commanding my ships.”
Then came his final downfall:
Ryan wondered, was that the reason for the French Admiralty’s strange behavior? First, he was on the outs. Then out-of-the-blue, he was awarded the Le Calonne and a commission in the French Navy, but his trustworthy crew was gone, disbanded. After taking the Nancy captive off Saint Abb’s Head, his mostly French crew mutinied when he wanted to forgo what they believed to be a large whaler, an easy prize.
Whaler hell, it turned out to be the Berwick, a 3rd rate English ship-of-the-line. And hidden in its shadow was the Belle Poule. Why hadn’t the lookout seen her?
One of them, he could have given the width of the road, but not both. Outgunned and outsailed, they pinned the Le Colonge against the shore; now he was in irons for the first time since his prison escape years ago, bound for a swift hanging once they sent him for trial in England.
During his trial:
Old Bailey Courthouse, London
Standing in the box reserved for criminals, Ryan—being of Irish birth—was a subject of the King. His privateering acts were considered piracy, therefore treason. Following the advice of his defense attorney, stating his name was Luc Ryan, he dressed as a French sailor, and answered only in French.
The English prosecutor produced Kenure, Ireland’s parish registry, showing that Luke was born there to Michael and Mary Ryan. Ryan’s defense countered with the Curate of Gravelines, which indicated he was born in France, the product of Joseph, who served in France’s Dillion Regiment, and Mary Ryan. Ryan endured four trials before an ardent admirer, Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, pleaded with England’s King to save his life. Ryan’s sentence to hang was commuted to a long term prison sentence.
Luke Ryan’s Obituary – as reported in The Gentleman’s Magazine, June 1789 – under Obituary of considerable Persons, page 578:
“In the King’s Bench prison, Luke Ryan, captain of the Black Prince privateer, during the war, who captured more vessels belonging to Great Britain than any other single ship during the war.
In three short years, Ryan’s small fleet, the Black Prince, the Black Princess, and the FearNot, authorized by Benjamin Franklin were credited with the capture of 114 British ships, ransomed 76 British captains, exchanged 161 merchant seaman for American POW’S.
Read more about James Francis Smith's latest book, "Irish in the American Revolution."
Support James Francis Smith’s campaign to award Luke Ryan an honorary American Citizenship by writing to Vice President Joseph Biden.