seagulls hovered at sea level to catch the slippery fish. They
executed elegant pirouettes and then, with their prey firmly
grasped in their beaks, they rose upwards until the raw flesh
was devoured. This scene was repeated over and over again.
Once their appetites were satisfied, they went to rest on the
masts of the numerous ships anchored at George Steer’s
East River, in the house of the Irishman O’Brien, a new baby
was born. It was 20 April 1837. The rough hands of the
immigrant, a native of County Longford, Ireland, lifted the
newborn into the air. Smiling, the mother watched her husband,
one-time farmer turned machinist through necessity.
crawled on the deck of the ships. There he took his first
steps and he felt, from the very beginning, that his life
would be tied to the sea. Near to his home were the shipyards
of Steer, Webb, Brown, Collier, Mackey, Joyce and Roosevelt.
The ships’ boilers were constructed at Morgan and Novelty’s
foundry, located on the periphery of the shipyards.
held little attraction for the young O’Brien. His teachers
failed to motivate him, because his thoughts were always on
the ships. Classes would barely be over when he went to the
shipyards to work until nightfall without earning a cent. This
passion brimmed over when his brother Peter, who owned a
rowboat, took him to Greenpoint. The teenager learned quickly.
He quickly mastered sailing on the small single-sailed boat.
He managed to navigate through the difficult channel that
separates the Long Island Sound and the East River. At
thirteen years of age, his muscles began to develop beneath
his sailor’s shirt. He had a firm, dreamer’s gaze, a broad
nose, thick hair, protruding chin. His face appeared wild. His
tough personality was already showing through. The sea was his
best school and ships the best method of teaching.
It was in
no way surprising that he should leave school and, without his
father’s permission, offer his services as a cook to Luke
Russel, captain of the fishing boat
In his memoirs, John wrote:
even boil a pot of water without burning it, but I could catch
a cod where nobody else could. Luke was happier with this
ability than with the discovery he made about my inability to
cook and I remained at his side all that winter until Peter
found me and made me return home.
worried parents noted John’s enduring sadness. Taciturn, he
would spend long hours watching the movement of the ships. His
heart was heavy. He wanted to return to his nautical
wanderings and they had to let him have his way. He was
stubborn, like a good Irishman, and he would not have his arm
twisted. His destiny was to hold adventures, and long and
dangerous voyages, and nobody, absolutely nobody could stop
him from fulfilling it. Besides, no better career awaited a
poor immigrants’ son.
apprenticeship continued for a few more years; he alternated
his studies to obtain the title of captain at Thom School,
Cherry Street, with practical experience on the ship Jane.
But the Civil War broke out and O’Brien introduced himself to
the lawyer Edward N Dickinson of Far Rockway with the hope of
joining his ship’s crew. He was turned down on account of his
persisted and in the summer of 1862, on board the
he took part in a difficult voyage. On returning to New York
he received his qualification.
schooner Deer was to transport a cargo of goods to
Matamoros, Mexico. John was employed as an officer. On the
journey, they were hounded by bad weather and took refuge on
the island of Nassau to repair the ship. There the captain
lost his job due to ineptitude; one of the ship’s owners
appointed John to the vacant position and confided in him.
Before continuing on the voyage he admitted that they were
smuggling arms for the Confederates. The contraband was
destined for Brownsville, Texas. From Matamoros the cargo
would be transported via the Río Grande. O’Brien did not raise
any objections about the new adventure. However, the
North-American consul on the island found out about the
Deer’s plans and ordered the holds to be checked on the
following day. Nevertheless the smugglers escaped, as they
raised anchor very early in the morning. At the mouth of the
port, a Federal cruiser passed beside them. They sailed
faster, because they knew that if they were captured, the
gallows awaited them.
Deer ‘was more than just a light ship: it flew. We kept a
careful watch on prow and stern, both day and night’, tells
O’Brien, ‘but we noticed nothing that looked like the enemy,
the possibility of a chase across the Gulf was exciting; then
I became infected with the seed of filibuster fever (...).’
John was happy with the outcome of the journey. He had been
paid a large sum of money and the Deer’s owner, after
selling the schooner and dispatching the cargo, gave him a
further one hundred dollars for the trip to New York. He made
the return trip aboard the schooner Pride of the Waves.
Marco Aurelio’s Command
It was in
1887 that the City of Mexico, the crew of which was led
by O’Brien, passed into the hands of Marco Aurelio Soto,
former president of Honduras. Friends of the former head of
state plotted for him to recoup this position. They organised
an expedition that failed when the City of Mexico was
captured in Jamaican waters by the British authorities.
Aurelio’s followers persevered with their plans and hired
O’Brien at the head of the Norwegian steamship Fram.
The Irishman sailed to Turks Island, to the north of Santo
Domingo. There a contingent of expeditionaries was waiting,
ready to invade Honduras. O’ Brien fulfilled his duties with
the men who had hired him and returned to New York.