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John Dynamite
The Adventures of a Filibuster

By José Antonio Quintana García [1]

Translated by Annette Leahy


The pirate ship Alabama
(Harper's Weekly, 1 November 1862)

The 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 shipyard.

Near the 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.

The boy 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.

School 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 Albion. In his memoirs, John wrote:

I couldn’t 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. [2]

His 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.

John’s 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 young years.

The boy persisted and in the summer of 1862, on board the Illinois, he took part in a difficult voyage. On returning to New York he received his qualification.


The 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.

The 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.

Under 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.

Marco 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. [3]

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 1 March 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Quintana Garcia, Jose Antonio, 'John Dynamite: The Adventures of a Filibuster
' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:1 (March 2007), pp. 31-34. Available online (www.irlandeses.org), accessed .


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