Wednesday, October 8, 2014

All Among The Quality, New York

Tompkins Square, New York

For most of August, I was roaming up and down the East Coast of the U.S. in pursuit of the bright trail of "Dynamite" Johnny's ghost. My first port of call had to be where Johnny drew his first breath-by the banks of the East River in New York. Almost as soon as he could walk, Johnny was trundling down to the Dry Dock offering his services to whoever would have him. He learned his trade lending a hand, getting up, out, and among the denizens of the old Dry Dock of Manhattan's East River. Many a time he'd be seen running headlong to the East River to work with his brother Peter who ran a sailing ferry between Greenpoint in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

A drawing by John O' Leary for the first illustrated sequence of "A Captain Unafraid"

In Manhattan's "Lower East Side" lies Tompkins Square-the heart of “Dynamite” Johnny’s childhood stomping ground, Johnny even raised his own family a few blocks from its leafy cover. My own first entrance into the park had some ominous omens-while resting my legs on the first bench I saw, a rat leapt out from behind my chosen place of respite. I looked to my left and on the seat beside me was an empty bullet casing. Well, all this grit and gloom, if the truth be told (even though I’ve haven’t yet lied) is from another era. Once upon a time the Lower East Side occupied the lowest rung on the social ladder; it was where it all began for immigrants, the only way was up, the only way was any damned way at all, 'cause it all started here.

Riots have occurred in Tompkins square almost every generation since it was opened back in 1834. The most recent riots kicked off for many reasons, one being, locals felt they were being driven out of their neighbourhood by rising rent and property prices. I read somewhere too, that "it was a hot summer night and the cops were young."

If you want to rest awhile in Tompkin's Square's public houses, Its got some swank joints, dives, and many's the place in between, one of our favourites spots for a drink and a feed was "Miss Lily's Jamaican Restaurant." Gentrified, possibly, Dynamite, for sure!
Miss Lily's, Tompkins Square
Since the 60’s the neighbourhood has been predominantly Puerto Rican. Billy ("A Captain Unafraid's" sound-man) and myself, almost started a scuffle "The Cape-man" of old would have been embroiled in. We were told by a local kid that the street corner we were resting our weary bones on was “A Puerto Rican Neighbourhood,” he apologised almost as soon as he’d threatened blood and blamed it all on the booze, telling us swiftly, “All men are created equal man, you have a good day, been drinking all day man.”

The Cape-man and Umbrella man
Father Patrick Maloney was one of the most colourful characters we met on our jaunt through Alphabet City. Father Pat has long been making sure some of the Lower East Side's turf is still green, safe, and fit for Paddies, and indeed, any other race that come under his care. Pat has been a stalwart of Tompkin's Square for many's the year, in fact, he emigrated here from Limerick, Ireland, back in the 1950’s. In the 70’s Pat became a Melkite-a Byzantine “Eastern Order” Priest, and has been an activist firmly planted in and among the community ever since. Pat is a controversial figure but is well regarded by the locals and has done some trojan work to earn that respect over the years. He is certainly not just preaching from the pulpit; he is out on the street working in his community. "Bonita's House" is the homeless shelter Father Pat opened in 1961 and has been running since. Besides his day to day work in the Parish, the dedicated and singleminded priest has been involved, or associated with: IRA gun runners and gun runnings, Black Panthers, quelling the Tompkins Square Riots, and the odd appearance at the pulpit of St. Patrick's Cathedral where he told us “they were once foolish enough to let me preach.” While out of his own stomping ground up among the quality of St. Patrick's on 5th Avenue, he paid tribute to “the only legitimate army in Ireland at the time, the I.R.A.”

" Mother Jones" from Father Pat's Stairwell
In 2011 the New York Times quoted Father Pat as saying "I never broke a law, but have circumvented most of them." Dynamite Johnny once said that "Any man that can't disobey an order ain't worth shucks," and perhaps, more tellingly, "In the course of this long warfare I was several times arrested for filibustering, but never convicted; so, under our law, which presumes every man to be innocent until he is proven guilty, it must be considered that I am entirely innocent of the high crimes and misdemeanours to which I here confess for the first time; until now I never have told a word of what I have done or how I did it."
Father Pat Maloney, 9th Street, Lower East Side
The subtitle of Johnny's ghost written autobiography "A Captain Unafraid" is "The Strange Adventures of 'Dynamite' Johnny O' Brien," and following in Johnny's wake has certainly proved strange. Father Pat has lived the past half century a stone's throw from the house where Johnny spent his boyhood days. This 2011 New York Times article written about Father Pat is entitled "A Priest Unafraid of Trouble." The title of the first chapter of Johnny's autobiography is "The Lure of Troubled Waters." The production company I put together for the purposes of filming our documentary is called "Trouble or Fortune Films." I hadn't heard of Father Pat until we landed in New York, so the unusually titled New York Times article on him, replete with allusions to gunrunning galore, came as quite a surprise to me, especially considering the tome "A Captain Unafraid" is mainly concerned with the act of filibustering, which is defined as "carrying out insurrectionist activities in a foreign country."

"I ain't afraid of any living thing" is something Johnny once declared. When asked his opinion on death, he said "I never feared that imminent deadly breach, because I always had that old fashioned belief in God."

While filming in McSorley's Old Ale House, which has many a ghost of its own, we met the above Ukrainian American Marine, who, when asked his own opinions on fear said "I'm not afraid of anything, my only emotions are loyalty and honor to God and my Country.... and Erin go Bragh." Dynamite Johnny, when not out on the ocean, was dressed every bit as dapper as the man in the image above, his eyes were as blue, and his moustache was every bit as bushy as Billy Beck's, who was born in 1937 and grew up on 9th street on the Lower East Side, Dynamite Johnny was born and grew up on 10th street on the Lower East Side and was born in 1837.

Another notable point of reference on our ghostly tour, was the spot where Johnny drew his last breath: "Hotel America." 105 East 15th Street is the address of that venerable spot, and surprisingly, the building is still extant. We visited the place where, before Johnny passed, he whispered "bury me by the sea." Johnny's great-granddaughters were with us too, they travelled to New York from Arkansas.

Cynthia East and Kristin Agar, Hotel America, 105 East 15th Street
One of the last watering holes we wet our whistles at was The Ear Inn, where we were fed and watered hospitably and profusely. We conducted our interview with Dynamite Johnny's great-granddaughter's (Cynthia and Kristin) above the bar, in what now doubles as a living room and Psychotherapist's office. I'm sure it has served many's the salty purpose besides over the centuries.

The Ear Inn, Spring Street, New York
The Ear Inn was built in 1817, back when it was "James Brown's House." It used to be so close to the sea that you'd fall into Neptune's watery embrace if you fell out the Saloon's doors. Nowadays it's about 100m from the Hudson River. Many's the ghostly apparition has wandered the Ear Inn and environs. Another strange situation that befell us concerned one of the owners, Martin Sheridan, and his nephew, Gary. The Ear Inn is situated just a short moonlight ramble from our own boarding house which was on Wooster Street. When we first stumbled upon the bar we met barkeep Gary Sheridan. Gary's family comes from County Cavan, and are a direct line back to General Sheridan of U.S. Civil War fame.

Billy lighting up General Sheridan's armpit, Christopher Square Park, New York
For those of you unfamiliar with rudimentary "Dynamite" genealogy, Johnny is directly related to General Sheridan, through his mother Bridget Sheridan! Johnny's parents, as Johnny states in A Captain Unafraid, "were friends and neighbours, and indeed, related to the parents of General Philip Sheridan." Gary, indeed, has the look of Johnny about him, burly, blue eyed, generous to a fault, the sort of man who'd be hard to deck in a fight, but, if you did, he'd probably get up and buy you a drink, applaud you with a roguish smile, before laying you out cold!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Screenplay Extract

Below is an extract from a screenplay I've been writing about Dynamite Johnny's life. For anyone that thinks I've lost the plot (so to speak), this is not "A Captain Unafraid" the documentary, but rather a movie screenplay I've been toying with for fun the last few years. Extracts from the screenplay will form part of the book perk - "An Illustrated Miscellany Concerning 'Dynamite' Johnny O' Brien." To order your copy of that perk and help me set the "A Captain Unafraid" boat afloat, go to  -


               INT. A STUDY IN HAVANA, CUBA, 1912 -  EVENING
               The shutters are open, on the street voices converse and laugh. We look onto 
               the rooftops of Havana.

                                   JOHNNY (O.S.)
                         After all, what is bravery, if not an inborn
                         quality–the heritage of clean lives, of
                         fighting blood and un-weakened nerves?
                         The world is full of it. And if some portion
                         of this heritage has been mine I am
                         grateful, for in my warring days (and there
                         were many of them) I should many times
                         have found myself without delay in Davy's

               "DYNAMITE" JOHNNY O' BRIEN, a small, stocky sea-captain, 72, and the
               ghost writer of his autobiography, HORACE SMITH, 67, are in Johnny's
               study. Johnny is standing up, Horace sits down, pen in hand, writing
               down Johnny's spoken word. 

                                   JOHNNY (CONT'D)
                         Bravery is confined to no longitude or
                         latitude, and knows no race. I have found
                         brave men everywhere, as will presently be
                         told and it was my fortune to be intimately
                         associated with some of the best of them.

                         And what of the beginnings of your time
                         on Gods green earth?

               Johnny pauses, strokes his beard slowly and sips his coffee.

                         Well it wasn't so much green, as gray,
                         black, and coal, with a flash of blue. 

                                                                                                              FADE TO:

               EXT. NEW YORKS DOCKSIDE, 1837  - DAY

               A view of New York's docks with seagulls crying and industry all about.
               We gradually move in on one abode on a residential street. We see the
               spars and masts of boats docked in the distance, the sound of an infant
               crying mixes with the cry of seagulls.

                                   JOHNNY (V.O.)
                         I myself, was born in the old "Dry Dock"
                         section of New York, almost on the bank of
                         the East river, on April 20, 1837. My
                         parents though, came from County
                         Longford, Ireland. In Ireland, my father
                         was a farmer, in America he became a
                         machinist. I was born in a cradle of
                         shipyards: Webb's, Browns, Westervelt's,
                         they were clustered all about. Amid such
                         surroundings I was predisposed to a life on
                         the sea, and a love of salt water and ships
                         came naturally. All around me was echoes of
                         the ocean, near by my childhood home was the
                         Morgan iron-works, where boilers were
                         built. But there were few steamships in
                         those days; sailors were sailors then, and
                         machinists stayed ashore. Tapering spars
                         crisscrossed the skyline, and romance was
                         in the air. The first thing I saw, when I
                         opened my eyes was a vessel, and almost
                         the next thing the sea. Maybe, I saw other
                         things too, but none of them held my
                         interest; ships and the sea impressed my
                         infantile mind as the most beautiful things
                         in the world, and my opinion has never


               Johnny's Mother BRIDGET lies in her bed, exhausted from childbirth. The
               bed faces a window which looks out onto masts of ships in the distance,
               and the sea beyond. ELIZABETH SHERIDAN, the midwife, is a close friend
               of BRIDGET'S. After washing him, Elizabeth brings Johnny into the arms
               of his mother, he stops crying. PETER, Johnny's father, waits outside.

                         He's a fine and healthy child Bridget. 

               Bridget cradles her child fondly. Peter enters the room and goes to pick up
               his son from Bridget.

                             Let me see my son, show him
                              here to me.

               Johnny begins crying once in his fathers arms.

                                   PETER (CONT'D)
                         He's letting us know he's arrived. There's
                         no fear on him, he's a fine set of lungs. 

               EXT. JOHNNY'S CHILDHOOD HOME, 1838  - DAY

               Johnny's mother is hanging washing, she is singing the song-  "An Raibh
               Tú i gCill Alla?" Johnny's older brother PETER JR. waltzes about with a
               paper boat-pretending to float it on the sea-he weaves in and out of the
               drying clothes. Johnny as an infant is hanging in a cradle attached to the 
               clothes line. We move with the washing on the line, like a boat bobbing on the
               ocean. We change to Johnny's perspective-a vision of blue sky and
               washing on the line. The blue sky: like an ocean, to-ing and fro-ing.

                                   JOHNNY (V.O.)
                         And the ocean to's and fro's as the child's
                         cradle rocks. The sky too is like a blue
                         ocean, a strange mirror of the sea. I was
                         always entranced by the unhemmed
                         vastness of the sea, and the skies are much
                         the same, for who knows what lies just
                         beyond our vision in that wild blue yonder.
                         I was surely bewitched from an early age
                         by that wily siren they call the sea. And my
                         brothers too heard her call.

               I/E. BOATHOUSE, GREENPOINT, 1851 - DAY

               From the pier we can see the doors to a small secluded boathouse are
               open. PETER JR. (Johnny's brother) and Johnny are working on a little
               sailing boat. It is summer, the scene is pastoral and verdant. We move
               inside to the boathouse.

                                   PETER JR.
                             (wiping his brow)
                         Pass me that hammer John.

               Johnny passes Peter the hammer.

                         Did you ever want to sail home to Ireland?

                                   PETER JR.
                         No John, I'm lucky out with my lot here. 
                             (smiling at John)
                         Both yourself and myself. Hell this is our

                         I'd like to go over the ocean, maybe see
                         where we came from. 

                                   PETER JR.
                         I seen enough of the damned place, I was
                         just about your age when we left. 

                         Was just thinking.

                                   PETER JR.
                         Think away boy. You want to know why
                         we came to New York?

                         I've heard Pete, I'm his son too. 
                             (in a droll mocking tone)
                         Us and the Sheridans were fighting the
                         Redcoats, and after we all lost, 
                             (smiling starting to laugh)
                         Dad had enough of it and said let's
                         skedaddle, let's go off to America. There
                         ain't no Redcoats there!

                                   PETER JR.
                         You're all in the know now.

               They work for a while, but Johnny gets more restless.

                         Can I take a break Pete, I'm getting a bit
                         stir crazy here, not to mention beat.

                                   PETER JR.
                             (smiling and sweating)
                         Alright, we've been working long enough,
                         let's both of us take a rest. You're like an
                         old fella aren't you? Whatever happened to  
                         vigour of youth and the like. You'll be
                         complaining of back ache and old bones
                         next. We might manage another hour in a
                         while, what do you say?

               Peter hits the side of the boat.

                                   PETER JR. (CONT'D)
                         I'd love to have her up an running soon
                         enough. We were lucky to get the
                         use of this boathouse, best we use it as we
                         have it.

               They both walk outside the small boathouse and into the summer
               sunshine. Peter Jr. and Johnny sit down on the small dock by the
               boathouse. After a few seconds Johnny gets up and wanders off to the
               right of the boathouse, up a small overgrown incline. 

                                   PETER JR. (CONT'D)
                         No faffing around Johnny, we've got work
                         to do.

                             (as he walks off)
                         Alright Pete.

                                                                                                                    FADE TO:


               Johnny wanders along, lost in a daze, he mumbles to himself
               intermittently and low; sometimes it sounds like the beat of a song. Then
               the tune "Caniad Marwnad Ifan Ab y Gof" (played by Paul Dooley) starts to play, as
               the trees sway with the wind. Johnny walks lazily along for a while.

                                   PETER JR. 

               The music gradually starts to fade out after Peter roars, he has noticed an
               old mine shaft in the ground right in front of Johnny. Johnny stops in his
               track and looks behind at his brother, he then turns around and looks
               down-seeing the opening of an abandoned mining shaft, he almost slips
               into a 50 foot chasm. Taking a few steps back, shocked, he sits down in
               the tall grass. Peter Jr. jogs up to him. 

                                   PETER JR. (CONT'D)
                             (upset and angry)
                         I told you not to go wandering off. God
                         damn John. If I hadn't followed you.
                             (looking at the mine shaft)
                         Christ, trust you to find one of those. Come
                         on, let's go home, we've enough done for
                         today. I've to work tomorrow and you've
                         school, whatever good that is to you.

               Johnny gets up, he is visibly shaken, he says nothing. They walk off back
               the way they came. 

                                                                                                                     FADE TO:


               Johnny is still silent. 

                                   PETER JR.
                         Cat got your tongue? That's unlike you for
                         sure. Well, we might have finally knocked
                         some sense into you. 

               Peter pokes Johnny playfully.

                                   PETER JR. (CONT'D)
                         What do think John? Have we knocked
                         some sense into you.

               Johnny grunts at first, then starts to smile, then to laugh.

                                   PETER JR. (CONT'D)
                             (more serious but with a slight
                              hint of a smile)
                         Right, enough of that, or we may have a
                         watery grave to contend with rather than
                         a hole in the ground for one.                                                                  

               IN A TRAM - WEEKS LATER

               Johnny ambles down the street he is lost in his own thoughts as the
               world goes on around him. 

                                   JOHNNY (V.O.)
                         In those early days, a love of adventure
                         (and the verve that engendered), was my
                         one concern. I was constantly on the move,
                         and often drove my family to distraction
                         with my machinations.

               Johnny hums the air of the song "Bowery Gals." He starts walking faster
               and whistling more intently; until he starts singing the song. He runs
               down the street, singing. 

                                   JOHNNY (CONT'D)
                             (Singing and running)
                         As I was walking down the street down the
                         street, down the street, pretty little gal I
                         chanced to meet, and we danced by the
                         light of the moon. Bowery girls are sweet
                         and swell, sweet and swell...

               Four kids hang out at the side of the street. Johnny is running by. TALL KID #1
               stops Johnny in his tracks. 

                                   TALL KID #1
                         Hey, Where you running to? You running
                         from something? What you running from?


                                   TALL KID #1
                             (squaring off to Johnny)
                         Whats the rush with you.

               Johnny kicks the kid in the shins, throws a punch at his right flank and
               scarpers. Johnny runs off down the street, all four kids race after him,
               shouting. He turns a corner the kids are still tailing him. Johnny jumps on
               a horse drawn tram that he sees just moving off, the kids count their
               losses and are left behind. Johnny sits down opposite JACK
               MONTGOMERY- a bearded sailor. Johnny stares at him for a while, Jack
               smiles back. People wait around in relative silence. Johnny stares at the
               sailor, after a time Jack speaks.

                         Were you ever out on the open sea?                                                               

                             (more dourly)
                         No sir. But I've been on the boats in the
                         harbour; my brother Peter works the ferry
                         boats, I know my way around his one sail
                         ferry boat. My father works as a machinist
                         on the docks, so I've barely seen a day
                         without a boat in it, though I've never been
                         out on the wide ocean. 

                                   JOHNNY (CONT'D)
                         You're a sailor I guess?

                         Indeed I am.

               They pause, and the streets roll jauntily by. It is evening and the
               passengers are slightly lethargic, Jack talks to Johnny to relieve his
               boredom, there is a small hint of some other motive.

                                   JACK (CONT'D)
                             (light-heartedly smiling)
                         I am lately returned from Callao, Peru, on
                         the steamship Canton and intend to ship
                         out directly for that country again - 
                             (wide eyed)
                         a wild and wonderful place if I do say so
                         myself. I bet you've never seen such sights? 

                             (jokingly but with enthusiasm)
                         No, but I'm only 14. I work in the
                         shipyards after school, tend pitch pots,
                         wedge tree nails. I often wondered what
                         places those boats I work on end up in,
                         though I'm sure none ended up in Peru!
                         Once, one did sail to California though.
                         What sort of things did you see when you
                         travelled to Peru?

                         We sailed to Peru from the South China
                         coast; but as for Callao, the port there is
                         teeming with all kinds of life, countless
                         tribes of people meet there. The colours seen
                         on the streets are as plentiful as the
                         languages been spoken. Besides the many
                         tongues of the natives; you can hear
                         Spanish, Chinese, German, Dutch. Oh! it's a
                         veritable tower of babel there. I suppose it's
                         like our own New York, but with more of
                         the Indian kind. And that's where I docked
                         my vessel, just a month past, while
                         transporting guano for the company of
                         Wetmore and Cryder. I met a man there
                         who had sailed up the Amazon, he
                         encountered a tribe that practiced
                         cannibalism, he was lucky to escape with
                         his life. And his own spared hide he owed,
                         on account that he had brought a shiny
                         mirror with him which they were quite
                         taken with. The sailor managed to escape
                         from his bonds, while they stared wide
                         eyed into it, and he ran down to the river
                         bank to where his recently sequestered
                         boat was still waiting.

                         So you captain your own ship?

                         Indeed I do. I am captain and sailor,
                         warden and jailor. 

               They pause again, looking out at the streets rolling by and the evening rolling in.

                                   JACK (CONT'D)
                         So what's your name boy?

                         Johnny O' Brien, Sir. Pleased to meet you.

                             (smiling wide-eyed)
                         And Pleased to meet you too. My own name
                         is Jack Montgomery.

                         How did you come to be a sailor?

                         When the sea calls you must obey. It's a
                         calling of sorts, If I do say so. But, the
                         freedom that blue ocean engenders, and
                         the far-flung ports it carries you to, more
                         than makes up for the hard graft.
                         Even as a lowly cabin boy, I escaped the
                         drudgery of my station by imagining what
                         the next port of call might bring, or what
                         strangeness and wonder lay right under
                         our feet in the wide wild ocean. Once, while
                         sailing on a fishing vessel in the North
                         Sea, we netted a giant squid as big as that
                         there house.

              Jack points to a terraced Georgian house. Johnny stare follows the house fixedly as
              the tram passes by it. A lady sitting next to Jack turns her head a little towards the      

                             (pointing, incredulous)
                         That house there, with the red curtains in
                         the window. A giant squid, how did you net
                         the thing?

                         With trouble boy, with trouble.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Go Johnny Go, Gogo!!

The boat has been set afloat. The good ship "A Captain Unafraid" has left its port. We are bound for New York and Havana, once we don't flounder and sink on our way. To make the sailing smooth and make the documentary happen here is the Indiegogo link! -

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Captain Unafraid

Here is an updated and extended version of this article!


Captain “Dynamite” Johnny O’ Brien was born in 1837, in the old dry dock section of New York, almost on the banks of the East River[i]. His parents hailed from Longford and Cavan, Ireland. “Being of Irish parentage I was favourably disposed towards dynamite on general principal,” he once exclaimed. As soon as he could walk, Johnny was trundling down to the East river to where his brother Peter ran a one sail ferry between Manhattan and Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He ran away to sea at the age of 13.[2] Though he began his career as a ferryman-guiding vessels over the notorious waters of Hell Gate, New York-he quickly became known as a filibuster, that is-an illegal transporter of arms. Johnny saw it as his patriotic duty to supply those in need with arms and ammunition–“We [Americans] should not forget that we were rebels once ourselves, and warmly welcomed filibustering aid from France.” Though Johnny was involved in revolution and ruction across the Americas, it was through his involvement with the Cuban War of Independence that he gained true fame.

Before Captain O Brien’s parents emigrated they lived in the parish of Killinkere, County Cavan, where they were friends and neighbours of the parents of General Philip Sheridan. General Sheridan was a leading figure on the Union side in the American Civil War. Philip’s birth is shrouded in mystery-as his mother seems to have fabricated a U.S. birthplace for him. She (and many others) hoped Philip might become president of the U.S.[3]

Dynamite Johnny received his sobriquet, not for the many tons of dynamite he ferried to Cuba, but for sixty tons he brought to Panama in 1888. Panama was part of Colombia at the time, and (according to Johnny) sixty tons of dynamite was enough “to blow the whole of Colombia off of the map.” This was before dynamite was de-natured; in other words, it could explode at the slightest jarring. A wealthy Cuban of revolutionary proclivities had purchased The Rambler (which was the largest yacht in New York Yacht Club). He intended to change the political map of Colombia and had also purchased 60 tons of dynamite to help him on his way. Having looked far and wide for a captain to ferry the dynamite (to no avail), the Cuban heard whispers of a daredevil[4] captain named Johnny O’ Brien. A meeting was arranged between the two and Daredevil Johnny “cheerfully signed up” for the job. The dynamite was loaded while the vessel was anchored at the Statue of Liberty and soon the expedition was well under way. The beginning of the voyage passed uneventfully, but when the yacht entered the Gulf of Mexico a savage lightening storm blew up. Johnny’s hair started to “crackle like a hickory fire” when he ran his hands through it. Every time he touched a piece of metal he felt a slight shock. Thinking it was his last moment on earth-from the corner of his eye-Johnny saw a spark alight-a sailor contriving to light his pipe. At this moment (having failed to inform his crew that the hold was full of dynamite), Johnny climbed down to the bottom of the ship and tied down the boxes of sudden death single-handedly (as they had begun to roll around). Eventually, the storm passed and they reached the port of Colon without further incident. When the sailors saw box after box being unloaded-emblazoned with the word Dynamite, Johnny said his crew would have ended his life, had they not been “suffering considerably from heart failure.”

Though Johnny looked for trouble and fortune on many’s the foreign shore, in his own country, he aided both the Confederate and Union causes in the American Civil War. He was appointed third officer of the Union ship The Illinois. The Illinois (along with other vessels) intended to ram an “iron clad” Confederate warship-The Merrimac. This was the first iron steam ship built by the Confederates and was wreaking havoc off the coast of Virginia. Johnny received his officership at the tender age of 25, more for the kamikaze nature of the mission, than any perceived greatness the Union forces felt he might have possessed[ii]. At any-rate, the fracas never occurred, as General Goldsborough never ordered the Union fleet to engage the Merrimac. Johnny said of Goldsborough-“I do not like to call a dead man a coward but I will say that General Goldsborough was the most cautious and conservative American I have ever known.”
Hot on the heels of his station aboard The Illinois, Johnny’s next expedition was smuggling arms to his supposed enemy-the Confederate States of America, through the Mexican port of Matamoros. Once the arms arrived in Mexico, they were smuggled over the border to Brownsville, Texas. Johnny shipped out as mate and sailing master aboard The Deer, but due to the inadequacies of the captain Johnny was given the job of captaining the ship. He was promptly informed that what he believed was general merchandise in the hold, was in fact-munitions of war that were to be ferried to Texas to aid the Confederate cause. This didn’t discourage Johnny, and he dove into the task at hand with relish-“When I was let into the secret I was enthused rather than in any degree deterred from carrying out the expedition, and threw my whole heart into it.” Involved in conflicts from Haiti to Colombia, and from Mexico to Honduras, in many ways he was a rebel without a cause, that is, until he found his cause in the late 19th century Cuban War of Independence.

The final Cuban insurrection against the Spanish Crown was inspired and lead by José Martí. Martí is considered Cuba’s founding father. The similarities between José Martí’s revolution, and the Irish rebellion of 1916 are striking. Like Pádraig Pearse (the main instigator of the 1916 rebellion), José was both poet and revolutionary. Both men also envisioned a blood sacrifice and Martí’s words were as explicit as those of Pearse-“The reddest and slightest of poppies grows atop neglected graves. The tree that bears the sweetest fruit is the one with a dead man lying at its roots.”[5[iii]

Martí (who died in one of the first skirmishes of the war) had been its guiding light and inspiration. He organised the planned rebellion from bases in New York and Florida, and his death was a major blow for the Cuban insurgents. Informants had plagued the Cuban struggle also, and many’s the expedition was scuttled by Spanish spies. With much success, the Spanish had taken to paying off ship captains to tell them where they intended to land. Once the rebels were ashore, the Spanish would emerge from their hiding place and kill each and every rebel.[iv]

The Cuban Junta, from their New York waterfront base, soon heard tell of Dynamite Johnny, and his previous filibustering exploits. Having tried their lot with many crooked captains, they put their trust in Johnny. Johnny, for his part, did not need to be asked twice and his first trip to aid the Cubans was soon underway, ferrying- “2500 rifles, a 12 pounder Hotchkiss field gun, 1500 revolvers, 200 short carbines. 1000 pounds of dynamite, 1200 machetes, an abundance of ammunition” and one-General Calixto Garcia-to the Island[v]. Dynamite Johnny’s first expedition was a roaring success, and soon Garcia was encamped in the mountains of Old Oriente Province, where, along with the guns Johnny had supplied, he vigourously engaged the Spanish forces. Johnny put in his lot with the Cubans, more out of sympathy with the Cuban cause than for any monetary gain involved. The Cubans were broke and, according to Johnny, there was more money to be made piloting legal cargo from New York-than ferrying armaments and men to Cuba. Of course, the attendant thrill of adventure must have also played a part in Johnny signing up for the job!

Johnny’s nemesis during the War was the head of Spanish Forces in Cuba-Valeriano “The Butcher” Weyler. Valeriano was mightily frustrated by Johnny’s expeditions. When Valeriano was asked his opinion on Johnny by a reporter, he gave it succinctly:“We will get him, and I will hang him from the flagpole of Cabaña Fortress.” When he heard of Valeriano’s declaration, Johnny replied through the same channels,“I will make a landing within plain sight of Havana on my next trip to Cuba. If we should capture you, which is much more likely than that you will ever capture me, I will have you chopped up into small pieces and fed to the fires of the Dauntless.” A few short months later, in May 1897, Johnny landed the Dauntless (and a large cargo of munitions) within three miles of the presidential palace (where Valeriano was sometime ensconced) and within one mile of Cabaña fortress.

The explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbour indirectly led to Johnny’s retirement from filibustering. The sinking of that ship triggered the Spanish-American-Cuban War-thus negating the worth of Johnny’s job of ferrying illegal armaments to Cuba-those same cargos could now be ferried to their destination perfectly legally. Johnny always maintained that the explosion of the ship was most likely accidental, but the U.S. was convinced the Spanish were involved. Whoever perpetrated the action, or however it occurred, within six months, the Spanish-American War was over, and U.S. dominion now extended over the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico and other islands. Cuba was spared U.S. ownership because the Teller Amendment forbade such an action. The Teller amendment called for U.S. liberation of Cuba, not permanent occupation (perhaps due to the large Cuban communities in New York and Florida). More tellingly, Henry Teller (who proposed and drafted the Teller Amendment) was a Republican senator from Colorado, and he wanted to prevent Cuban sugar cane from competing with his own states sugar beet crop. His declaration read “we (the United States) hereby disclaim any disposition of intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people.” Oh how history’s ball of yarn unravels and reason turns on a whimsical die! Follow the money, others might say. During the Spanish-American War the media had a huge part to play. In the American press, the war became an exotic (and often hyperbolic) drama. The most popular anecdotal story of the war in the U.S., relates the time when illustrator Fredric Remington cabled from a relatively peaceful Havana-"there will be no war." The supposed reply from his U.S. H.Q. came,"you furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war." 

Theodore Roosevelt (who later became president) was promoted to Colonel when he arrived in Cuba. He jumped into the conflict with gusto, and captained the famed “Rough Riders” to victory at the decisive battle of San Juan, near Havana. The American Ambassador to Britain at the time, John Hay, when writing to Roosevelt after the hostilities had ended, famously declared the conflict to have been "a splendid little war." For Roosevelt (and many others) it added to U.S. territories abroad, galvanised the scattered factions of The Civil War into patriotism, and took the eyes of the U.S. media off domestic concerns. 

Johnny found himself settling down at the age of 61. Perhaps he was tired of revolution and ruction? Or maybe there was no more rebellion to be had? The U.S’s Golden Eagle had now spread ominous wings firmly over the Americas, and Johnny would be hard pressed to find a theatre in which to play the game of war, without playing by the rules, and playing by the rules was something he was loath to do,“Any man that can’t disobey an order ain’t worth shucks.”[vi] Johnny was offered a position as chief Havana Harbour Pilot by the first president of Cuba-Thomas Estrada Palma. He took the job gladly, but a law was passed subsequently which made it compulsory for Cuban pilots to be Cuban citizens. Johnny was on the point of resigning (as he would not renounce his American citizenship), but the Cuban’s waived the rule for him, and he continued the job with his pride restored, and his patriotism intact.

On March 16th, 1912, Dynamite Johnny captained the resurrected warship "U.S.S. Maine" on its final journey to its proper burial three miles out from Havana Harbour. “The Maine” was raised from its watery grave in commemoration of those who went down with the ship and all those who had died in the insurrection. Johnny O’Brien was sole captain of the resurrected vessel and referred to it as “the proudest moment of my life”. The Maine was surrounded by a flotilla of 50 vessels and the entire population of Havana lined the city’s walls, as cannons fired minute guns in commemoration of those who had perished in the war. Imagine the scene: Johnny, dressed in his best morning suit, a starched white shirt and bow-tie, the sole crew member of the resurrected battleship, standing alone on deck, “a little black clad figure,”[vii] defying the huge vessel. From the warship’s masthead flies the stars and stripes, the “biggest and handsomest navy ensign”[viii] he has ever seen. A flotilla of 50 vessels circles the Maine, all thronged with sailors. Starboard of the ship is the great Cabaña fortress-ramparts lined with soldiers, cannons firing minute guns. To port-the old city of Havana-her whole population thronging the roofs and sea walls. Then, Johnny opens the valves in the bulkhead and the waters rush into the ship. He climbed down the ladder on March 16th, 1912, while concurrently in New York, 20,000 people marching in St. Patrick’s Day parade paused, and all the church bells rang for the war dead. Not once did Johnny look back at the sinking vessel, flinching neither to “God, chance nor the impatient hand of destiny.”[ix] Down went the Maine, slowly, smoothly, then the decks-exploding with the air pressure, hurtling masses of flowers which had been laid on its deck into the air, and the flag “Old Glory vanished under the foam with a flash of red white and blue as vivid as a flame.”[x] According to newspaper reports, before the Stars and Stripes sank beneath the waves, Johnny took it in his hand and kissed it.[xi]

As the twentieth century rolled in, and on, Johnny declared filibustering to be “in the dumps”.[xii] It seems, his like were the stuff of legend even before he died. The weary old filibuster travelled home from Cuba just before his death to see snowfall on New York’s Harbour once more before he died[xiii]. Johnny was once asked if he ever feared death, he replied, “I never feared that imminent deadly breach.” He passed over that breach on June 22nd, 1917, as the scorching New York summer rolled in. Dynamite Johnny died at Hotel America, 105 East Fifteenth Street, Manhattan. He was buried in Sailor’s Cemetery, City Island, with the Cuban government in charge of the services.[xiv] Johnny’s simple gravestone looks out onto the waters he sailed so often on. As the title of his ghost written autobiography states, he truly was, A Captain Unafraid.

[i]  A Captain Unafraid, 1912, Johnny’s ghost written autobiography by Horace Smith. Harper and Sons. Page 6.
[ii] A Captain Unafraid, 1912, page 10.
[iii] From the speech Pinos Nuevos by José Martí “La amapola más roja y más leve crece sobre las tumbas desatendidas. Él arbol que da mejor fruta es el que tiene debajo un muerto.”
[iv] A Captain Unafraid, 1912, page 77
[v] A Captain Unafraid, 1912, Page 80
[vi] Tugboat, The Moran Story by Eugene F. Reid and Louis Moran. Page 288
[vii] The Maine Sinks To Her Ocean Grave, New York Times article, date unknown.
[viii] The Spanish War, An American Epic by G.J.A. O Toole. Norton, 1984. Page 598.
[ix] The Spanish War, An American Epic. Page 400.[x] The Spanish War, An American Epic. Page 400.
[xi] Dynamite Johnny O’ Brien-Cuba’s American Hero, Marian Betancourt, article in Irish America Magazine, Dec/Jan 2003.
[xii] Memories of Two Wars, Fredrick Funston, 1911. Chapter 1: To Cuba as A Filibuster.
[xiii] New York Times, Dynamite Johnny O’ Brien’s obituary, June 22, 1917.
[xiv]Tugboat, The Moran Story, by Eugene F. Reid and Louis Moran. Page 291.

1. The dividing sections of the article are chapters from Johnny’s autobiography “A Captain Unafraid” ghost written by Horace Smith. 
2. The Masonic Standard, New York, Vol XVI, No 52, December 30, 1911, states that Johnny was 15 when he ran away from home. The article describes Johnny as a veteran of Masonry. Having been a member of Excelsior Lodge. No 195 since 1867. In “A Captain Unafraid,” Johnny says he was 13 when he absconded from home. 
3. Historian William F. Drake, in his book Little Phil (The Story of General Philip Henry Sheridan), maintains Philip was born at sea (thus not a U.S. born citizen) which precluded him from becoming president. Dynamite Johnny’s mother’s maiden name was Bridget Sheridan and she (according to Johnny’s autobiography “A Captain Unafraid”) was a relation of Philip Sheridan's. “A Captain Unafraid” also states that both Johnny and Philip’s families emigrated together on the same boat.
4. Johnny’s first nickname was Daredevil Johnny.
5. This quote comes from a speech of Martí’s entitled Los Pinos Nuevos, in which Martí attempts to galvanize the spirit of his people for the fight to come; and perhaps to come to terms with his (and their) destined martydom on the altar of patriotism. It was given in Tampa in 1891-just a few short years before Martí died and his country was decimated by war.

I am currently working on a documentary film concerning Johnny called "A Captain Unafraid." I'm going to raise the funds for the film through Indiegogo. That campaign will start in the beginning of April, until then, here's a link to the facebook page for the film -