Thursday, November 2, 2017

Film Ireland Article

Film Ireland, Ireland's only dedicated film magazine, has been on the go in various guises since 1987. In the run up to the Irish Premiere of "A Captain Unafraid" they drafted me in to write this article concerning my own "strange adventures" in the making of "The Captain."

Thursday, October 19, 2017

On Song and Story at the Global Village

Thanks to JJ O' Shea in Radio Kerry for having me on his show "The Global Village" on Tuesday. Click on this link to listen to the show. We had a good chat with much interspersed music, we covered Cuba, Mexico, the Irish in Latin America, poetry, song and the upcoming Irish Premiere of A Captain Unafraid in Killarney this Sunday.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

An Old Note Found, 's an Chatalóin Abú!

I found this note (written in Irish) in a book in a local second hand bookstore called "The Dungeon," appropriately, the shop is on the second floor! Although it is no catacomb, the Dungeon does has a slightly cavernous feel to it, and you never know what might jump out at you from the myriad of books on its shelves. The note was found in a nondescript English language book I've forgotten the name of.

On reading the scribblings I was reminded of the novel "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell. As far as I'm aware Mr. Mitchell is an English author living in West Cork. Cloud Atlas abounds and binds beautifully between seemly disparate, but somehow connected stories, such as, a 19th century ship's doctor in the South Seas and a South Korean clone in the distant future. The author weaves from the infinite possibilities of cause and effect that we are often blind to. I'm sure the note I found has its own twisted web of entanglement to untangle but that is surely for someone else to unfold. A translation of the note would be....

"If you have anything in the manuscripts from December of '57 use this ticket. I got this quill in the Glen of Aherlow during the search we did a while ago. From the "fingerprints" it seems that that the Doctor Cumiskey used it for the stories he used to write."

I put the words I wasn't too sure of in Italics. The note is written in old Gaelic script, strangely the author of the note appears to use the letter z (and maybe even a very unusual x), neither of which are in the Irish Alphabet.

Zoéalzáin, crucaize and Cúmaxe. These words look like a strange mix between Catalan and Irish. Maybe its a portent from the gods that the Catalans will triumph in their referendum tomorrow. Or maybe I'm seeing things myself, drawing my own lines in the sand, weaving my own twisted web! Ar aon nós, go mbeidh an t-adh dearg oraibh amárach, muintir na Catalóine!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Fear, Greed and Wonder on the Captain's Trail

If, according to Ryszard Kapuscinski, "the meaning of life is crossing borders" certain lessons were learned on the Captain's latest sojourn in the Americas. What exactly those nuggets of wisdom were, I still haven't figured out, but for sure it was an enlightening and engaging experience. From giving a speech in Spanish to three hundred Cubans, to attending a protest comprising of ten people outside Trump Towers, the journey was thought provoking to say the least. Like Dynamite Johnny's own voyage to Cuba, my travels were subsumed by larger events! While in N.Y. I was told by one enlightened individual "what Cuba needs is greed." Alas, I can't pin this statement to my own mast. But it seems this is what the U.S. wants, it is determined to infiltrate the regime in Cuba, and pin its own peculiar brand of freedom to the island. It has, as A Captain Unafraid interviewee Louis Perez says a long seated "obsessive compulsive disorder" when it comes to Cuba. And Cuba isn't the only country that the U.S. has attempted to extend its ethos, or failing that, control over. While giving an interview at NYU'S Gluckman's house at Washington Square Park I was given some interesting reading by my host Miriam Nyham. The book (which she edited) "America and the 1916 Rising" has a section that deals with the parallels between Cuba and Ireland and their fights for independence. Many commentators and politicians at the time referenced the Cuban revolution against Spain when speaking of possible U.S. support for Irish Independence, with some hoping for outright military intervention by the U.S. in Ireland "the time may come when the American government may find in Ireland as effective a means for intervention as she had found in Cuba." While this never happened, U.S. culture in all its varied qualities has certainly subsumed the island of Ireland these past 100 years. It has left a thick blanket of fog over the country, leaving us digging for nuggets of our own truth amongst the chaff. 

A Captain Unafraid still

Trump Towers

Speaking of the Irish presence in Cuba, I was put up by the Irish Embassy in "Hotel Palacio O' Farill" for the duration of the film festival. The "Palacio"
 is indeed palatial, O Farill is one of the old surnames of Havana, unfortunately, their palatial grandeur was achieved on the back of money from the slave trade. Strangely, the floor I was on was named Longford-both the O' Farill and "Dynamite" O' Brien's came from that county! The foremost expert on the Irish in Havana has to be Señor Rafael Fernandez Moya, a walking library on all matters to do with the Irish presence in that city. Here we are in Havana's "Biblioteca Pública Rubén Martinez" with a portrait of Juan Antonia Mella McPartland (founder of the Cuban Communist Party) between us. Mella's mother was from Ireland.

Señor Moya y yo, Biblioteca Pública Rubén Martinez

Another one of the many minds of information I met told me how Mella was involved in the first attempt to establish a socialist republic in Cuba. I've forgotten the name of the person I conversed with, but he wrote a screenplay with a title hard to forget-"The Red Rooster Sang and Dawn Didn't Rise."

In Old Havana there was an exhibition at the Rubén Martinez Library for the 100th anniversary of Dynamite Johnny's death. Organised in conjunction with some of the local schools, they screened the Captain there and used copies of the drawings of the animated segments as part of the exhibition. A program was organised for the kids called "Discovering my locality, Old Havana."

One morning in Cienfuegos, around halfway across our traversal of Cuba, we had coffee in the home of a farmer called Santiago O' Bourke.

Santiago O' Bourke, Cienfuegos

Santiago, the town, is on the far east of Cuba and is strongly influenced by its African heritage. One of our screenings was at An African Cultural Centre in the city. John McAuliff of the U.S. based "Fund for Reconciliation and Development" was the man behind taking the Captain to the provinces of Cuba.

Myself and John McAuliff, African Cultural Centre, Santiago

Santiago's Santa Ifigeniais Cemetery is the burial place of many's a Cuban hero, most famous of those being, José Martí and Fidel Castro. Cuba, like many a nation, venerates heroes of old as examples for the future, but in Cuba you get the feeling of the closeness of history much more so than in other countries. There is a changing of the guard every half hour at José Martí's grave, it is like he died a few months ago, or did he die atall! As he said himself los que no creen en la imortalidad creen en la historia, "those who don' believe in immortality, believe in history." When I first read this quote I didn't rightly understand it, but by the end of my trip its significance was blindingly clear-the past is the immensity that makes us, it cannot be escaped, and consequently it should be listened to and reflected upon. There José Martí remains in a palatial tomb next to Fidel, around the corner from Thomas Estrada Palma who named Johnny chief Havana Harbor pilot.

José Martí's tomb
I arrived home from my flight to the Americas just in time to gaze in wonder at the reams of U.S. flags unfurled for the 4th of July celebrations in Killarney. 

Talking to other Killarney natives, many were not happy with this exultation of U.S. nationalism in their town, in whispered tones they disagree, but are afraid to speak up. It looks like the 4th of July festival in Killarney is here to stay, though it began just two years ago, methinks it will be set in stone for a long time to come. Even now, it has the feeling that it has always been there. In the same way no-one believed Donald Trump could become president, or that Brexit would ever happen, we now accept these new worlds and deal with their consequences pragmatically. We forget a time they didn't exist. The trick here is to be very careful what we wish for. It has to be said, Killarney's Fourth Of July festival is a crass celebration of U.S. nationalism that is dangerous and blatant balderdash. Given how much war and power mongering the U.S. is and has been involved in, for a prominent town in a neutral country to be raising the U.S. flag alone over its town hall to the sound of the star spangled banner, is ominous as well as being offensive. And I love many, many things about the U.S., but following them down a rabbit hole in my own country to some sad exultation of imperialism, consumerism and trash culture is not something I can support. I was reminded, upon my own recent return to my native land, of the poem by Bonifacio Byrne called Mi Bandera or "My Flag." Byrne came back to Cuba from the U.S. in 1898 and saw to his dismay the U.S. flag flying next to his own. He composed these verses inspired by that ominous vision. 

Upon returning from a distant shore,
Weary of heart and somber,
I searched for my flag anxiously
And saw another flying beside her.

This morning I looked for my flag,
The most beautiful flag in the world;
From the ship's deck, I surveyed the skies
And have never seen anything sadder.

With the faith of an austere soul,
In this conviction I have grown
That two flags should not be flown
When one is enough: my own!

In fields that have been turned to boneyards,
She saw the struggles of the brave,
And she has been the winding-sheet
Of warriors who lie in the grave.

She proudly held her own in battle,
Without puerile or romantic praise:
The Cuban who doesn't believe in her
Should be branded a coward always!

From the depths of the darkest prison,
She heard not a word of woe;
In other lands she was the beacon
That led our footsteps in the snow...

Don't you see her? My flag is the one
That never has mercenary flown,
In whose field there shines a star
All more brightly for being alone!

I've brought her in my soul from exile
Amongst my memories of home,
And I have rendered her homage
By raising her aloft in my poem.

Though listless now and sadly drooping,
I hope some day the sun's pure light
Will shine on her — on her alone! —
On land and sea and mountain height.

If my flag were torn to pieces
Those who died to make her free
Would raise their arms together
And fight eternally!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Dynamite John, through the lens of A Captain Unafraid


“A Captain Unafraid” is “Dynamite” Johnny O’ Brien’s memoir, it was last published in 1912 by Harper and Sons in New York. A Captain Unafraid the film was shot in New York, Cuba and Ireland over the past three years. The tome was ghost written by Horace Smith towards the close of Captain O Brien’s life, it is the skeleton on which the meat of this article and the film of the same name hangs.

“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 though, were Irish. “Being of Irish parentage I was favourably disposed towards dynamite on general principal,” he once exclaimed. Johnny grew up in a playground of docks and shipyards. He ran away to sea at the age of 13.[2] Though he began his career as a pilot-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. He 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, or perhaps, lasting notoriety.

Before leaving for America in 1831, Johnny says his family came from county Longford, Ireland. [3] Dynamite Johnny’s mother’s maiden name was Bridget Sheridan and according to the book “A Captain Unafraid” she was a relation of General Philip Sheridan’s.[4] General Sheridan became 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.[5]

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 Johnny says in his biography that 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-the largest yacht in New York Yacht Club. Intending to change the political map of Colombia he had also purchased 60 tons of dynamite. Having looked far and wide for a captain to ferry the dynamite (to no avail), the Cuban heard whispers of a daredevil[6] 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 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 he 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.”[7] [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 of 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 vigorously engaged the Spanish forces. Johnny put his lot in 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.

The head of Spanish Forces in Cuba-Valeriano “The Butcher” Weyler 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.


Besides General Garcia, the most lauded figure Johnny ferried to the hostilities in Cuba was General Carlos Roloff Mialofsky. Roloff was accompanied by, among others, José Martí’s son, José Martí Zayaz Bazán.[vi] Roloff himself was a Polish immigrant who had settled in Cuba. José Martí once said of him “Polish by birth, Cuban by heart.” [8] General Roloff made many trips to Cuba during the war. For instance, in Aug 1896 he commanded an expedition to Santiago de Cuba, along with 3000 rifles (with 1 million cartridges), 400 machetes and 2 Hotchkiss guns. He returned aboard the same boat. As secretary of war during the revolution, he was constantly trying to arrange the next shipment of arms to the conflict.[vii]

Once, having arranged to meet Roloff near City Hall, New York, Johnny ambled around the area for three hours before, in full view of a small entourage of sleuths. A carriage pulled up at the precisely the moment Johnny had arranged, he jumped in, and was driven away before they had time to think. “There was no other disengaged carriage in sight and before they could find one we were out of sight,” Johnny said. Waiting for him in the Carriage was General Roloff and one Dr. Castillo, they were driven to the “Bridgeport line dock” where a cargo of arms was inspected which was quickly brought aboard the Laurada bound for Cuba. Johnny didn’t command the expedition on this occasion but was to bring Roloff to Cuba aboard The Laurada the following year, in March 1897. This later expedition had aboard, 2050 rifles, two artillery pieces, 4000 pounds of dynamite, 750 machetes, a machine gun and torpedoes.[viii]

The sleuths Johnny so often spoke of were most often “Pinkertons guards” hired by the Spanish. Other sleuths on his trail were special treasury and secret service agents of the United States government. Needless to say, as Johnny was carrying out illegal activity, the U.S. authorities were anxious to catch him ‘in the act’.

He was known to play elaborate games to evade and confuse the detectives and agents of the U.S. government. On one occasion his wife even threw boiling water on two detectives as they stalked around the back of his home in Kearney, New Jersey.


In my travels throughout the Island republic of Cuba I found the internationalist element pushed to the fore in the story the Cubans tell themselves. For instance, on O’ Rielly Street in Old Havana, a plaque reads “Two island peoples in the same sea of struggle and hope, Ireland and Cuba.” The adjoining street Calle Obispo, has a memorial celebrating Carlos Roloff. Just a few hundred metres away, in the Cuban pilots association another recently uncovered plaque celebrates “Dynamite Johnny” and the contribution he made “to the necessary war.” This plaque was unveiled in 1955[ix] but has just been rediscovered, it seems it was languishing in some ruined building by the Pilots Association.[9]

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-Cuban 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 state’s 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 Cuban 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 before arriving in Cuba. He jumped into the conflict with gusto, and captained the “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, galvanized 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. Eagle had now spread its 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.”[x] 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. He was on the point of resigning (as he would not renounce his American citizenship), but the Cubans 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. Johnny was dressed in his best morning suit, a starched white shirt and bowtie, the sole crew member of the resurrected battleship, standing alone on deck, “a little black clad figure,”[xi] defying the huge vessel. From the warship’s masthead flies the stars and stripes, the “biggest and handsomest navy ensign”[xii] 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.”[xiii] Down went the Maine, 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.”[xiv] According to newspaper reports, before the Stars and Stripes sank beneath the waves, Johnny took it in his hand and kissed it.[xv]

As the twentieth century rolled in and on, Johnny declared filibustering to be “in the dumps.”[xvi] Having lived in Cuba since at least 1904[10], Johnny returned the U.S. for good in the winter of 1916. The weary old filibuster travelled home from Cuba to see snowfall on New York’s Harbour once more before he died[xvii]. Despite being confined to a wheelchair[11] he moves from Hotel to Hotel over a short few months. First he stays at the Martinique, then the McAlpin-a wanderer who no more can roam.

Johnny became a free Mason at the age of 30. Having been a Mason for the next two decades he was kicked out for not paying his dues. His relationship with money seems to have been as devil may care as the rest of his life. According to Johnny’s great granddaughter in Atlanta, at the end of his life, he burnt all his money in the fireplace of his home on Highland Avenue, Kearney, New Jersey, leaving not even a dollar for a gravestone.[12] In his last years we get a picture of a man ill at ease with settling down.
While sojourning in the McAlpin the Cuban government organize a celebration for Johnny’s 80th Birthday. His friend Victor Barranco (a special agent of the Cuban government) gives a speech in lieu of the Cuban President-Menocal.[13] Within a few weeks, Johnny is on the move again, this time he settles into a little known Hotel near Union Square called “Hotel America.”

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.[xviii] “Moving pictures” were even made of the event.[xix] Since Johnny left the world without a dollar to his name, for many decades after his death there is no gravestone on his grave. Victor Barranco[14] more than anyone else seems to hold onto Johnny’s legacy over the next few decades. Collecting money received from donations to the Times of Cuba Newspaper,[xx] in the 1930’s Victor places a gravestone on Johnny’s grave. One, Edward O’ Brien, is the owner of said paper. Edward is Johnny’s nephew. Johnny’s brother Peter is his son. In the 1950’s Victor endeavors to have A Captain Unafraid republished. Harper brothers, who originally printed the book in 1912, turn him down.[xxi] In May 1958, Exposition Press agree to reprint the tome,[15] the letter begins “there is a tide in the affairs of men,” and continues, “the republication of this book between now and Christmas could be a considerable factor in Cuban-United States relations.” The letter mentions how “Batista himself will write the forward.” None of this came to pass, a few short months later Batista was ousted by the latest Cuban revolution of Fidel Castro and Johnny’s story was swept away on the tide of history by more momentous events.


Johnny’s ghost written autobiography “A Captain Unafraid,” though it certainly has Johnny’s actions and opinions in it, is in its voice more Horace Smith that “Dynamite” Johnny. The following interview in the San Francisco Chronicle is a great example of Johnny’s true voice. Here Johnny sheds some light on his own opinion on his explosive nickname-“It was the newspapers gave me that, I don’t suppose I’ll ever get rid of the name now.” The reporter replies, “You don’t want to do you?” Johnny continues “no I don’t suppose it makes any difference now but I lost some good jobs on account of it, I had a chance of becoming skipper of a racing yacht and I was well recommended too, but when the owner heard that I was “Dynamite Johnny” he shook his head and said he didn’t want me in charge of his boat.” The article says Johnny’s blue eyes twinkled with his next utterance “he thought I belonged to one of those anarchist gangs and would probably blow up his boat.”

In his last few months alive the papers in the U.S. carry many articles on Johnny. He is as colourful and single-minded as ever-“my men were fellers as tough as pine knots and fuller of fight than wild cat’s”[xxii] “I would like to chase those submarines those are the fellers to go after.”[xxiii] “We can lick those Dutchmen, we can lick ‘em, and we ought to drive them off the seas. I could do it. We ought to ride over him and under him and just trample him ‘til he’s gone. If only I were able I’d take another ship out tomorrow. I’d go where I pleased and no submarine would stop me either.”[xxiv] That last quote (from the N.Y. Times) says more about selling papers and senility than any politics or reasonings of Johnny’s. It seems reasonable to guess that the loud-mouthed octogenarian may have been suffering from some form of dementia, indeed, his death cert, two short months later lists “senility” as a contributing factor.[xxv]

Another curious fact, is that there were two “Dynamite” Johnny O’ Briens in the U.S. during the second half of the 19th century. Both were infamous sea captains, one was born in Ireland, the other in New York. To differentiate between them, lets call them East Coast John (our Johnny) and West Coast John. West coast John was born in Cork, Ireland on January 29th, 1851.[xxvi] Strangely, he also lived to 80 years of age. His theatre of operations was the East Coast of the U.S., particularly, the perilous sea corridors of Alaska. The famous silent movie star Buster Keaton appears in “The Mariner” along side West Coast John a few years after East coast Johnny has died. It seems during the course of their long lives there is some confusion as to who did what and who was who. The New York Times obituary for East Coast John states “several years ago it was said that ‘Dynamite Johnny’ during the Russo Japanese war had commanded a submarine for the Japanese in the great Naval encounter in the yellow sea.” To add conjecture to conjecture, this must surely have been West Coast John. The St. Louis Republic on Oct 25, 1900 carries an article entitled “Now In Trouble, Dynamite Johnny Has Violated Maritime Laws.” This article details how the “daring filibuster of the Cuban War period, set out for the Klondike... he reached Seattle after an eventful voyage, during which he encountered hurricanes, savages, and other disagreeable things.” The reporter must have mixed up the two dynamite Johnny’s- Seattle and the Klondike being the central domain of West Coast John. In 1907 a young adult fiction book is published entitled “A Voyage With Captain Dynamite”[xxvii] it details the adventures of a Cuban-Irish Captain. The legend of “Dynamite” Johnny was moving full steam ahead years before either of the two Johnny’s died!

Johnny, though he certainly sympathised with the treatment of Cuba by the Spanish Colonial forces had other things on his mind too when he joined in their fight-“any sort of filibustering expedition would have tempted me away from the prosaic piloting of New York provided it offered any reasonable amount of adventure, but above and beyond my natural inclinations in that direction, my sympathies were strongly with the Cubans.” His great granddaughters (when I interviewed them in the Ear Inn in Lower Manhattan) mused that his love of liberty and drive towards what he perceived right might have only extended in as far as “if it had enough danger to satisfy his needs.” When we think of Johnny’s life we can only guess at his motives. Was he really fearless? Did he serve the cause of Cuba because of some misguided addiction to danger? Or was he a true internationalist? When trying to get a proper picture of the man, we have to remember, Johnny more than anything was a sailor and a captain, his relationship with the sea is the most intangible but essential part of him. Early in Life Johnny learned: wherever danger was to be found, that was where he could truly test his metal as a mariner. As the first chapter of “A Captain Unafraid” attests, Johnny was drawn inexorably to “The Lure Of Troubled Waters.”

What I discovered from my own trip to Cuba is that the Cubans of today who know his story are graciously indebted to his contribution to “The Necessary War”[16] and still think fondly of him.[17] In his last decades Johnny lived in Cuba, but spent his last months in the city that spawned him. In his last days he searched out Cuban company and moved to be among them before he dies.[18] His last words were spoken to Victor Barranco, he said “bury me by the sea Victor.”

This article contains all research uncovered during the making of the feature film A Captain Unafraid. Watch the film itself here on Youtube.

[1] The dividing sections of the article are chapters from Johnny’s autobiography “A Captain Unafraid.”
[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] Confusingly, Johnny states in “A Captain Unafraid” that his family came from the County Longford where “they were friends neighbours and indeed related to the parents of General Philip Sheridan.” The problem is that the Sheridan homestead, from where they left in 1831, still stands in Killinkere, Virginia, County Cavan. Cavan shares a border with Longford.
[4] Johnny’s great granddaughter Patricia Clayton (nee O’ Brien) from Atlanta in the U.S. confirms this and maintains Johnny and Philip were first cousins.
[5] 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. An article from 1965 by Rev. Joseph B. Meehan in the Breffini Journal, gives a great case for Philip being born in Ireland.
[6] Johnny’s first nickname was Daredevil Johnny.
[7] “El árbol que da mejor fruta es el que tiene debajo un muerto.” This quote comes from a speech of Martí’s entitled Los Pinos Nuevos, in which Martí attempts to galvanise the spirit of his people for the fight to come; and perhaps to come to terms with his (and their) destined martyrdom 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.
[8] “Polaco de origin, Cubano de Corazon” Historian José Antonio Quintana quotes Martí in an interview conducted with him in Lazaro Lopez, Ciego De Ávila, Cuba, June 2015.
[9] Another of our interviewees in Cuba, Dúnyer Jesús Perez, an assistant to Señor Rafael Moya (formerly of the Historians Office of Havana) sent me pictures of the newly renovated building and the plaque. I searched high and low for the plaque myself while in Havana. It was “rediscovered” the month after I left, in July 2015.
[10] An article in Cuban paper ‘La Lucha’ dated, Nov 3, 1904 says “Captain John O’ Brien, returned yesterday from New York accompanied by his wife and daughters who will make their home for the future in Havana.”
[11] Victor Barranco has a picture of himself and Johnny from 1917 in his personal files. Johnny is seated in a wheelchair, with Victor standing by his side. “The Sun” Newspaper on April 21st 1917 bears the headline “Dynamite Johnny Eagar To Fight.” The article reads “Crippled By Lumbago He Sits In His Chair Receiving friends. Dynamite Johnny who, wracked with lumbago, sat huddled up in a wheeled chair in the Hotel McAlpin yesterday carried a spasm of fear to more than one President perched on the saddle of a rickety Southern Republic.”
[12] A receipt from the personal files of Victor Barranco dates the eventual purchase of Johnny’s headstone from “Adler’s Memorial” as May 26th, 1935.
[13] This typewritten speech amongst Victor Barranco’s files begins-“Captain O’ Brien and gentlemen-on behalf of the honorable, the president of Cuba, I thank you for honouring us with your presence at this tribute of affection and gratitude which the Cuban people are tendering to our beloved Dynamite Johnny O’ Brien.”
[14] I met Victor’s nephew Stephen Barranco in North Carolina in 2014. He gave me copies of Victor’s personal files.
[15] This letter is dated May 19th 1958. The letter appears in Victor’s files.
[16] La Guerra Necesaria or La Guerra de ’95 is what the Cubans call the final Cuban War of Independence.
[17] José Martín (historian in the Provincial History Museum of the province of Ciego De Ávila) when interviewed said “within those expeditions of the Cuban Revolutionary party we remember with much fondness Dynamite Johnny, who we love and call Juanito Dinimita.” Sixto Espinosa, in a round table discussion conducted at the Union of Artists and Writers of Ciego De Ávila said “I think Cubans and the world should think of him as a great man for all he did for the liberty of this community.” Prof. Louis Perez put it succinctly when I interviewed him in Chapel Hill, North Carolina “clearly he is a hero for the Cubans.”
[18] New York Times, Obituary June 22nd 1917 “he removed from the McAlpin after a reception given him in the name of the president of Cuba. He moved he said, because he wished to be among Cubans and to eat once more the Spanish dish arroz con pollo.”

[i] A Captain Unafraid, 1912, Horace Smith. Harper and Sons. Page 6.
[ii] A Captain Unafraid, 1912, page 10.
[iii] From 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] John Dynamite, Marine Mambí, José Antonio Quintana, SILAS 2007. page 1.
[vii] Diario de Campaña del Cmte. Luis Rodolofo Miranda Municipio de la Habana Oficina del Historiador de la Ciudad 1954. Page 66.
[viii] John Dynamite Marine Mambí, José Antonio Quintana, SILAS 2007. page 1.
[ix] Tarja en Memoria de “El Capitán Dinamita” Unknown Paper, Newspaper Clipping, Feb 23, 1955.
[x] Tugboat, The Moran Story by Eugene F. Reid and Louis Moran. Page 288.
[xi] The Maine Sinks To Her Ocean Grave, New York Times article, date unknown.
[xii] The Spanish War, An American Epic by G.J.A. O Toole. Norton, 1984. Page 598.
[xiii] The Spanish War, An American Epic. Page 400.
[xiv] The Spanish War, An American Epic. Page 400.
[xv] Dynamite Johnny O’ Brien-Cuba’s American Hero, Marian Betancourt, article in Irish America Magazine, Dec/Jan 2003.
[xvi] Memories of Two Wars, Fredrick Funston, 1911. Chapter 1: To Cuba as A Filibuster.
[xvii] New York Times, Dynamite Johnny O’ Brien’s obituary, June 22, 1917.
[xviii] Tugboat The Moran Story, Eugene F. Reid and Louis Moran. Page 291.
[xix] El Entierro del Capitan O’ Brien, Diario De La Marina, Havana, June 23rd, 1917.
[xx] Dynamite Johnny Monument Fund, The Times of Cuba, March, 1926.
[xxi] Letter Of Rejection, (Harper and Brothers, Sep 15th 1956.) Victor Barranco’s Files.
[xxii] Tugboat The Moran Story, Eugene F. Reid and Louis Moran. Page 289.
[xxiii] Dynamite Johnny, 80, Eager To Fight, The Sun, Apr 21st 1917.
[xxiv] Dynamite Johnny Still Full Of Fire New York Times, March 4th 1917.
[xxv] Death Cert (NYC Department of Health, 1917 June 20th). Victor Barranco’s Files.
[xxvi] Tales of the Seven Seas, Powers, Denis M., (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2010).
Page 4.
[xxvii] A Voyage With Captain Dynamite Rich, Charles Edward, (A. S. Barnes and Company 1907).

Friday, May 12, 2017

Marine Mambí (Johnny Dynamite)

The world premiere of A Captain Unafraid is going to be in Havana at an E.U. run "European Film Festival." The festival runs from the 1st to the 11th of June and I'll be in situ to mark the occasion. Here's the music video of the song that started the whole thing in motion! Coincidentally, it's the one hundred anniversary of Dynamite Johnny O' Brien's death on June 20th. I'll be in N.Y. then, more on that later.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The song "O' Brien is Trying to Learn to talk Hawaiian" peaked at number two in the U.S. charts in January, 1917. Dynamite Johnny O' Brien died in June of that year. I use this version of the song by Horace Wright in my documentary film "A Captain Unafraid, the Story of Dynamite Johnny O' Brien." I like to imagine Johnny heard the song in the few months before he died!

Unfortunately, the tune doesn't appear in the actual cd soundtrack due to copyright. I do sing the song to myself on occasion, not surprising, it goes quite well on ukelele! Have a listen here to Horace Wright...

Saturday, March 25, 2017

John Hunter and Charles Byrne, A Clash Of Giants

Rebuilding the Royal College of Surgeons, London, 1834

Years ago I read a book called "The Giant, O' Brien" the book called out to me for numerous reasons, foremost of which being, the protagonist and myself shared a name-Charles O' Brien. The book was written by Hillary Mantel and is a great, if harrowing tale of the clash of Irish and English cultures in Britain.

Once Charles came of age, having heard of other giants who had made their fortune in London, he contrived to leave Ireland. O' Brien exhibited himself as a "freak" in England and changed his name from Charles Byrne to Charles O' Brien (claiming descent from warrior king, Brian Boru, founder of the O' Brien clan).  Charles Byrne was an "Irish Giant" born in rural county Derry in 1761. It seems there were numerous giants in his district, turns out they were suffering from a congenital disease called giantism.

John Hunter is known as "the founder of scientific surgery." He was a giant in his own field and was certainly one of the most famed and knowledgeable surgeons of his day. Hunter tried to itemise a whole world of anatomy, diseases and disorders, placing his discoveries in marked jars and vials. Though much of it was destroyed in WWII, the remains of Hunter's collection can still be seen today in the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons, London. He added greatly to our understanding of surgical practice and dissection and detailing of physical disorders. Hunter even gave his own body over to research once he died, and was dissected "for the cause" once he passed away in 1793. His zealousness for science, unfortunately, did not take into account the wishes of others, and when he caught wind of the Giant O' Brien he was determined to not led this specimen get away from him. 

O' Brien, at first, got on well in London. He exhibiting himself in a Cane shop next to "Cox's Museum" (along with a Polish dwarf, Count Borulwaski) and was the talk and toast of London. One day while drinking in his local pub "The Black Horse" he was pick pocketed, unfortunately for Charles, he carried with him that day, in bank notes, all the small fortune he had made. Thus began a spiral of drinking, melancholia and sickness which led to his death.

Knowing O' Brien was sick, the surgeon, Hunter, employed a man called Hewison to follow him around, waiting for the giant to pop his clogs. Another colleague of Hunter's who met O' Brien at this time thought him "an ill-bred beast, though young." They paid no heed to the wants of this "ill-bred" man. O' Brien knew he was being followed and at twenty two years of age paid for his funeral arrangements, his express wishes being, that when he died, he would be buried at sea in a lead coffin, at the mouth of the thames-far from the Royal College of Surgeons. When O' Brien died a few short months later, his will was initiated, the coffin bought, the last journey begun. One of the undertakers though, was paid a sum of 500 pounds to snatch the giant's body and Charles was brought into the arms of John Hunter who rapidly dissected him, eventually putting his bones on permanent display.

The Dissecting Room, Watercolour by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)
A few days before a recent trip to London I saw and signed an online petition to have Charles Byrne's bones buried at sea, it brought back memories of the book by Hillary Mantel I had read, so, while in London I decided to visit the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College Of Surgeons. O' Brien's bones still have pride of place among the vials of dissected humanity and animal life. Just around the corner from O' Brien is an 18th century painting of Owen Farrell an Irish Dwarf.

Charles Byrne's Bones

Hillary Mantel portrays the clash of cultures of Ireland and England as "belief wrestling with knowledge and science wrestling with song" there is indeed some truth in this, but as well as that, the English over the centuries seem to want the Irish to be this superstitious, maybe innocuous other-a fantasy of "illborn brutes." We need to remember the Irish in the era of Charles Byrne were striving to be modern on their own terms, literally dying to break free of the grasp of the old world "monarchy" and into the arms of a new republic through the 1798 rebellion. What the English thought "a wayward child's dream," would be curtailed, we Irish would be moved into the modern world in the 19th century in a way deemed fit by Britain, not by methods of our own choosing. All of this superstition, republicanism and royalty's significance is perhaps diluted in recent times, but still, the Royal College of Surgeons hosts Charles Byrne's bones and a little painting of "An Irish Dwarf."

All of the images in this post are from a leaflet and postcards I got in the Hunterian Museum, © 2007 Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. Photography was prohibited in the museum.