Thursday, November 20, 2003

Seamus Breathnach - and the Riddle of the Caswell Mutiny

I first met Carlow’s Seamus Breathnach in 1974 when both of us, as mature students, savoured the culinary delights of the Honourable Society of Kings Inn in Dublin.  We were law students of the Kings Inn, struggling, or certainly I was, with the antiquated language of the Common Law and Statute Law before tumbling to a belated awareness of the intricacies of the legal system which regulates all of our daily lives.  Seamus was even then a colourful character, even if not quite of the multicoloured hues which even mellowing age has failed to diminish.

In the 1960’s Seamus Breathnach served in the Garda Siochana.  In the ‘70’s he worked as a journalist and graduated from University College Cork.  That same year he wrote his first book, “The History of the Irish Police” which was published by Anvil Press.  I remember when that book first appeared.  If memory serves me right it was a best seller until Conor Brady, later Editor of the Irish Times, produced his own hard cover edition of the “Guardians of the Peace”.  As the son of a local Garda sergeant I took a particular interest in both books and have to say that Breathnachs was far and away the better exposition of the unarmed police force which has served our country so well.

But we have heard nothing from Mr. Breathnach for almost 30 years.  Rumour has it that he went off to practice law.  He was also seen lecturing to journalists and potential criminologists in the College of Commerce in Rathmines.  Now almost in retirement he has had a seizure of philosophy and letters and has produced two books in the last year, one a research thesis and the other a research account of a mutiny.  Leaving philosophy aside for another day let us look at his foray into letters.

His new book called “The Riddle of the Caswell Mutiny” is a well researched account of a mutiny which took place in 1875.  What’s peculiar - and pleasantly surprising - about its format is the fact that while it deals with the subject matter as a history and a work of non fiction, it is written like a novel.  It qualifies as a report as much as it is a story. 

The story of the Caswell Mutiny is very much about two young men, Christos Bombos (a Greek) and James Carrick (a Scot) and how they related to each other and to the crew and captain of the Caswell.  On New Years Day 1876 these two young men and fourteen others of mixed Greek and British origin shipped out of Buenos Aires aboard the Caswell.  They were bound for Queenstown (Cobh), en route to Bristol.  Within four days of their voyage a mutiny erupted resulting in the murder of four men, including the ship’s captain.

Even before the ship had left Buenos Aires some of the British seamen objected to sailing with Greeks.  There had been other mutinies involving Greeks in other parts of the world at this time but the Captain, himself hewn out of the oak of olde England, was having none of it.  He had the British sailors, including one Irishmen, whipped and put them in irons for several days.  In this way the ships captain kept a tight rein on his men and when the ship set sail it was with a suitably chastened crew, or so the Captain thought.

If anyone was going to mutiny it was most likely to be the British sailors whom the Captain had mistreated.  A lone Irish sailor and a German compatriot had the good sense to go over the side as soon as they had a chance to do so.  But that’s where the riddle of the mutiny comes in.  It was the Greek under their leader, big George Peno, who attacked the Captain and his officers, lashed them together and threw them overboard.  Some weeks later the British sailors who originally complained about sailing with Greeks now mounted a counter mutiny and took an adze to the Greek’s killing two of them.  Sometime thereafter the Caswell, piloted by James Carrick, arrived back in Queenstown to a heroes welcome.  One of the Greek sailors was tried in Cork and executed on the same day as the 63 year old rebel Thomas Crowe. 

In following up the trials and the executions Breathnach makes great use of the contemporary accounts and allows us to relive a period when a double execution was not an uncommon occurrence.  Of the 16 persons who set out from Buenos Aires on the Caswell two jumped ship, four were murdered in the mutiny, two were killed in the counter mutiny, one was hanged in 1876 and another in 1879 and six returned to England.

On 8th February 1899 the Caswell sailed from Newcastle, New South Wales with a cargo of steel, a crew of ten and two apprentices. She was posted missing on 30th August 1899.  Nothing more was ever heard of her or her crew.  “The Riddle of the Caswell Mutiny” is a good read and can be highly recommended as an ideal Christmas present.

For many Carlovians, Seamus Breathnach may not be a name which gains instant recognition, for in truth, the locals know the big framed man as “Jimmy Fran Walsh”.  I have enjoyed his company for close of thirty years, and never a dull moment has marred our association, even if exasperation has sometimes raised its rasping head, particularly when Seamus gallops away on one of his discursive forays into the life and hard times experienced at the hands of the Irish Christian Brothers.  For you see, we are both products of the Christian Brothers education system, but the legacy it left us is as different as that which marks the economies of our respective towns, Carlow and Athy.

Last Wednesday night in the comfortable surrounds of the Eire Oiges Clubhouse friends of both Seamus Breathnach and “Jimmy Fran” came together to celebrate the launch of his latest literary work.  The book launch was adorned by the presence of another proud Carlovian, Padraig O’Snodaigh, who like Seamus has a sense of history combined with a pioneering Gaelic spirit which makes for fearsome brave individuals unafraid to tilt at institutional windmills which disfigure the landscape of Irish life.  On the night I was an interloper from across the Kildare border, sharing with Carlovians a literary and a convivial occasion in surroundings which must be the envy of every other football club in Ireland.  It was my first visit to the Eire Oige complex which is a wonderfully fine example of what a strong vibrant community can achieve.

Much like Seamus Breathnach really, or is that Willie Fran Walsh, Author, Barrister and Criminologist, the product of St. Killian’s Crescent and proud to be a Carlovian. 

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