‘Never let the facts interfere with a good story’: the origin of the Ouzel Galley Society

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 2(March/April 2012), Volume 20

Apart from the Ouzel Galley Society, the other prominent commercial club was the Committee of Merchants, radical businessmen who organised and funded the erection of the Royal Exchange, now Dublin City Hall. (National Library of Ireland)

Apart from the Ouzel Galley Society, the other prominent commercial club was the Committee of Merchants, radical businessmen who organised and funded the erection of the Royal Exchange, now Dublin City Hall. (National Library of Ireland)

In c. 1690 a ship owned by the merchant company Ferris, Twigg and Cash and under the direction of a Captain Massey sailed from Dublin for the Levant, full of grain and agricultural provisions. On entering the Mediterranean the ship was taken by Barbary pirates.When the ship did not return, it was assumed that the Ouzel, her crew and contents had been shipwrecked or lost for good. In fact, the pirates kept the crew of the Ouzel alive to work the ship as a pirate vessel. The crew bided their time, waiting for an opportunity to overthrow their captors, eventually mutinied, and returned to Dublin in 1705 with a ship full of pirate booty.But to whom did this booty belong? The ship and contents had been insured and, when it had failed to return, Ferris, Twigg and Cash had been paid off by the insurers. Since the insurance covered the ship and its original contents, however, the owners claimed that they owned the newly acquired pirate booty. The insurers counter-claimed that since they now technically owned the ship they also owned the booty. The returning crew also claimed the booty. The case dragged on with escalating legal costs, and after five long years the courts were no closer to arriving at a decision.  The Irish legal system was not sophisticated enough to deal with a case like this.The problem was settled when a group of prominent Dublin merchants came together to decide on the case. The pirate booty would be sold and the profits used for the good of the poor in the city. Their decision was so popular that they decided to form a permanent arbitration body. It would charge a small fee and this money would be used for poor relief. This became known as the Ouzel Galley Society and had two aims: to provide for cheap and ready arbitration, and to petition for a better legal code to deal with commercial disputes. The society lasted until 1889, when an arbitration code came into being that the society deemed appropriate for the commercial community.
As the society demonstrated how fair-minded and charitable Dublin businessmen were, right back to the early eighteenth century, it was natural that the Chamber of Commerce, when founded in 1783, would want to link itself with this good-news story. And thus the story of the Ouzel’s capture and return entered the annals of Dublin history. But is it true?While there is no doubt that an arbitration body called the Ouzel Galley Society was established in the early eighteenth century, the veracity of its origin-myth is a different story. I could find no eighteenth-century record referring to the incident of the pirates. The first account of the formation of the society appeared in 1818, in Robert Walsh and James Whitelaw’s History of the city of Dublin. This said little about the ship’s disappearance and simply mentioned that an arbitration body was established in 1700 (i.e. five years before the Ouzel’s alleged return in 1705) to deal with a dispute over a Dublin ship.

If you are living in Dublin or visiting the capital you will probably have passed this fairly unremarkable and inconspicuous tablet, a representation of the Ouzel galley in Portland stone on the present-day Commercial Building near the Central Bank on Dame Street. It marks the spot where the Ouzel Galley Society had its office in the original Commercial Building, opened in 1799. The society’s own history pre-dates the building and claims 1705 as its origin.

If you are living in Dublin or visiting the capital you will probably have passed this fairly unremarkable and inconspicuous tablet, a representation of the Ouzel galley in Portland stone on the present-day Commercial Building near the Central Bank on Dame Street. It marks the spot where the Ouzel Galley Society had its office in the original Commercial Building, opened in 1799. The society’s own history pre-dates the building and claims 1705 as its origin.

The first reference to the involvement of pirates in the origins of the society comes from a nineteenth-century novel. William Kingston’s The missing ship must have done much to encourage the myth of the capture of a Dublin ship by pirates and its reappearance five years later. Kingston was a popular writer of fiction for boys and his themes were primarily nautical in nature. While first published in 1877 under the title The missing ship, a second edition later the same year was entitled The Ouzel Galley. The change in the title points to the popularity of the ship and the story. The novel certainly added layers to the story of the foundation of the Ouzel Galley Society. In the introduction, Kingston claimed that a descendant of the captain of the vessel in 1700 had held in his possession a logbook of the ship, detailing its adventures between 1695 and 1700. While the book was no longer extant, Kingston claimed that it was from this logbook that he took his original notes for the novel. As this is the farthest back in print the story goes,     As this is the farthest back in print the story goes, it is highly likely that the premise for this novel was based on popular Dublin myth or a story of a real ship embellished over a century.  HI
Lisa-Marie Griffith is Coordinator of the Heritage Project at the National Print Museum, Beggar’s Bush.

Further reading:

L.M. Cullen, Princes and pirates: the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, 1783–1983 (Dublin, 1983).L. Griffith, ‘Dublin’s commercial clubs’, in J. Kelly & M.J. Powell, Clubs and societies in eighteenth-century Ireland (Dublin, 2011).W.H. Kingston, The missing ship (London, 1877).J. Whitelaw & R. Walsh, History of the city of Dublin, from the earliest accounts to the present time (2 vols, Dublin, 1818).

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