The Ouzel Galley plaque is one I pass several times a week, but never investigated. It tells the story of a famous Dublin merchant ship that it was said set sail from Ringsend in 1695, on route to the port of Smyrna in the Ottoman Empire. She was to return the following year, having engaged on a trade mission on behalf of the Dublin company Ferris, Twigg & Cash. Eoghan Massey of Waterford captained the ship.
When three years had passed in 1698, and there had been no word of the ships faith, a panel of Dublin merchants settled the question of instance, by ruling that the ship had been lost with her crew of 40 on board, and that compensation should be paid out to the owners and insurers of the ship.
The story goes that in 1700, to the amazement of Dubliners, the ship returned up the River Liffey. Massey claimed that his men had spent five years in captivity at the hands of Algerian corsairs, who had used the ship to engage in acts of piracy. Rumours and allegations spread, and it was claimed Massey and his men themselves had engaged in such acts. The ship was loaded down with an impressive booty upon its return, which naturally raised questions in light of the fact insurance had been paid out two years prior.
John Moran wrote a fantastic account of the ships return in The Irish Times in 2005, noting that
…. five years after she sailed away, a battered and torn Ouzel listed up the River Liffey, and was greeted by first a sense of disbelief, then to scenes of wild dockside jubilation. Exhausted oarsmen rolled to the strains of an old sea shanty as they heaved her toward the howling crowd on the quay.
The ownership of the ship’s cargo became a huge matter of debate and controversy. The same panel of merchants which had settled the debate in 1698 on the ships fate met once more, and his time decided that all monies remaining following the proper compensation of the owners and insurers should go towards a fund for the alleviation of poverty among Dublin’s “decayed merchants”.
Out of this case, emerged ‘The Ouzel Galley Society’, a society founded for the purpose of determining commercial differences by arbitration. The 1818 History of the City of Dublin, its Present Extent, Public Buildings, Schools, Institutions, etc details the foundation of this society, and notes that “its members consist of a captain, lieutenants and crew who always have been, as they are now, the most respectable merchants in Dublin.” The society would meet two or three times annually it was noted, and the costs decreed against the parties “who submit to their arbitration are always appropriated to charitable purposes.” Arthur Guinness was among the individuals to serve time with the society.
Interestingly, historian Lisa Marie Griffith noted in a recent article for History Ireland on the subject, that:
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 records referring to the incident of the pirates.
She goes on to note that the first reference to the involvement of pirates in the affair comes from a nineteenth-century novel, The Missing Ship, by William Kingston. This novel was first published in 1887 under the prior mentioned title, and then later in the same year as The Ouzel Galley. The novel, she notes, “certainly added layers to the story of the foundation of the Ouzel Galley Society.”
The Dublin Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1783, largely subsumed the Society, and the stone plaque on College Green today marks the spot where the Chamber of Commerce met historically, at Commercial Buildings. The Ouzel Galley Society was wound up in 1888, though in the year of Dublin’s millenium in 1988 it was reestablished, primarily as a charitable institution.
My favorite part of the popular story is that when the men of the Ouzel Galley, presumed dead, returned to Dublin they were met by remarried wives and brand new children. Children born illegitimately in Ringsend were supposedly jokingly refereed to as ‘Ouzellers’ in the aftermath of the incident!