On Sir John Rogerson’s Quay on the Southside of the Liffey stands a statue of Irish born Admiral William Brown. It was unveiled nearby in September 2006 by the Teflon Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, but was relocated here, with an added plinth and plaque in August 2012. The statue was lucky to have made it to these shores at all. Two bronze statues were commissioned to be cast in Beunos Aires, and then transported here for unveiling in Foxford, where the Admiral was born, and on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, where the below photograph was taken.
The statues were a gift from the Argentinian Navy to the people of Dublin and Foxford and was donated as part of the anniversary celebrations of their foundation. However, a mix up regarding who would pay for the transport of the statues meant that they almost didn’t arrive in time for their official unveiling. Given that in Argentina over a thousand streets, several hundred schools, a couple of towns and a football club bear his name, it would be a shame were he not celebrated here in the country of his birth.
Born in Foxford, Co. Mayo June 22nd, 1777, William Brown was brought to Philadelphia at the age of nine. Irish was his first language, with his first education having come from his Uncle, the parish priest in the village of his birth. Three years after arriving in Philadelphia, in an area already heavily populated by Irish immigrants, he began work as a cabin boy. Within ten years of this, his status had risen to Captain of a US Merchant Navy vessel. He was press-ganged into the British Navy, and fought several battles against the Spanish. Respect for his skill at sea grew, and in his mid-twenties, he was already the master of a large schooner.
Shortly before the Battle of Trafalgar, his ship was captured by the French and Brown was imprisoned. He was first placed in a prison in Verdun, where he contrived to escape having charmed the governor’s wife into handing over a warders uniform. He was re-captured within hours and was transferred to Metz, where he managed to burn a hole in the roof of his cell using a hot poker, and escape using a rope of knotted bedsheets and made his way to England via Germany. He was heralded a hero on his return, fell in love with the daughter of a wealthy family and married.
But the his adventures at sea were only beginning. Brown and his family relocated to Argentina at a time when the South American colonies were in revolt, with Argentina no different. Brown made his base in the town of Ensenada, not far from the captial Beunos Aires. He established several trade routes, but was constantly harassed by the Spanish navy. This provoked Brown to take a hand in the revolt, and the Spanish quickly learned they had made a bad enemy. After several raids, with his ship was finally impounded by the Spanish, Brown made his way to shore where he procured two small fishing vessels. He rounded up as many English speaking sailors he could; Irish, Scottish and English and with a dozen or so men in each boat, he sailed out into the Estuary where a well armed Spanish Cruiser was anchored. The men boarded the unsuspecting vessel, overpowered the men aboard and captured her.
His exploits earned him praise from the highest levels, and Brown was asked to take control of a small band of ships to lead the naval resistance against the Spanish. To say he succeeded in his role would be an understatement. Several times in the face of adversity with a small ragtag bunch of ships, he stood up to Spanish warships and was victorious, capturing many, burning others. Once, having taken control over a narrow estuary, he cut a new deck into one of his largest ships, lined the new deck with canon, ran her aground on a sandbank, and simply blasted an oncoming naval flotilla to smithereens.
Another occasion, on Patrick’s Day 1817, along with the assistance of another Irishman, James Kenny, forced the retreat of Commodore Romerate, one of the Spanish Navy’s prized officers. But it was not only on the sea that Brown helped the fight for independence. Any spoils he earned were sold via a businessman and friend by the name William White, and the proceeds for these bought guns and ammunition for ground assaults. And while his battles are too numerous to mention, the ones that earned him most plaudits were at Martin Garcia and Montevideo. After the declaration of Argentine independence, he went on to help the Uruguayan cause sailing against the Brazilian navy in his merchant vessels.
William Brown died on May 3rd 1857. His funeral oration, delivered by later Argentine president Bartolomé Mitré read: “Admiral Brown bears with him the admiration of all patriots, and the love of all good men; and the Argentine Navy remains orphaned of the old father who watched over it’s birth in the bosom of the River Plate, the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Plate and the Paraguay will be forever the immortal pages on which will be read his greatest deeds. And while one sloop floats on these waters, or one Argentine pennant flies above them, the name of William Brown will be invoked by every sailor as the guardian genius of the seas.”