Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Friday 20 September 2019

Theatre: The terrible and true story of the ship's captain who ate his crew

Cast of the Unlucky Cabin Boy rehearsing.
Cast of the Unlucky Cabin Boy rehearsing.

Colin Murphy

For the week that's in it, a ghoulish true story comes to the stage in Limerick. The Unlucky Cabin Boy is a new musical by Gúna Nua Theatre Company based on the notorious story of Limerick boy Patrick O'Brien, who died at sea in 1835. Though the show sounds hugely entertaining, readers may find this story upsetting.

Fifteen-year-old Patrick O'Brien joined a Limerick ship, the Francis Spaight, as a cabin boy. We don't know much about O'Brien before that, but the musical's writer, Mike Finn, speculates that he may have been living in the local workhouse. He was certainly poor, his mother was a widow, and a recent law had required ships to recruit two apprentices from the workhouse - "a sort of early Fás scheme," as Finn puts it.

The ship was named, immodestly, after its owner, an Anglo-Irish Limerick merchant who was notorious for clearing his estate of poor tenants and sending them to Canada on his ships. During the famine of the 1840s, Spaight would export huge amounts of corn - and people - through Limerick. He later reportedly told a British parliamentary inquiry: "I found so great an advantage of getting rid of the pauper population upon my own property that I made every possible exertion to remove them… I consider the failure of the potato crop to be the greatest possible value in one respect in enabling us to carry out the emigration system."

During 1847, Spaight's ships carried a quarter of all emigrants from Limerick. The emigrant trade was particularly profitable because previously the ships had sailed out merely with ballast, in order to return with timber.

On this occasion, the Francis Spaight set sail for Canada with 300 or so emigrants on board. A week or so into the return journey, with a cargo of timber, it was hit by gales and a snow storm. The ship overturned; three of the crew were lost; the others survived by clinging to the sides.

The captain, Thomas Gorman, managed to cut off the masts and the ship righted itself. But all the provisions had been washed overboard; their drinking water was ruined; and the ship, full of water, was sitting so low in the water that it could hardly be seen by passing traffic.

For 18 days, the crew slowly starved. Eventually, the captain declared that they had to decide whether one or all of them should die: they would draw lots for one to be sacrificed as sustenance for the others.

The crew agreed that the lots should be restricted to the four cabin boys, as they alone had no wives or children to support. O'Brien was tasked with drawing the lots and duly drew the short straw. (It was suggested later that this had been rigged.)

The boy bravely proffered his wrists to be cut, but he was so weakened that they couldn't draw blood. The captain ordered his throat be cut instead. O'Brien then panicked, and attempted to resist, but the crew easily overcame him. The ship's cook was given the job of finishing him off.

The boy was bled and this was shared amongst the crew. Later, they tackled the flesh. This provoked unendurable thirst, and they took to drinking sea water.

Then the crew started to go mad: first the cook, who was duly subjected to the same fate, next another crew member. Eventually, 19 days after capsizing, they were spotted by a passing ship.

They reportedly held up the hands and feet of O'Brien to show their plight, and the 11 surviving crew were duly rescued - or, as one report put it: "There were 11 persons found on board in a most emaciated state… and two-quarters of a human body!" It was also reported that, at the time of rescue, the captain was in the process of eating the liver and brains of his apprentice.

The captain wrote a detailed - and unapologetic - letter to the owner upon his rescue, which was published in the press; later, he resumed command of various ships on the Atlantic. In Limerick, meanwhile, a fund was raised to provide for those of the crew too damaged to work again. Francis Spaight donated £10.

This grisly story (which should nonetheless be entertaining, especially given the involvement of the Brad Pitt Light Orchestra) is being staged at the Lime Tree in Limerick from Wednesday to Saturday. See limetreetheatre.ie.

Meanwhile, writer Mike Finn is involved in another project with documentary roots. On the Wire is inspired by the true stories of Limerick's soldiers in the First World War, and is being presented by Wildebeest Theatre Company in the Sailor's Home on O'Curry St in Limerick from November 11 to 15. See onthewire2014.com.

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