The Tale of Ireland’s Ghost Ship, The Ouzel Galley: Folklore and Fake-lore!

This article has been written by (c) David Halpin of Circle Stories.
I was recently asked about an Irish ‘Ghost Ship’ which supposedly sailed to Tir na nÓg. Now, this is puzzling as I had not heard of such a story before. There are, of course, many accounts of ghost ships in Irish folklore. This one from Co. Donegal describes a phantom ship which disappeared when it was approached.
There are also accounts of Irish sailors who supposedly landed on the mythical island of Hy Brasil. They reported meeting a wizard who lived on the island with giant rabbits and who, in some accounts, gave the men great treasures before they returned.…/hy-brasil-legendary-phant… This wasn’t the story that the person meant, though.
It was then that I remembered the tale of the Ouzel Galley.
Although all kinds of folklore and tall tales surround this ship I have never heard the association with Tir na nÓg before and this brought to mind the concept of ‘fake-lore’. Fake-lore is sometimes innocent or the result of a misunderstanding. Other times it is deliberate, albeit a way to add colour or drama to an event or location.
When someone writes a description about an event or image which they know not to be true is also considered fake-lore. Unfortunately, this happens quite a lot here on Facebook. Another recent example of fake-lore was when a TV channel created the legend of a banshee for an Irish castle in order to promote a documentary. So, fake-lore, then, is a the adding of untrue information in order to sensationalise or romanticise the actual circumstances. While it may seem harmless it does in fact distort and compromise the authentic folklore.
The Ouzel Galley seems to have attracted elements of fake-lore to add to the overall mystery of what happened to this ship and her crew. The story of this ‘Ghost ship’ is one with a resolution but it is the ships missing years which mystify many to this day.
The Ouzel Galley set sail from Dublin in the autumn of 1695. The intended destination was that of the Ottoman Empire and the area which today is known as Ízmir in Turkey. The trade mission was supposed to take one year after which the Ouzel would return to Ireland. However, to everyone’s surprise the ship did not return after one year. After the third year of the ship’s absence the Ouzel was presumed lost along with all of her crew. Following a meeting with the insurers all on board were officially declared dead and payments were issued to both the insurers and the families of the crew.
The Ouzel had vanished into thin air or the murky depths, so it seemed, and various tales regarding what may have become of the Ouzel entered the realm of the folkloric, the conspiratorial and even the supernatural.
Had the ship been attacked by pirates? Did it encounter some strange sea monster which smashed the ship into pieces or did it encounter another ghost ship which spirited away the captain and crew?
After a further two years had passed the most incredible event occurred. A tattered and worse for wear Ouzel sailed up the River Liffey to the astonishment and bewilderment of the people of Dublin. This surprise quickly gave way to open celebration and crowds lined the Liffey walls cheering and calling to those on board.
Here were men presumed dead now miraculously returned to Ireland. They were fathers, brothers and sons whose families believed they would never see them again. Indeed, many of the crew discovered to their dismay that their wives had remarried. Some accounts say that some of the returning shipmates found new children awaiting them at home. In Ringsend, children born in unorthodox circumstances were said to be referred to as “ouzelers” but there is no mention of this in the archives that I can find. Perhaps this too is an added piece of fake-lore?
But what had happened to the Ouzel Galley?
The ship’s Captain Massey recounted a story of high adventure and peril. He claimed the ship had been commandeered by pirates, Ottoman Corsairs, who took the crew to North Africa before enslaving them on the ship.
They were made to serve the corsairs and act as pirates for years, attacking other ships returning with cargo from the Caribbean and Mediterranean shipping lanes. After five years of this Captain Massey claimed that one night the pirates became so drunk that he and the original crew were able to carry out a daring escape and return, finally, to Dublin.
Now, this seemed both too strange and too unbelievable to many in Ireland. People began to wonder whether in fact it was Captain Massey and his own crew who had committed the acts of piracy. The reason for this was that it seems the Ouzel had been sailing and looting in seas that it was legally forbidden to enter.
What better way to negotiate a way around this than to claim the ship had been hijacked. This would have been the ideal cover for Captain Massey and his crew should it have been the answer to the Ouzel’s disappearance.
When the Ouzel had returned it was loaded with bounty and goods which had been taken from other ships. Had this been the intention all along? The next question of course was who now owned the plunder and goods? After much negotiation it was decided that they would be sold and the money used to pay the insurers and the ships owners. Anything left would be given to a charity fund for Dublin’s ‘decayed merchants’.
Needless to say, the crew were not too happy about this. In 1705 the panel which had arbitrated in the case of the Ouzel Galley was formally established as an arbitration body to deal with shipping disputes. This body lasted until 1793 when it was amalgamated with the newly formed Dublin Chamber of Commerce.
The first account of the Ouzel Galley appears 100 years after the supposed events occurred so perhaps this is why there is still such an element of mystery attached to its story: nobody can definitively prove the facts of the matter.
Finally, in 1988, the Ouzel Galley Society was reconstituted, primarily as a charitable institution. It still exists today and is itself subject to many conspiracy theories and rumours regarding its function. You can read more about the society here.…/never-let-the-facts-inter…/
So, ultimately, I’m still not quite sure where the Tir na nÓg association has sprung from. That said, such fake-lore is something that we will probably see a lot more of in the future, I’m afraid.
(C.) David Halpin.
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