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The many bad decisions of Philip Walsh

by Oliver Finnegan

Sometime in September 1690, the Irishman Philip Walsh agreed to join the crew of the ship James, marking the beginning of what would turn out to be a short and less than enjoyable career as a sailor. At this time, Ireland was in the throes of a bitter civil war and Philip joined a privateering vessel in the service of one of its belligerents, the Catholic King James II. Whatever enthusiasm he had for the war quickly dissipated soon thereafter. Forced to endure deplorable living conditions, bad food and wretched company, punctuated with the mortal terror of naval engagements, after three months he resolved to escape. In mid-November Philip saw his chance when the ship was moored somewhere off the coast of County Galway, making his escape onto land. He then ventured south, determined to escape the service of James II and the war which had consumed Ireland.

Within two weeks, he had made his way to Limerick, a substantial port town in the southwest of the island. There, a plan began to form in his mind as he mingled with other deserters and refugees displaced by the war. On 24 November he met with eleven other men in a tavern, where they discussed stealing a ship in the harbour, which they could then sail south to Falmouth in the English county of Cornwall. The confederates agreed their target that night: a small coastal trading vessel currently tied up in the harbour loaded with wool and hides. The next day they put their plan into execution, storming onboard the ship, where they found six of its crewmembers were still resident, being five men and a small boy. This existing crew were in no mood to put up any resistance. The boy and one of the men similarly sought to leave Ireland, so agreed to join with their assailants and the remaining four crew members allowed themselves to be put ashore. The small craft, with its new owners, then set sail.


Their voyage did not quite go as planned, however. Shortly after leaving Limerick harbour, Philip, now the captain of the ship, chose to take down the existing Irish colours they were flying, replacing them with their English equivalent. This decision would prove to be a mistake, as when their voyage was well underway and they passed the Isles of Scilly, a chokepoint in flows of Atlantic commercial traffic where privateers often lurked to capture shipping. Sure enough, they were ambushed by a French privateering vessel as they attempted to pass southwards past the islands and were forced to flee northeastwards with their attackers in pursuit. Seeking any kind of protection, they entered the first English port the could find on 8 December, which turned out to be the town of St Ives on the north coast of Cornwall. By this point, Philip and his crew must have believed that the end of their troubles was near.

Yet the newcomers were viewed with some suspicion by the mayor of St Ives, John Lanyon. So he had the Irish sailors arrested by the town sheriff and immediately questioned them as to the reasons for their arrival. Under examination, Philip related the entire saga that had brought him to the town back to time as a sailor aboard the James. Realising that he was now in territories held by the enemies of James II, he attempted to reassure his interrogator, claiming that all of his past in Ireland was behind him, that he was ‘not intent to serve King James any more’ and was, in fact, a Protestant. Suffice to say, the mayor was unconvinced by this story. Believing that the crew could be Catholic spies sent to gather intelligence he did not want to release them, but nor could he could he ransom deserters back to Ireland. Instead, Philip and the rest of the crew were returned to the town’s gaol but eventually released after peace was concluded in Ireland during October 1691. In the end, Philip Walsh did escape the war in Ireland as he had intended, he just spent his time away from Ireland less comfort than he might have imagined.