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Ever read a history book and discover that a particular historic event didn't happen the way you always thought it did? One good thing about being a trained and fully licensed storyteller is that you can mix and match the particulars of any historic event to make it the way you think it SHOULD have happened.
For example, I've always liked the story about what is considered the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War – the skirmish off Machias, in June of 1775, between HMS Margaretta and the sturdy Maine sloop Unity, which was under the command of Capt. Jeremiah O'Brien.
When I first heard the details of the battle, I assumed that Capt. O'Brien was a fiery, short-tempered, pugnacious Irishman, newly arrived from the Emerald Isle. I further just assumed that when Capt. O'Brien was asked by his Machias neighbors if he wanted to join them in a fighting the Brits, he didn't have to be asked twice. With a name like Jeremiah O'Brien, he was born ready to fight the Brits.
Based on the sketchy information I had, I assumed O'Brien was probably like my colorful Uncle Paddy McDonald, a merchant seaman who sailed out of New York City around the early part of the last century. Actually Uncle Paddy was the oldest of the six McDonald brothers, one of whom was my grandfather Jeremiah McDonald, so he was my father's uncle, which made him my great uncle. And a great uncle he was, too, from what I remember.
My mother never disguised her dislike for Uncle Paddy. She said he liked his whiskey too much and drank too much of it. Mother also didn't like his use of language; Uncle Paddy swore more colorfully and poetically than anyone I've ever heard.
If Uncle Paddy was on a ship docked in Portland for a few days, he’d hop a train and head for Rockland, then take a taxi from there down to Tenants Harbor. When strange-looking taxis came down our long dirt driveway it meant that Uncle Paddy himself was about to do a surprise pop-in. He never stayed long, but his visits were always memorable.
One time Uncle Paddy arrived and wanted to see our new horse, Prexy, so I took him out to the barn for a look. As he stood there admiring the fine animal, Prexy stomped his shod hoof on Uncle Paddy's tender foot. That hoof stomp caused an immediate string of nouns, verbs, gerunds and participial phrases of a vulgar variety to erupt from Uncle Paddy's mouth in a soliloquy that was quite extraordinary. It was the most spontaneous and remarkable use of words from the off-color section of the English language I had ever heard. It wasn't just the bad words, but Uncle Paddy had the ability to achieve a poetic meter and rhyme that few poets ever achieve.
I 've always pictured Jeremiah O'Brien directing such words at the Brits during the battle of Machias. Like Uncle Paddy, Jeremiah O'Brien also came from a family of six brothers and all were crewmembers on the sloop Unity when she captured the Margaretta. From what I've heard of the McDonald brothers, I can easily imagine them doing the same.
So when I tell the story of our country's first naval battle, my Jeremiah O'Brien becomes my Great Uncle Paddy as I tell how the brothers and their neighbors, armed with guns, swords, axes and pitchforks – and colorful words -- captured one of His Majesty's ships.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is
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