The Blind Irish Fiddler and The Mutiny on the Bounty
By Niall McArdle
Say the word mutiny and it is a fair bet that most people will immediately think Bounty. Maritime history is filled with tales of desertion and revolt against a ship’s captain, some bloodier than others, but none captures the imagination more than the defiance of the young, headstrong Master’s Mate Fletcher Christian against his captain, Lieutenant William Bligh.
On the morning of April 28th, 1789, while the Bounty was returning from Tahiti, its cargo-hold laden with breadfruit destined for slave plantations in the West Indies, Christian and several others revolted and took Bligh and the other officers prisoner.
The mutiny had been some time in coming; Bligh’s harsh discipline had become unbearable since the ship had first left England two years earlier. The crew hated his brutal temper and seemingly petty cruelty. He would have men flogged for the most minor infractions.
In addition, the crew had just enjoyed a respite in the lush comfort of Tahiti. For this motley crew of sailors, many of whom were besotted by the beauty of Tahitian women and the peaceful South Seas way of living, the thought of another year aboard ship under Bligh’s tyranny was too much.
It did not take the mutineers much time to assume command. Bligh and those loyal to him were first put aboard a dilapidated and leaky cutter, which probably would not have lasted long in open water. After much dispute, Christian allowed Bligh to take a longboat. Provisions were thrown aboard and the launch was shoved off.
The mutineers sailed first to Tahiti and then (with several Tahitian women) to the isolation of Pitacirn Island, where, eighteen years later, the last of them still survived, having sired children and grandchildren. Bligh and his men also survived, making a remarkable voyage of their own, and eventually returned to England.
As with anything else which has gained a foothold in the popular imagination, Hollywood is responsible for our collective understanding of the mutiny. Few can think of Fletcher Christian without seeing the insolent Clark Gable, the lisping Marlon Brando or the young and pretty Mel Gibson. Likewise, the name Bligh evokes Charles Laughton chewing the scenery, Trevor Howard shouting an awful lot, or Anthony Hopkins seething with barely restrained contempt.
The movies of course bent the facts for dramatic purposes; there is evidence that although Bligh was a tough captain, as navy men of the time went, he was no worse, and maybe even a little better, than others. In any event, the facts of the mutiny, the Utopian society that Christian founded on Pitcairn Island, and the survival of Bligh and his loyalists are so remarkable as to need little Hollywood invention
What does seem a Hollywood invention, though, is the presence in all three of the film versions of the story of a blind Irish fiddler on board the Bounty, perched upon a barrel, making with jigs and reels, the sailors lepping about the deck.
But it’s completely true.
There was indeed a blind Irish fiddler. His name was Michael Byrne and although he had the official rank of Able Seaman, he was obviously pretty much useless as a deck-hand. He was only a crewman because Bligh had hand-picked him as a crewman for the voyage for the express purpose of making music.
Little is known about Byrne. He was born in Kilkenny in 1761. Britannia ruled the waves, and like many other Irishmen of the time, he joined the Royal Navy at 19 as an Able Seaman. By 1787 his career prospects were severely limited due to the fact that he was “two-thirds blind”.
However, Bligh sought him out before the Bounty sailed. A believer in the need for “relaxation and mirth” among his men, he needed someone to entertain his men and boost morale, as he commanded that “after four o’clock the evening is laid aside for their amusement and dancing.” This statement needs to be taken with a large degree of sea-salt. Bligh did not just want the men to dance: he commanded it. Imagine a weary sailor, suffering under a South Pacific sun, being forced to make merry while Byrne played a traditional jig like “Drops of Brandy”. Those who refused to dance were flogged.
There is of course a long tradition of music and dance aboard ship. No image of the jolly Jack Tar is complete without the thought of him dancing a hornpipe. It is as much a part of our imagination as the prohibition against women aboard a ship (deemed bad luck) or former Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill’s dismissal of Navy life as “nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash”. Indeed, mention the Royal Navy and you’ll likely think of this:
or perhaps this:
or even this:
How Bligh found Byrne is unfortunately not known. He wrote that “I had great difficulty before I left England to get a man to play the violin and preferred at last to take one two-thirds blind than come without one.” What motivated Byrne to join the voyage? His prospects as a less than able seaman were poor: a wage, rations and a journey to exotic climes were probably enough to convince him it was worth it.
Whatever his reasons, Byrne sailed from England in the summer of 1787 with forty men and spent the next two years fiddling on deck, dependant on the kindness of his mates to feed and help him. Whatever he privately thought of Bligh’s cruelty and demands for music, he remained loyal to him. He was roughly shaken awake during the mutiny, and amid the shouts and curses, clung to the ship’s railing, screaming for help and asking if they were under attack. He was one of the men put aboard the leaky cutter. It was only in the tumult over its lack of seaworthiness that someone noticed the huddled and petrified blind Irishman. He was calling out for Bligh, assuring him he wasn’t part of the mutiny. Byrne later testified that one of the mutineers, Charles Churchill, “threatened to send me to the Shades if I attempted to attend Lieutenant Bligh.” How exactly Churchill thought the blind Byrne could help Bligh is a mystery.
In any event, Byrne’s musical skill saved him. He heard a voice say “we must not part with our fiddler.” He was hauled back on to the Bounty. Now he could hear Bligh urging the mutineers to come to their senses, and Christian’s voice responding “hold your tongue, sir, or you are dead this instant.”
The mutineers were now marked men. Mutiny was punishable by death, and Christian and his cohorts knew they would never see England again. They returned to Tahiti, where several men, including Byrne, elected to stay. Provisions – and women (superstition be damned!)– were taken on board. The Bounty then headed to Pitcairn Island. Christian deliberately foundered the ship, effectively marooning them all.
The Tahiti contingent remained there for almost two years, living in what must have seemed like Paradise. Some of the men took up with native women and had children. But they were all living on borrowed time. Bligh and his men had travelled an incredible 3,600 miles in their longboat, eventually reaching Timor, before sailing for England.
Upon his return to England, Bligh was welcomed as a hero. The search for the mutineers commenced with the launch of HMS Pandora. In the spring of 1791 the Pandora reached Tahiti. Byrne and another sailor arrived at the ship and reported for duty. In spite of not being one of the mutineers, he was immediately clapped in irons. The Pandora eventually rounded up the others before it headed for England, where a court-martial and almost-certain hanging awaited the innocent Byrne.
As if that prospect was not bleak enough, on August 28th, 1791 the Pandora was shipwrecked.
Thirty-five men drowned, including four men in shackles. How Byrne managed to survive is another remarkable but obscure feat; all history records is his distress at losing his violin in the disaster. The survivors limped back to England in launches, in much the same way that Bligh and his loyalists had made their own desperate journey.
His Majesty’s Navy convened a court-martial into the mutiny in 1792. Byrne testified that he could not have been much help in a mutiny. In the rather outlandish language of the time, he swore the following: “It has pleased the Almighty, amongst the Events of his unsearchable Providence, nearly to deprive me of Sight, which often puts me out of my Power to carry the Intentions of my Mind into Execution”, and that “the Sorrow I expressed at being detained [by Christian’s men] was real and unfeigned. ”
The blind Irishman proved himself an able seaman after all, convincing the court of his innocence. It was reported that he “was sobbing with joy and relief, his hands outstretched and the tears streaming down his face.” All that remained for Byrne to do was to provide an affidavit that would corroborate Bligh’s own testimony of the events on board the Bounty. He proved a most reluctant witness, neither praising nor condemning Bligh, and “with Irish stubbornness adhered strictly to the truth (as far as he had any knowledge of it).”
At that point the blind Irish fiddler disappeared into obscurity. There is no mention of him again in any of the documents pertaining to the Bounty. It’s not known when he died, or where. We don’t know if he returned to Kilkenny or if he lived out his days among fellow sailors in an English port.
I like to think he spent the rest of his life in relative peace, and that he at least got his hands on another fiddle!
a version of this piece appeared at WorldIrish