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Dublin: 4 °C Friday 15 November, 2019

A Limerick cabinboy was once eaten by his shipmates...

Now a new musical has been written about what happened.

“IT WAS PRETTY grisly…” Director Mick Finn isn’t wrong when he says that the protagonist of his latest play, The Unlucky Cabin Boy, met an unfortunate end.

The play, which opened on Wednesday and will soon embark on a nationwide tour, explores the life of Limerick native Patrick O’Brien, a cabin boy on board the Francis Spaight, who was sacrificed and eaten by his shipmates following a storm in 1835.


Stephen O'Leary as Patrick O'Brien in The Unlucky Cabin Boy by Mike Finn Music by David Blake Directed by Paul Meade Photo by Tom Lawlor (2)

Finn has now written a musical based on the tragic story, with Limerick band the Brad Pitt Light Orchestra providing the music.

The playwright first heard about O’Brien’s fate a number of years ago while reading a local history journal in Limerick. It hung about in his head as a possible subject for a play, until two years ago when he met up with the Brad Pitt Light Orchestra, who asked him to collaborate with them for the Limerick Festival of Culture.

Over a cup of tea they told him that they had a story they wanted to turn into a musical: the tale of an unlucky cabin boy.

That twist of fate led them to work together to create this “powerful and moving play”, said Finn.

Disturbing tale

Stephen O'Leary as Patrick O'Brien in The Unlucky Cabin Boy by MIke Finn Music by David Blake Directed by Paul Meade Photo by Tom Lawlor

The story of Patrick O’Brien’s death would be known among the older generations of Limerick, but it’s not hugely well known beyond that, said Finn, though Jack London did write a short story based on it.

O’Brien signed himself aboard the Francis Spaight ship in an attempt to escape poverty.

The ship was bound for the New World, but on its return from St John, New Brunswick, it got caught in a terrible storm and capsized.

Several crew members drowned, but the remaining sailors were able to right the ship by cutting the mast. This left them stranded in the vast ocean, with their provisions, water, and possessions having been lost overboard.


After two weeks of struggling to survive, the crew were driven to desperate measures. The ship’s captain, Thomas Gorman decided that one crew member should die in order to prolong the lives of the others. Patrick O’Brien drew lots, lost, and was killed and eaten by the crew.

Two other crew members were later killed and eaten before the remaining sailors were rescued.

O’Brien’s father died when he was young. After her son’s death, his mother Catherine was haunted by what happened to Patrick. “She was disturbed,” said Finn. The captain of the ship eventually got an injunction preventing her from contacting him. That was the only legal case resulting from the incident.

The custom of the sea

James Blake Steohen O Leary Damien Devaney in The Unlucky Cabin Boy by Mike Finn Music & Lyrics by David Blake Directed by Paul Meade Photo by Tom Lawlor

“It’s kind of an international story in many ways,” said Finn.

Incidents like this were not uncommon – it was called ‘the custom of the sea’: if you were in dire straits like this it was more or less accepted that you would do this, sacrifice one person to save the others.

The survivors gave conflicting accounts of what happened, said Finn. “But there was speculation [the lottery] may have been rigged against this boy [O'Brien], who wasn’t very popular on board the ship.”

As part of his preparation for writing the play, Finn researched the oral history of cannibalism, and found that at one point it was even acceptable to say in court that the death of a crewman by cannibalism was necessary to save the rest of the crew.

He found himself fascinated with the morality of the situation, and the social structures on board the ships.

James Blake & Stephen O Leary in The Unlucky Cabin Boy by Mike Finn Music & Lyrics by David Blake Directed by Paul Meade Photo by Tom Lawlor

“The person that was sacrificed was the lowest person on the rung of the ladder of the pecking order on the ship,” he explained. The cabin boy was on the bottom rung.

I have yet to come across a situation where a captain sacrificed himself. It is always the weakest people, the poorest people who get picked on – that’s the nature of life, unfortunately, and the play explores that.

Though he jokes that “we were conscious that it might be hard to sell a musical about cannibalism”, Finn said that the music in the play works “as an emotional shortcut” for the audience.

Patrick O’Brien “was victim of huge injustice”, he said. “He died a very difficult death. There’s no plaque to him in Limerick, no street named after him, no park. Maybe in a way we’re memorialising him and bringing him back to life.”

We’re saying to the world he did exist and this was his story, and it’s worth telling and worth pondering. So maybe he didn’t die in vain. We are memoralising him in some way.

The tour

Stephen O'Leary in The Unlucky Cabin Boy by Mike Finn Music & Lyrics by David Blake Directed by Paul Meade Photo by Tom Lawlor

  • Lime Tree, Limerick: 4, 5, 6, 7 November – €18/15/12
  • Black Box, Galway: Tuesday 10 November – €18/15
  • Civic Tallaght, Dublin: Friday 13 and Saturday 14 November – €20/16 
  • Theatre Royal, Waterford: Monday 16 November – €18/16
  • Watergate, Kilkenny: Tuesday 17 and Wednesday 18 November – €18/15
  • Draíocht, Blanchardstown Dublin: Saturday 21 November – €18/14
  • Siamsa Tire, Tralee: Wednesday 25 November – €20/17
  • Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, Dublin: Friday 27 Saturday 28 November – €20/16

Read: Evidence of mass graves, forced cannibalism and rape in South Sudan conflict>

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