Ryan, Luke (1750–89), privateer and smuggler, was born on 14 February 1750 in Rush, Co. Dublin, the son of Michael Ryan, a farmer of Kenure, near Rush, and his wife Mary (née Taylor). As a child he attended the country school at Hackettstown, near Skerries, Co. Dublin. In 1762 he began working in a Skerries boatyard before being apprenticed, aged about fifteen, to Edward King, a shipwright in Ringsend, Dublin. He may not have completed his apprenticeship upon joining the large smuggling fraternity operating from Rush. Amid an Irish Sea smuggling boom, the Rush shippers thrived off their proximity to Dublin city, the region's largest market, and developed links with French ports for the purposes of running contraband tea, spirits and tobacco into Ireland and Britain.
He emerged as a significant local player in the late 1770s just as disruptions caused by Britain's war with its American colonists and France were inducing an older, less aggressive generation of smugglers to quit. By 1779 he was the captain and half owner of a 120-ton cutter, the Friendship, having previously served as the ship's carpenter. Smuggling goods bought mainly in Dunkirk, where he dealt with the financier Jean Torris, he gained cover for these activities by having the Friendship commissioned a British privateer in February 1779. (Privateers were privately owned and operated vessels empowered during wartime to capture enemy ships and sell them for profit.)
In early-to-mid April 1779 the authorities, having learned that the Friendship had landed contraband at Rush, seized the ship at anchor there, towing it to Poolbeg, Dublin, and arresting those onboard. Escaping capture, Ryan arranged for six men to break his twelve crewmen out of the Black Dog Gaol, Dublin, on the night of the 11–12 April. This party immediately boarded the Friendship in Poolbeg, overpowered the guards and sailed to Rush where Ryan joined them with another eighteen hands. Forcibly retaking the Friendship was punishable by death so he made for Dunkirk to go privateering against British shipping.
Entering into a fifty-fifty arrangement with Ryan, Torris agreed to finance the ship's conversion into a sloop, renamed the Black Prince, endowed with sixteen three- or four-pound fixed guns and over thirty swivel guns. Ryan and his crew feared that if they were captured operating under a French commission, the British would disregard their rights as prisoners of war and hang them as traitors because they were Irish. Confident that his crew could pass as Americans and aware that the Continental Congress, unlike the French crown, did not take one-third of the privateering profits, Ryan sought an American commission instead. The American Minister to France, Benjamin Franklin, wanted to encourage privateering for the purposes of arranging prisoner exchanges, but was wary of associating with Irish smugglers so Ryan and Torris obtained their commission from him in May by duping a guileless Boston shipmaster, Stephen Marchant, into acting as their captain. Ostensibly a subordinate officer, Ryan deferred outwardly to Marchant while manipulating him adroitly, confident in the personal loyalty of the seventy-two-strong crew (about half were Irish, from the close-knit smuggling community around Rush).
In its first cruise (12–22 June) the Black Prince took eight merchant ships off Land's End, ransoming one and keeping seven. Six of the prizes, along with twenty-one of Ryan's men were recaptured, however, prompting him to rely mainly on ransoms. (A ransom agreement was a well-established process whereby the captured ship was released after a price was settled with the captain and a hostage taken; if negotiations failed the ship was burned.) He skirted the strong British navy presence in the English Channel by basing himself in Brittany from where he plundered the shipping lanes off Cornwall and Wales (15–25 July) and southern Ireland (15–21 August).
On the second day of the fourth cruise (4–24 September), Ryan assumed the captaincy, having decided he had done enough to justify dispensing with Marchant. The Black Prince then preyed on ships in the middle of the Irish Sea and ranged off western Scotland where it bombarded the residents of a village in Argyll until they offered provisions. During this voyage, and probably others, he robbed neutral vessels. He achieved surprise by approaching targets with his gun ports closed flying a British or neutral flag, being one of the many privateers on both sides who flouted the regulations against flying false flags. The trade ships offered little resistance, if any, though he was obliged occasionally to beat off or flee from British warships.
Although Ryan delivered few prisoners – because taking more would diminish supplies, forcing an early return to port – Franklin endorsed his captaincy by gifting him a night glass. Franklin also commissioned a second largely Irish crewed privateer, the Black Princess, which was captained by Ryan's associate, Patrick Dowlin(g). Apparently falling ill, Ryan surrendered command of the Black Prince to his cousin and long-time shipmate Edward Macatter (McCatter, aka Wilde) and sold his half interest to Torris. The Black Prince and the Black Princess were then syndicated with Ryan taking a one-twelfth share in each ship, both of which enjoyed great success in the Irish Sea during 1779–1780.
Following difficulties in buying a suitable vessel, Ryan belatedly resumed privateering in March 1780 with the 150-ton Fearnot, which was commissioned by Franklin and armed with eighteen mounted guns (fourteen were six-pounders), as well as twelve swivel guns. The ninety-six-strong crew was predominately Irish. Based again in Dunkirk, he sailed north, staying away from the east coast of Britain before swinging around the top of Scotland and descending on the Hebrides and the shipping routes north of Ireland. He repeated this excursion that July, causing further panic by landing plundering parties in remote, defenceless locations in the Hebrides and western Scotland.
Owing their effectiveness to their knowledge of the British and Irish coastlines and experience of navigating the waters in between, Ryan, Dowling and Macatter diverted navy resources, crippled trade and drove marine insurance premiums to exorbitant heights. Drawn from Ireland's subjugated catholic majority, they and their Irish shipmates were celebrated by the general populace, being reviled in turn by the protestant elite. Newspapers across Britain and Ireland covered their activities, dwelling mainly on Ryan, partly because he was the first to gain notoriety, partly because of his depredations by land; it helped that latterly he treated compliant victims with exaggerated civility.
The Irish privateers' habit of straying into outright piracy embarrassed Franklin while their recruitment of local sailors annoyed the short-handed French navy. In response to French pressure, Franklin withdrew their commissions in autumn 1780 by when they had captured or sunk 114 ships. Including his voyages with Marchant, Ryan took fifty ships under American colours of which thirty-one were ransomed, three brought in and the rest either burned, lost or retaken. (He comes only seventh out of nine in a list of the takings of Torris's captains because of his preference for ransoms and the discrepancy arising from Marchant's nominal captaincy of the Black Prince.) An American officer praised him for being the most skilled and fearless captain he ever sailed with, surpassing even John Paul Jones. For all that and despite becoming renowned in Ireland, Britain and France, he was unknown in America.
He accepted a French commission, taking fourteen prizes cruising the North Sea (8–22 August) in La Marechal, which was better suited to the rougher conditions there. In late November he reappeared in the English Channel captaining the Calonne. Part owned by the royal intendant at Lille, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, this 400-ton vessel was considered the finest privateer operating in British waters; it boasted thirty-two guns (twenty-two nine-pounders) and a crew of over 200 Irish and American sailors. He took eleven ships off Ireland's southern coast in ten days during December, including a large armed transport ship the Earl of Dunmore, which was ransomed for 2,500 guineas. On 25 January 1781 he arrived in Ostend with a defeated sixteen-gun privateer, having also sent a captured twenty-two-gun cutter into Morlaix. The Calonne then survived a battle in early February with a British privateer, which ended with the ships parting, both badly damaged. For his efforts, he was elected a burgess of Dunkirk (October 1780) and naturalised a French subject (February 1781).
About 12 April he left Dunkirk in the Calonne as commodore of a fleet of five French privateers. The Calonne was sailing unaccompanied near the Firth of Forth, Scotland, on 17 April 1781, when he attacked two British frigates in bad light. On realising his mistake, he made off, but the faster of the two frigates, the thirty-six-gun Belle Poule, caught up and engaged the Calonne long enough for the seventy-four-gun Berwick to arrive, prompting his surrender. His privateering ended with an approximate total of eighty prizes, he was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle and kept under close guard, which thwarted his several subsequent escape attempts. Due to the difficulty and expense of proving place of birth, British subjects captured under a foreign commission were normally pressed into the royal navy, but in this case the authorities were determined to pursue a capital charge.
Shortly after being brought to London under military guard and lodged in the New Gaol, Southwark, he was charged with piracy and treason in the High Court of the Admiralty at the Old Bailey on 31 October. As the piracy charge had been added without due notice, Ryan successfully requested a postponement in which to prepare his defence. When the trial resumed in the Old Bailey on 30 March 1782, he produced witnesses stating that he was born in France while the prosecution countered with seven Rush locals, all asserting that he was born and bred there. (Two ships later put ashore a party at Skerries, which burned the house of a revenue officer for testifying against him.) The newspapers in Britain and Ireland assiduously reported Ryan's trial and prior legal proceedings with Hibernian Magazine putting the only known image of him, a sketch, on the frontispiece of its April 1782 edition. Newspaper accounts described him as small and sickly yet handsome, composed and with the attire and manners of a gentleman. Conversely, the captain of a ship taken by him recalled that Ryan could hardly write his own name and spoke an unlettered form of English mingled with Irish.
The jury found him guilty in fifteen minutes, whereupon he was sentenced to death by hanging. Macatter, who had also been caught, was tried, convicted and sentenced to death on the same day. King George III stipulated that their corpses be hanged in chains in some conspicuous part of the English coast. Serenely awaiting their fate in the Newgate prison, London, he and Macatter drew on the proceeds of their freebooting to live comfortably and to clothe and feed their fellow inmates. On 13 May, the eve of their execution, a new ministry in London, desperate for peace, heeded renewed pressure from the Americans and French by prevailing upon the king to respite the sentence as a goodwill gesture. It was rumoured that Marie Antoinette had appealed personally on their behalf. Further respites ensued before they were pardoned on 24 March 1783.
Ryan was not released, being moved instead to the King's Bench prison, Southwark, under a court judgement against him for unpaid debts. This credit had been extended on the strength of some £7,000 apparently owed to him by Torris who, however, disputed this, also pleading inability to pay. Eventually, the French government seized and sold Torris's assets to discharge Ryan's debt. Freed on 9 February 1784, he went to France where he vainly pursued Torris, by then bankrupt and imprisoned, for the £7,000. There were reports of Ryan losing a much larger sum either through the failure of a bank or because his mistress had stolen it. In March 1787 he was reported as having arrived in Dunkirk from Martinique. Latterly, he settled in Hampshire, England, with his wife and three children. After being arrested in Hampshire on 25 February 1789 for failing to pay £200 owed to a doctor who had inoculated his children, he died of natural causes in the King's Bench prison on 18 June 1789.