Pirates have always featured very highly in our collective imagination, mostly fuelled by books from our childhood such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island or J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan.
Names like Long John Silver, Captain Flint, One Eyed Willie and Captain Blood are etched in our memories and probably kept more than a few of us awake at night when we were kids.
Daniel Defoe, Sir Walter Scott and Edgar Allan Poe all called on fictitious pirates to star in their best sellers, but there’s a real-life pirate that few of us know about who came from Maghera in County Londonderry!
Mitchell Smyth is a former journalist from Northern Ireland who wrote for the News Letter but devoted the bulk of his career to the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily newspaper, where he was a reporter, columnist, news editor and latterly, travel editor.
“The success of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies,” Mitchell explained recently in a note to Roamer “has sparked interest in life under the Jolly Roger.”
Mitchell was the News Letter’s (very prolific) correspondent for North Derry and North Antrim but his successful travel-writing career in Canada has taken him much further - all over the globe.
He says his favourite place is “anywhere in the South Pacific” which probably accounts for his interest in pirates, though many a Jolly Roger terrorised the high seas in other parts of the world.
He continued his note to Roamer with an intriguing introduction to “a buccaneer from Maghera who sailed with William Kidd.”
Captain William Kidd is one of the most famous pirates in history, remembered for his execution for piracy on the Indian Ocean.
Born in Scotland in 1645 he started seafaring as a privateer, hired by European royals to attack foreign ships.
When his crew insisted on capturing the Quadegh Merchant, a big Armenian ship laden with treasures on the Indian Ocean, Kidd found himself on the wrong side of the British government.
He was hanged in London in 1701, as a warning to other pirates.
Countless stories persist about Captain Kidd and the treasure that many experts think might be buried in the Caribbean.
Captain Kidd remains one of history’s most famous and fascinating pirates.
“For three centuries treasure hunters have been seeking his legendary loot” Mitchell’s letter continued before posing the gripping question - “could the secret of its location lie in mid-Ulster?”
This is Mitchell’s story of a man from Maghera who sailed with William Kidd and who - perhaps - knew where the treasure is buried, and maybe brought that intriguing secret home with him to Maghera!
The man was Darby Mullan, born into a farming family in Maghera around 1665.
In his teens, bored with life on the family farm, he ran away and joined the crew of a merchant ship trading with the islands of the Caribbean.
In Port Royal in Jamaica, he fell in love with a beautiful ‘mulatto’ (mixed-race) girl.
They married and Darby gave up the sea to work on a sugar plantation.
For two years, life was beautiful for the newlyweds but then cruel fate intervened - Darby’s young wife drowned in the tsunami that followed an earthquake in 1692.
Grief stricken, Darby signed on to another merchant ship, which was attacked and captured by Kidd’s band of cut-throats.
Pirates didn’t usually let prisoners live (although ‘walking the plank’ is more legend than fact; prisoners were usually put to the sword).
Kidd gave the able-bodied seamen from Maghera an ultimatum - ‘Join me or die.’
Darby chose to live and for several years he sailed under Kidd’s Jolly Roger.
No pirate story is complete without treasure and Darby was very likely there when Captain Kidd buried his loot, possibly on Oak Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada.
Oak Island has been the site of numerous excavations over the past 200 years.
Kidd is said to have amassed treasure worth 100,000 pounds - a staggering 12 million in today’s money!
But his days of plunder ended in 1701 when he was captured and brought to London for trial.
On May 23 that year he was hanged for murder and piracy and his corpse was ‘displayed’ in a cage on a Thames dock as a warning to other pirates.
And here Darby Mullan disappears from the records.
His name is not on the list of sailors who were tried with Kidd, some of whom were pardoned when they gave evidence for the prosecution.
But giving a false name to a court (especially if you weren’t an altogether law-abiding citizen!) was relatively common in those days.
“So we’re left to wonder,” Mitchell Smyth speculates, “did Darby Mullan maybe return to Ireland? Perhaps the mystery of Captain Kidd’s treasure will one day be solved with an ancient, faded map discovered in an old farmhouse in south Derry!”
In a postscript to his letter Mitchell explained “I was reminded of the Darby Mullan story when visiting the Pirates and Treasure Museum in St. Augustine, Florida, where a wooden sea-chest, said to have belonged to Captain Kidd, is on display.”
He has kindly shared a photo of the sea-chest.
“St. Augustine was once a haven for pirates,” his letter ended “so it’s not surprising that pirate cruises in a replica galleon are very popular.”
And maybe Maghera will now attract a few local treasure hunters!