John Paul Jones and the Lanterns

Everybody knows about John Paul Jones, the great naval hero of the American War of Independence
(1775– ‘83). Not everybody knows about the most daring escape of his career in the Tarbert estuary
of the River Shannon, which I heard from a local historian many years ago.
The future ‘Founder of the American Navy’ was born in Scotland in 1747 and began learning the art
of seamanship when apprenticed at the age of 13. He fled to America to avoid a manslaughter
charge for which he was later exonerated. At the commencement of the American War of
Independence he sided with the colonists and became a captain in the newly formed Congressional
Navy. Over the next few years his exploits against British shipping did much to instil pride in the
infant American navy. In 1777, Jones took command of the ‘Ranger’ which originally belonged to the
British navy. The enlisted crew in these three masted ships numbered 140 including several Irishmen.
The ‘USS Ranger’ was the first American ship to fly the Stars and Stripes in February 1778. Sailing to
Northern Ireland he captured two merchant ships and in Carrickfergus Bay he captured the British
man-of-war HMS Drake. He landed 200 captured prisoners at the French port of Brest, despite the
best efforts of his pursuers to capture him. These raids and others affected British morale and there
was a determined effort to capture Jones.
One evening at dusk and in stormy weather, John Paul Jones sailed the ‘Ranger’ into the mouth of
the Shannon estuary to take shelter in Tarbert Bay. On the west coast of Ireland, Tarbert was at this
time described as ‘the best anchorage in the river where a number of ships generally shelter in a
deep harbour formed by Tarbert Island’. Two British warships were in hot pursuit and they dropped
anchor in the estuary confident that they now had the’ Yankee Pirate’ trapped with no possibility of
escape. They would wait until daybreak to launch an attack. At nightfall Jones sent a boatload of
sailors to the opposite riverbank at Ballydonoghue. Here they hung lighted lanterns on the limbs of
trees so that swaying in the breeze they gave the appearance of a ship riding at anchor. Then with all
lights extinguished on the Range, John Paul weighed anchor and quietly under cover of darkness
headed for the opposite Clare coastline and slipped quietly out to sea. When dawn broke the British
saw how they had been tricked, their target of attack long since departed the scene. It was
undoubtedly an escapade like this which prompted the newspaper the London Morning Post to
write ‘Paul Jones resembles a Jack O’ Lantern to misguide our mariners and terrify our coasts. He is
no sooner seen than lost and he is still the most general topic of conversation’.
With the conclusion of a peace treaty in Paris the war ended successfully for the colonists in 1783.
John Paul successfully campaigned for the setting up of a U.S. naval academy. He died of jaundice in
Paris in 1792 aged 45 years. The French Assembly buried him with full military honours. In 1913 the
United States sent four cruisers to bring the preserved remains back to the Naval Academy in
Annapolis which became a national shrine.
John Paul Jones and Wexford man Commodore John Barry both featured on a U.S. postage stamp
issued in 1937. Both men shared the epithet ‘Founder of the American Navy’ but John Paul Jones
will always hold a special place in the hearts of Tarbert people.