Saturday 22 October 2016

Stolen pleasures are sweetest for princess pirates

Fiona O'Connell

Published 02/10/2016 | 02:30

The River Suir in County Tipperary, Ireland. Photo: Getty
The River Suir in County Tipperary, Ireland. Photo: Getty

This autumnal weather is often wild and windy, with the river beyond my backyard not so much running as racing along. But it was dead calm under a cobalt blue sky when some city friends came calling recently. They brought two little girls with them, aged five and seven, who daintily nibbled their way through the afternoon tea I laid on.

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Later, we took turns kayaking down the river. But the highlight of that delightful day was watching those petite princesses react to the rumour that pirates sometimes land on the sandy end of the riverbank, leaving behind titbits of their stolen treasure.

Because before you could say "nice dress!" or "I prefer ankle socks with lacy trims", those little ladies had turned into the savviest pair of ransacking smugglers I'm ever likely to meet, ruthlessly scouring the stones on that sandy beach for said goodies.

First one found sovereign coins, then the other priceless jewels. "Can I keep this?" was the big question. With the answer an affirming "arrr!", you couldn't drag the determined darlings away from dredging for more delectable debris. Only when satisfied with their caches did they deign to accompany the adults home.

For the rumour was based on reality, with pirates operating in the busy sea-lanes off the south coast of Ireland during the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. They were attracted by the huge growth in trade between Tudor England, Ireland, the Indies, and the Americas.

The Saltee Islands dominated the sea approaches of the richly laden merchant vessels, making them ideal bases to go plundering. Pirates used the island caves as storehouses for their ill-gotten gains. They included the "Biscayners" - Frenchmen from the Bay of Biscay - and "Dunkirkers" from North France.

The most notorious of these privateers was Alexander Vailes. The state papers of that time record how this ballsy buccaneer once boarded a French ship opposite the heavily armed Duncannon Fort, Co Wexford, and pillaged "46 tonnes of wynes which was presently brought by said pyrates to Waterfod and there sold to the inhabitants thereof, and other places thereabouts".

It seems the coastal inhabitants were no puritans either, with many of them not only admiring Vaile's audacity but actively aiding him. The freebooters also did a considerable illegal trade with the local gentry, who were in turn accused of harbouring "pyrates and of receiving part of the goods robbed by them and stowlen".

The authorities were convinced, in fact, that many of the cellars of castles in Wexford were stocked with brandy and wine supplied by pirates from the Saltee Islands. Suspected gentry were required to take out bonds to the effect that they would not "aide, relieve or maintaine any such pyrates or in any way inter-meddle with them".

The same might be needed for any future visits to this riverbank of sweet little swashbucklers with a taste for hidden treasure.

Sunday Independent

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