Saturday 17 August 2019

Pirates of the Kinsale coastline

Kinsale Harbour: A History John Thuillier Collins Press, hdbk, €19.99, 280 pages

Swashbuckling adventures: Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Swashbuckling adventures: Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
A painting of St Albarn's frigate nearing Kinsale Harbour before she was lost in a storm in 1693 while the captain was ashore drinking. Credit: Kinsale Museum
'Kinsale Harbour: A History'

Sharon O'Neill

John Thuillier's new book is a sumptuously illustrated and fascinating history of Kinsale Harbour from the 6th Century to the present day. It's not just about the famous harbour, however, since it explores the wider political, social and economic history of the area. But the story is always told from a maritime perspective, which gives the book a unique approach.

These days Kinsale, on the wide natural harbour at the mouth of the River Bandon, is a popular destination for tourists, foodies, fishermen and yachtsmen. But in the past it was a far less tranquil place; it has a rich history, particularly in the golden age of sail in the 17th Century when its deep, secure harbour was one of the busiest ports in the country and a centre for ship building. Its military forts and naval base added to its importance, both to the Crown and commerce.

Author John Thuillier, sailor and retired director of Kinsale Further Education College, is steeped in Kinsale's maritime tradition and tells the story in a way that really makes the local history come alive. You can almost see the towering masts and billowing sails and smell the salt air – as well as the insides of the taverns and 'lewd' houses ashore.

What comes as a surprise to the non-sailor is that the surrounding coast was a hot-spot for smugglers and pirates throughout the 17th Century. In fact there's swashbuckling in this book to match The Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Because of the numerous inlets along the west coast of Cork and the rich pickings to be had, efforts by the navy and the authorities to control piracy in the area met with little success. Despite pirates being hung and their heads chopped off and displayed (there's a Hangman Point near the entrance to the harbour), the piracy continued, often with the support of the impoverished locals along the coastline.

As well as availing of the cover provided by the secluded coves, the pirates took on supplies and enjoyed the company of the local wenches. The activity was badly affecting overseas trade from the West Indies, which often made landfall on the Cork coastline. Finally, Thuillier writes, a frustrated King James I in 1607 introduced a policy of pardoning pirates who undertook to give up the activity.

This did not always go well. One of those who received the amnesty was Captain William Baugh who, while sailing to shore to sign up, encountered three French vessels laden with valuable cargos, which he plundered. He bought off the authorities in Kinsale with some of the spoils; part of the overall problem was corruption at all levels, which made it difficult to stop both piracy and smuggling.

One pirate, a Captain Flemminge, was hanged in chains along with his crew in 1616. And there were many more hangings, but piracy continued along the Cork coast up to and even into the 18th Century.

One fascinating story told by Thuillier is that of a girl called Anne Cormac who, in 1695, was living near Bullen's Bay on the east side of the Old Head of Kinsale, an area familiar with piracy. She emigrated to the Carolinas in America when she was 16 and married a small-time pirate by the name of Bonny. Later she fell for the charms of 'Calico' Jack Rackham, a notorious buccaneer who from 1718 to 1720 terrorised the seas around Bermuda. Although pirates' women rarely went to sea, Anne was an exception. Dressed as a man, she relished the pirate's life on the waves. She is on occasions depicted bare-breasted, vaulting over gunwales of vessels with a cutlass in hand, and had the reputation of being a merciless accomplice of Rackham.

A number of pregnancies interrupted her sea-going but after short confinements and having the babies fostered, Anne returned to sea and piracy. Her toughness was evident in her final words to Rackham as he was about to face the hangman, when she is reputed to have said: "I am sorry to see you here, Jack, but if you had fought like a man, you would not now be hanged like a dog." Did Keira Knightley ever have dialogue as good?

Of course, there is much more in the book than piracy. The chapters in the book are thematic and as well as the chapter on Piracy and Smuggling, there are chapters on Tragedies at Sea (including the Lusitania), The Naval Presence, The Bandon River, Fishing, Shipbuilding, Water Sports, and so on.

The chapter on Fishing reveals that for decades in the middle of the 19th Century, Kinsale was visited annually by large fishing fleets that came from the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Scotland and France attracted by the very rich fishing grounds off the Cork coast. According to a London newspaper in 1876, the Isle of Man boats alone were taking four times as much fish as the local Irish boats. By 1880, 700 boats were fishing out of Kinsale, two-thirds of which were foreign. A Manx skipper at the time said: "It (the fish) is there on their coast and yet we can go on their coast and take it home from them." Some things never change.

But as well as the serious stuff, there are many individual stories in the book that are fascinating. There is, for example, the story of the St Albans frigate which foundered entering the harbour in a storm in the winter of 1693 while its captain, who had gone ashore earlier, was in Kinsale "engaged in a bout of drinking". The St Albans' 50 guns were retrieved by a local diving club in the 1970s.

There is also the story of the tsunami that followed the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755, which sent a 10ft wall of water through Kinsale Harbour and up the Bandon river, smashing everything in its path.

And there is much more to take the history of Kinsale Harbour up to the present. An enthralling read and you don't have to be an old salt to enjoy it.

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