Friday 18 January 2019

Pirates of the Emerald isle

We may associate them with colourful parrots and Caribbean climes but there was a time when Ireland was 'Pirate Central' writes Des Ekin, whose new book chronicles our most fearsome swashbucklers - including some legendary female seafarers

Ireland produced some fearsome swashbucklers
Ireland produced some fearsome swashbucklers
Shiver me timbers! Engraving of Anne Bonny & Mary Read...Engraving of female pirates Anne Bonny (left) and fellow pirate Mary Read, circa 1730

I am standing in the shadow of Rockfleet Castle, just north of Newport in County Mayo. A perfect mediaeval tower-fortress, it sits menacingly on the shore of a lonesome estuary, heavy with brutal stone and somehow powerful with latent energy. Water laps at its lower stones, and a mass of dark bladder-rack seaweed writhes around its base.

Today it basks in a silence disturbed only by the complaints of sheep and the cawing of crows. But if you stand quietly for a moment, you can imagine the scene on March 8, 1579, when the pirates of Grace O'Malley repulsed a full-scale attack from an army from Galway City. You can almost hear the blasts of the muskets, the screams of the wounded, and finally the shouts of triumph from the defenders as the attackers retreat.

Rockfleet is just one of 30 stops on what I have called 'Ireland's Pirate Trail', my personal roadtrip around the entire coast of this island in a bid to rediscover our forgotten heritage of freebooting, buccaneering and swashbuckling.

Ever since childhood, I have been fascinated by pirates. But I always assumed that they thrived only in sweaty tropical outposts like Tortuga Bay and Hispaniola. I felt cheated that we had no pirates here in grey and drizzly Ireland.

Crusade: Darina Allen. Photo: Clare Keogh
Crusade: Darina Allen. Photo: Clare Keogh

It was only when I began research on my last book, The Stolen Village, that I discovered the astonishing truth: that for more than 1,400 years, Ireland had pirates aplenty, and buccaneers by the boatload. In fact, at one stage Southwest Ireland was actually Pirate Central, a place of notoriety where 'freebooters', as they were known, operated their own virtual republic with their own currency of pieces of eight.

Intrigued by this neglected aspect of our history, I set off on a pirate pilgrimage around the seaboard. At every compass-point, I found spellbinding stories of piracy and privateering, of mutinies and massacres, of captive princesses and buried treasure - all of which feature in my new book, Ireland's Pirate Trail.

Alongside well-known pirates like Grace O'Malley, Anne Bonny and William Lamport, I uncovered tales of forgotten buccaneers who were legends in their own times - men like William Marsh, the "Night Hawk" from Kerry; George Cusack from Meath; Peter Roach from Cork; and Edward Macatter from North County Dublin. In the book I recount the histories of the Irish pirates who terrorised their homeland and the ones who flourished abroad, as well as the overseas buccaneers who were drawn to our shores.

Tiny Ireland punches above its weight when it comes to producing female pirates. This country has produced perhaps one-third of the world's most prominent women freebooters (or she-booters, maybe?) and they were indeed formidable figures. Anne Bonny from Kinsale and Grace O'Malley from Mayo were both remarkable women whose pistols and muskets blasted a hole clean through the glass ceiling in the early seafaring era.

Bonny was barely out of her teens when she terrorised the Caribbean as a member of Captain Jack Rackham's pirate gang in 1720. The love child of a Cork lawyer and his maidservant, she spent an idyllic childhood in Kinsale's Old Head before being forced to flee to America when her parents' unconventional relationship was exposed. In Carolina, Anne grew into a fiery teenager who refused to accept the era's tolerance of violence against women. Attacked by a would-be rapist, she beat up the man so badly that he was laid-up for weeks. She spurned marriage proposals from wealthy farmers and instead eloped to Nassau in the Bahamas with a penniless drifter named James Bonny.

Nassau was a notorious nest of pirates, and Anne hugely enjoyed their company. She fell in with the colourfully dressed Captain 'Calico Jack' Rackham (who was likely a source inspiration for Disney's Captain Jack Sparrow). Abandoned by James Bonny, she set sail with Rackham, disguising herself as a seaman named Bonn. According to one source, she had a child with him in Cuba. In a famous story that strains credibility, Anne supposedly fell in love with a fellow 'seaman' and Calico Jack nearly cut his rival's throat before discovering that the mariner was, in fact, another woman posing as male. Her name was Mary Read.

Back in Nassau, James Bonny was caught trying to sell Anne in a 'wife sale'. Anne was blamed, and sentenced to be publicly whipped. Instead, in August 1720, she and Jack did a midnight flit in an ultra-fast ship, The William. They sailed to Hispaniola and Jamaica, capturing several ships. By this stage Anne was posing as a man only during attacks. She was rumbled by a female victim, Dorothy Thomas, who spotted her giveaway curves and realised her assailant was a woman.

In November 1720 the authorities caught up with the Rackham gang off Jamaica. According to one source Anne and Mary were left alone to defend the deck while their cowardly shipmates scarpered.

Rackham was hanged. Anne was sentenced to death, but temporarily spared because she was pregnant again. Eventually she was allowed to leave Jamaica. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography she returned to Carolina, remarried, had eight more children and lived into her 80s.

She is best remembered by her last words to Jack Rackham in his condemned cell: "I am sorry to see you here, Jack," she said, "but if you had fought like a man, you would not have been hanged like a dog."

Ireland's most famous female pirate was, of course, the Elizabethan buccaneer Grace O'Malley, or Granuaile. Her legendary status is a curse to researchers, since the "tradition" or "oral history" that is the source for her most interesting stories has been impossibly muddied by the propaganda ballads of the 1700s - when she became a symbolic figurehead for various political movements - and the romantic fiction of the 1800s.

Take, for instance, the popular notion that Queen Elizabeth I received her on equal terms, as a fellow queen. In reality, Grace was never any sort of queen, and her family were not royals. As the unofficial chieftain of a clan in Mayo, she was never perceived as being anywhere near equal in status to Elizabeth or any other monarch. She never claimed to be. A glance at Grace's written petition to Elizabeth (more of which later), in which she stresses her humility and subservience, makes that clear.

Similarly, the story that she abducted the infant son of the Earl of Howth when he refused her a meal has remained puzzlingly popular, despite its creepiness (can you imagine the Americans hero-worshipping the kidnapper of the Lindbergh baby?) and despite the fact that it was convincingly refuted a century ago by a historian who discovered a similar story featuring an Earl of Howth in the 1400s, long before Grace was even born.

Challenging such stories does not lessen Grace's reputation - on the contrary, it restores it. I believe that the historical Grace, bad as she was, would have hated to think history would remember her as a child abductor.

Grace was born around 1530 somewhere around Clew Bay in Mayo. She was a chieftain's daughter and gained further status by marrying into a rival pirate clan. After her father's death, she seized control of the O'Malley seagoing operation. An expert mariner and a born leader, she controlled a fleet of galleys that roamed the seas from Scotland to Kerry.

A typical O'Malley force consisted of 200 marines in oar-driven "long galleys" with 40-70 men in each ship. Grace had anywhere between three and 20 galleys.

With her second marriage, she gained access to the strategic castle of Rockfleet, and became a "Lady", English-style, when her husband Richard Burke was knighted.

Granuaile soon surpassed her forefathers with her raiding and plundering. As one historian put it: "The affrighted natives trembled at her name." A £500 reward was offered for her capture. After one raid in Kerry she was arrested and jailed for nearly two years, described as "a great spoiler and chief commander and director of thieves and murderers at sea".

Once released, she resumed her piracy, and decisively defeated the Galway army with "a spirited defence" of Rockfleet in 1579.

English warlord Richard Bingham moved in to subdue the Irish in Connaught. When his troops murdered her peaceable son Owen, Grace went to protest the injustice only to find that the English had prepared "a new gallows for my last funeral". She was reprieved.

Perhaps her most spectacular act at sea came in 1590, when she led three boats on a marine commando raid on the Aran Islands to destroy a new colonist settlement.

After her son Toby was jailed by Bingham, Grace appealed to the royal court in London and spent several weeks there in 1593. Elizabeth took pity on "this aged woman" - probably a good indication that she never actually met this hale and hearty sea warrior in person - and granted all her requests in exchange for a pledge of loyalty. However, as late as 1601, an O'Malley galley skirmished with an English ship off Donegal.

She died sometime around 1603. Tradition claims she was buried on Clare Island, but no one knows for sure. One of the few certainties in Grace's life was that she was indeed - as English viceroy Henry Sidney wrote - "a most famous feminine sea captain… a most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland".

'Ireland's Pirate Trail - A Quest to Uncover our Swashbuckling Past' by Des Ekin is published by The O'Brien Press at €16.99 and available in bookshops now

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