Sean O'Riordan: West Cork pirates' lucrative Atlantic operation

Sean O'Riordan: West Cork pirates' lucrative Atlantic operation
National Monuments Service's Underwater Archaeology Unit recording two cannon on the Dunworley Bay wreck site; the wreck dates to the first half of the 1600s and may have been associated with the infamous 1631 raid on Baltimore by the Ottoman Turkish pirates. Pic: C. Kelleher, National Monuments Service

A new book offers a fascinating insight into the activities, lives, and influence of an alliance of pirates based along the south-west coast, says Sean O'Riordan

Pirates based in West Cork made millions from plundering shipping and they almost destroyed trade between Europe and the Americas — but were beloved by locals as they gave them three times the going price for supplies.

The extent of the pirate presence in the region and their huge influence is detailed in a new book written by Dr Connie Kelleher, an underwater archaeologist, based in Killarney, who works for the National Monuments Service.

Her book, 'The Alliance of Pirates — Ireland and Atlantic Piracy in the Early 17th Century,' describes how West Cork became a magnet for pirates and their bases in the early 1600s, for a number of reasons. These included being part of the process of the ongoing Munster Plantation but also because of a loophole in the law which meant they could not be tried for piracy here.

“The new king of England, James I, outlawed all privately commissioned ships (later called privateers) and also clamped down on the use of ports and havens in the southwest of England which were known pirates' harbours. The pirates thus transferred their base of operations to Munster, a place wholly familiar to them. They were able to operate openly here, without fear of trial and execution,” Dr Kelleher said.

Baltimore, Schull (Leamcon) and Crookhaven became their main headquarters in Ireland: “In: the summer they operated out of West Cork and in the winter moved to the coast of Northwest Africa, to a place then named Mamora in Morocco (now Mehdya)."

“Englishmen, renegade Dutch, Flemish and North African pirates worked alongside the home-grown versions in West Cork. In fact records show a ‘black man’ serving as a lieutenant in the pirate command, who perhaps was from Africa or Asia, but it is obvious that race or creed was not discriminated against in the Alliance. So a true cosmopolitan confederacy operated from southwest Munster and across the Atlantic,” she said.

“Many of the pirates are recorded as having settled their families in places like Leamcon (Schull), Sherkin and Baltimore, where their wives and siblings worked locally, in the fishing industry, running boarding houses, and as prostitutes, most probably in inns and taverns that also acted as brothels. One noted record shows that the wife and daughters of one of the leading pirate captains ran a clearing house for plundered booty in Dublin,” Dr Kelleher said.

Socially piracy was always a way of life for coastal communities, but it was the scale of this piracy that set it apart, at a particular point in time” she said.

“This pirate alliance had chosen leaders, with an Admiral, Vice-Admiral and Rear-Admiral, each of whom lead fleets of ships operated by lesser captains, so a very ordered and, what appears to have been overall, democratic operation. In fact, such were the numbers of men and ships, they became a real threat not only to shipping but also to the political and economic situation of other states in the North Atlantic,” she said.

Dr Kelleher’s book details the wealth that was accrued from the pirates plundering operations and the cost of the damage done by their piracies was immense and “collectively would equate to millions in today’s monetary terms".

"Apart from the lure of gold doubloons and Spanish silver dollars, equally treasured commodities were spices, especially 'black gold' or what we now know as pepper. Others too that were even more expensive were cloves, mace and nutmeg — called the 'holy trinity' of condiments — along with cinnamon, etc. It was commodities like these that were so highly sought after and that fed an underground economy in places like West Cork where there was a distribution networks for the goods brought in by the pirates,” Dr Kelleher said.

Precious jewels, silver and gold, were also prized booty and were traded extensively, including having a ready market with the goldsmiths in London's Cheapside. The wealth the pirates accrued enabled them to spend well above the asking price for provisions they needed in West Cork. They offered three times the going rate compared to local markets and this was a way of keeping the local population 'on side' as well. Resident English officials, including admiralty officers, aided and abetted with the pirates. Corruption was rife and was part of the problem of tackling the pirate problem by the Crown.

Such were the pirates' strength, most of the main leaders were pardoned by the king, while a small number were captured and executed in places such as Cork and Youghal, following the changing of the law on piracy in Ireland and its enactment in 1614. It coincided with two other pivotal events in 1614: the attack on Crookhaven by the Dutch fleet, that destroyed Irish pirate Captain Patrick Myagh's ships and crew and also the fall of their Northwest African headquarters (Mamora) to the Spanish.

The golden age of piracy in Ireland was over, essentially going into demise about 1620. After that, Turkish pirates began to dominate and it is from that time we see attacks in North Atlantic waters and the growth in human captives among the cargoes of choice, with the infamous Algerian raid on Baltimore in 1631 being the most familiar to us here in Ireland from that time.

English authorities recorded that 109 people were abducted by Algerians. However, that figure is thought to include only English settlers and some historians believe the English didn’t report on the abducted Irish, bringing the total to more than 200. It's believed the majority were sold off as slaves.

“It was the earlier operations of the Alliance of Pirates, however, that we hitherto knew little about, that is throwing light on Ireland’s maritime past, when plundered goods were the currency in coastal Munster, when pirate ships plied the waters of the southwest and when pirates and their families lived among the resident locals in West Cork,” Dr Kelleher said.

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