South-West was haven for piracy and prostitution

Piracy, prostitution and the pub trade were rife in the South-West in the 16th century when the area from Roaring Water Bay in West Cork and as far as Dingle in Co Kerry was a haven for swashbuckling pirates and bustling local trade.

The subject is very much untapped, and archaeology connected with the pirates who moved en masse from Cornwall and Devon in the reign of James I to escape tighter laws in England, is often unrecognised, according to Connie Kelleher, an archaeologist with the underwater archaeology unit of the National Monuments Service.

Up to 1,000 pirates were present between 1603 and the 1630s and steps, caves and other pirate lore are being uncovered by Ms Kelleher as part of her doctoral thesis. Little or no archaeological work has been done on the pirates’ presence, but a cursory walk of a ploughed field had uncovered shards of a 16th-century Tuscan oil lamp, likely brought in by the pirates, she said.

A remarkable set of 12 steps in Crookhaven overhanging a cavern is where the pirates brought their booty ashore, and in Dutchman’s Cove there are spaces for lanterns to guide the booty boats at the dead of night, Ms Kelleher said.

These, and other steps such as those in Finan’s Bay, may even have been made by the pirates.

Up to 12 pirate shipwrecks are recorded in naval records, she also noted.

The pirates became embedded in local affairs. Some of the jury in a case on Sherkin Island in 1609 were drawn from the pirates and “when not pirating they would engage in fishing”.

The coves and inlets of West Cork and South Kerry were ideal for the pirates, who were by and large professional mariners and had their own code of honour and hierarchy, even as far as their own admiral.

Documents record the plentiful supply of prostitutes in the South-West and the growth of taverns and brothels. Prostitutes held a status amongst pirates they would not have enjoyed outside the pirate world.


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