Revealing the pirate republic

Des Ekin’s new book is filled with all sorts of tales from Ireland’s pirate past, writes Esther McCarthy.

Revealing the pirate republic

Des Ekin’s new book is filled with all sorts of tales from Ireland’s pirate past, writes Esther McCarthy.

As a youngster, author Des Ekin would bemoan the idea that there were no colourful, swashbuckling pirates in his homeland, and that all the plundering and villainy was carried out in more exotic waters.

Fascinated by the world of piracy since he was a little boy, he wondered why it never caught on in this part of the world. Some research on the subject was a revelation to him as he discovered that Ireland generally — and West Cork in particular — were, for many hundreds of years, pirate central.

“Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by pirates. I always assumed it was something that happened in exotic faraway places,” he said.

“I always felt a bit cheated when I was a youngster that we didn’t have any pirates here. It was only when I started researching that I discovered the astonishing truth that for 1400 years Ireland was an epicentre of pirates. We had all sorts of different guises of piracy. We had the great Irish clans, the O’Malleys in Mayo, the O’Driscolls in Cork.

“They operated more or less protection rackets on the coastline on passing shipping. Then you had the revolutionary pirates of the 1500s and 1600s who were fighting politically against the English. It’s a whole spectrum. The latest I found was in the mid-1800s there were still pirates operating on the Shannon Estuary.

We’re absolutely besotted by the pirates of the Caribbean but they only lasted 50-70 years, it was a very brief flash in the pan. Ireland’s pirates reigned for nearly a millennium and a half.

The Dons of their day, pirates have long fascinated the public in movies, history and popular culture. But the Irish involvement in piracy at home and abroad has, strangely, been largely forgotten. Ekin’s latest book, Ireland’s Pirate Trail: A Quest to Uncover Our Swashbuckling Past sees him take to the entire coast of Ireland to research and find stories of our piratical heritage of bandits, both native and imported.

He found that some of the most colourful and notorious lived, loved, sailed, and plundered from their bases in West Cork. By the early 1600s, it was one of the biggest centres of piracy in the world.

Kinsale-born Anne Bonny.
Kinsale-born Anne Bonny.

“A lot of people would say it’s about a big shift in economic power,” he observed.“You had places like South-West Ireland which was very disadvantaged for all sorts of reasons.

“English and Dutch pirates moved to West Cork and it actually became pirate central, one of two notorious places in the world where pirates thrived with impunity. It even had its own currency — it became a virtual pirate republic around South-West Cork. If you went into many of the disreputable taverns in the area you were expected to pay in pieces of eight.

“You had a spectrum. On the one hand you had the part-timers, the people who kind of drifted in and out of piracy. They’d do some land work, farming, and then they’d take to piracy for a few months in the summer. Then you’d have the hardcore pirates who actually lived and died for the trade. They were often men in trouble with the law, looking for the last roll of the dice.”

Because of the manner of the business they were in, many of them died young and violently.

Ships in battle.
Ships in battle.

“They gambled their money, they stole from each other and they also killed each other, which meant their lives were often brutish and short.

“A lot of the big pirate families such as the O’Driscolls in Baltimore, had actually decamped off to Spain, because the climate was very unhealthy for them. The O’Driscolls had ruled piracy in Cork for centuries but they ran out of steam at around that time [the early 1600s[. You got this new wave of pirates that was far more wide-ranging and far more spectacular than those that had gone before. People with enormous fleets and far more firepower.”

It may be a haven of peace and tranquility now, but Leamcon, near Schull, was once a bastion of banditry.

Dublin-born privateer Luke Ryan, who helped win American independence.
Dublin-born privateer Luke Ryan, who helped win American independence.

“That was one of the epicentres of pirates in the area,” said Ekin. “The local economy roared because of this and it became really prosperous in a black-economy fashion. Local people enthusiastically welcomed these pirates into their harbours.

“Pirates weren’t always unwelcome when they came because they had the potential to set the economy absolutely roaring, practically overnight. You had exotic spices coming in, fine wines, tobacco, animal hides. Pirates hadn’t a clue what they were worth and often sold them for half nothing.

“Then they would reinvest in the local economy. A lot of prostitutes would come into the area around that time from far away. If I was offered a trip in a time machine, Leamcon in Roaring Water Bay in the early 1600s would be one of the places I would go to.

"It must have been an absolutely fascinating experience to stand on the shore and watch the great pirate ships roll in, filled with pirate plunder, to see them selling off nutmeg and cinnamon and ivory.

Having said that, of course, they were thuggish, they were violent, they were not nice people.

It was a male-dominated business, but female pirates plundered too and Anne Bonny, who hailed from near Kinsale in Co Cork, was one of the hardest of them all.

“She was a very tough cookie. She’s now taken over the mantle of most famous female pirate in the world, because of the fictional series Black Sails,” said Ekin.

“She was hardly out of her teens when she terrorised the Caribbean. Witnesses testify that she was a ferocious figure, she was toting a gun.”

She became involved with another pirate, John “Calico Jack” Rackham, whose fondness for colourful clothing means he’s believed to be the inspiration for Captain Jack Sparrow. When he was taken prisoner following a battle at sea, said Ekin, she famously said to him: “I’m sorry to see you here Jack but if you’d fought like a man you wouldn’t have been hung like a dog.”

Ekin has written about piracy before. His book, The Stolen Village, about the kidnapping of the inhabitants of Baltimore by Barbary pirates, was shortlisted for Irish Book of the Decade and is on its 11th print run.

A former reporter for the Sunday World newspaper, he availed of a voluntary redundancy package after 30 years, and set about researching this book.

“For years I’d wanted to write a book on Ireland’s forgotten pirate heritage but I didn’t want to do a conventional history. I wanted to travel around the coast. It would take time and it wasn’t really practical while I was working.

“Going around the coast on a pirate road trip seemed like a good metaphor for a scary new freedom.”

Des Ekin.
Des Ekin.

‘Ireland’s Pirate Trail’ is out now, published by the O’Brien Press

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