Our view of pirates is most probably shaped by literary characters or swashbuckling blockbuster films, parrot on the shoulder and Jolly Roger flag, a stream of violent happenchance plunderers or likeable drunk blunderers.
In the book The Alliance of Pirates: Ireland and Atlantic Piracy in the Early Seventeenth Century, underwater archaeologist Connie Kelleher shows us the reality of the time – how during the sixteenth century and into the early seventeenth century the world of piracy was a well-organised and complex way of life.
For the growing British Empire, it would prove to be a useful tool for the national cause and a lifestyle that fed many of the corrupt elite. Using historical records and archaeological evidence, Kelleher details piracy during those two centuries, painting the close relationship the pirate alliance had with Ireland and showing the impact this had on the culture of our coastal regions.
For many of the England-based pirates, the shift to Ireland was influenced greatly by James I, who became king of England in 1603. In an effort to tackle corruption at ports and harbours in southwest England, he introduced a proclamation that outlawed privately commissioned vessels.
This encouraged more pirates to relocate to southern Ireland in an effort to avoid the attention of government in London and Dublin. So began a flurry of “sea dog” enterprise in the region, pirate executions, petitions and pardons.
In general, the growth of piracy involved two types of individuals. There were legitimate seafarers who had fallen into its clutches through poverty, desperation or harsh life experiences. Others were lured by the freedom and transient nature of the pirate lifestyle. “Those active during the heyday of piracy in southwest Ireland comprised men of both types – those who had no choice and those who had.”
A large proportion of these individuals had once served aboard the ships of “glorified state pirates” like Frances Drake and Walter Raleigh.
Although many of these raiders had moved on from association or commitment to crown or country, by targeting enemies of the nation their actions served as unofficial seafaring warfare. “Those who became pirates during this period therefore can best be regarded as active agents within the wider milieu of an emerging modern British state.”
Not all pirates were found at sea. Called “land-based pirates”, a large number of governing officials aided their maritime counterparts. Heavily involved in black-market industries they often had one foot in legitimate activities and the other firmly placed in the illegal.
The waters around southern Ireland are ideal for the pirate lifestyle. The rugged coastline stretching from Castlehaven to Crookhaven is 30 nautical miles made up of island, harbour and cape. Secluded enough to provide security, it was also a highly commercial region with the perfect climate for summer activities.
Pirates sought out harbours with multiple entry and exit points, as well as locations with bays treacherous to all but the truly experienced sailor. The southwest had those in abundance.
With many on land only too happy to work with the pirates, a very successful alliance was formed that “dominated and dictated maritime events within their main sphere of operations in the North Atlantic”.
At one point, the admiral of the Atlantic Alliance of Pirates commanded 11 ships and over 1,000 men, while Henry Mainwaring (a former pirate turned naval officer and member of Parliament) claimed Ireland to be the “Nursery and Storehouse of Pirates”.
One-time pirate-hunter turned pirate, Mainwaring had intimate knowledge of how the business of piracy worked. Similar to pirates in and around the Caribbean islands, a code of practice would have guided the operations of pirates in this region.
A structured approach based on fairness and common goals, it would have included a hierarchy on the ships, payment for the crew, sailing tactics and communication methods when dealing with fellow vessels. Life on board was democratic and business-like.
A successful plunder was in the common interest. “The greater the return on the business, the better for all crew involved.”
A variety of ships were used for plundering, though all had to be “fast, seaworthy, generously armed and efficiently crewed”. The author points to wrecks off the Irish coast to highlight the type of vessels used.
Nine pirate ships were recorded as wrecked along the southern coast over the fifty-year period when piracy was in its heyday in Ireland. Records give good indication of the type of goods carried at the time, but also throw light on the vastness of the trade routes involved.
One such wreck was discovered in Cork in 2012. Built from “exotic” wood, recovered items include barrels, quern or grinding stones, and Iberian pottery. Several wooden crates are still on board, awaiting further investigation.
The Alliance of Pirates is a must have for those investigating the history of piracy and a valuable source for studies on plantations in the southwest of Ireland, or even for those who just want to see the fact beyond the fiction when it comes to the world of pirates.
It is easy to see how the lifestyle of the pirate has captured the imagination of so many people these past centuries. Hidden caves for stolen bounty, stone arches where naval personnel would hide and prepare an ambush, ships that sailed to shores too distant for the vast majority of the populace to ever experience at the time.
In truth, the search and gathering of evidence of those former times in and around the coast of Ireland may well be as interesting as the buccaneering stories exaggerated in every medium possible over the past number of years. But surely the most exciting thing is that so much has yet to be discovered.