All Mapped-Out| January 17, 2023
Why haven’t we ever heard of Irish pirates? And what happened to them?
We landlubbers* usually associate pirates (at least the historical kind of people who sailed around attacking and robbing boats) with the Caribbean. But, as it turns out, Ireland (which is pretty out of the way and not known as a particularly fierce or seagoing nation) was once home to boatloads of buccaneers (that’s just another way of saying pirates). Not only did they live up and down the Irish coast, but — shiver me timbers!* — they also ruled fleets of ships and ran the country’s economy.
The pirates of the Caribbean may be more famous, but they only terrorized the high seas for some 70 years. The pirates of Ireland thrived for something like nearly 14 centuries (that’s 1,400 years!). There are records of Irish pirates attacking Britain and capturing locals going back to 400 CE (just for comparison’s sake, the Talmud Yerushalmi had been written down about 50 years before that). Fast forward to the time of the Mayflower. A massive Irish pirate alliance was just coming to an end…. That’s a lot of pirate history for a country that’s kind of out of the way.
*(See “A Pirate Glossary” below to learn some pirate words.)
Castlehaven County Cork, Ireland, 1600s
The night’s so dark it looks like velvet. Turn toward the sea… see those tiny twinkling lights? I think they’re lanterns!
Lean in, let your eyes search the dark, look closely. Is that a group of men gathered there? Shh! Don’t make a sound, they’ll hear you on the rocky ground.
Wait, where are they going? The lights are flickering and moving! They’re descending and disappearing! There must be a hidden stairway carved right into the cliff! It leads to the sea….
Who are they? What are they doing?
Let’s creep closer. Slowly, slowly. Shhh! Careful! There are cliffs below! There, do you see the white sail? There’s a boat moving silently… closer, closer, mooring directly below us. They must be pirates!
If you’d visit Dutchman’s Cove (in Castlehaven, County Cork, Ireland) today, you’d find the worn steps, carved right into the stone of the coastal cliffs. You’d see niches carved into the walls, ready for lanterns to be placed. You’d see how those men could have easily slipped in and out of the cove undetected, shielded by the maze of rocks and cliffs of the Irish coastline. In fact, much of the Irish coastline seems perfectly made for secret pirate meetings. Because of the many inlets, cliffs, tiny coves, and hidden havens, it was the ideal location for pirates to slip in and out undetected, and nearly impossible to follow or find. That is… until a particular map came out.
Origins of an empire
Ever heard of privateering? It’s very similar to piracy and was part of a long naval “tradition” in England. Privateers were seamen who were hired by the English king to roam the seas, looking for merchant ships from enemy nations. When the privateers would come across such a ship, they’d attack, take all the loot and split that booty* between themselves and the British royalty. It was a risky business (because you could end up badly injured or dead) but it was also really profitable (because you could steal a lot of money). Experienced mariners often preferred this work because it paid a lot better than working for the British navy or doing some other kind of more friendly shipping activities. Eventually, there were enough privateers to command entire fleets that were armed to the teeth.
But then, in 1604, the King of England made peace with Spain and told the Spanish that the English privateers would finally leave Spanish ships alone. That left a lot of seafaring guys with nothing to do and no way to earn a living. Hmm, what do you think they decided to do? Many of the former privateers ended up becoming pirates — the “real” (illegal) kind.
Meanwhile, England started up a little colonization plan in Southwestern Ireland. They offered super cheap land to English settlers willing to move there. The Crown thought that if there were bona fide Englishmen living in Ireland, the Irish locals would be less likely to rebel. A bunch of these former-privateers-now-pirates took up this offer. But they weren’t being patriotic. They were being opportunistic: they recognized that the Irish coastline (harbors and inlets and islands) offered some really good conditions for piracy. Added bonus? They would be right near the main waterways of the Atlantic, where ships from all over Europe could be attacked. Yo-ho-ho!*
An estimated 1,000 pirates moved to the towns of Baltimore (Ireland, not Maryland), Crookhaven (aptly named, huh?), and Leamcon, and began setting up their secret hideaways, haunts, and escape routes.
The pirates quickly formed a pirate alliance of sorts. They worked together to sell or auction off the exotic loot they hijacked from other ships, bringing rare spices like nutmeg, pepper, and cinnamon to the area, as well as goods like lace, wine, and ivory. To keep on good terms with the locals (like the regular old Irish farmers and merchants), the pirates agreed to buy things from them (milk, bread and so on) at ridiculously inflated prices. And then, of course, local officials could always be bribed (or threatened). Soon they’d developed a vast piracy network stretching from Ireland to Newfoundland and parts of North Africa, preying on ships all over the Northern Atlantic region.
The Ireland-based pirate fleet grew more and more powerful. Though they could easily have overpowered the ships of the king of England, the pirates were careful never to attack them. This unofficial “code of honor” meant that England pretty much left them alone. Instead, the pirates generally went after merchants from Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands, all of whom were England’s “traditional” enemies. The king looked the other way.
A pirate glossary
Landlubber: A person unfamiliar with the sea and sailing
Shiver me timbers: An expression of shock or surprise
Yo-ho-ho: An expression of delight
The Beginning of the End
The Dutch got really, really, tired of having their ships and seamen constantly attacked, harassed, looted, robbed, and killed. They began pressuring the king of England, King James I, to let them go into southwestern Ireland and take care of the pirate problem themselves.
King James I eventually relented, with a condition: The pirates were to be captured alive and given to the English authorities. (And all their goods had to be handed over to the king, too. No wonder he agreed to this.)
The Dutch knew the Irish coast was riddled with hideaways and escape routes. So they busted out their secret weapon: Hessel Gerritszoon.
No, that’s not some kind of cannon. It’s a man. And, yeah, he doesn’t have the toughest-sounding name. And, no, he’d never be the hero of a swashbuckling adventure comic. He didn’t even have a particularly cool job. But he had a very useful talent that the Dutch recognized for its importance. Gerritszoon was a hydrographer. That’s a person who draws maps of waterways, measuring water depth, and searching for shoals, rocks, and other things that could be hazardous to ships. Gerritszoon’s assignment? Mapping the Irish coastline.
Gerritszoon teamed up with a British mapmaker (cartographer) named John Hunt. Together, the two set off to clandestinely map the entire Irish coast, doing their job entirely in secret and from the safety of the sea. Together, they completed the leeskarte, a complete map of Ireland’s coastline. They included four additional charts that focused on the pirates’ main hangout zone: the southwestern coast. They calculated the depths of harbors and noted where ships could safely anchor. They marked where pirate fortifications, headquarters, and hideaways were located.
Q: Where’s the leeskarte today?
A:The map that brought down the Irish pirate empire, known as the leeskarte, is written in Old Dutch and was created in full color. Today it’s housed at a university in Germany, where it can be viewed by historians and scholars.
Q:Why is it so hard to uncover hard facts and solid evidence when it comes to pirates?
A:Because pirate activity was illegal and was conducted mostly on the sea, they generally didn’t keep records of their actions and what little evidence there was often ended up at the bottom of the ocean. Pirates were secretive and always on the move, making things even harder to document.
Q:So where does the information we have come from?
A:Sometimes, those who suffered pirate attacks or raids would document what happened to them. There would be reports of ships sinking or sometimes records of local pirate lairs being discovered. And we have the leeskarte, which carefully documented pirate territory in Ireland.
Q:Can any of the Irish pirates’ hideaways and lairs be seen today?
A:Yes! Using the leeskarte as a guide, researchers have discovered some pirate-era sites along the Irish coast, such as Dutchman’s Cove, mentioned earlier. They’ve also found an isolated set of steps in Crookhaven Harbor. The steps go into a coastal cave that’s big enough for a small boat to come in and unload goods. There are also similar steps and carved hideaways that have been discovered on Sherkin Island, off the coast of Baltimore, Ireland. There are thought to be many more sites that remain undiscovered. And there are also as many as 12 pirate ships that sank in the North Atlantic, which could also reveal more of the story of Ireland’s pirate alliance if the wrecks are ever discovered.
When the two mapmakers completed their charts, they handed over the leeskarte… and the Dutch fleet attacked. It was 1614.
Like a reverse treasure map, the leeskarte led the Dutch straight to the pirates. Sailing into the Crookhaven harbor, the Dutch were able to catch the pirates completely off guard. The pirates jumped into the sea and tried to swim ashore. The Dutch didn’t follow their agreement with King James I, though, and killed some 31 pirates and even some English officials in the area. Then the Dutch fleet turned pirate themselves, raiding the cargo from the pirates’ ship.
That attack was bad news for the pirate alliance. And it was only the beginning. The Dutch began attacking again and again. And then the English Crown began allowing pirates to be tried (and executed) in Ireland. Not only that, pirates from Algeria and other parts of North Africa began operating in the Irish pirates’ territory, getting increasingly daring in their raids. The Golden Age of Irish piracy was coming to an end.
Many Irish pirates sought — and received — pardons from the king. Others settled down on the land. Others joined crews on the trade routes to the West Indies. And some went to practice their piracy elsewhere. Ireland’s piratical past slowly disappeared along with its pirates.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 945)
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