Into Exile

Rathmullen, County Donegal

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Photo of The Flight of the Earls by Rhodora, licensed under Creative Commons

4th September 1607

The French ship bobbed in the moonlit waters of Lough Swilly. Hugh O’Neill felt like he had reached the end of the world.

He was uncertain whether he would sail today. Born to the powerful family that were descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, he was still Earl of Tyrone, precarious though that position might be in these troubled times. He had played the political game, at times fighting with the English and at other times against them, but perhaps the game had finally caught up with him.

6 years earlier, he had been at the other end of Ireland, fighting alongside his good friend Red Hugh O’Donnell and a battalion of Irish and Spanish soldiers. But the Battle of Kinsale had ended in defeat, and Red Hugh died on his way to Spain to gather more support.

Rory O’Donnell had inherited the title of Earl of Tyrconnell from his older brother. He no more wanted to leave Ireland than O’Neill did, but the English authorities were tightening their grip and he saw no other choice. His wife had accompanied him, together with a retinue of servants. He looked towards his son — not yet a year old, named Hugh after his grandfather and uncle. The small boy grizzled at the lateness of the hour — it was near midnight — hiding his face in his nursemaid’s shoulder.

“A clear night, thank God,” said O’Neill, touching the gold cross that hung around his neck. It contained a relic of the True Cross, and he prayed now that it would give him guidance for making the right decision.

“You can’t rely on King James to pardon you again,” said O’Donnell. Following the Battle of Kinsale, O’Neill had pleaded his case in London. The Scottish king of England had shown mercy on the Irishman, but this had not been a popular move in his Parliament, and the recent Gunpowder Plot meant that Catholics were on shakier ground than ever.

Catherine O’Neill took her husband’s hand. He was startled — theirs was a political match and she wasn’t much given to public displays of affection. Their 7-year-old son Shane stood beside her, trying his best to look grown-up and unafraid.

“Ireland is no longer safe for us,” she said. “But we will return.”

“It will be a good day in Ireland when we do,” said her husband.

He decided to board the ship and sail from Rathmullan towards Normandy. The event would later be known as The Flight of the Earls and be seen as the death knell of the old Gaelic order in Ireland. O’Neill and O’Donnell never returned to see that “good day in Ireland”. They died abroad and were buried together in the San Pietro di Montorio church in Rome.

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Let Love and Friendship Reign

The Claddagh, Galway

Photo of St Nicholas’ Cathedral, Galway by P.J. McKenna

Angel: My people — before I was changed — they exchanged this as a sign of devotion. It’s a Claddagh ring. The hands represent friendship, the crown represents loyalty… and the heart… Well, you know…

— Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2

In the late 17th century, many Irish were leaving their home for a new life in the New World. Among them was young Richard Joyce, a native of Galway city. But he never reached the Americas; instead his fate would be a lot stranger. En route, the ship that carried him was attacked by Barbary pirates.

The sea held many terrors, but the Barbary pirates of North Africa ranked highly. They ransacked European ships, claiming their crew and passengers as well as their cargo as booty. Sometimes they even raided on land, as they had in Baltimore, County Cork. For there was a thriving trade in slaves on the Barbary Coast.

Like many before him, Richard was brought to Algiers and sold. But he was more fortunate than most, because he was taken in by a goldsmith and taught his trade.

On his arrival at Algiers, he was purchased by a wealthy Turk, who followed the profession of a goldsmith, and who, observing his slave, Joyce, to be tractable and ingenious, instructed him in his trade, in which he speedily became an adept.

— History of the Town and County of Galway, James Hardiman (1820)

Under this master, Richard created a new design, a ring. The design was most likely influenced by the existing “fede rings”, which showed two hands clasping each other, but it added two new elements: a heart being held by the hands, and a crown topping the heart. These three items together symbolized the motto, “Let Love and Friendship Reign“.

When William of Orange came to the throne, he negotiated for the return of all British slaves in Algiers, and among these was Richard Joyce. His master had evidently grown fond of him, for he offered Richard freedom and the hand of his daughter in marriage.

Richard declined the offer, and returned to Galway. Legend says that he returned to the sweetheart he’d left behind.

*****

No-one knows exactly when the ring became associated with the Claddagh, a fishing village just outside Galway City. The Irish-speaking Claddagh people kept themselves separate to the mostly English-speaking city, except when they crossed the river to sell their fish. They elected their own king, who sailed a Galway hooker with a special white sail and negotiated on disputes between locals.

By the 19th century, Claddagh mothers were handing down Claddagh rings to their daughters. Sadly, many were forced to pawn these rings during the Great Famine of the 1840s.

The cottages of the Claddagh village were condemned as unsafe in the 1930s, and razed for a housing scheme. Today, the Claddagh is mostly a residential area and part of Galway city, although they do still have their own king.

*****

The ring itself has grown in popularity since it was created. It can be used as a wedding and engagement ring, and is often passed down within families. Queen Victoria wore one, as did that famous slayer of vampires, Buffy Summers.

The Old Claddagh Ring, it was my grandmother’s
She wore it a lifetime, and gave it to me

— The Old Claddagh Ring, traditional song

My own grandmother bought me a Claddagh ring for my 21st birthday.  When I first wore the ring, the heart was turned outwards from my finger, to show I was single; but nowadays the heart is turned inwards to show it has been taken. That was the last gift my grandmother gave me, because she died the following year.

On my finger is a link to the past: to my grandmother, who was born in the early years of the 20th century, lived through the war of Irish independence, and raised seven children while her husband worked in England; to those Claddagh women, selling the rings their mothers gave them to get the fare to America; and to Richard Joyce, slave and goldsmith, who created such a lovely symbol of friendship, loyalty, and love.

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The Red Lady of Leamaneh

Leamaneh Castle, County Clare

Photo of the Burren by P.J. McKenna

In the early 165os, refugees wound their way westwards across Ireland, displaced from their homes in a policy known as “to hell or to Connacht.” Long years of war and slaughter had culminated in Cromwell’s conquest. Many Irish people were “ethnically cleansed” from the best land and resettled in the poor soil of Connemara and the Burren.

A country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him.
— Edmund Ludlow (1652), describing the Burren

Maire Rua Ní Mahon (Red Mary MacMahon) already lived in the Burren; she was a Clare-woman born and bred. She watched from the window of her home at Leamaneh Castle, and then looked at the children who now depended on her alone. She was in her mid-30s and already widowed twice. Her first husband, Daniel Neylon, had been an arranged match to bond families together, but her second, Conor O’Brien, was her true love. Now he lay dead, carried home from a battle against the Cromwellian soldiers, nursed by his wife until his final breath.

Her future looked grim. When Conor organized ambush gangs against the invading army, she rode alongside him and killed men with her own hands. So not only would Conor’s estate be forfeit by his actions, but if anyone identified Maire, she could find her neck in a hangman’s noose. She had already lost two daughters to the plague that travelled with the conflict. Her remaining children — three by Daniel and six surviving by Conor — could end up as paupers.

But Maire had a plan. She called her servants and made them dress her in her finest gown and jewels. She must have been an imposing sight: tall, with the red hair that gave her the nickname Rua. She travelled by carriage to Limerick, to the garrison of the invading army, and offered to marry the first officer who was willing.

English soldier John Cooper stepped up to the challenge, becoming the third husband of Maire Rua and master of Leamaneh Castle and its estate. He and his wife had a son together and became wealthy through land dealings, although they eventually overstretched themselves and were forced to leave Leamaneh.

One legend says that John made the mistake of taunting Maire about Conor’s death while they were on the third storey, and she responded by pushing him out the window. Another legend has it that she made him ride a horse over the Cliffs of Moher. Neither is true; both Maire and John lived into old age, although in later years they lived separate lives.

Other unflattering legends attached themselves to the notorious Maire Rua. She was supposed to have had 25 husbands and to have murdered each one. It was said that a maid who displeased the mistress of Leamaneh would be hung by her hair from the castle tower. The locals found it hard to forgive a woman who slept with the enemy instead of allowing herself and her children to starve as any decent woman would.

Donough O’Brien, Maire and Conor’s oldest son, moved the family home to Dromoland Castle, which remained in the O’Brien family until the 20th century. Maire Rua died in 1686 and was most likely buried alongside Conor at Ennis Abbey. Leamaneh Castle fell into ruin, and rumour says that a red-haired ghost still haunts there.

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The Stolen Village

Baltimore, County Cork

A Barbary Pirate, Pier Francesco Mola 1650

The summer sun is falling soft on Carbery’s hundred isles.
The summer sun is gleaming still through Gabriel’s rough defiles…
And full of love and peace and rest – its daily labour o’er –
Upon that cosy creek there lay the town of Baltimore.
– The Sack of Baltimore (Thomas Davis 1844)

On 19th June 1631, the inhabitants of Baltimore in West Cork settled down for the evening. At that time of year, the days in Ireland are long and the sun doesn’t set until past 10PM. Perhaps, as twilight lingered, Joan Broadbrook placed a hand on her pregnant belly and smiled at her husband Stephen and their two children. Perhaps William Gunter led his seven sons in prayer before tucking them into bed.

Baltimore was a colony, a “town of English people, larger more civilly and religiously ordered than any town in this province”, according to the Lord Bishop of Cork. The Protestant settlers earned a living by catching and processing pilchards. In summer, the village likely stank of fish.

As the sun finally set, a group of ships anchored themselves at an inlet just outside Baltimore Harbour. Their leader was known as Murat Rais of Algiers, although once he had been called Jan Janszoon of Haarlem in the Netherlands. His men were Barbary Corsairs, pirates from the coast of North Africa. Murat was a renegado (the term rais simply meant “captain”), a European sailor who had converted to Islam and now waged terror on Christendom, although likely more for the sake of profit than for belief.

At two in the morning, the corsairs came ashore at The Cove of Baltimore. They ran up the pebbled beach in darkness – and then attacked.

The yell of “Allah” breaks above the prayer, and shriek, and roar,
Oh! Blessed God! The Algerine is Lord of Baltimore.
– The Sack of Baltimore (Thomas Davis 1844)

Iron bars broke down the doors, and torches lit the thatched roofs on fire. Dressed with turbans and red belts, armed with curved scimitars, the Barbary Corsairs came from many nations and yelled at the villagers in many languages. Any European who lived near a coast would have heard rumours about the vicious “Turks” from the Barbary Coast, but nothing could have prepared the people of Baltimore for the real thing.

All was confusion and terror. Stephen Broadbrook was separated from his family, as was William Gunter; although both men escaped, their wives and children were captured. John Davys and Timothy Curlew resisted and were killed. All in all, 109 people were taken prisoner: 22 men, 33 women, and 54 children. It would be the largest attack by Barbary pirates on Ireland or Great Britain.

The elderly were not valuable to the slave traders, so Old Osbourne and Alice Head were left behind on the beach.

They only found the smoking walls, with neighbour’s blood besprint
And on the strewed and trampled beach awhile they wildly went
Then dashed to sea and passed Cape Clear and saw five leagues before
The pirate galleys vanished, that ravished Baltimore.
– The Sack of Baltimore (Thomas Davis 1844)

When the ship arrived in Algiers, the traumatised captives were led ashore. The Algerians demanded ransom, but none was forthcoming. The remaining inhabitants of Baltimore didn’t have the money, and the authorities felt that paying would only encourage more attacks. William Gunter travelled to Dublin and then to London to plead for help in the return of his wife and seven boys, but he would never see them again.

So, what became of the Baltimore captives? The unluckiest men were chained to the galleys to row until they died. Other people were sold on the slave market, their teeth and limbs checked before money changed hands. Those with a trade fetched a higher price, as did children, who could be trained by their new masters. The women entered domestic service or the harem. Algiers was then part of the Ottoman Empire, and perhaps some of the Irish slaves were sent eastwards as gifts to Istanbul.

Only two of the Baltimore captives are known to have returned. After fifteen years, ransom was paid for Ellen Hawkins and Joan Broadbrook. No record exists to say what happened to the rest of Joan’s family.

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Pirates of the Wild Atlantic

Kinsale, County Cork

Photo of Kinsale Harbour by P.J. McKenna

On the approach to Kinsale Harbour, there is a cliff called Hangman’s Point. The name tells you exactly what you’d expect; a few centuries ago, you might see a body dangling from the scaffold.

When Captain William Baugh sailed into the harbour in 1612, he may have looked nervously towards Hangman’s Point. Baugh and his pirate crew had been terrorizing ships from Orkney to North Africa. King James I offered an amnesty for reformed pirates, and Baugh agreed to come ashore to negotiate with the Admiralty and thereby avoid the noose. But Baugh was far from reformed. His ship, The Lion, was laden with newly-stolen plunder.

A pirate captain was essentially the leader of a criminal gang, requiring the same mixture of ruthlessness and charisma. Life on board any ship was harsh, but at least a pirate crew had a democracy of sorts: the crew typically signed a code of conduct, got an agreed share of the booty, and could vote their captain out if they wished. This was no consolation to the victims of their brutal raids, who considered themselves lucky if they escaped with their lives.

On the journey towards Kinsale, Baugh had spotted three French ships and the temptation was too much. His crew attacked the ships, adding fabrics, gold and silver plate, and precious stones to their own cargo. The estimated value of Baugh’s share was close to £4000 as The Lion entered Kinsale Harbour.

The constable of the fort at Kinsale was Henry Skipwith, and he knew how this game was played. He got 800 pieces of eight for his cooperation, and his wife received gifts of silverware, linen, and canvas. The rest of the local community were sweetened by Baugh’s generosity as he negotiated the conditions of his pardon. French diplomats in London protested, but to no avail. Baugh took advantage of this time to romance Skipwith’s daughter, and the young woman was reportedly quite taken by this dashing English pirate.

Among those recipients of Baugh’s bounty was locally-based British naval officer, Sir William St. John, who by some accounts had been in league with Baugh all along. But St John proved that the pirate code was more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules, and he sailed off with the ship and much of the plundered goods.

Captain William Baugh was left destitute in Kinsale and died in a debtor’s prison, cursing the name of William St. John.

Almost a century later, a lawyer named William Cormac lived across the bay from Hangman’s Point. His indiscretion with a maidservant gave him a daughter named Anne, and the three of them escaped the wrath of his wife’s family by sailing to North Carolina. Red-haired Anne proved quite the handful; at 16 she married a small-time pirate, James Bonny, although she would later leave him for the more flamboyant “Calico Jack” Rackham.

Kinsale girl Anne Bonny became one of the most notorious pirates of the 18th century Caribbean.

Links

Pirates of the Kinsale Coastline Irish Independent review of “Kinsale Harbour – A History” by John Thuillier

Anne Bonny, Badass of the Week (strong language)