Yo ho ho, and a bottle of poiteen

Photo by P.J. McKenna

The Ireland Before You Die website published my article 6 places in Ireland associated with pirates.

Here you’ll find out about:

  • Kinsale: Home of Anne Bonny
  • Baltimore: The stolen village
  • Dublin: A city founded by raiders
  • Saltee Islands: Treasure caves
  • West Cork coast: A haven for crooks
  • Clew Bay: Home of the Pirate Queen

Hope you enjoy!

Sucking Diesel

Mizen Head, County Cork

Photo of Mizen Head by Colleen Jones

On the early morning of July 2nd 2007, Michael O’Donovan heard a knock on the door. He wasn’t expecting visitors to his remote farmhouse in West Cork, especially not when the wind was howling up a storm. He certainly wasn’t expecting to open the door to a shivering man in a dripping wet tracksuit.

The man spoke with an English accent and said his name was Gerard O’Leary. His boat, the Lucky Day, had crashed in the stormy bay that was overlooked by the farm. Michael fetched dry clothes and asked about any others on board. There were three, said Gerard; two had come ashore with him and the other was still in trouble.

“I’ll have to ring the coastguard station to get help,” said Michael. “He won’t last long in the water.”

But the Englishman was strangely reluctant to call anyone. Michael gave him a cup of tea and went outside to look down on the bay. He saw a rubber dingy that seemed to be in trouble just off Mizen Head, and decided to call the Irish Coastguard anyway.

Dermot Sheehan answered the call, and on his way out to the O’Donovan farm he met two men coming in the direction of the shore.

“There is a guy down there in the water in a lifejacket,” one of them told Sheehan, looking towards the sea. “And he needs saving now.”

Sheehan would later describe their body language as “evasive”. They really didn’t want to talk to him, but their friend’s life was in danger and they had little choice.

Lifeboats and a helicopter were sent to rescue the floating man, Martin Wanden. His rescuers had to move some packages aside before they could winch him from the sea. They initially assumed that the packages were buoyancy aids from the boat. Wanden was rushed to Bantry General Hospital to be treated for shock and hypothermia.

On July 3rd, the Lucky Day was found abandoned at Durrus pier, as well as a jeep with blacked-out windows parked nearby. The boat had come all the way from Barbados, and it seemed strange that it had failed so close to shore.

There is an Irish phrase — “now you’re sucking diesel” — which means you’re in luck. The Lucky Day should have been sucking diesel, but it wasn’t. One of the gang had fueled it with petrol instead, causing the engine to stall. This mistake was to cost them dearly.

On July 4th, the remaining men  — Perry Wharrie and Joseph Daly — were found wandering dazed on a country road, surrounded by a herd of mooing cows.

62 “buoyancy aids” were recovered, and were found to contain white powder marked with the logo of a Columbian drugs factory. The cocaine had purity level of 75% and a total value of €440m. It was the largest drug haul yet to be seized off the coast of Ireland.

Perry Wharrie and Martin Wanden were sentenced to 30 years in prison. Joseph Daly got 25, and “Gerard O’Leary” (whose real name was Gerard Hagan) got 10.

The day after Gerard was sentenced, an even larger seizure (worth over €700m) was made off the coast of Bantry. The corrugated coastline of West Cork remains a tempting location for smugglers, in this era as much as in previous centuries. No-one knows the value of the shipments that have made it through.


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.


The Boy Who Lived

Skiberreen, County Cork

Scene at Skibbereen. By James Mahoney for The Illustrated London News, 1847.

Oh son, I loved my native land with energy and pride
Till a blight came o’er the praties; my sheep, my cattle died,
My rent and taxes went unpaid, I could not them redeem
And that’s the cruel reason why I left old Skibbereen.
Skibbereen, traditional song (Attributed to Patrick Carpenter 1880)

When blight struck successive potato harvests between 1845 and 1847, the resulting famine caused death and devastation all over Ireland, but the townland of Skibbereen suffered more than most.

Six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive – they were in fever, four children, a woman and what had once been a man.

– Letter from Nicholas Cummins to The Duke of Wellington (Published in The London Times, December 1846)

The prospects of any child entering Skibbereen workhouse was bleak, with hunger and disease killing more than half of them. That day in 1848, like too many before, the emaciated bodies were piled onto a cart and pulled to the mass grave at Abbeystrewry. As they were thrown into the burial pit, one small child was hit by a shovel and groaned.

Three-year-old Tom Guerin was alive!

They pulled him from the grave, but the shovel blow left him crippled for life. He grew up to scrape a living as a beggar, travelling the country during the summer months and returning to the workhouse for winter. Despite this, he remained a cheerful man and a well-known character in West Cork, trading on his celebrity as “the boy who rose from the dead”.

In later life, he applied to the guardians of the workhouse for a new pair of shoes, supporting his case with a poem:

I rose from the dead in the year ’48,
When a grave at the Abbey had near been my fate,
Since then for subsistence I have done all my best
Though one shoe points eastwards and the other points west.
I roam o’er the world admiring each scene,
And a tax on the ratepayers I have never been,
I only appeal to you now for a pair
Of brogues, and I’ll vanish again into air.
– Tom Guerin, date unknown

Tom got his shoes. He died at 65, an impressive age for someone who lived a hard life and was left for dead as a child.


Proof of the Pudding

Clonakilty, County Cork

Photo of black pudding by Robyn Mackenzie

I once knew a waitress who worked in a hotel in Galway. Every morning, she’d ask the guests if they wanted a “full Irish” breakfast.

“What in that?” the American guests would ask.
“There’s bacon,” she told them. “And sausage, tomato, black pudding….”
“And what’s in the black pudding?”
“It’s delicious. You should try it.”
“But what’s in it?”
“Well… pork, oatmeal and, umm… blood.”
“Oh, gee.” They shuddered. “I’ll skip the black pudding then.”

Which is a shame.  Because black pudding of the right kind is damn delicious. And the best kind of black pudding comes from Clonakilty in County Cork.

You do not like them,
So you say.
Try them! Try them!
And you may.
Try them and you may I say.
– Green Eggs and Ham, Dr Suess (1960)

The recipe for Clonakilty Black Pudding was created by Johanna O’Brien in the 1800s. She was a farmer’s wife, making a few extra bob by selling her eggs, butter, and other produce to Harrington’s Butchers. She passed the recipe to Phillip Harrington, who handed it down through his family.

When Edward Twomey took over the business in the 1970s, he found the process of making black pudding a chore and attempted to stop. Outrage ensued! People were travelling from all over Munster to get their black pudding; pensioners took the bus from Cork to stock up. He realised he was onto a good thing, and Clonakilty Black Pudding became the cornerstone of the new supply company, Carbery Meats. Soon they were winning awards and supplying produce to supermarkets in Ireland and worldwide. Johanna O’Brien’s recipe is still used, with its secret mix of spices known only to the Twomey family.

Black pudding itself has probably been eaten for a long time. Why would you waste a good (and tasty) source of nutrition? In the words of Fergus Henderson (author of Nose to Tail Eating), “If you’re going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing.” Traditionally part of a fried breakfast, black pudding is also yummy in a starter or salad, especially when paired with apple to counteract the saltiness. Other Europeans have their own versions: boudin noir (French), morcilla (Spanish), blutwurst (German), kaszanka (Polish).

In 2016, black pudding was proclaimed to be a “superfood”, but unfortunately this turned out to be a marketing hoax. It is high in iron and zinc (good for you) but also in saturated fat and salt (not). It’s best enjoyed in moderation, which means you should invest in the best. And didn’t I just tell you the best comes from Clonakilty?


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.


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

Anne Bonny, Badass of the Week (strong language)