Pirates have been carrying out their murderous activity ever since the first trade vessels took to the seas. The first documented instances are recorded over 3400 years ago in the Mediterranean sea.
Parchments from 286AD show Roman commander Carausius was given command of the ‘Classis Britannica’, the Roman British fleet, to deal with pirates operating off the coast of France. It is very likely these same pirates plied Irish waters.
Carausisus was something of a rouge himself, allowing the pirates to pillage a vessel before intercepting, so he could commandeer the booty for himself. His dodgy tactics earned a death sentence from the Emperor, but rather than go quietly he set up an independent state. He was eventually killed by his own Finance Minister, ending the life of a tumultuous character.
The most famous victim of piracy in this part of the world is Ireland’s Patron Saint, Saint Patrick, who was captured by Irish pirates in the 5th century and held captive for six years. Slavery was common in Europe in the period and the early Irish were taken as slaves and takers.
By 1536 the problem of piracy was common enough to prompt the Offences at Sea Act, effectively outlawing the activity in England. It took a later 1604 proclamation outlawing privately commissioned vessels to force those engaged in the act to consider relocation.
Because the anti-piracy act could not be enforced in Ireland due to a legal loophole, and there was a lack of ships covering the southern coast, it was widely ignored. The south coast saw pirates arrive in their droves, relocating to an area they knew well to avoid English punishment. With a safe base to operate from in Cork, the golden age of Irish piracy was beginning, with many ex-Navy men out of work due to the end of privateering in the late 1500s and keen for employment.
For others, it was the allure and danger that attracted them, the lustre of gold and riches far beyond that of a regular seaman’s wage. As well as offering a haven from prosecution in Ireland, the pirates found the native Irish happy to trade with them. To this day Ireland is a nation that has time for its rogues, and 17th-century merchants did not want to miss opportunities in a country undergoing upheaval due to plantations (engineered migration to replace disloyal locals with loyal followers, lured by the promise of free land).
Even the authorities blurred the lines, as a 1548 query from then Mayor of Cork, Patrick Myagh, to the Lord Deputy testifies. Myagh asked if, rather than apprehend two pirates that sailed into Cork Harbour past Spike Islands shores, could city merchant’s be permitted to trade with them. The pirates, ‘Tamsin’, or Thomson, and Richard Stephenson, were carrying a cargo of wines, figs, and sugar. It was not uncommon for merchants to trade with these illicit high-seas businessmen, but they walked a fine line, trying not to upset the authorities, or miss out on a good deal.
This thriving quasi-legal maritime economy in West Cork was brilliantly researched by Connie Kelleher in ‘The Alliance of Pirates’ and Keith Pluymers in his ‘Pirates and the problems of plantation in seventeenth century Ireland’.
As early as the 1550s the black economy was costing the government so much in taxes that forts were proposed at Dog nose point and Rams head, the headlands at the mouth of Cork Harbour. In later decades concern about pirate activity prompted a request to build a tower at the current site of Blackrock castle, much closer to Cork city. A recently built star-shaped fort built on Haulbowline in Cork Harbour in 1606 was rumored to be a potential target for Algerian Pirates.
The need for protection from such forces increased dramatically with the arrival of the Barbary pirates in the 1500s, pirates from the North African coast who had been expelled from Spain. Many English pirates joined their ranks, as did Europeans, and they became a mighty force, establishing ’pirate kingdoms’ in North Africa and operating all across Europe and beyond. They were so effective at capturing slaves along the southern European coast, as many as 250.000 Spanish and Italians were taken, and large tracts of southern Europe’s coastline went uninhabited for long periods.
Ireland was not beyond their reach, and villagers from West Cork town Baltimore were taken as slaves in a 1631 raid. They worked often with the relocated English and Irish pirates in West Cork, and the alliance made Cork and its coastline a pirate center to rival anywhere in the world. Hollywood has elevated the Pirates of the Caribbean to mythical status, and the region was certainly a hive of activity from the 1650s to the 1720s. This period coincided with the arrival of Spike Island’s prisoners, who were forced to swap the Celtic sea for the Caribbean.
While pirate activity was numerous in the Caribbean during this busy period, the Caribbean pirates were vastly outnumbered by the Irish – Mediterranean pirates at all points in history. These rogues and ruffians would winter in Morocco and summer in Ireland when the royal galleys of Spain and France were most active off the African coast. West Cork villages saw fleets of twelve ships carrying over one thousand men arriving in the early 1600s.
This was far too many for the local Navy to tackle, as coastal defense consisted of just one ship, having been allowed to become completely ineffective up to the rule of James the 1st at the start of the 17th century. The Lord President of Munster Henry Danvers complained that;
“Munster is like Barbary, common and free for all pirates”.
The situation escalated to the point of an effective pirate blockade of Cork Harbour in 1609, by four pirate ships carrying some three hundred men. The authorities could do little;
‘The Lord-President Danvers could not raise even one ship strong enough to defy the marauders, and so in Cork he had to stay, while the unwelcome visitors sailed up and down the coast seeking sustenance’.
How the residents of Spike Island and Cork’s sailors must have stared open-mouthed at the sight of pirate ships sailing by with impunity, crippling their trade route.
Lord President Danvers complained loudly of not being able to safely sail from the harbor he was supposed to protect, but seemingly he was not as upset by the Pirate presence as he claimed. He was removed from office in the early 1600s when he failed to satisfactorily explain a gift he received of twenty chests of sugar and four chests of coral, following a visit from a pirate fleet. Seemingly President Danvers thought if you can’t beat them, join them.
The Cork Harbour blockade was not an isolated incident. Writing about their travels in Ireland in the 1800s but relaying local descriptions of the early 1700s, Mr. and Mrs. S.C Hall stated;
“During the early part of the last century, numerous are the anecdotes related to the daring exploits of hostile privateers and pirates, performed actually within Cork Harbour, and in full view of the town of Cove…. In one instance the customer house officers were made prisoners and carried off ‘to larn them to spake French’’.
Exaggeration is likely in such travel writing and reporting of local lore, but enough records exist to suggest the activity was frequent, and the Pirates departing nearby West Cork were inclined to pay regular visits to their neighboring harbors.
Cork did not have a monopoly on the ‘freebooters’, and there were so many pirates active in County Wexford that Oliver Cromwell referenced their activities when justifying his massacre of Wexford town. English shipping interests also complained loudly that;
‘the cellars and storehouses of Waterford are full of Englishmen’s goods, and the Irish there come and trade for them familiarly’.
The golden age of Irish Piracy was coming to an end in 1620, following changes to piracy laws in Ireland in 1614 and the loss of haven Mamora in North Africa to unwelcoming Spanish authorities. The activity was far from over, as evident in the capture of a pirate ship off the coast of Spike Island in 1666, but the practice was becoming increasingly hazardous.
Four years later in 1670, seven men were tried and found guilty of piracy in Ireland and sent to London to be hanged, with no mercy shown in contrast to earlier decades when pardons were common. Patience was evaporating, and death as a deterrent was now seen as a necessity. This was a far cry from the early 1600s when many pirates in West Cork were given pardons and permitted to build beautiful country homes funded by their stolen plunder.
By the early 1700s, the most famous pirates were plying their trade in the Americas, as Blackbeard and Calico Jack began routing vessels regardless of their size or nationality. It is not definite, but Cork is likely to have produced history’s most infamous female Pirate in Anne Bonne, who learned her trade from ‘Calico Jack’, the man most likely the inspiration for the Jack Sparrow character of Pirates of the Caribbean fame.
The pair fell in love despite Anne being married, and made off around the Caribbean islands, with Anne posing as a man and fighting alongside the crew whenever they took a prize. Their vessel was eventually captured by the governor of Jamaica, with most of the crew too drunk to fight back, and Jack was executed with Anne’s stinging words ringing in his ears.
‘Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog’.
Proof surely that she was a Cork woman.
As ever during this period, Spike Island would be called into the service of the activities of its age, and where once walked monks and pious men, now stood pirates and smugglers.
The island became a haven for smuggling and hiding pirate treasure. British traveler Philip Luckombe relayed in his 18th century ‘A tour through Ireland’ book, that;
‘Spike Island is a noted place for smuggling for small vessels, which at high water steal in unseen by the Officers of Cork’.
While Spike Island Chaplain Charles Gibson, in his ‘A life among convicts’, states;
‘It was once a noted place for smuggling’.
The island was perfectly placed at the center of the harbor for landing goods and breaking down prizes, away from the military presence and authorities on the mainland. A band of pirates could transfer their booty from a larger vessel to smaller row boats, under cover of darkness, and row into the harbor avoiding detection.
The landowners of Spike Island around this smuggling period may have been complicit in these actions, happy to take payment for their silence. Perhaps more likely is that they were unwilling accomplices, forced to turn a blind eye by the kind of men whose threats needed to be taken very seriously.
The massive building work on Spike Island in the late 18th century means no definite trace of the smuggling period has been uncovered, but local lore claims that a tunnel that goes from the rear of the current fort, extending to the island’s south back shoreline, harks back to this smugglers era.
Tall enough for a person to crouch in and walk the few hundred meters from shorelines to the heart of the island, the tunnel was gleefully commandeered by the military for their purposes and reinforced and improved to create large sewage and drainage works extending from the fort’s bastion number three, the central southern point.
During the pirate era, such a tunnel would allow for swift and stealthy movement from the harsh back of the island to its hidden center, away from prying eyes on the mainland and ships patrolling the harbor.
It is a tantalizing tale of pirate endeavor this author suspects is too good to be true. The effort seems excessive for the reward, but who can say?
The opening of the tunnel on the southern beach is now bricked up a short way in, a result of the arrival of one of the later prison incarnations. Access via a manhole can only be achieved by going deep under the walls of the fort in bastion three, with the help of a guide.
Interestingly, a later prison escape attempt in the 1990s was made by a determined prisoner, who got as far as inside the tunnel entrance under the fort’s walls. He made a good effort of prying open the bars blocking access to the tunnels, before being discovered.
The Spike Island Chaplain, Charles Gibson, recounts a story harking to the era of pirate visits. He wrote of a ‘gold rock’ or ‘golden rock’, sometimes referred to as ‘black man’s rock’, which refers to a small stone outcrop to the east of the island.
Visible at low tide but submerged under higher tides, the story goes that a pirate buried treasure there, a cache of gold, which he intended to return to at a future date. Wishing to protect his booty, the pirate murdered the servant who accompanied him, a black slave, and buried the unfortunate man over his prize in the belief that his spirit would scare off any would-be thieves.
This later 19th century map shows the scale of the fortress started in 1804. The section marked ‘outfall’ on the bottom (south) on the beach represents a long tunnel that leads all the number 3 bastion at the forts center.
No finding of gold has ever been reported, but then it’s unlikely anyone who went looking for such treasure intended to hand it over. Rising sea levels mean the soil around the rock is now never fully exposed. Would be treasure hunters are well advised to leave the metal detector at home.
1779 would also mark the end of the smuggling era for Spike Island. The British army was about to become a permanent presence on the island as they built the first fortification while the American war of Independence raged. The war with France increased invasion fears, those fears coming close to realization before the century was out.
It must have infuriated any visiting smugglers, having their Cork Harbour home taken from them. They were not going to risk illicit activities with an entire garrison of soldiers on site.
Piracy and smuggling would continue in the harbor and off Ireland’s south coast into the 19th century, but it was diminishing with every passing decade. More and more ships were called into coastal defense, and the British Navy swelled to become world-leading.
Yet another chapter in Spike Island’s long history was drawing to a close, to be replaced by another epic undertaking. The first and second fortifications built on Spike Island were deemed too small to be a sufficient deterrent to rampaging Napoleonic forces.
Work began in 1804 on a military behemoth that stands tall to this day…