Ballyrisode – Pirate Connections

Last week, Finola wrote about the discovery of what is probably an intertidal fulacht fia on the beach at Ballyrisode, not too far west of us down the Mizen Peninsula. Following the publication of her post, we received a host of comments and messages, including from our friend Dr Connie Kelleher – an underwater archaeologist and well-known specialist on the history of piracy in West Cork. Connie told us that she and a colleague – Áine Brosnan – had examined the site back in 2012 because they were looking for links to pirate connections!

Header – this really is the colour of the remarkably clear water in Canty’s Cove seen on a recent visit: this is probably due to veins of copper ore. Above – Ballyrisode Strand is notable for its secluded location and its impressive white sand

The mention of pirates took me back to my 2016 post – Cantyclick here now and have a read, then return to this page for more insights. One of my resources when researching for Canty was an article by John Hawke in Volume 5 of the Mizen Journal, published in 1997: Canty’s Cove – Legend and History. I only used snippets in my post then, as I concentrated on Canty’s lair on the Northside. Today I’ll expand on Canty’s exploits to the south and west, including his connections with Ballyrisode. Connie made a very valuable point in her comments to us that Canty was a Gaelic-Irish pirate on the opposite side of the peninsula to William Hull and active at a time when the English pirates were headquartered in Leamcon, Baltimore and Crookhaven; he appears to have remained in control within his own domain to at least 1629 but most probably into the 1640s.

Upper – a photo from ‘Northside of the Mizen’ clearly showing the protected promontory known as ‘Canty’s Garden’ in the twentieth century. It is likely that this is the site of Dunkelly Castle, and was the scene of Canty’s grisly treatment of his visitors. Lower – looking across Canty’s Garden today

The following stories were told to John Hawke in 1995 by James Camier, and were handed down from his father, William Camier of Enaghoughter Townland: they therefore go back a good few generations:

. . . Boats from America and elsewhere came into Dunmanus Bay, the captains were invited into his house by Canty, were dazzled by a special grog, robbed and pushed through the north door over the cliff into the cove to the north. On one occasion Canty wanted to stop an invasion by some outsiders at Ballyrisode. He had a daughter, who did not want him to go and tried to stop him, so he shot her. He then crossed by land to Ballyrisode and by moonlight fought a battle on the first strand, which he won. Gravestones to the dead stood on the shore. One day, the son of a captain previously murdered by Canty, who was also a captain, on returning from America was invited in by Canty. But, knowing more than his father, when Canty asked him to step outside he pushed Canty over the cliff . . . James himself remembers some gravestones, but these have been covered by encroaching sand over recent years . . . Graves existing on the second strand are of drowned sailors . . .

Sailor’s graves – or the site of a pirate battle? The fulacht fia is upper right in this picture

This very categoric piece of information suggests that James Camier (or perhaps his father) attribute the stones on the ‘second strand’ to sailors’ graves. These stones are probably the small upright stones which lie close to the fulacht fia today: they certainly resemble grave markers in size and shape. In the context of a Bronze Age fulacht fia such stones were probably part of a hearth or roasting-pit.

It is illegal to disturb any archaeological site (please note!). Our activities at Ballysrisode were confined to measuring and photography. However, we made a series of probes across the beach to test the depth of the sand (and imagine how many excavations have been made on that beach over the years by eager sandcastle engineers!). Our results show that there seems to be a consistent depth of only 50mm to 200mm over the main beach. Hmmmm… not enough to bury any pirate bones methinks. Also, it’s rather unlikely that any pirates would stay around to firmly fix substantial stone markers over the graves of their dead comrades (or enemies). But I would never want to stand in the way of a good tale.

I know this is slightly ‘off subject’ but it’s worth adding to the whole picture of Canty and pirates another tale from the Camiers:

. . . Canty’s Cove was always seen in the locality as a lonesome place at night and there are various stories of unexplained sightings – old longboats coming in and out, a man walking along the ledge on the far side of the Cove from the pier and suddenly disappearing, and of “white” hands helping the captain to tie up his seine boat . . .

I’m not sure that I’d be up for a visit to Canty’s Cove after sunset (above), but the beautiful white strands at Ballyrisode would be most attractive in the moonlight, and – who knows – it might be a good time to see if there is any ghostly pirate activity in this historically significant place.

In the picture below Rosie the Dog investigates the apparently haunted piers at Canty’s Cove: they were extensively upgraded in the 1940s

Here Be Pirates!

Crough Bay in the townland of Leamcon – one of the sheltered and hidden moorings which became known as a pirates’ nest in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This is a view of part of the former estate of Sir William Hull who, as Vice Admiral of Munster, was charged with routing the pirates but in fact connived with them for his own financial gain

…Ireland may well be called the nursery and storehouse of pirates… wrote Sir Henry Mainwaring in a manuscript now in the British Museum (A Discourse of Pirates, on the suppression of piracy 1618). He had first-hand knowledge: this adventurer who was born in the time of Elizabeth spent most of his life at sea, survived the English Civil War – although on the losing side – and had been privateer, pirate and Royal Naval captain. He died at the age of 66 with his feet on dry land, although in poverty and exile in France.map of baltimoreThe Earl of Cork’s map of Baltimore,1628 –  following well-founded fears of ‘Turk’ raids he petitioned the Admiralty to fortify the coastal settlements. He was ignored and in 1631 the town was sacked and burned by Barbary pirates who carried away over 100 of the residents to the slave markets in Morroco

My possible ancestor Captain James Harris of Bristol died with his feet in the air: he was hanged at Wapping, in the estuary of the Thames, with 16 other pirates in December 1609. They had been captured in Baltimore, in sight of Roaringwater Bay. Why was it that Ireland – and, in particular, this coastline of west Cork was the notorious harbourer of pirates from all over Europe?behold leamconAccording to Mainwaring, the west of Ireland was enticing because food and men were abundant; fewer naval ships patrolled the coast [than in England]; many of the local inhabitants were willing to trade with the pirates; and there was a …good store of English, Scottish, and Irish wenches which resort unto them… 1611 John Speed map – Roaringwater

John Speed’s map of 1611 which portrays ‘Ballatimore Bay’ and Carbery’s Hundred Islands – ideal territory for concealing pirates. Note the curious geography, the names of the Irish clans and some of the places we recognise today: Rossbrenon (Rosbrin); Lemcon; Shepes Head and Myssen Head

The coast of west Cork, in particular, was eminently suitable for sheltering ships in need of careening and victualling: bays, coves, inlets and estuaries abound and Carbery’s Hundred Isles (in fact many more than a hundred but it depends on what you count as an island) offer refuges a-plenty. In Captain Harris’s time there was only one naval ship patrolling the whole area from Kinsale around to Bantry and beyond – and this was the Tremontane – an ancient leaky pinnace which could be easily outrun by any respectable pirate crew. All the more unfortunate, then, for my forebear and his band who fell into the hands of the authorities, no doubt through some act of treachery or double-dealing.

Captain Harris’s family paid to retrieve his body from the gallows at Execution Dock (above left) and gave him a Christian burial. It was more usual for the bodies to be immersed by ‘three high tides’ before being disposed of. In particularly notorious cases the corpses were tarred and then hung in gibbets (iron cages – above right) to remain in public view. Captain Kidd was displayed this way for at least forty years after his death in 1701.pirate ship

…The Irish folk surreptitiously colluded with pirates. When a captain needed supplies, he sent word of his needs. The reply to his note told him where he might find “so many Beeves or other refreshments as he shall need” on a specific night. When he and his men came ashore, they were to fire upon those who tended the herd, which allowed the herders to claim that they had been forced to hand over the cattle. Later on, he secretly landed “the goods or money in exchange, which by custom, they expect must be 2 or 3 times the value” If the pirates desired arms and/or ammunition and the Irish had any, they traded those items, too… (from Pirates and Privateers – The History of Maritime Piracy – an excellent online resource compiled by Cindy Vallar).

If you would like to learn more about Pirates in west Cork (and to listen to some great music) come along to the Fastnet Maritime + Folk Festival in Ballydehob this weekend 17th – 19th June: Robert is giving an illustrated talk on William Hull and the Leamcon Pirates’ Nest on Saturday 18th at 2.30pm in the Old Bank Building