Ruthless pirates from nations far and wide, plundering ships and trading their contraband cargoes across the seas. Scoundrel seafarers constantly on the run from the king's men and their heavily armed warships. Shadowy figures stealing through the night to lay low in countless coves and secret inlets. The plot from the latest instalment of Pirates of the Caribbean? Not quite, as truth can be even more interesting than fiction. Because the real-life characters reflected in the fictional Captain Jack Sparrows were to be found much closer to home than the Caribbean – within the coastal waters of the southwest coast of Ireland, in fact.
Keeping with the Hollywood theme, chances are that if asked to name an archaeologist, most people's thoughts would drift to Indiana Jones and his quest for holy grails and crystal skulls. But while Harrison Ford's rugged character, armed with a whip and ancient maps, had many adventures, he enjoyed all of his on dry land, not in a drysuit in chilly Irish waters.
That’s where the archaeologists from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht’s National Monuments Service (NMS) have the upper hand over Indiana: some of their most memorable ‘expeditions’ have led to new discoveries, both above and below the waves. And in their own time, they are also exploring secret worlds, including uncovering Ireland’s pirate past. While pirate folklore is rich in tales of booty, the biggest treasure for these archaeologists is unearthing new knowledge about our history and new evidence about our cultural past.
Secluded places such as Canty's Cove in West Cork were known pirate bases in the early 1600s, and its caves no doubt were used to accommodate smuggled goods in the dead of night
The work of the National Monuments Service (NMS), in managing and protecting Ireland’s underwater cultural heritage, is broad and diverse. Within the NMS, it's mainly undertaken by its Underwater Archaeology Unit (UAU). It was set up on a permanent basis 20 years ago following a successful pilot project aimed at quantifying the nature and extent of the resource to be protected, and undertakes dive surveys and excavations as part of its work brief.
When time has allowed, members of the UAU – all fully commercially trained divers – have carried out their own personal research focused on particular areas of our coast and seas and different periods in our past. In the process they've often revealed details of lesser known events and previously unknown archaeological sites. Underwater surveys of particular shipwreck remains, together with discoveries of new sites and features, both above and below the waves, dovetail nicely with personal research and further illuminate tales of pirates and smugglers from some 400 years ago.
"Pirates have always fascinated me, whether it was the romantic idea of the swashbuckling rogue or the ships they sailed"
NMS’ archaeologist Dr Connie Kelleher has been researching and investigating historic piracy along the coast of West Cork for many years, including undertaking her PhD on the subject. The pirates in question were active in the early 1600s and their mark is still to be found in the rugged and remote landscape of the southwest and scattered on the seabed off the coastline there. “I have always been drawn to the sea and captivated by what lies beneath," says Connie. "They say the sea remembers and I have always thought that if the sea could talk, what tales it would tell!”
The hunt for pirate secrets has captivated her, she admits. “It is really the landscape of the pirates that interests me, and how they used it, what made it conducive to their success – where they lived, where they landed, the goods they plundered, is there any evidence for pirate operated ships? Those sort of questions.”
The pirates were predominantly made up of English men, but Irish, French, renegade Dutch, North African and other nationalities were also among their number. They transferred their base of operations from the West Country in England to coastal southwest Munster from 1603 onwards when the new king, James I, clamped down on piracy in England and the ports and harbours used by them. “Such were their numbers in their heyday that the king eventually had to pardon most of them. Historical records, though most probably exaggerated, refer to over a 1,000 men and fleets of ships in the harbours of Baltimore, Schull/Leamcon and Crookhaven."
And it's amazing to think that our southern coast would have been like a scene from a Hollywood pirate swashbuckler. "It could be said that West Cork at the time was the forerunner of some of the more famous pirate nests in later history, like infamous early 18th-Century Port Royal in Jamaica and Nassau in the Bahamas” says Connie – frequented by the more famous pirates of history like Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, Black Bart Roberts, Mary Read or Irish pirate Anne Bonney from Kinsale.
“I went looking for their cultural footprints in the landscape – and on the seabed. Pirates have always fascinated me. Whether it was the romantic idea of the swashbuckling rogue, or the ships they sailed, they have captured the imagination of generations.” In reality, piracy was a business, she says - and survival was the goal. The Munster coastline was more than suitable to the pirates' needs, Its remote bays and harbours facilitated secret landing of goods and their secluded settlements in distant places ensured their trade in pirated booty boomed.
Archaeological sites slowly coming to light along this stretch of coastline and on its many islands include rock-cut steps and platforms that allowed access to and from the sea. Many have associated sea caves where goods may have been stored. “These sites are notoriously difficult to date, however, and would have had a long use period by coastal users and mariners, but would assuredly have been availed of by pirates and smugglers too," says Connie. "A few, like the rock-cut steps in Castlehaven and Crookhaven, are so enigmatic in their nature and location that they strongly signal clandestine usage. It is sites like these, previously not forming part of the archaeological record, that are now coming to light and are being added to our database.”