As I’ve told you, when we went to see Baltimore, Ian told me a really thrilling story about the town’s past: for centuries, it was a pirates’ stronghold! Thanks to its very convenient position at the southwestern tip of Ireland, the region had been prospering from raids on passing ships since the 11th century; their main rival in the ‘business’ was Waterford more than 100 miles to the east.
But when in 1166 Dermot MacMurrough of Leinster called the English king Henry II for help against High King Rory O’Connor, the Norman-English invasion of Ireland began; by 1177, the kingdom of Cork was in Norman hands, and in 1215 Sleynie, a descendant of the Welsh conqueror Robert FitzStephen and King Dermot MacCarthy of Cork, built Dun na Sead Castle in Baltimore.
In 1261, the local clans defeated the English and drove them out of Munster, and the O’Driscoll clan took over Dun na Sead Castle. They developed into professional pirates, imposed taxes on passing ships and raided them if their demands weren’t met. So, the town prospered and riches mounted up at the castle – French wine and pottery and other luxury items.
The O’Driscolls loved feasting; there always was a lot of eating and drinking going on at Dun na Sead Castle, accompanied by music and poetry. A print from 1581 shows us what those feasts must have looked like…
The old rivalry with Waterford continued, though; the two clans regularly raided each other’s castle – even on Christmas Day 1413, when Waterford soldiers came to Dun na Sead Castle and took the whole O’Driscoll family prisoner!
The 16th century was the heyday of piracy, the world’s seas were infested by English, Dutch and Saracen pirates – and around Baltimore, the O’Driscolls! The danger from England became bigger, though; the English crown had always disliked the Irish pirates because they caused them huge revenue losses every year…
And so in 1601, with more and more English landgrabbers coming in during O’Neill’s and O’Donnell’s rebellion, Fineen O’Driscoll asked for ‘protection’ from Elizabeth I and was knighted for it; but his son Conor, who hated the English, was furious and made an alliance with the Spanish! A Spanish invasion in Cork ended in disaster, though, Conor fled to Spain and Fineen handed over Dun na Sead Castle to Elizabeth.
in 1613, an English planters’ colony was established by Sir Thomas Crooke who took over the town of Baltimore; the new settlers quickly prospered through deals with the pirates in the region, which of course made them many enemies among the native Irish. After Crooke’s death in 1630, the pirate danger got worse – and one day in June 1631, the notorious Dutch-born Algerian pirate Morat Rais (Jan Jansen), who’d been raiding the waters of the Atlantic for a while, captured a fishing boat owned by Irishman John Hackett and demanded of him to lead him to a place for a lucrative raid – and Hackett directed the pirates to Baltimore… The English settlers were dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night, and 107 of them were captured and shipped over to Algiers where they were sold as slaves! This was the only incident of this sort ever on the British Isles.
Afterwards, Baltimore declined, many settlers left and founded the new town of Skibbereen further north. Only in recent years, it’s been prospering again thanks mainly to tourism; the long-deserted castle has been restored, and the town is now famous for its seafood restaurants. And, showing their typical Irish sense of humour, the people of Baltimore have immortalised the sack of their town in various ways!
If you want to learn more, here is some very good literature on the subject: “Pirates of Baltimore” by Bernie McCarthy who, together with her husband, restored the castle and now lives in it:
And “The Stolen Village”, a very detailed account of the Sack of Baltimore in 1631, by Des Ekin:
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