Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2022), Volume 30

By Hiram Morgan

The west coast of Ireland in the Elizabethan period was a place of refuge for English explorers, colonisers and privateers in distress after Atlantic voyages. Aiming to return to home ports in south-west England, they had instead to call into Kerry or Cork to resupply, repair or seek onward shipping. The locals sought to take advantage of such unexpected arrivals.

In 1578 the Emanuel from Martin Frobisher’s fleet, returning from a final attempt to find the North-West Passage through the Canadian Arctic, was forced by storms into Smerwick Harbour. It lost its masts and rigging, and a local Dingle merchant claimed its cargo as wreck. A dispute ensued involving Gerald FitzGerald, Earl of Desmond, but to no one’s benefit, as the black ore it carried from Baffin Island turned out to be ‘fool’s gold’.

In 1587 John White, governor of Virginia, returned home when supplies at the Roanoke colony ran dangerously low. The journey took seven weeks; the main vessel deserted to prey on Spanish shipping in the Azores, leaving the flyboat to struggle on through becalmings and storms, with men thirsting and starving. When White and his remnant finally made land, they did not know where they were and had no rowing-boat of their own to come ashore. Only when an English ship in the harbour sent out its boat did they learn that it was Smerwick. Although offered food and drink, within days three men had died and three more were taken sick to Dingle. White immediately took ship for England to hasten the resupply of Roanoke, but the Armada crisis intervened and the American colony disappeared.

In August 1591 a four-ship expedition led by circumnavigator Thomas Cavendish sailed for Asia via the Straits of Magellan. Missing the vital passage, it spent most of its time off the coasts of Brazil and Argentina. After Cavendish died near Ascension Island, John Davis commanded the one remaining ship. With its crew desperately ill, he and the master had to take turns at the helm. On 11 June 1593 the ship ran aground in Berehaven, Co. Cork, where local people helped take in the sails and refloat and secure the vessel, though their fee of £10 was deemed excessive. Leaving the master and others behind with the ship, Davis departed for Cornwall in an English fishing-boat five days later.

By far the best of these distressed sailors’ accounts is that of Cumberland’s visit to Dingle in December 1589, as it discusses the place and its inhabitants in addition to the voyage itself. Less well known than the West Country upstarts Drake, Raleigh and Grenville, George Clifford (1558–1605), 3rd Earl of Cumberland, was the most successful of the Elizabethan ‘sea-dogs’. A larger-than-life character famous for his jousting at court, his gambling and his womanising, he sought to maintain his fortunes by engaging in privateering during the Anglo-Spanish war (1585–1604). This was the expedient whereby private individuals during wartime invested in legalised piracy against enemy ships, taking them as prizes under letters of marque issued by the Admiralty. A particular hunting-ground in these actions was the Azores (under Spanish rule, like the rest of the Portuguese empire, since the early 1580s), as returning fleets from the East and West Indies used the islands as a stopping-off/rendezvous point before making for Lisbon or Cadiz respectively. There, off the island of Flores, in 1592 Cumberland took the richest single prize of the war—the Portuguese East Indian carrack the Madre de Deus.

Cumberland’s first success—his 1589 voyage—had also targeted the Azores. The expedition, financed by the earl himself and crewed by 400 men, comprised the Victory, one of Queen Elizabeth’s ships, two smaller vessels and a caravel. Its activities after leaving Plymouth on 18 June were described by Edward Wright (1561–1615), a mathematician, navigator and creator of the first world map in England to use Mercator’s projection. He was on a second piratical from his Cambridge college, having previously taken part in Drake’s Caribbean voyage with ‘Captain Careless’ as a nom de guerre.

This privateering venture took nineteen prizes—French Catholic vessels plus Spanish and Portuguese ones—on the outward and homeward voyages, as well as around the Azores. These included two cargoes of sugar and brazilwood from Pernambuco and a ship from Mexico with a lucrative load of cochineal dye and Chinese porcelain. On the island of Faial, Cumberland’s fleet captured and sacked the town of Horta and the fort guarding it. Wright detailed what the inhabitants grew in their gardens, including tobacco and potato plants, and noted how their roof-tiles were designed to divert water into cisterns, as it was a scarce resource on the islands.

Above: A large miniature by Nicholas Hilliard of George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, in tilting attire, c. 1590, after his appointment as the Queen’s Champion. He was the most successful of the Elizabethan ‘sea-dogs’. (Alamy)

Afterwards loitering with intent offshore, the supply of water became an issue, with Cumberland’s men having to land faced by the hostile Azoreans. This problem worsened on the voyage home, when water rations were steadily reduced, the men being offered spoonfuls of vinegar instead. With the last and best prize taken, the crews were expecting a merry Christmas in England, but this prospect suffered a setback when easterly winds hit the fleet. A dire fortnight ensued in storm-tossed seas west of Ireland. Efforts were made to catch rainfall to quench their thirst, to mop water off the stinking decks and even to eat hailstones. The English, having also to look after the Catholic prisoners taken with the prizes, now lost more men than in the earlier military actions. Many were very sick, with Cumberland himself ailing when they eventually made for the coast of Kerry.

On 2 December the fleet arrived in Ventry Bay, ‘that place being a very safe and convenient harbour for us’. The locals were used to supplying fishing and trading vessels, but feeding Cumberland’s crew plus their prisoners offered a bigger-than-normal opportunity. News from Dublin to London later in the month reported that the earl had arrived in Kerry with three ships. Cumberland immediately went ashore and procured fresh water and victuals. Afterwards the sick and wounded were moved three miles east to Dingle town, where they were attended by surgeons. It is not clear whether these were the ships’ doctors or medics from local Gaelic learned families. Given that everyone disembarking the ships would have been in a bad state, it is likely to have been the latter, as the O’Leyne family of surgeons were based at Gallarus, near Dingle. There also, as Wright continued, they refreshed and restored themselves to life, being nearly half-dead, ‘whilst the Irish harp sounded sweetly in our ears’.

Wright spent nineteen days in the area. As with the town in the Azores, he took a keen interest in ‘Dingenacush’ (Daingean Uí Chúis), which was in a ruinous state. The chief town of the area, its main street previously had gates at either end to open and shut in wartime. The houses were built for defence like castles, with thick walls and narrow windows. The inhabitants had their town fortified against the native Irish, but it was siege by the local Anglo-Irish lords during the Desmond revolt in 1580 that it had to withstand. All its houses had been taken and destroyed save four castellated dwellings. Some of the siege survivors claimed to Wright that ‘they were driven to as great extremities as the Jews, besieged by Titus the Roman Emperor, insomuch that they were constrained to eat dead men’s carcases for hunger’. One cannot help thinking that this was a propaganda stroke by the English commentator to switch the blame for the early 1580s Munster famine away from the scorched-earth policies used by the State to repress the Desmond revolt onto the Desmonds themselves. Even so, that these townsmen felt the need to liken their plight to the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem is indicative of how adversely the Elizabethan wars could affect the prosperity of a hitherto flourishing Irish town.

Above: ‘The voyage of the right Honorable the Earle of Cumberland to the Ilands Azores AD 1589’—the nautical chart that accompanied Edward Wright’s description of Cumberland’s voyage, showing the Munster coast (top, to the right of the map title) in relation to the wider Atlantic world. (British Library)

A particular ‘Tripadvisor’ gripe about Dingle was that chimneys, then becoming commonplace in England, were lacking in most houses except those of the richest inhabitants. One reason for the annoying smoky interiors was the use of turf and gorse, as Wright attests, for fuel. The environment had very little wood for building, let alone burning, ‘but of stones there is store enough, so that with them they commonly make their hedges to part each man’s ground from other’. There was plenty of grass and grain for livestock nonetheless—Cumberland and his crew had good sheep, somewhat smaller than their English equivalent, for two shillings or five groats each, and ‘good pigs and hens’ at threepence apiece. These prices were double or treble what this produce had cost beforehand. Wright thought this had to do with coinage being in short supply in the area, but of course the privateers had a lot of Spanish loot to spend and Dingle was only too eager to relieve them of it. ‘Cakes’ of bread were available from local bakers. They baked for the whole town, retaining a tenth for sale. Beer was also brewed in the town. Cumberland purchased ten or eleven tons of it for the Victory whilst there but it proved too much of a purgative, the water being preferred instead. This part of Ireland was, after all, ‘full of great mountains and hills from whence came running down the pleasant streams of fresh running water’.

The people were naturally hardy, a trope of writing about the Irish which was often remarked upon regarding the men’s military capacity. Wright observed how small children ran about in winter bare-footed and bare-legged, covered only by the traditional mantle. Here his account became a promotion for the recently established Munster plantation. The country’s greatest defect was supposedly the want of industrious people ‘to till and trim the ground’. Good land was rentable at fourpence an acre a year. Wright claimed that there were mines of alum, tin, brass and iron. He had seen stones ‘as clear as crystal, naturally squared like diamonds’, probably quartz found in mineral clusters in Kerry. This patter was doubtless influenced by Sir Edward Denny, who, along with his wife and sons, took passage back to England with the privateers. Denny, a Desmond War veteran, was a plantation grantee who quarrelled with fellow planter Sir William Herbert over incoming English tenants and who as county sheriff in 1588 ordered the execution of Spanish Armada survivors coming ashore near Tralee.

Wright recorded some of the town’s civic and religious ritual. In 1585 Queen Elizabeth had rewarded Dingle’s loyalty with a grant of corporate privileges to Richard Trant, provost, and its burgesses and commonalty. In 1589 the ‘sovereign’, as the provost was afterwards called, and his mace-bearing sergeant symbolised the town’s English pretensions. Cumberland and his inner circle were first given entertainment in the sovereign’s house, which had withstood the 1580 siege. Wright’s account did not mention the sovereign’s name, though we know from the State papers that Dominic Rice served in 1588 and John Walsh in 1596. He observed the sovereign going to church—St James’s—on Sunday, preceded by a sergeant and attended by the sheriff and other townsmen. Since there was no ‘bell, drum or trumpet to call the parishioners together’, the procession itself provided the signal. It would be interesting to know whether the officiating cleric was Nicholas Kenan, the native Protestant bishop of Ardfert and Aghadoe. Wright mentions the use of the Latin version of the Book of Common Prayer, authorised specifically for Ireland. He noted also that

‘… their manner of baptizing differeth something from ours: part of the service belonging thereto is repeated in Latin, and part in Irish. The minister taketh the child in his hands, and first dippeth it backwards, and then forwards, over head and ears into the cold water in the midst of winter, whereby also may appear their natural hardness.’

Despite these composite arrangements, clearly not all the inhabitants were in attendance, as Wright’s statement about the sovereign’s making his way to church is qualified by ‘they that have any devotion follow him’.

On 20 December Cumberland and his men departed, hoping to reach England for Christmas. On Christmas Day they were stuck near the Bishop and Clerks rocks off Pembrokeshire. They eventually reached Falmouth on 30 December, thus ‘keeping part of Christmas upon our native soil’. En route, however, they received bad news from a passing ship. The ships they had captured had been sailed earlier directly from the Azores, but the most valuable, the Mexican prize, had been lost on the Cornish coast.

Edward Wright’s account of Dingle and its vicinity, which forms part of his water-dominated story of Cumberland’s plundering spree in 1589, is a fascinating picture of a small south-western Irish town in transition in the plantation period. It ought to be better known, as should the region’s role as a place of last resort for returning Elizabethan adventurers. It is equally significant that, when their wartime activities gave way to straightforward piracy in the following reign, a more permanent refuge was required, and as a result West Cork, as shown so well in recent research by Dr Connie Kelleher, emerged to take centre stage.

Hiram Morgan is a Senior Lecturer in history at University College Cork.

Further reading
E. Hakluyt, The principall navigations, voyages, traffiques, and discoveries of the English nation (London, 1600).
R. Hitchcock, ‘Dingle in the sixteenth century’, Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society 2 (1) (1852), 133–43.
C. Kelleher, The Alliance of Pirates: Ireland and Atlantic piracy in the early seventeenth century (Cork, 2020).
E. Wright, ‘The voyage of the right honourable George earle of Cumberlande to the Azores, &c’, appendix to Certaine errors in navigation (London, 1599).


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568