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The Pirate Hull of Leamcon, West Cork

Photo: Dr. Connie Kelleher, Underwater Archaeology Unit, National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltacht.

Behold, this is Roaringwater Bay on the south west coast of County Cork, as seen from the north. Baltimore and Schull lie to the east, while Croagh, Long Island and Leamcon are to the west.
Roll back four centuries and these same waters were home to one of the most successful pirate operations of the early 17th century. Its mastermind was Sir William Hull, the son of a former Mayor of Exeter, who lived at Leamcon.
Hull was a piratical cad from the early days when he was engaged in smuggling and piracy operations off the coast of Devon as early as 1604.
And so it was a case of poacher-turned-gamekeeper when, during the reign of James I of England, the English Admiralty appointed him Deputy Vice Admiral of Munster in 1609.
Entrusted with protecting the southern Irish coastline against piracy, Hull’s appointment was, in fact, a natural step in the long and often lucrative collaboration between the North Atlantic pirates and the Admiralty.

Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork.

Hull’s castle at Castle Point on Leamcon, near Schull, in West Cork, was to become one of the foremost hubs for the pirates of the North Atlantic. Also known as Black Castle, Leamcon Castle was originally built by the O’Mahony sept. Hull built a second fortified house just to the east, where Leamcon House stands today. From Leamcon, Hull became the chief contact or ‘land pirate’, as contemporaries called him, for the North Atlantic pirates. Aided by his equally caddish colleagues like James Salmon and the Jobson brothers, he happily received stolen goods, such as pepper, sugar and canvas, in return for a large percentage of the profits.

By the 1610s, some 25 pirate vessels, mainly English, were being careened and repaired in Croagh Bay while Leamcon itself remained their lair. Most of these pirates were living on Hull’s estate and paying him useful rent. The rents fell somewhat when a good-looking pirate called John Ellis lured several pirates’ wives to live with him instead. If Hull was dismayed, contentment soon returned and you can almost hear him licking his lips when he wrote to a friend, ‘I hear Ellis has very rich beaver skins out of a Frenchman from Canada’.
Aside from his trade-offs with the pirates, Hull established a series of pilchard fisheries along the south-west coast of Cork, particularly along Roaringwater Bay and Dunmanus Bay. He was also active at Crookhaven where he had a major fishery in operation by 1616. Hull’s business partner was Richard Boyle, the Great Earl of Cork. Boyle would subsequently lease his interest in Clonakilty to the Hull family, while Hull married his sister-in-law in Youghal.
Despite facing accusations of piracy throughout his career, Hull received a knighthood from Charles I in 1621.
Pirates had to stay onside, mind you. In 1625, Hull captured eight pirates at Long Island, opposite Leamcon, and sent them to Cork where they were executed.
Sir William subsequently returned to sea as a privateer, raiding French and Spanish ships with the blessing of Charles I. However, the Irish seas were by now experiencing a new, more violent type of piracy in the form of Algerians ….

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The tower-house at Leamcon is now owned by Baroness Neuberger, aka Rabbi Julia Neuberger, former whip to the UK’s Liberal Democrat party and now full-time Senior Rabbi to the West London Synagogue.

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FURTHER READING

  • J.C. Appleby, ‘Settlers and Pirates in Early 17th Century Ireland: A Profile of Sir William Hull’, (Studia Hibernica No.25 1989-90).
  • Connie Kelleher, ‘The Confederacy of Pirates in Southwest Ireland in the Early-Seventeenth Century: Trade, Plunder and Settlement – a historical and archaeological study’.