The Celtic Corsairs




The Celtic Corsairs.

Esra the Ranter


Conflicts in Ireland played a very important part in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. When we think of these wars the galloping of cavalry, lines of musketeers and field artillery spitting out lethal hails of lead and the violent crush and scrimmage of the push of pike flood into our minds.

But the sea would play a major role in these conflicts. So it was a great relief to Parliament that (after the initial scare of four ships declaring for the King) the Navy under Sir Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick declared its sympathy for the Parliament.1

This meant that the King could not blockade London and the Navy could help Parliament mount amphibious operations all around the British coast and support English Protestant Armies sent to suppress the uprising of the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny in October 1641.2

The Irish dimension to the troubles also ensured that the sea would play an important role in this conflict. In 1642 disputes between an assertive Crown and a very mistrustful Parliament as to who would have control over the English expeditionary force to Ireland arguably proved the final breaking point that converted England’s political crisis into the English Civil War.

There was a very real fear on Parliament’s part that the King might bring soldiers from Ireland over to England to fight against them. Especially after 15th September 1643 when The Cessation, a cease-fire, was signed between the English Crown and the Irish Confederation allowing the Army sent to fight against the Irish Confederates to return to England and swell the King’s Ranks. Possibly even landing at Bristol, England’s second largest port captured by Prince Rupert in July 1643.

In contrast the Irish Catholic Confederation had to counter Parliament’s Navy and guard the South East Coast of Ireland3. Disrupting supplies of provisions to the English Army across the Irish Sea while insuring Irish veterans in the Spanish service could return to fight for the Confederation.

Although there had been pirates on the west coast of Ireland (including the notorious Grace O’Malley) the Irish Confederation wanted for any real Naval Power of their own.

So through its agents in Flanders, men like Father Shee and Father Hugh Bourke, the Irish Confederation approached the Corsairs of Dunkirk. Letters of Marque in the name of the Confederation to defend the coasts of Ireland against “all enemies of the Catholic Cause in Ireland and King Charles” were issued in return for the right to plunder enemy shipping.

Captain Oliver Francis being ordered to “cross the seas and hinder and prejudice all such as he find or meet of his majesty’s enemies.”

Anthony Vandermarche of the Mary of Antrim was comissioned to “seize and make prize of all such ships, barques, vessels and goods of the Parliamentarians, Rebels and enemies of His Majesty and the Catholic Confederation of Ireland. As likewise make prize of all other ships, men and goods bound to any of the said Rebels ports.”

Such a move menaced Parliament with the danger of Privateering. Privateers, also called Corsairs, can be described as Private Men of War or legalised pirates, depending on one’s point of view.

Sailing under the authority of letters of marque or reprisal, they attack enemy merchant ships earning their keep by making profits from stealing and selling captured ships and their cargoes as an act of Economic Warfare. The Guerre de Corse, as the French call it.

Merchants who supported Parliament and the Parliamentarian war effort could be hit hard in the purse if trade could be disrupted by a determined marine effort dedicated to using Privateers.

Economic warfare can undermine the will to fight of civilian populations. For example because the Royalists held Newcastle and Hartlepool the “Sea-Coal” supply from the North East to London was cut off during the winter of 1642-43. Consequent price rises caused by shortages were a major factor in bestirring civilian discontent and Peace riots in the capital.4

The Confederation had chosen their naval representatives well for the Dunkirkers had a terrible renown as rapacious predators. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada these Corsairs fought on in the service of the Spanish Empire taking the fight right to the English terrorising home waters preying on English and Dutch shipping.

One of their greatest Captains was Frederico Spinola, an Italian whose small but formidable fleet of six galleys terrorised Protestant shipping in the English Channel and North Sea from 1600-1602.

Forty years later Spain was involved in the Thirty Years War with France and the Eighty Years War with Holland. Dunkirk was watched by the French and Dutch Navies, the invitation from Ireland was indeed very welcome to many Dunkirkers who felt the pressure. They decided to base themselves in Ireland, soon being joined by local many Irish mariners in a common Patriotic Crusade which was a Guerre de Corse against the English Parliament.

May 1642 the English Merchantmen Margould of London enroute to Bilboa in Spain was seized by Celtic Corsairs off the coast of France.

June 1642 Daniel Hutchinson merchant of the Dublin Ascendancy lost his ship and goods worth £50 to a Celtic Corsair. The Hopewell of London was seized off the Saltee Islands. The Celtic Corsairs were in business!

In July 1642 the San Francisco arrived in Ireland from Dunkirk, bringing the renowned Confederate General Own Roe O’Neill and his Regiment of Spanish Veterans from Flanders. More letters of Marque issued by the Confederation in Ireland attracted seven or eight Dunkirkers some carrying a formidable 24 guns, many of them returning carrying more Irish veterans from the Spanish Service in Flanders to join the Confederation.

A little fleet of Celtic Corsairs began working from bases in South Eastern Ireland from 1642. At first from the Saltee Islands until the Irish Confederation captured the Port of Wexford in July 1642 then Corsair vessels started their depredations thence.


Twenty more Letters of Marque were issued on the Continent by the Irish Confederation so by 1643 the Celtic Corsair fleet was grown to some thirty strong.

In March 1643 a Celtic Corsair was bold enough to seize an English merchantmen bound for Milford Haven.

April 1643 the William of London taken by Vanderkipps St Francis and sold for £370 to one of the “Cheevers of Wexford”.

The Patrick of Wexford captured six prizes in May 1643 alone, including a Bark laden with cloth (which sank), a Yarmouth Fishing boat and a Coal Hulk from Dover.

The Stephen and Joseph fell victim to the Celtic Corsairs and in August a Cumberland Merchantman was taken just outside Dublin Harbour. A vexed administration in Dublin wrote back to England……

“Not only this harbour, but all the coasts hereabouts will be infested by Dunkirkers… and the very passage between England and this harbour will be dangerously interupted.

“This coast and harbour lies open to pirates and sea rovers, by whom this coast is infested…divers of His Majesty’s subject’s goods to great values, have been taken by the rebels here, who continue to annoy us by the help of some ships they have gotten from Dunkirk.”5





The year 1644 saw William O’Doran seize five prizes during a single raid into the North Sea and later capture a 400 ton 24 gun Merchantmen from Amsterdam carrying £3000 worth of silver, 400 barrels of powder and muskets and carbines which the Irish Confederation must have found extremely useful. While the Harp of Wexford took several prizes off the coast of South West Scotland.

September 1645 The James sailing to Barbados from Bristol was captured by Celtic Freebooters.

Nothing succeeds like success and the Corsair fleet kept growing. Estimates of the fleet vary from as little as twelve ships to as many as ninety. Fifty to sixty vessels is considered a good ball-park figure for the Celic Corsair fleet

By the mid 1640’s the South Eastern coast of Ireland, especially Wexford and Waterford became a notorious pirate coast hosting a Cosmopolitan Community of Catholic Corsairs and Mercenaries from all over the Catholic world…… not to mention some renegade English!

The crew of the St Peter of Waterford included Irish, Flemish, Spanish and English! Another ship’s crew of 32 was half Spanish/Flemish and half Irish.

Much of their success was down to their excellent formidable “Frigates”, “Combining the agility of Mediterranean oared craft with fighting power of the Northern broadside ship.”6

Just what a frigate was in the mid C17 is debatable. In the C16 “Frigates” were definitely oared craft, being the smallest members of the Mediterranean galley family with 7-12 oars a side7. By the end of the C17 the term “Frigate” took on its C18 meaning of a fast two decked sailing warship beneath “Line” strength, probably “fourth” or “fifth” rate.

So were they Galley type vessels?

One speculation is that a Dunkirker Frigate was a smaller version of the treasure running GalleyZabra, or possibly a vessel like the North African Xebecs and Polaccas, fast sailing vessels derived from the Galley design. With long elegant hulls and shallow draughts.

Or smaller lighter sailing warships something like the formidable “Kings Pinnace”, the Swan?8



“It is not certain exactly where and when a small galley type known as a Frigate was adapted to carry square, but the English several times during the 1590’s encountered such vessels. Richard Hawkins vainly chased one in 1593, She was long and snug and spread a large claw. In 1599 a Spanish frigate was reported from Dover…….

“of so fine a shape, and having 30 oars in her, that she is so swift of sail that she can hardly be overtaken by any of our ships.”

Very long, with fine shallow hulls and a great spread of sail including such novelties as studding sails they carried a light armament mostly amidships. Though poor sea boats and lightly built with short working lives, they were by a large margin faster and more weatherly than any English Ship.”9

“It rode low in the water and could be distinguished by the number of cannon with which it was equipped….a ship of 100 tons had to have 12 cannon, 50 sailors and 25 soldiers, and a ship of 140 tons 14 cannon, 60 sailors and 30 soldiers.”10

Here were formidable vessels usually of under 200 tons that were fast but well armed and heavily manned11 with sailors and soldiers, which troubled the English Navy Royal and Merchant Marine much like the American Heavy Frigates would do in 1812-14. Too fast for the larger men-of-war to catch. Too powerful for English ships of their own size.

The following table gives some idea of the size and fighting power of Corsair Frigates…………..


Ship Tons Guns Crew

St Peter 160 16 ?

Harp 50 5 40

Mary & John 45 15 50

Mary Magdelan 16 4 30

Mary of Antrim 120 13 109

St Francis 200 18 ?

Patrick ? 11 100


To add to their effectiveness like English “Sea Dogges” and Dutch “Sea Beggars” before them and German U-boats long after, the Corsairs enhanced their effectiveness by hunting in wolf-packs. A Parliamentarian commander of 1648 reported- “Eleven sail of Irish together” who divided into “three squadrons”, two of three vessels, one of five. William O’Doran in Mary of the Isles, Claude Collet in St Joesph and Emmanuel Buckson in the Cupido periodically terrorised the Brittany Coast between April 1648 and September 1649.


Of course the primary area of Celtic Corsair activity would be in the Irish Sea and Celtic Sea (St George’s Channel) preying on shipping from Whitehaven, Egremont, Chester, Aberystwyth, Milford Haven and Bristol. The Corsairs in 1646 were so “overspread Dublin and Chester that that all intercourse between Dublin….. and the seaports of England would now be interrupted.”

But the Celtic Corsairs were proving themselves true sea rovers sailing into the English Channel and the North Sea to prey on the English, Scottish and Dutch Herring Fleets and the English Colliers sailing between the North-East and London. In 1650 an Irish Dunkirker launched a bold attack against a Newcastle Collier just off the headland port of Hartlepool. Defying the battery and garrison of the town.

They went to prey upon shipping Holland and Flanders to pick off affluent prizes provided by the prosperity of the Netherlands. Between June 1646 and Dec 1648 they captured the Blessing, La Benediction, The Little Fortune of Rotterdam, Orange Tree of Brill, the Fortune of Flushing and the Fortune of Amsterdam.

The Celtic Corsairs liked the waters off Normandy and Brittany because they could find shelter when needed at off shore islands and in the ports of the Royalist held Channel Islands.

17th November 1647 the Cisne carrying cloth, iron and other merchandise belonging to Nicolas D’ Arault and 180,000 reales in silver is captured by a 16 gun frigate off the Ushant Islands near the Brittany Coast.

Into the Bay of Biscay. Claude Collet in the St Joseph of Wexford seized the Martin of Flushing on its way from France to Danzig in April 1648.

“For the space of a month past in the Bay of Biscay tacking up and down within 10 leagues of the of the Bar of Bilbao three Irish Frigates having 26 guns apiece and about 130 men in each of them are doing much spoil to the ships of the subjects of this Kingdom and Scotland…and are likely to continue there two months to do more mischief.”

The Corsairs even followed English shipping to the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas.

While the wars had reduced most of Ireland to penury, Wexford and Waterford thrived on plundered goods, with men like John Rothor and Alderman Alexander Roch making a fine living from the disposal of seized ships and plundered cargoes. Although the Corsairs also disposed of their prizes in Continental ports.

The Celtic Corsairs proved a very effective arm of the fighting capability of the Irish Catholic Confederation. If a contemporary witness, one Dr Enos who lived in the “Dunkirk of Ireland”, Wexford, is to be believed the Celtic Corsairs took (he estimated) over a six year period some 1900 enemy ships!

If there were roughly fifty Corsair vessels then each vessel averaged a capture of about six prizes per year! Although some think such figures are exaggerated, for they exceed the success rate not only of Royalist Privateers in the 1640, but the Celtic Corsairs Flemish forerunners earlier in the C17.

While the vast majority of actions was against English Parliamentarian shipping, the Dunkirkers had a Pro-Spanish loyalty and so they were partial to atacking Dutch and Spanish shipping, Jane Ohlmeyer correctly points out that the “Wars of Three Kingdoms” becomes the “Wars of Five Kingdoms” when the Dunkirkers are involved.

An estimated total tally of the nationalities which suffered at their hands deducted from some known prizes works out about so…..



In November 1648 they took a French post boat and in 1649 an “Irish Dunkirker” of 32 guns overcome a Turkish man-of-war and another frigate carrying oils.

It was clear to the Parliament that something had to be done about the situation in the Irish Sea. To this end in 1643 Parliament ordered an “Irish Guard” of eight warships and thirteen armed merchantmen to cruise the Irish Sea.12

The policy saw some pretty satisfying results………..

The St Michael the Archangel and Flemish Captain Francis Oliver were captured in 1643, and Admiral Sir Robert Richard took an “Irish Pirate” off the coast of France.

It was Cromwell’s Irish campaign of 1649, capturing Wexford, that saw the beginning of the end for the Celtic Corsairs.

Although some Irish Privateers would continue to menace Parliament’s merchant fleet until the fall of Galway in 1652, the Guerre de Course troubled, but did not undermine Parliament’s commerce. The Parliamentarian Victory at Nantwich, the capture of the Swan, and the siege of Chester 1645-46 ensured only relatively few English soldiers fighting the Catholic Confederation ever got back to fight in the Royalist ranks.


Published in: on October 19, 2013 at 6:42 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very interesting! Thank you for the history lesson. We in the US have limited knowledge of the Irish seafarers. This is fascinating!

  2. How timely. We are leaving for Ireland tomorrow. Will try to look you up when there. Marti

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