The Importance of Irish Pirates

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Without pirates, there may not have been a St. Patrick. According to historians, 1,500-year-old lore states that St. Patrick was born in Banwen, Wales, kidnapped by pirates at the age of 16, and made a slave in Ireland for 6 years. During that period, St. Patrick turned to religion and came up with the idea of converting the Irish to Christianity.

Here’s where mythology takes over. After studying to be a priest in France, St. Patrick returns to Ireland and uses a staff to banish snakes from the Emerald isle. While it’s true, there are no snakes in Ireland today, historians believe that the snakes in the tale are metaphorical pagans. The myth is an allegory for how the saint brought Christianity to Ireland.

St. Patrick is one of the most recognizable Irish personas, although another celebrity from history, one of more questionable merits, also resonates with the nation. The name of Irish Pirate Queen Granuaile, a regular royal pain for English, has long been synonymous with Ireland.

It was her rebellious nature that's made her such an icon. Born in 1530, Granuaile learned the ways of the sea from her father, and disregarded the "proper" female role as homemaker and went on to become a ferocious leader and sea captain. According to legend, she fought off English troops by pouring molten lead on them. As the saying goes, "Women who behave, rarely make history."

Granuaile was destined to meet another powerful woman, Queen Elizabeth I of England. In July 1593, The Pirate Queen sailed to London to request the release of her sons and half-brother from captivity. Aside from a minor faux-pas in which Granuaile threw a noblewomen's handkerchief into the fire, Elizabeth took a liking to her, and granted Granuaile's request on the condition that she stop causing trouble for English troops.

The contract was a success but Granuaile, who loathed the English, couldn't hold her end of the bargain. "She returns to Ireland where she leads a double life, sometimes appearing to cooperate with authorities and sometimes doing things contrary to this agreement." says Dan Milner, an Irish-American folk singer. This appearance of cooperating with England while simultaneously supporting rebellion became a powerful message for the Irish people and one celebrated in the centuries to come.

Milner sings one Granuaile-inspired tune in his new Smithsonian Folkways album, "Irish Pirate Ballads and Other Songs of the Sea." The song, adapted from the 18th-century political ballad "Granu-weal" tells the story of a metaphorical courtesan encouraging Granuaile to get chummy with Britain. "The people with nationalist sympathies who wrote the song are saying that England is trying to seduce Ireland," Milner says. "This is an anti-home rule sentiment. They’re using the current political context and applying it to the Granuaile of old."

Though pirates are "people who stand uneasy next to the law," as Milner puts it, they also helped build the Irish nation. So take off that clover and put on an eye-patch. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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