September 20, 2006

Pirate R as in I-r-eland?

In response to Talk Like a Pirate Day and my post about the origins of piratical r-fulness, Joel Wallenberg wrote to suggest that the source might have been Munster rather than Dorset and Devon:

I was reading the language logs about pirates and r-fulness, and I wanted to mention another source for it: Ireland, and particularly southwest Ireland was a launching area for many pirate crews and voyages during the early 17th century, according to Peter Earle's book "The Pirate Wars." Apparently it was a good area for keeping a low profile with Dublin/London authorities, and for hiding ships along the coast. According to Earle, the southwest coast of Ireland was also one of the locations that helped give birth to "pirate fleets" and "pirate admirals", engaging in longer term deep-sea piracy than their predecessors. He also claims that piracy became an important part of Munster's economy, before the government eventually cracked down. Unfortunately, what I don't know is exactly how Anglophone that part of Ireland was during the most piratical centuries, but I'll see if I can find out.

I don't know -- in the West Country of England, not only Robert Newton, but also even the cows are r-ful! Can Munster compete with that?

Seriously, based on reading a bit of Earle's book (The Pirate Wars) via amazon's Search Inside™ feature, it seems that there were plenty of English speakers on Munster's pirate coast in those days -- but on the other hand, the central role of southwest Ireland in pirate life ended in 1616, which seems a little early for it to have introduced the r-fulness of Irish English into the modern stereotype of pirate speech. A long quote follows, starting on p. 32 of The Pirate Wars. (Typing this in is all I have time for this morning. But let me just add that this is a case where the Search Inside™ feature led me to order a book that I would not otherwise have bought -- and this post might sell a few more copies -- and if the Search Inside™ feature allowed cut-and-paste, I'd do this more often!)

The pirates paid well for food, drink and equipment for their vessels and what could not be supplied locally was brought in by Englishmen, some who had settled there 'with the express purpose of commercing with the pirates', others pretending to be fishermen but in reality supplying the pirates and trading with them. 'Such men allso furnish them with voluntary persons from time to time,' wrote the Lord deputy of Ireland, and there was indeed no shortage of recruits to this pirate fastness. Many of the pirates 'have their wives and children in these parts', it was reported in 1611, but for those who did not there was no shortage of women. 'They have also good store of English, Scottish, and Irish wenches which resort unto them, and these are strong attractors to draw the common sort of men thither.' South-west Ireland was, in short, a paradise for pirates, a place of almost complete safety patrolled by only one King's ship and that so slow that all pirates could outsail her and so small that most could outgun her, a place where ships could be fitted out and maintained and loot spent on drink, women and all the other delights of the shore. It comes as no surprise to find Lord Danvers, the President of Munster, describing the coast of his province as 'like Barbary, common and free for all pirates'.

Munster may have been a delight for pirates, but most of them were only there in the summer for, like other migratory birds, they sailed south to avoid the Irish winter. 'Against the winter [they] do adventure southward towards Spain and Barbary where they become expert and hard to be dealt withall afterwards.' The pirate fleet normally sailed south in August or September, plundering along the coasts of Spain and Portugal and taking their prizes to a second winter base which they had established in the fairly free and safe port of Mamora [Mehdia or Mahadya] on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, where as many as thirty or forty pirate ships and two thousand men might be seen on occasion. Their presence here was condoned by the Emperor of Morocco who welcomed the wealth they brought in as they sold their loot to merchants attracted from all over the Christian and Muslim Mediterranean by the bargains on offer. Meanwhile, the pirates squandered the proceeds of their plunder in the African winter sun.

Come the spring it was time to set sail again, as danger threatened in the form of Spanish galleys and Dutch warships coming out of their winter hibernation. Some sailed back to Ireland 'when the heat of the sun and the gallyes there do threaten to prosecute them', but many sailed out into the ocean, to Madeira, the Canaries and Azores and further afield. One major summer raiding area, as it was to be for the pirates of the Golden Age, was the Newfoundland Banks where huge fleets of fishermen spent the summer catching, splitting, drying and salting cod for the Catholic tables of the Mediterranean. The main attraction for the pirates, however, was not the fish but the fishermen, some of the hardiest seamen in the world who, willingly or not, were added to the pirate crews. Peter Easton raided the Banks in 1612 and came away with five hundred British fishermen. Mainwaring was to follow him there is June 1614 and 'some of the company of many ships did run away unto them', piracy being an attractive alternative to the 'too toilsom' labour of the fishery. In all he sailed away with four hundred mariners and fishermen, 'many volunteers, many compelled'. And so the pirate round continued, Ireland in the summer, Morocco in the winter and much mayhem on the ocean in between.

These deep-sea pirates only prospered for ten years or so, from about 1606 to 1616, but they provide an interesting link in the history of piracy. Many were men who had served as privateers or pirates in Elizabethan times and they shared many of their characteristics, but they also foreshadowed the more democratic and individualistic pirates of the later seventeenth century. Most ships seem to have been hierarchically organised, often with gentlemen or near gentlemen captains and officers, but there are also some instances of captains being elected by the men, as they were to be later. One finds, too, the use of unpleasant tortures which were to remain standard priate usages, such as placing lighted matches under a captive's fingernails or tightening knotted cords about their heads, a torment which the buccaneers were to call 'woolding'. One hears some of the later pirates' language, the braggadocio and boasting, 'they would not leave the gates of hell unripped in search of gain', the euphemistic description of their occupation as 'going on the account', calling their vessels 'men-of-war' and replying to a hail from another ship with the challenging piratical response 'we are of the sea'.

[Update -- Tae Jensen suggests:

Regarding the possible Irish origins of the piratical "Arrr," you might also mention Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood (1922), in which Irish-accented Peter Blood ends up a pirate captain, with the usual pirate speech tics.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 20, 2006 08:21 AM