We find out more about Cork’s trailblazing female pirate

A new mural in Kinsale has immortalised a legendary female pirate from the town. LINDA KENNY finds out more about Anne Bonny, who didn’t conform to the gender norms of the day
We find out more about Cork’s trailblazing female pirate

The large-scale mural celebrating legendary pirate Anne Bonny on the iconic Stoney Steps in Kinsale.

WHEN Cork County Council commissioned a large-scale mural celebrating legendary pirate Anne Bonny on the iconic Stoney Steps in Kinsale, they could not have anticipated the huge excitement and media interest that they have generated.

The painting was funded through the Bandon Kinsale Municipal District Town Development Fund, and artists Claire Coughlan and Helen O’Keeffe of Splattervan were chosen to undertake the project.

“Our original brief was to create a piece of art work that linked in with the heritage of Kinsale town,” explains Claire. “I was researching some notable names to feature and came across Anne Bonny, one of the great Pirates of the Caribbean who was born near the Old Head of Kinsale at the end of the 17th century.

Claire Coughlan and Helen O’Keeffe of Splattervan undertook the mural project.
Claire Coughlan and Helen O’Keeffe of Splattervan undertook the mural project.

“She was so captivating and, throughout her life, defied gender stereo-typing. We aimed to make a statement with this piece of art so we knew she was the right choice for the project.

“There are many notable figures from Kinsale, but they tend to be male. With Anne Bonny, we wanted to highlight a notorious female from the town, while also paying tribute to strong women”, adds Helen.

“She was the quintessential trail-blazer, dressing up as a man to conceal her true identity, while also proving to be a more capable pirate than many of the males. She wasn’t conforming to the expected gender norms 300 years ago.”

It was perhaps fitting then that the mural was unveiled during Pride month.

Splattervan was born in 2013 when friends and art facilitators Claire Coughlan and Helen O’Keeffe joined forces to work with teenagers and community groups to help them realise how art could be used for self-expression and empowerment.

“All our work in the community is usually done as a collaboration with young people to socially engage them and to create art, develop confidence through the creation of street art that gives value to their voices as young people.

“Our original proposal was to work in the same way on this project,” continues Helen.

However, Covid restrictions dictated otherwise, and they ended up painting the steps themselves.

So, to encourage public engagement in the project, the artists reached out through the Cork County Council website and invited anyone with any folklore or creative writing about Anne Bonny to send it into them, with a view to incorporating some of it into the mural.

Anne Bonny: from Charles Johnson (1724) A General History of the Pirates. 
Anne Bonny: from Charles Johnson (1724) A General History of the Pirates. 

“When local historian Shannon Forde of Kinsale Heritage and Geneology suggested using a quote by author Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Well behaved women seldom make history!”, we knew instantly it was a perfect fit for Anne.

For arts advocate and presenter of the award-winning The Arts House on 96FM & C103FM, Elmarie Mawe, there is a sense of ‘at last’ about the dedication of the Stoney Steps Mural to Anne Bonny.

“Anne Bonny is celebrated around the world. There is a statue to her in the Virgin Islands and, last year, a statue depicting her and fellow-pirate Mary Read, was unveiled in London. Yet, she has been practically forgotten about in her own birthplace,” she attests.

“I think there should be a statue of her erected at the mouth of Cork Harbour or at the port of Kinsale.”

For Elmarie, her childhood stomping ground each summer was the estate of the former Garrettstown House, once the residence of the daughter of an infamous privateer.

“Dad bought the estate in the 1970s and built the Holiday Park there, which my brother Denis still runs. I have had a life-long interest in Anne Bonney as a consequence,” she continues.

“As the first bride in Garrettstown House was the daughter of a privateer or licenced pirate, I have always had the image of the pirate’s daughter who settled here, living just down the road from the birthplace of another girl who ran away to become a pirate herself!”

In the early 1700s, William Cormac, a lawyer of good standing in Kinsale, caused a scandal when he had an affair and fathered a child with one of his maids, Mary Brennan from Bullans Bay, near Garrettstown. Moreover, after the birth of baby Anne, William left his wife for Mary and headed off with her and Anne to Charleston in the United States. Here his talents and ability with people and numbers helped him to integrate quickly into the business community and to reinvent and establish him and his young family in this new land. He eventually bought a small plantation in Charleston.

Even as a child, Anne was described as wilful, stubborn, and determined but, from the age of 13, after the sudden death of her mother, she became even more challenging and independent.

When, in her late teens, she rejected her father’s choice of husband in favour of freedom on the high seas with the peripatetic sailor John Bonny, he disowned her. She eloped with Bonny and feasted hungrily on the adrenaline rush and thrill of the unpredictable life as a pirate, sailing around exotic islands like the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands.

This was the halcyon days of racketeering and piracy, with the seas dominated by traditional pirates and New-World privateers. The latter were essentially licenced pirates who set sail from England, with the implied approval of the monarch on condition that they received a percentage of whatever bounteous haul was plundered at sea.

New Providence Island in the Caribbean, where Anne and James Bonny made their base, was the veritable Republic of Pirates, populated by all the key ones of that era, including the infamous Bluebeard. With looting and lawlessness on the seas at an all-time high, the Governor of Jamaica issued an edict to clamp down on piracy and, in return for his freedom, James Bonny accepted an amnesty proffered to him to spy and betray his compatriots. Anne, appalled by this, left him.

Pirate Anne Bonny Returns to her hometown of Kinsale.
Pirate Anne Bonny Returns to her hometown of Kinsale.

She fell in love with Jack Rackham, known as Calico Jack, one of the most notorious pirates at the time, and together, they formed a solid partnership. She was not the only female on board his ship, however. A fearless, feisty English pirate named Mary Read was also there and the three of them made a most formidable team.

One night, their ship was boarded by a boat of soldiers, authorised by the Governor of Jamaica. Though Anne and Mary fought tirelessly to save the ship, the rest of the crew were apparently too drunk to be of any help and they were all ultimately arrested and sentenced to hang.

Only Anne and Mary were spared hanging as they were both pregnant when captured. It was supposed that Jack was the father of both children.

Anne was reputed to have visited Jack in his cell before he died and to have uttered the immortal put-down: “I’m sorry to see you here but if you had fought like a man, you would not have needed to hang like a dog!”

Ouch! Up the Rebel!

This was a definitive turning point for piracy in the Caribbean.

While accounts of what happened to Anne and her baby after jail vary wildly and are shrouded in mystery and folklore, what is undeniable is that she loved the thrill, excitement and adventure of life of the high seas.

“She wasn’t entranced or duped into it”, insists Elmarie. “She grabbed it with both hands!

“The iconic steps were a landmark anyway. They are very bright and colourful now, and done so well,” she adds. “I love them where they are. And this type of provocative art is designed to get people talking about Anne Bonny, so that’s a big positive.”.

Helen added: “We wanted to highlight her uniqueness and her bravery with the steps mural. But we are also paying tribute to all other women who show strength and bravery in their everyday lives without recognition, but who are just as valid as the few who make the history books.

“As there were no existing photographs of Anne Bonny, merely artists’ impressions of her, we decided to base our portrait of her on our friend, who is coincidentally called Annie B,” says Claire.

Annemarie Barrett - a healthcare worker and friend of the artists.
Annemarie Barrett - a healthcare worker and friend of the artists.

“As a HSE worker, Annie has worked tirelessly throughout this entire pandemic and is the perfect modern-day hero counterpart to legendary Bonny.

“The reaction to the steps has been so amazing. The Instagram posse have descended in their droves to take photos beside them,” says Claire. “When we were painting them, so many people stopped who were either curious to know more about her or eager to share anything they knew.

“We intend to ultimately put a QR code on the Stoney Steps which people can scan,” outlines Helen. “This will direct them to the Kinsale.ie site where there will be a special page devoted to Anne Bonny. All the material we received on our first public call for creative information will be uploaded here and anyone else who wishes to contribute information can email kinsalestreetart@gmail.com.”

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