“Rogues, Vagabonds, the Idle and Dissolute” and the Luck of the Irish
By Jeff McCord
As we anticipate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, it’s fun to think about the role of the Irish in the Virgin Islands and Virginia. Sons and daughters of Eire have been pioneers, planters, pirates, entertainers and much more throughout the Western Hemisphere.
It all started in 1603, when English King James 1 declared the people of Ireland dispossessed by invading English armies and occupiers to be “rogues, vagabonds, idle and dissolute.” That made them eligible for deportation as indentured servants to West Indian sugar plantations, which needed cheap labor. Those not deported often became sailors or joined the British military out of desperation.
A sailor named Francis Magnel was the first Irish man known to visit both the Virgin Islands and Virginia. He served in the band of explorers and colonizers that landed on the then uninhabited island of St. Thomas in the spring of 1607 before continuing northward to found Jamestown in Virginia. Less than 100 years later, ten percent of the sugar plantations that would be established on St. Thomas were owned by Irish men and, by the mid 1750s, most of the plantations on the larger, more easily farmed island of St. Croix were owned by the English and Irish, according to the historian William W. Boyer who chronicled “America’s Virgin Islands.”
Two strong-willed Irish women made their mark in the Caribbean. One was the pirate Anne Bonny and the other the famed actress Maureen O’Hara. Bonny, born in County Cork about 1698, travelled with her parents to Charleston, SC as a child and grew to become a “fierce and courageous” teenager who spent a lot of time with sailors in saloons, says pirate story teller Captain Charles Johnson (a likely pen name for “Robinson Crusoe” author Daniel Defoe). In the process, she married a sailor who took her to the pirate den of New Providence Island in the Bahamas where she met and became the mistress of Captain John “Calico Jack” Rackham. Rackham, who wore colorful, printed cotton (calico) clothes, had learned piracy serving with Charles Vane and both had likely visited Virgin Island waters searching for Spanish, French and British merchant ships.
In addition to being his lover, Anne Bonny served Rackham as a very able crew member who became friends with another woman in the crew (Mary Read) who disguised herself by wearing men’s clothes. A captured merchant ship captain described the two women as “very profligate, cursing, and swearing much, and ready and willing to do anything on board,” says historian David Cordingly in “Pirate Hunter of the Caribbean.”
Eventually, Captain Johnson says, a British naval vessel cornered Rackham’s ship at an awkward time when most of the crew was drunk or passed out below decks. Only Anne, Mary and Rackham resisted arrest and Anne evidently believed her paramour did not resist enough. When all three were later sentenced to death, she was allowed to visit him in prison and told him “she was sorry to see him there, but if he had fought like a Man, he need not be hanged like a dog,” Captain Johnson says. When Anne was discovered to be pregnant, her death sentence was commuted. She was later freed and returned to Charleston where she remarried and raised a family.
In our own time, the Irish born actress Maureen O’Hara became known for her strong-willed, often heroic roles beginning with her first film, “Jamaica Inn,” an Alfred Hitchcock film about a gang of ship wreckers and pirates operating along England’s Cornwall coast. She also starred in the pirate movies “The Spanish Main” and “Black Swan.”
Beyond Hollywood, though, O’Hara played a real life role in a Caribbean adventure when in 1968 she married a World War 11 aviation hero and moved to St. Croix where they started a flying boat business, Antilles Air Boats. Within ten years, it became a thriving regional air carrier providing service between St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John, Tortola and San Juan. After her husband tragically died in a plane crash in 1978, she managed the business and became the first woman to be president of an airline.
O’Hara’s most famous movie role may have been opposite John Wayne in “The Quiet Man,” a classic John Ford movie about Ireland. The memory of the movie lives on in St. John through The Quiet Mon pub, an Irish bar that has captured the attention of country singer Kenny Chesney, who is of Irish and English descent. Chesney, who has a house on St. John and spends a fair amount of time there, cites the pub in these lyrics:
“I want to go where I can lighten up the load
Drive a little while on the wrong side of the road
Play my guitar in the Caribbean sun
Hang with the locals at The Quiet Mon.”
For us St. Johnians, though, The Quiet Mon may be best known as a sponsor of, and backdrop for, our annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, said to be the world’s shortest. Speaking of pirates, old St. Patrick himself might not have fulfilled his destiny if Irish pirates had not kidnapped him as a young man from Roman Britain and taken him to Ireland as a slave.
Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Gannett newspapers and Truthout.org, among other publications. For more than 20 years he’s called Northern Virginia home. Jeff is the author of two fact-based Caribbean novels available on Amazon.com: “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest; and, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea,” a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book contest. He now divides his time between Virginia and St. John, USVI