Pirates at Killybegs

Pirates at Killybegs

Pat Conaghan in his book “Bygones” (available locally), records that in April 1628 James Hamilton, in his capacity as “Constable of Killybegs” reported to Captain Sir Basil Brooke at Donegal Castle the arrival of Dutch pirate Claes Campaene at Killybegs. In an earlier volume “History and Antiquities of Killybegs”, the late Charles Conaghan (Pat’s Father) gives considerable detail about that visit and the Hamilton’s’ involvement with it.

Quoting from G.F. Dalton, he tells us: “on an April evening … three ships … came to anchor at Killybegs, their gun ports bristling with cannon and their holds weighed down with booty. It was Claes Campaene, the famous Dutch pirate, on his way home to Amsterdam.”

Campaene, apparently, was touching land at the farthest point possible from the organised power of England while he waited for the final document in an agreed pardon from the Crown. He had already received a pardon from the authorities in Holland (for 1,400 Florins) and, having made his bloody pile from buccaneering on the high seas, wanted to retire without having to look over his shoulder.

Campaene’s biography, published after his death, describes how the pirate crew “spend £1,000 to £1,500 in Barbary ducats and Spanish silver” while they ate, drank and made merry in the company of the “loose wenches of the town (of whom one gathers there were a surprising number)”.

Charles Conaghan, however, with a historian’s scepticism, points out: “We must take this story of the alleged abundance of women of easy virtue with more than a pinch of salt. Females of this type have, of course, at all times been a feature of our seaports, but the Killybegs of that time – with a population of possibly less than 100 – would not have an abundance of such people and the Dutch author of Campaene’s biography was apparently drawing upon the lurid stories spread by the hard-drinking members of the pirate crews, and not from personal knowledge or observation.”

However Captain Campaene and his men spent their time in Killybegs, they met with James Hamilton and his brother, the local Minister. When they informed Sir Basil Brooke in Donegal of the pirate’s arrival, he in turn notified his superior, Lord Conway in Dublin: “Last Thursday night three ships of war came into Killybegs, one of about 500 tons, with 40 brass and iron cannon, the others with about 30 cannon. I have asked Campaene to do no damage, if indeed he has come for the King’s pardon.”

In a later message to Dublin, Sir Basil gives and account of two brothers, James and William Hamilton, respectively High Constable and Minister of Killybegs: “They entertained Campaene and his men and supplied them.” After about a fortnight, when his letters of pardon arrived, Campaene sailed for Holland and, presumably, a respectable retirement.