Conaire Mor, was the king of Ireland around the first century BC. He was considered a wise king, and the bardic poets tell us that while he ruled “there was such abundance of good-will that no one slew another in Erin. . . To everyone in Erin his fellow’s voice seemed as sweet as the strings of a lute. From mid-spring to mid-autumn no wind disturbed a cow’s tail. His reign was neither thunderous nor stormy”.
Conaire had three foster brothers, however, who constantly conspired against him and sought to replace him as king. They were lawless and troublesome and Conaire, too kind-hearted to have them killed, exiled them instead. The brothers joined forces with a pirate named Ingcel who had been banished from his native Britain, and with him they roamed the seas, plundering wherever they went.
When he was over sixty years of age, Conaire, against the advice of his Druids, rode out of Tara to settle a dispute between contending chieftains, in violation of a geis (taboo). As his retinue travelled towards the Hostel at Da Derga, his progress was being tracked – on the hill of Howth the treacherous foster brothers and Ingcel had placed their spies, while they themselves waited in their ships below, close to the sheltering cliffs. The king’s cavalcade of warriors, horses and seventeen chariots were unaware of this danger from the sea until the pirates steered their ships across Dublin bay, and onto the Merrion shore the “ships were cast by a mighty wave with a shock that made Da Derga’s house tremble to its foundations”. Conaire Mor and all those sheltering in the hostel were killed, and another golden age came to an end….
The sight of such pirates would not have been at all unusual in Howth – piracy was common on the Irish Sea from the earliest times, and there are many accounts of ships being attacked and plundered by Scottish-, Welsh-, and Irish-based pirates, particularly in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. A letter was written to the Lord Deputy Birmingham in1548 stating that Logan, a Scottish pirate, was “hovering about Lambay and the Head of Howth and has taken several vessels”. Spanish and French privateers were not uncommon either, while corsairs were known to have come from as far away as Algeria, and, in 1631, the packet boat between Holyhead and Dublin was robbed by Turkish pirates. In order to assist in the safe passage of trading and mail ships, the Royal Navy sailed the Irish Sea regularly but there were too few ships to patrol too large an area.
Howth was reported to be among those ports used as bases by the pirates, and the Navy provided Nicholas, the 23rd Lord Howth (1597 – 1644), with a small ship in Howth, the “Ninth Whelp”, armed with sixteen pieces of ordnance including four brass cannons. The Ninth Whelp often escorted or carried luminaries such as the Earl of Cork, Lord Treasurer of the Kingdom of Ireland and one of the architects of the plantation of Munster, and Sir William Brereton, a commander of the parliamentary forces in the English Civil war. Though the stationing of the ship in Howth helped to cut the losses caused by pirates, it was a temporary solution only. For Nicholas St Lawrence, piracy was just one problem among many at a time of great turmoil throughout the country, from the plague of 1606 to the rebellion of 1641. In 1640 the “Ninth Whelp” sank in a storm off the west coast of Scotland, and piracy remained a problem for at least another hundred years. In 1692, for example, French privateers plundered a packet boat that was anchored in the bay. As late as 1777 three American privateers, the Lexington, Reprisal and Dolphin, captured fourteen merchant ships on the Irish Sea, with one of the three remaining off Howth for a considerable time.
Nicholas’ great-grandfather was Christopher St Lawrence, the 20th lord of Howth (called “The Blind Lord” due to his poor eyesight) (1510-1589). The famous “kidnapping of the heir” is commonly thought to have occurred during his tenure. Granuaile, or Grace O’Malley, the “Pirate Queen”, called to Howth Castle while visiting the Lord Deputy in 1576 and found to her anger that the castle gate was closed, the family being at dinner. In retaliation for the inhospitability of the family, she carried off Lord Howth’s young son, whom she had encountered on the beach. He was only released when Granuaile was given a promise that the gate would never again be locked at dinner time. Other versions of the story, however, state that it was not Granuaile who abducted the child but rather the Mayo chieftain Richard O’Cuairsci. Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh, writing in 1650 in his Great Book of Genealogies, said “This is the very same Richard who took the Lord of Beann Eadair and brought him with him to Tirawley and there was naught else required of him for his ransom but to keep the door of his court open at dinner time.”
As an aside, this Christopher, “The Blind Lord”, was not known for his familial sentimentality. He was imprisoned in Dublin Castle on one occasion and fined £1000 for cruelty to his family. The Order Book of the Court of Castle Chambers, Dublin for 1579 noted his conviction for beating his wife to an extent that she could not leave the bed for two weeks. Before she was fully recovered, he had beaten her again, so badly that “her skin was so taken away that for many days she could not abide any clothes to touch her.” He was also convicted of beating the butler because the man had given the wife bread and a drink while she was locked in a room. Most serious of all, he was convicted of beating his thirteen year old daughter Jane, giving the ‘simple terrified girl’, “some say forty, some say sixty, strokes of the rod on her bare back, so that within two days she fell into an ague, and so died”.