Thursday, March 17, 2011

People: The Irish Bachelor

The story of John Criss, also known around his native Northern Ireland as “Jack the Bachelor” is probably more legend than truth. There are a few key ingredients that fit into documentation that has come down to us, though, so the tale is worth telling. Especially on Saint Patrick’s Day.

John or Seon Criss is listed in the baptismal records of the local Catholic Church in Lorne on the coast of Northern Ireland as the son of Tiarnan Criss. Though a specific date of birth is not given, the year was 1645. He grew up fishing with his father in the tumultuous era when Cromwell conquered and ruled Ireland, driving Catholics underground to avoid torture and death. It seems that young John chafed not only at English invasion but at the hardscrabble life of a fisherman. He may have been the eldest Criss son as it was he who accompanied his father to the nearest town, Derry, to sell their catches on a weekly basis.

Stories tell us that John grew into a strapping and unusually handsome young man with blond hair and eyes as green as the sea. It may have been in Derry that he earned his nickname because of his “love ‘em and leave ‘em” lifestyle. A town chronicler, writing around 1663, mentions a local seaman who had “… many a girl cock cap at him and …great success with the ladies…” Legend has it that the man in question is our pirate John Criss and this would have been about the time that Jack, fed up with the work and low wage of fishing, turned to smuggling instead.

Ireland is a country of smugglers and became even more so once the English settled in. Jack, in the grand tradition of Grace O’Malley, began taking goods usually reserved for English lords from the islands of Jersey and Guernsey to small towns on the Irish coast. There he could sell them without imposition of the high English taxes. He did so well in this trade that he was able to buy himself a small sloop or galliot from the Frenchmen he was trading with. This was probably in the late 1660s and the purchase marked Jack’s turn from smuggler to pirate.

Jack and a small crew of Irish mates began taking French and English vessels in the Channel, using Dunmanus Bay in County Cork as a base. The prize goods, and sometimes the prizes themselves, would be sold in France or England depending on their country of origin. Legend has it that, to avoid any tales being told of his piracy, Criss drown the crews of every ship he took.

Once again, success pushed Criss to go farther afield and he took his seagoing predations south to the Mediterranean. Finding little to his liking along the coast of Spain, he moved on to Italy where, perhaps due to lack of prizes on the water, he began raiding local villages. One raid in particular, at Amalfi in 1671, is blamed on a Jack Crist from England. Whether or not this is our Jack the Bachelor is up for debate.

Jack seems to have enjoyed the warmth of the Italian coast as he is next found in Naples at a lodging that is sometimes called the Ferdinand. This may be a reference to the Hotel Ferdinand II which operates in Naples today and which was supposedly built by Ferdinand II in the 15th century. It is here that Jack’s lifestyle – surprisingly not piracy but womanizing – catches up with him. John Criss was stabbed to death in his bed at the Ferdinand in 1672. After his body was discovered the authorities found that he was married not just to one woman but to three or possibly four. The story seems to correspond with the killing of another Irish sailor, called Sean Criss, in the 1720s, leaving the identity of the pirate John Criss in question.

What became of Criss’ ship and crew has not come down to us. Neither has the exact identity of his murderer as it does not appear that any of his “wives” were prosecuted. But then it could be that another woman in his life – or perhaps a jealous husband – took care of the Irish pirate erroneously remembered as “the Bachelor”.

Header: Coast of Northern Ireland via


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Now that is a perfect tall tale for today. Happy St. Patty's Day to ye and all yer followers, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! This story is probably a lot of bull but there's nothing the Irish like better than a tall tale, at least the Irish in my family.

Anonymous said...

Sean is Irish for John.

Pauline said...

It is indeed; thankee, Anon.