St James, Irish Pilgrims & Pirates

Today is the feast of St James  the apostle.  The saint’s shrine  at Santiago de Compostela in Spain attracted large numbers of pilgrims from all over the Christian world  during the medieval period. Medieval souvenirs purchased by pilgrims to Santiago have been recovered  across Europe including  Ireland.  St James enjoyed  great devotion  in medieval Ireland and  his image turns up on a number of Irish medieval  tombs.

St James

Image of St James on a medieval tomb at the Franciscan Friary at Kilconnell, Co Galway

Given the long distance of the journey from Ireland to Santiago and the requirement to travel part of the journey by boat, a pilgrimage to Santiago from Ireland  was very expensive. Historical sources suggest that the majority of Irish pilgrims travelling to Santiago were  from the upper echelons of  Irish society. Pilgrims would have embarked from a variety of Irish ports such as Drogheda, Dublin, Wexford, New Ross, Waterford, Youghal, Cork, Kinsale, Dingle, Limerick and Galway (Stalley 1988, 398).

Roger Stalley gives an excellent discussion of the literary and archaeological evidence for Irish Pilgrimage to Santiago in his article ‘Sailing to Santiago: Medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de  Compostela and its artistic influences in Ireland’.

Travel by sea was shorter than by land but it was not without its own hazards. Pilgrims traveling by sea  were at risk from storms, disease and pirates. Bad weather was the biggest threat as storms had the potential of causing ship wrecks (Davies 1988, 47-48). There are many accounts of  pirates attacking ships  from Continental sources. Pirates  were known to  kill, kidnap and ransom or enslave pilgrims. A Lübeck chronicle dating to 1453 recorded the capture of some three hundred pilgrims returning from the Holy Land by hostile Saracens who killed all the men and enslaved the women (Ohler 1989, 48-49; Harpur 2002, 79). One of the most interesting reference to Irish Jacobean pilgrims dates to the year 1473.

The 1473 account concerns Irish pilgrims  traveling on ship called the La Mary London.  The  pilgrims appear to have been on their return journey from pilgrimage to Santiago when their boat was captured by pirates. It is not known  exactly how the events unfolded but the pilgrims were later released in the port of Youghal, Co. Cork, although the ship had originally been destined to dock at Waterford. It is likely that the pilgrims were ransomed by the pirates. They  had a lucky escape as they could have easily been, murdered or sold as slaves like the villagers of Baltimore in 1603  (Stalley 1988, 397 after Cal. Pat rolls. 1476-85, 78).


Harpur, J. 2002. Sacred Tracks. 2000 Years of Christian Pilgrimage. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd.

Ohler, N. 1989. The medieval traveller; translated by Caroline Hillier. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Stalley, R. 1988. ‘Sailing to Santiago: Medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and its artistic influences in Ireland’, In Bradley, J. (ed.) Settlement and  Society in Medieval Ireland. Studies presented to F.X. Martin, o.s.a. Kilkenny:  Boethius Press, 397-420.

2 comments on “St James, Irish Pilgrims & Pirates

  1. Do you have any video of that? I’d love to find out more details.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s