Pirate Queen uncovered from history

A Book Notice by Caroline Smith

Anne Chambers: Granuaile: Ireland’s Pirate Queen, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin

ISBN: 978-0717145829

RRP: $13 – $17

When Irish historian Anne Chambers began writing the biography of 16th century pirate Granuaile O’Malley in 1979, she knew she had discovered a woman so remarkable and different for her time that her absence from history posed a question in itself.

Despite numerous mentions in British state papers, the story of Granuaile – also known as Grace O’Malley – appeared only within the realm of folklore and song in Ireland for many years. But with the publication of Granuaile: Ireland’s Pirate Queen, the story of this warrior chieftain and rebel has gained a significant cultural presence, entering the Irish school curriculum, and being the subject of tours, books and an upcoming film, Grainne Uaile – The Movie (2017, Loose Gripp Films).

Grainne%20Uaile.jpgAnne Chambers’ work has been published widely outside Ireland and translated into Radio and TV productions for the Discovery Channel, Learning Channel, RTE and others. She said that with interest in Granuaile growing, now is a good time to examine why it took so long for her tale to emerge from history.

Born to a chieftain family who had held the barony of Murrisk on the Mayo coast for generations, seafaring was naturally in Granuaile’s blood, but her decision to follow her father into maritime raids and defence was certainly unusual for a woman of her society – a fact that Chambers believes contributes to her sidelining by her native historians.

‘There are many aspects of Granuaile’s life that qualified her as persona non grata in the roll-call of Irish heroes,’ Chambers explained:

She excelled in her family’s maritime, and distinctly unfeminine, business – fishing, sea-trading to Ireland, Scotland and Spain, with some piracy and plundering on the side – before assuming the more conventional role as wife and mother in a politically-arranged marriage. When the dictates of Gaelic law spurned her as a female chieftain, leading by example by land and sea, commanding an army of 200 men and a fleet of galleys, her daring and charisma, as well as her success, made her a leader contrary to native law and social mores.

Independent in her seafaring and piracy, Granuaile also became the de facto ruler of land and fortresses owned by her first husband at Lough Corrib and managed to10152610_723154544374552_4358153560613818326_n.jpg capture Rockfleet castle near Newport from her second husband; the castle remains in the O’Malley family to this day.

Although her actions set her apart from most Irish women of the time, Granuaile’s life actually reflected the tension and loss of autonomy that threatened Ireland as the century drew to a close.

‘Sixteenth-century Gaelic Ireland was fragmented and politically outmoded,’ Chambers said:

Inter-clan feuding and divided loyalties against a determined enemy, unified and strong under their female monarch, left every Irish leader to fend for themselves.

It is ironic that it was in the records of her enemies in England to whom her activities posed a threat to their expansion that her story really came to life:

The Annals of the Four Masters, that seminal source of Irish history compiled a few years after her death and in a place where memories of her activities were still verdant, do not even mention her name. The English State Papers, on the other hand, contain references to her as late as 1627, some twenty-four years after her death.

Perhaps one event which made it impossible to fly under the British radar was her meeting with another formidable woman of the time, her great rival Elizabeth I. Appearing at Greenwich Palace in 1593 to request the release of her son, Granuaile, whose reputation from military dispatches made her a notorious figure, got what she wanted and secured a list of demands protecting her family’s safety and influence.

As a prism through which we see Irish history and how it is told, Granuaile’s biography provides an excellent example, and the interest in her story since then is a testament to writers such as Chambers who have underscored the name of this important figure.

More information on Granuaile is available at: graceomalley.com, a website hosted by Anne Chambers, which includes tours of locations in Ireland connected to her story. A fifth revised edition of Granuaile: Ireland’s Pirate Queen was released in 2009, and is available through Amazon.com.

Caroline Smith is a journalist and book reviewer with The Record, the Perth Archdiocesan Newspaper.