Ripples in the Rockpools
[1995:] Contrary to what I had been taught, Ireland in the sixteenth century was largely devoid of ideological stimulus, either political or religious. Survival, not patriotism, was the spur of almost every Gaelic leader. Sixteenth-century Ireland was a tribal society, composed of a myriad of separate states ruled by independent chieftains continually at war with one another. Power was measured by the number of client lords over whom a chieftain held sway and from whom he could exact tribute and allegiance against his enemies. Outside the few walled cities and towns, it was mainly an agricultural society where wealth was measured in terms of the cattle that roamed the open pasture lands, the cow being the medium of exchange for the barter trade that predominated. The concern of the Irish chieftains was to hold fast to their power and position; to resist, if they were strong enough, the encroaching English administration which was pushing outwards from its centre in Dublin; or, if they were not, to ally with the English to ensure their survival. Confederation against a common enemy, when it did emerge towards the end of the century, was too little, too late.
Perhaps I had stumbled on one of the reasons why historians had debarred Granuaile: like her century, she did not fit comfortably into the mould. Irish heroines and heroes have been required to be adorned in the green cloak of patriotism, their personal lives pure, their religious beliefs fervently Roman Catholic, with an occasional allowance made for rebel Protestants. As Granuaile's main detractor, the English governor of Connaught, Sir Richard Bingham, wrote to Queen Elizabeth's secretary, Lord Burghley, she was the 'woman who overstepped the part of womanhood'; who superseded her first husband in his position as male chieftain; assumed command of her father's ships and hard-bitten male crews; traded and pirated successfully for the space of 50 years from Scotland to Spain; led rebellions against individual English administrators when they sought to overpower her; attacked her own son when he sided with her enemy; taught her youngest son the art of survival so well that he fought with the English at Gaelic Ireland's final stand at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. Granuaile allowed neither political nor social convention to deter her; took a lover; divorced her second husband by right of the pagan laws of her ancestors; gave birth to her youngest son on her ship at sea. So she hardly fitted the rosy-hued picture of Gaelic womanhood painted by later generations of male, often clerical historians.
Politically the odds were stacked against her becoming an accepted leader in the male-dominated society into which she was born. Salic law, which debarred women from succession, was rigorously adhered to by the Irish clans. And socially the times were physically tough. Young men aspiring to power were required to prove their masculinity by raiding and plundering. Succession to the chieftaincy was not on the basis of the first-born son inheriting but by the selection of the fittest from among the ruling family. That Granuaile defied both law and convention to become a leader is an indication of both her physical and psychological abilities.
While other formidable sixteenth-century women, notably Eleanor Countess of Desmond, Maire Rua O'Brien and the Ineen Dubh O'Donnel, made their mark on the political scene in Ireland, they did so not as chieftains in their own right, but as wives of chieftain husbands. Perhaps Granuaile was a reflection of the time when Ireland was part of a Bronze-Age matriarchal culture in which the dominant divinity was the all-powerful Mother Goddess Dana. The earliest Irish legends, the stories of the Red Branch, contain fleeting but significant references to this prehistoric culture. The prime hero of the Red Branch cycle, Cuchulainn, learned his battle prowess under the tutelage of the woman warrior Scathach. In combat he could only overcome the warrior Princess Aoife by resorting to trickery. Many of the hero warriors of these stories used their mother's name in place of a patronymic, for example Conor Mac (son of) Nessa. The warrior Queen Maeve, of Granuaile's native province of Connaught, was a powerful, wilful and fearless woman who was prepared to go to war to achieve her ambition.
Without doubt it was the sea that cemented Granuaile's reputation as a notorious pirate, the 'great spoiler and chief commander and director of thieves and murderers at sea', as the English President of Munster described her when he imprisoned her in Dublin Castle for a plundering foray on the lands of the Earl of Desmond in 1577. It was this picture of Granuaile as a freebooting pirate leader that enshrined her in legend as the Pirate Queen of Ireland and caused her memory to be preserved, if not by history, then by folklore. As official sources revealed, the facts relating to her maritime career far outweighed the fiction. They introduced me to an exceptional woman, vital and daring, a political pragmatist and tactician, a brave military leader by land and sea, a ruthless plunderer, a mercenary, a shrewd negotiator, a woman imbued with the necessary skills to survive in the competitive and dangerous trade of piracy for a period of 50 years. But what circumstances made her step outside the conventions of her sex and time? Did some traumatic event force her to assume her extraordinary role or was there some receptive spark within her that made her naturally incline towards perceived masculine territory?
Granuaile was the only daughter of Dudara O'Malley, chieftain of the kingdom of Umhall, the country around Clew Bay on the west coast of Ireland, and of his wife Margaret. The O'Malleys differed from the majority of Irish clans in that they derived their living in the main from the sea. Their motto, 'terra marique potens', proclaimed them lords of the seas around Ireland. Irish annals would also claim that the O'Malleys sailed further afield to Spain, Scotland and Brittany. The fact that the merchants of nearby Galway City, then a major international port for the ships of England, Spain and France, prohibited the native Irish clans from trading there through the imposition of exorbitant taxes and racist bylaws, might have forced the O'Malleys to sell their salted fish and beef, hides, tallow and frieze cloth in more lucrative markets abroad.
But from earliest times, plundering by sea had supplemented the O'Malley's income. Ancient histories record with regular monotony details of their raids on outlying coastal settlements from Kerry to Donegal. The isolated bays and coves of the local coastline have lent themselves readily as havens for plunderers and pirates from everywhere, right up to modern times. Names such as Broadhaven Bay, a great natural harbour in north Mayo, remote and outside the law, were familiar to the pirate communities of many countries. There the comforts of the pirate crews were catered for by a community reared to accept piracy and plunder as part and parcel of seafaring life. In the sixteenth century it was the O'Malleys who ruled the waves off the west coast of Ireland. They issued licences to English, Spanish and French fishermen to fish their fertile sea domain, traded and pirated, and ferried in Scottish mercenary soldiers, the Gallowglass, hired seasonally by warring chieftains.
With this maritime background, it is perhaps easier to understand Granuaile's career. Had she been a boy, her life may have gone unrecorded. But the fact that she was a woman both helped and mitigated against her. It brought her to the attention of the English administration, who recorded disapprovingly her activities and her 'naughty disposition towards the state' in their despatches to the English court. But her unfeminine, unholy and unpatriotic deeds ensured her dismissal from the pages of Irish history except as a footnote to her husbands and castles. Without the close attention paid to her activities by the English administration, Granuaile might have been written out of history.
There is little reliable information on Granuaile's childhood. Her father Dudara (Black Oak) conjures a picture of a swarthy, broad-shouldered chieftain, of great physical strength, his hair falling to his shoulders and cut in the traditional 'glib' or fringe across his forehead. He dressed in the customary tight worsted trews, a saffron shirt with loose sleeves pleated in folds at the waist under a jack of fine leather. His chieftain's 'brat' or cloak of wool was fastened with a gold pin and fell in folds to the ground. He was described as a proud man, one of the few Irish chieftains of the time who never submitted to the English crown. Perhaps her father's character, authority and even physical attributes drew Granuaile to emulate him, to dress like him, to adopt his lifestyle and to become in effect more like a son than a daughter. Given the unorthodox role she was to adopt, it is likely that as a child her interests lay not in the female domain of household management but in Dudara's world of ships, trade, politics and power. The arrival of Christianity in Ireland in the fifth century had gradually subdued all traces of matriarchy that may have survived from the previous millennium. A woman's place was definitely supposed to be in the home, not on the battlefield and certainly not on the throne. Women hit the headlines of the written annals of the day only as wives of chieftains or as doers of charitable works. The fact that Granuaile later assumed command of her father's fleet and crews implies that he accepted her unusual inclination and had faith in her abilities both as a seafarer and a leader.
Initially, however, as custom dictated, her father arranged her marriage at the age of 15 to a local chieftain, Donal-an-Coghaidh O'Flaherty, which obtained for him a politically advantageous alliance with a neighbouring clan. Whether against her wishes or not, for a time at least Granuaile would seem to have conformed to what her husband and society deemed a woman's role. She bore two sons, Owen and Murrough, but her husband was immature and reckless, and he intensified his aggressive activities, wasting his clan's resources. His clansmen turned to his wife for help in surviving the famine-like conditions which resulted from their chieftain's excesses. Disregarding legal convention which debarred her from the chieftaincy, Granuaile emerged as de facto leader of her husband's clan. While her contemporaries might well have been astounded that a woman should usurp male power and prerogative, the Irish bards, keepers of clan genealogies, legends and folk history, could testify that Granuaile merely followed in the tradition of the woman warrior rulers of her Celtic ancestors.
Her husband's warring disposition finally brought about his downfall, and his death gave rise to one of the many stories that contribute to the legend of Granuaile. According to the folklore o the area around Lough Corrib, her husband died while attacking an island fortress in a lake, then known as Cock's Castle, which had been taken from him by his bitter enemies, the Joyces. On Donal's death, the Joyces imagined the castle securely theirs, but they reckoned without O'Flaherty's wife. Granuaile led the O'Flahertys in a sudden reprisal and regained the castle, demonstrating such personal courage that it was hurriedly renamed Hen's Castle.
Following the death of her husband, Granuaile experienced the discriminatory dictates of Irish law. Despite her competence, bravery and success as de facto chieftain, the law would not countenance a woman chieftain, and her husband's cousin was elected to succeed him. Having tasted power, Granuaile was determined that she would not be denied either by law or convention. She had proved her worth as a leader and a leader she intended to remain. Taking with her the O'Flaherty men who wished to continue to serve under her, she returned to her father's territory and settled on Clare Island. With her father's ships and a private army of 200 men, she launched herself on a career of piracy which she later euphemistically described as 'maintenance by land and sea'. In her highly manoeuvrable galleys, one of which was described as being 'rowed with thirty oars and sail and had on board ready to defend her one hundred good shot', she set about making herself both a fortune and a reputation.
The merchant ships plying their way along the west coast from England, Spain and France, heavy with cargoes of wine, Toledo steel, salt, damask, silk and alum, made rich pickings. In vain did the merchant princes of Galway report her activities to the English crown, accusing her of 'taking sundry ships and barks bound for this poor town which they have not only rifled to the utter overthrow of the owners and merchants but also have most wickedly murdered divers of young men to the great terror of such as would willingly traffic'. The English had neither the ships to apprehend her versatile galleys nor sufficient geographical knowledge of the remote coastline over which she held sway. Clew Bay, with its myriad of islands, dangerous reefs and currents, was as much unknown territory as the far-off Americas. Many years later the English sent an army which entrapped her in one of her castles and laid siege. In a remarkable military feat after enduring a siege of 21 days she dislodged the besieging army and routed them from her territory.
To achieve even part of which she is accused of by her English contemporaries in Ireland, Granuaile had to be accomplished in the skills of seafaring. Even with her maritime background, it was no mean achievement to survive on the wild Atlantic. Her ability to sail her ships to Scotland, England and further afield to Spain and Portugal must rank her with her contemporaries Raleigh and Drake. Knowledge of navigation, of the dangerous coastline, sound judgement of the elements and the capabilities of her ships were basic requirements. The threat of English warships out to capture her or competitors in the piracy trade out to relieve her of her cargo and her life augmented the hazards.
Her capacity to endure physical privation was remarkable. Seafaring in the sixteenth century was not for the fainthearted. Conditions on board were primitive, privacy non-existent. Poor personal hygiene was endurable if you were a man; for a woman, menstruation added additional hardship. Skin toughened under the barrage of wind and salt spray, hands and nails were hardened and split by hawser and canvas, bare feet became chafed from the rough swaying boards, sodden woollen trews and linen shirts itched, cold food lodged undigested. To give birth on a bucking galley on the high seas, as Granuaile did her third son, thereafter known as Tibbott-ne-Long (Toby of the ships), is unimaginable. To retain control of her wild crewmen, to enforce her will, it was essential that she led by example, outenduring and outdoing her men, leading them personally by land and sea, as a later poet claims:
No braver seaman too a deck in hurricane or squalls
Since Grace O'Malley battered down old Currath castle's wall.
Something more than allure kept her 200 male followers in thrall over half a century. That she was successful at her trade undoubtedly helped, but there must have been some additional spark, some charisma that forged such a lasting bond between her and her men that they were willing to be led by a woman contrary to native mores and chauvinistic pride. She is reputed to have been proud of her men and to have said 'go mh'fear lei làn loinge de Cloinn Conroi agus Cloinn Mic an Allaidh na làn loinge d'or'. (That she would rather have a shipful of Conroys and MacAnallys than a shipful of gold.) The fact that her followers were made up of members of different clans, each bearing tribal grudges, whom she had to mould into a force loyal only to her was an added difficulty. That she could offer Sidney an army of 'two hundred fighting men' willing to fight wherever she ordered is testimony to her absolute control.
Though far from the centre of English power, international events eventually began to affect Granuaile's operations. Fearful that Spain would use Ireland as a back door to England, the English administration, with its sheriffs, governors and military men, was pushing westwards into remote areas such as Mayo. To obtain a more sheltered haven for her ships and men, Granuaile decided to marry again. This time she did the choosing and the castle rather than its owner was the reason for her choice. Rockfleet Castle on the north shore of Clew Bay was owned by Richard-in-Iron Bourke, tanaiste (deputy) to the Mac Williamship, the position of most power in the area. Rockfleet was a safer haven for Granuaile's ships and crews than Clare Island.
Folklore maintains that Granuaile married Richard for 'one year certain' and that if after that period either party wished to withdraw they were free to do so. In no social sphere was Ireland more apart form the rest of Europe than in the area of marriage, which was a largely secular event adhering to Celtic pagan rites rather than to the Christian ethos. Under Brehon law, the ancient, native law of Gaelic Ireland, divorce was permitted and was the right of either party. Brehon law also sheltered women from the effects of divorce, protected the dowry they brought with them and permitted married women to own and administer their own property independently of their husbands. This ran contrary to the common law of England, for example, where a husband had absolute control over his wife's property. As English common law gradually replaced Brehon law in Ireland in the seventeenth century, so divorce and the rights of women as individuals within marriage were negated.
When Granuaile's marriage to Richard Bourke reached a year's duration, she installed her men in Rockfleet Castle, locked the castle against him and shouted from the ramparts 'Richard Bourke I dismiss you', thereby divorcing herself of a husband and obtaining a fine castle in lieu of her dowry. But Granuaile and Richard were reunited and their son born at sea. The day after his birth, her ship was attacked by an Algerian corsair. According to stories, as the battle raged on deck, her captain came below where she lay with her new-born son and begged for help. 'May you be seven times worse off this day twelve months, who cannot do without me for one day,' she upbraided him and stormed on deck. The Algerian pirates allegedly stood transfixed at the dishevelled female apparition. Roaring her men into action, she led them to victory.
In 1576 Sir Henry Sidney became the first English deputy of the English monarch to venture into the west of Ireland. During his visit to Galway City he encountered 'the most famous feminine sea captain, Grany I Mallye'. Why Granuaile risked capture and imprisonment by meeting Sidney is open to speculation. She knew that most of the neighbouring chieftains, including the Mac William of Mayo, had submitted to Sidney on promise of restoration of their powers and lands.
These submissions had major implications for two principles of Irish law: ownership of land and succession to the chieftaincy. By Brehon law, a chieftain held a life interest only in the lands of his lordship ruling them in trust for the members of the ruling sept. On his death the lands became entrusted to his successor for his lifetime. A new chieftain was elected from among members of the ruling family of the clan, so a brother could succeed a brother, a nephew an uncle, a younger son a father, and so on. The chieftain's tanaiste was also elected during the lifetime of the chieftain. By submitting to the English crown, the chieftains in effect agreed to rule by English rather than native law and thereby accept the principle of primogeniture whereby an eldest son succeeded and inherited from his father.
This had a major bearing on the position of Granuaile's husband Richard, who was tanaiste to the Mac Williamship. If on the Mac William's death, English rather than Irish law prevailed, then Mac William's son, not Richard, would succeed. By establishing good relations with the English deputy, Granuaile sought to secure Richard's position. That Richard was well ruled by Granuaile is evident by Sidney's comment, though she is also said to have made a pleasing and 'most feminine' appearance. Her meeting at the same time with Elizabethan courtier and poet Philip Sidney must have given him an extraordinary story to relate on his return to court.
During her stay in Galway, Granuaile agreed to take the deputy out into the bay on her galley so that he might better examine the city's fortifications. Business being business, however, she ensured that he paid her for the privilege. In the event her mission to Sidney was successful, for on the death of the Mac William, despite opposition from his son, Richard succeeded to the title. But to put an English gloss on so Irish a title, he was also knighted and Granuaile became an unlikely Lady Bourke. At the investiture in Galway, the English Governor Malby, noting Granuaile dressed for once in female finery, wrote to court that 'Grany O'Mally thinketh herself to be no small lady'. But Granuaile gave her promise of loyalty to Sidney a broad interpretation and continued as before, a scourge of the seas, taking tolls and raiding and pirating the ships that ventured within her domain.
In 1577, on a plundering expedition on the lands of the Earl of Desmond in Munster, she was captured and imprisoned in Limerick gaol. Desmond delivered her to the English governor, William Drury. From Limerick, Drury brought her to Dublin where she was imprisoned in Dublin Castle for 18 months. She was eventually released on condition that she bring her husband, who was implicated in the rebellion in Munster, to heel. But shortly after her release, when an English official was sent to collect the crown dues from the Lord and Lady Bourke, he met with unusual opposition. 'I went there towards the place where Mac William was, who met me and his wife Grany O Mallye with all their force and did swear they would have my life for coming so far into their country, and specially his wife who would fight with me before she was a half mile near me.' On Richard's death in 1583, Granuaile 'gathered together all her own followers and with a 1,000 head of cattle and mares became a dweller in Rockfleet.' She was now 53 years old and looked set to continue as before had it not been for the arrival in Connaught of the bète noire of her life, Governor Richard Bingham.
As the hostility between England and Spain intensified and Elizabeth, from the safety of her court, sent her sea dogs to harry and plunder Spanish shipping, English control of Ireland took on a new urgency. Bingham was one of the new breed of English administrators sent to Ireland. Ruthless and domineering, he sought to compel the Irish chieftains into submission. He was particularly antagonistic to Granuaile, whom he accused as being 'nurse to all rebellions for forty years'. Three times Granuaile was actively involved in rebellion against Bingham's cruel rule in Connaught, ferrying in the Gallowglass from Scotland. Bingham eventually captured her and as she later related to Elizabeth, he 'caused a new pair of gallows to be made for her last funeral'. At the last moment the chieftains of Mayo, by submitting hostages, obtained her release. This was a tribute to her standing among them and to their acceptance of her as a chieftain. But Bingham retaliated by confiscating her enormous cattle and horse herds. Once more her ships were her only salvation.
Bingham eventually subdued the rebellion and set about exacting revenge. He took Tibbott-ne-Long hostage for Granuaile's good behaviour and her eldest son, Owen O'Flaherty, was killed while in the custody of Bingham's brother. Her second son, Murrough, incurred Granuaile's wrath by siding with Bingham. In fury she set out to teach Murrough a sharp lesson and 'manned out her navy of galleys, landed in Ballinahinche where he dwelleth, burned his town and spoiled his people of their cattle and goods and murdered 4 of his men who made resistance.'
In 1592 Granuaile experienced a further blow to her power when Bingham penetrated her pirate haven of Clew Bay and impounded part of her fleet. Despite the setbacks she had encountered in running the gauntlet with individual English administrators, she had always retained control of her fleet and thereby the freedom of the seas. This had enabled her to remain in power. But time was catching up with her. The more distant parts of Ireland were slowly being brought within the English net. A new map of the country had been drawn which more accurately depicted the remote havens of the west coast. It reflects Granuaile's status as leader that her name appears on the Boazio map above the area over which she ruled, the only woman so mentioned. And she was no longer young. It is one of the extraordinary features of her life that she managed to attain old age in such a dangerous occupation at a time when female life expectancy was no more than 50 years.
But when Bingham imprisoned her son Tibbott-ne-Long on a charge of treason for conspiring with the Ulster chieftains who were plotting a rebellion with Spanish assistance, there was little alternative but to go over Bingham's head. Granuaile's first petition to the queen of England is dated July 1593. The daring and cleverness of its author is evident in its tones. Knowing that the queen has full knowledge of her piracy and rebellious career, Granuaile sets out her version of events: how circumstances 'constrained your highness fond subject to take arms and by force to maintain herself and her people by sea and by land the space of forty years past.' She seeks Tibbott-ne-Long's release from prison. She requests that Tibbott and her other son Murrough O'Flaherty be allowed to hold their lands by right of English rather than Irish law, an astute move now that it seemed likely that the demise of native Irish law was at hand. In return, she offers 'during her life to invade with sword and fire all your Highness's enemies wheresoever they are or shall be without any interruption of any person or persons whatsoever', a cunning ruse to circumvent Bingham. By appealing directly to Elizabeth, Granuaile played her trump card. She bargained on Elizabeth's parsimonious nature and it paid handsome dividends. Pardon was less expensive than war.
Intrigued by Granuaile's petition, Elizabeth dispatched 18 'articles of interrogatory to be answered by Grany Ni Maly'. The answers provide an informative résumé of Granuaile's life, though she wisely concentrates on aspects least objectionable to the English. Her deft replies are a match for the subterfuge of the Elizabethan court and demonstrate an astute political mind. Leaving nothing to chance, however, in July 1593 Granuaile followed her correspondence to court, sailing her ship from Clew Bay to Greenwich, determined to put her case face to face to the woman whose avaricious male servants had so drastically altered her life.
The details of the meeting between these two women, each an outstanding leader in a male-dominated society, remain in the realm of folklore. Curiosity about each other may have been a major motivation: for Granuaile to meet the woman whose policies had wrought such drastic changes on her country and herself; for Elizabeth to marvel how this weatherbeaten woman, as old as herself, had fought her way by sea and land for over 40 years. Elizabeth had inherited her kingdom and a well-oiled political machine to facilitate her task as ruler; Granuaile had single-handedly, in defiance of law and society, carved out her own 'kingdom' and had earned her right to rule by example. Unlike Elizabeth, Granuaile did not dictate policy from the protection of her castles but actively effected it at the head of her army. Despite her claims of sovereignty over much of the world's oceans and the riches that fell into her lap from piracy, Elizabeth had never sailed further down-river than Greenwich.
Whatever words were spoken, possibly in Latin, Elizabeth was sufficiently impressed by the 'Pirate Queen' to disregard the weight of evidence against her and to go against the advice of her own governor. The queen in her letter to Bingham ordered Tibbott-ne-Long to be released and he and his step-brother Murrough O'Flaherty to be favoured. Unwittingly she accepted Granuaile's offer 'to employ all her power to offend and prosecute any offender against us ... and to fight in our quarrel with all the world' which in effect gave Granuaile licence to return to her old trade of 'maintenance by land and sea'.
Granuaile took her leave of Elizabeth with her burden much lightened and returned to Mayo in the middle of September to confront Bingham with the queen's letter. In horror Bingham believed that the queen had been hoodwinked into underestimating the capabilities of the 'aged woman' who had appeared before her, and that she had neglected to obtain any pledge for Granuaile's further good conduct. To circumvent what he perceived as the queen's rashness, he released Granuaile's son but quartered English soldiers on her land and ordered others to accompany her on her every voyage. In 1595 Bingham was recalled in disgrace and at the age of 66, Granuaile returned to her plundering ways, in 1597 sailing as far as Scotland in a reprisal attack on McNeil of Barra.
Political events were rapidly reaching a climax in Ireland. The Ulster chieftains O'Neill and O'Donnell had joined forces against the English and were awaiting help from Spain. Granuaile and her galleys were eagerly sought after by both sides. Initially she and Tibbott-ne-Long sided with the Ulster chieftains against the English. But when O'Donnell came into Mayo and created his own favourite the Mac William instead of Tibbott, Tibbott sought terms with the English and for the duration of the war sailed his mother's ships under the English flag, fighting on the English side in the Battle of Kinsale (1601). He was knighted in 1603 and created Viscount Mayo in 1627.
Granuaile left her struggle for survival in her son's hands. The final reference to her appears in the State Papers 1601, when one of her galleys is apprehended off the coast of Mayo by an English warship. She is thought to have died in Rockfleet Castle in about 1603 and to be buried in the abbey of Clare Island, beside the sea which had sustained her throughout her life. (Anne Chambers, 'The Pirate Queen of Ireland': Grace O'Malley, in Stanley, Breeches 95 ff.)