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A Notorious Woman
Grace was born about the year 1530 in Co. Mayo. She was the daughter of a chieftain, Owen O'Malley, and his wife Margaret. Grace had a brother named Donal.
There are several variations of Grace's name. Granuaile probably comes from Grainne Umhaill, or Grace of the Unhalls. This was her father's territory. However, one legend has it that when Grace was a girl, she wanted to go along with her father on one of his trading trips. She was reminded that a seaman's life was not for girls, so she promptly cut off her hair and donned boy's clothing. According to the story, from then on her family called her Grainne Mhael, or Grainne the Bald!
Grainne's father controlled the coastal territory along Co. Mayo and the off-lying islands. He did much business on the sea, trading with Spain and Portugal. This was illegal according to English law, but much more economical because of cheaper prices. Fishing was an important source of livelihood, as was the selling of fishing permits to the French and Spanish. The O'Malley's also acted as guides for ships sailing through the islands, as the waters there were treacherous. Grainne must have accompanied her father on many of these trips, as she later demonstrated extreme skill in ship navigation and the leadership of sailors.
At the age of sixteen, Grainne was married to Donal O'Flaherty. This was a political marriage, as the O'Flaherty's controlled the land south of the O'Malley holdings and were also a sea-going clan. Donal was the son of the O'Flaherty chieftain. Donal's nickname was Donal of the Battles, because of his warlike temperament. Grainne and Donal had two sons, Owen and Murrough, and a daughter, Margaret.
Grainne impressed her husband's followers with her knowledge of seamanship. It was not long before she had a following of her own and began to lead her own expeditions. She was in her early twenties.
In war, Grainne also proved herself a force to be reckoned with. Donal had seized a castle from the Joyce clan. Later, while on a hunting trip, Donal was killed by the Joyce's, who then prepared to retake their fortress. Having been warned, Grainne and her followers defended the castle so well that the enemy left it in her possession. It was thereafter called Hen's Castle in honor of Grainne.
A few years later, Grainne was attacked at Hen's Castle by English soldiers. She ordered her men to melt the lead from the castle roof. The melted lead was poured over the walls onto the attackers. While the English withdrew to plan further action, Grainne sent a messenger through an underground tunnel for reinforcements. Once again, Grainne triumphed!
After her husband's death, Grainne returned to her family with her band of followers. Her father gave her Clare Island Castle. She was now a chieftainess in her own right. She and her men continued their business of trade both on land and sea.
Complaints of Grainne's piracy were made to the English authorities, and were duly noted. For the time being, however, nothing was done as England had other problems in Munster.
In 1566, Iron Richard Burke and Grainne were married. He had his own fleet and a large group of mercenaries in his hire. They saw that in a joining of their two families could be found a force to fight the English.
Their son Tibbot-na-Long (Theodore of the Ships) was born on board ship as Grainne returned from a trading mission. As she rested below deck on the day after Tibbot's birth, the ship was attacked and boarded by Turkish pirates. Her men were being beaten and came to her for help. Grainne arose from her bed, grabbed a gun, blasted the Turks, and encouraged her men to victory.
When Tibbot was a youth, he was sent as a hostage to the English Bingham family. This must have been as a pledge for the good behavior of either Richard or Grainne.
In 1576, the O'Malley's and the MacWilliam's (Richard's family) submitted to the English. They were one of the last clans to submit. They promised obedience to the Crown. However, Grainne was able to play both sides. While outwardly being loyal to the Crown, she continued her usual activities on land and sea.
At about this same time, the Howth incident occurred. Returning from a journey, Grainne sailed into Howth, near Dublin.
In 1577, Grainne was captured while raiding the lands of the Earl of Desmond. Since Desmond's loyalty to the Crown was being questioned, he handed Grainne over to the Lord Justice Drury. She was imprisoned for eighteen months, and was released only on condition that she give up pirating. Of course, she agreed to this condition, and then promptly returned to her old habits.
In 1583 Grace's husband Richard died. Grainne marched with her men to Rockfleet Castle (Richard's property) and settled there. No one dared dislodge her.
By 1590, though, Bingham was back in Ireland. He set English patrols on the coast, preventing Grainne's maintenance on the sea. She was still destitute from the loss of her cattle earlier. So, in 1593, Grainne decided to go to London and seek aid from Queen Elizabeth herself.
By this time, Grainne was ageing. She was 63 years old when she saw the Queen. Over the next few years, she would see her friends the O'Neill's and O'Donnell's defeated by the English. She also saw the end of the ancient Gaelic way of life in Ireland. In 1603, Grainne died. Her exact burial place is unknown. However, to this very day, legends and stories are still to be heard around Clare Island and Clew Bay concerning this "notorious woman", Grace O'Malley!
The Round Towers
The Round Towers of Ireland are remarkable among the world's ancient monuments; one author has called them 'Elegant, free-standing pencils of stone.' Today, 65 survive in part or whole. Hand-crafted in native stone and cemented with a sand, lime, horsehair and oxblood mortar - a technique imported from Roman Britain - it's said by many historians that they were built by monastic communities to thwart Viking invaders. And yet, there's reason to believe that the towers were built long before Christianity came to Ireland. Whatever their origins, monasteries did indeed flourish where the round towers existed. And why not. These imposing edifices provided a watch tower, a keep and a refuge.
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March 4, 2011
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