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A Notorious Woman
by Grainne Rowland

In the correspondence between Queen Elizabeth I and her governors in Ireland in the late 1500's, one name was mentioned frequently. That name was Grace O'Malley, whom Sir Henry Sidney called "a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland".

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.

Grainne's castle on Clare Island was perfectly suited for business. Any cargo ship in the area was easily spotted, at which time Grainne began talks with the ship's captain. The captain either delivered to Grainne a portion of the cargo or she would order the ship to be stripped of its goods. This was a common practice of the time, and one that made rich such people as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. Grainne had a band of over 200 men for which to provide. Of course, Grainne also continued her father's trading business in Spain and Portugal.

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.

She immediately went to the home of the local lord in search of hospitality, as was the Gaelic custom. However, the lord was at dinner and refused Grainne entrance. This was a serious breach of courtesy. On the way back to her ship, Grainne saw and captured the lord's son, and took him back to Connaught with her. The lord immediately followed her, begging for his son's release, and promising any amount of ransom. This Grainne angrily refused, but she demanded that never again would the gates of Howth Castle be closed to anyone who sought hospitality. To this day, an extra plate for visitors is set at the table in Howth castle.

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.

In 1584, Sir Richard Bingham was appointed governor of Connaught. Because of unrest in the province, Richard ordered his brother John to arrest Grainne and made plans to hang her. She was saved from death only because her son-in-law promised to give himself as hostage if Grainne continued to defy English law. However, Bingham confiscated most of Grainne's herds, over 1,000 cattle and horses. He also took her son Owen's herds, devastating the clan unfairly, as Owen had not taken part in the rebellion. Bingham hanged eighteen of Owen's men, and had Owen murdered. This, of course, ensured that the clans would revolt. Luckily, Richard Bingham was soon relocated to Flanders by the Queen.

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.

This was a very dangerous move, as Grainne could have ended up in the Tower of London. Grainne wanted pardons for her son and brother, who had been imprisoned. The queen granted the interview, probably because her interest had been aroused by the reports about Grainne over the years, and because both of them were women leading interesting and independent lives. In any case, Elizabeth granted the desired pardons and allowed Grainne the right to continue her maintenance by land and sea. She also ordered Richard Bingham to grant Grainne her rightful inheritance from both her husbands' properties. Bingham, of course, found many reasons to delay the fulfillment of the last order.

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!

Bonus story about Grace O'Malley! Check out A Plate at Howth at Kids' Ireland

Images: Janice Long and also Westport.
Bronze Statue of Grace O’Malley by Michael Cooper


Wed, Jan 3, 2018

Ilnacullen, Co. Cork - an Island Garden

Located in the sheltered harbour of Glengarriff in Bantry Bay. Ilnacullin, which means island of holly, is a small island known to horticulturists and lovers of trees and shrubs all around the world as an island garden of rare beauty.
The vivid colours of Rhododendrons and Azaleas reach their peak during May and June, whilst the hundreds of cultivars of climbing plants, herbaceous perennials and choice shrubs dominate the midsummer period from June to August.
Because of its sheltered situation and the warming oceanic influence of the Gulf Stream, the climate is favourable to the growth of ornamental plants from many parts of the world.
Even for those who aren’t particularly interested in gardens, there are many other scenic views, especially in the surrounding waters where seals frequent the rocks on the southern shore.
The cover photo on Bridget's book The Traditional Irish Wedding shows a wrought iron garden gate on Ilnaculen. I took that photo. To see it, go to the home page. It's part of the opening paragraph Failte.
Resource: Copy and Image - Cork Guide

Click for More Culture Corner.

Granuaile's true story is more compelling than any fictional account!
Click here for Granuaile


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