This is the script originally written for the podcast, rather than a transcript, so there might be a couple of variations from what was actually spoken. If you notice any or have any questions, feel free to get in touch!
Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
Pirates have fascinated storytellers for centuries. Something about their wildness, the freedom and the fierceness of piracy touches our imagination, allowing us to break free from our lives and escape to the adventures of the sea, a place where no conflict is resolved without a bloodbath, and no rules and regulations constrain the way we can live out our lives. From Treasure Island to Pirates of the Caribbean, stories and myths of Pirates like Long John Silver, Davy Jones and Blackbeard have followed on from the history, playing out our violent fantasies across the ocean.
In Ireland, our best remembered pirate was a woman. One hundred years before the golden age of piracy, Granuaile, Ireland’s Pirate Queen escaped the constraints of femininity, risking everything to live life she wanted, and to rule the seas. I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is Unreal.
Looking back at history, we often see it as being dominated by male rulers, but the sixteenth century was for once a period of female dominance in several places – in England, Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne from 1558 until her death in 1603. In Donegal and Tyrone, Scottish women Finola MacDonald and her mother Agnes Campbell wielded a surprising amount power and influence alongside their Irish chieftain husbands, organising and commanding mercenary troops from their home country. And in Mayo, around 1630, another future female ruler was born: Gráinne ní Mháille, or Grace O’Malley, who would one day become known as Granuaile.
Gráinne was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara, the chieftain of the O’Malley clan. The O’Malley motto was Terra Marique Potens – powerful on land and sea. Gráinne’s family lived at Clare Island in Upper Umhall. The seas off their coast were some of the most well-stocked fishing areas in Ireland, and the bays were difficult for English forces to navigate and police.
For several centuries, the O’Malley family made their wealth through piracy – they plundered coastal villages, taking cattle and property, and charged a tax of anyone who came to fish in their water.
One legend tells that Gráinne was eager from childhood to join her father on these piracy expeditions. High spirited and courages, Gráinne longed to make her name at sea, and clamoured to go with her father.
Her parents laughed, so the story goes, and told Gráinne that her long hair would get caught in the ship’s ropes. So later in the night, when her father came in, he found that Grainne had taken a knife to her hair, cutting it short so that she looked like a boy. Duly chastened, Dubhdara agreed to let Gráinne join him, and her new appearance led to a nickname that stuck long after she had surpassed her family to become one of the best known pirates of history – Grainne Mhaol, or Gráinne the Bald.
This sadly, is the stuff of legend rather than fact. The name Granuaile actually did not appear until several centuries after her death – before this she was usually known as Gráinne na gCearbhach, or Gráinne of the Gamblers, due to the unsavoury reputation of her family. The name Granuaile most likely came from a mispronunciation – Grainne ni Mhaille, Grainne Mail, Granuaile. And the tale of Gráinne cutting off her long dark hair actually seems to be more recent still – I think it may have been mentioned in some 20th Century schoolbooks, but I haven’t been able to find the source. If any of you know of an early reference, do get in touch!
Legend or not, it certainly was unusual for women to take an active role in seafaring. Women were viewed with superstition by sailors – “the devil’s ballast,” an evil omen for the journey. Conditions on board were rough and violent, and piracy carried a penalty of death.
In 1546, when Gráinne was about 16, she married a man called Donal an Chogaidh O’Flaherty, Donal of the Battles. She had three children with him, but she also continued her exploits at sea – and at her father’s death, she took on authority of the O’Malley clan and began to grow in power, greatly impressing her husband’s clansmen. When Donal was killed in an ambush 9 years later, the law refused to recognise a woman as chieftain of the O’Flahertys, so the title went to Donal’s cousin Tadhg instead– but many men of the O’Flahertys abandoned their clan and vowed instead to serve under Gráinne, the leader they knew and trusted to bring them to power. Granuaile amassed an army, of 200 fighting men from clans all around the countryside, and is believed to have had about 20 ships at the height of her powers. Gráinne was independent and free – a warrior chieftain who bowed to no one.
There are so many stories and legends of this time in Granuaile’s life, when she was at the height of her powers. At her residence in Clare Island, it was said a hole in the castle wall allowed for a rope tied to her bedpost to run out the castle and down to her ships waiting below, so that if her crew needed her they could pull on the rope and wake her to come down to their aid. Gráinne was also said to have a system of signal lights all along her coast, to alert her men when she needed them.
One story shows Gráinne’s pride – how she was deeply offended by those who looked down on or slighted her, and often sought to teach them a bitter lesson. One night, she landed near Howth after a sea voyage, and walked up to Lord Howth’s castle nearby to find the gates closed against her. The family refused to let her in or show her any hospitality, which angered her greatly. Gráinne knew that Lord Howth had a grandson nearby who was heir to the title. Quietly, she kidnapped the boy, carrying him on board her ship, and she set sail immediately for Mayo. On learning that his grandson was missing, Lord Howth followed Gráinne and pleaded for his release, offering gold and silver as ransom. But Gráinne refused the offers of wealth – instead, she looked for a promise from Lord Howth himself, that that his castle would never again close its gates, and that every night, an extra place would be set at the table, for anyone passing by to join them.
Another story tells of Gráinne’s romantic exploits. One day, while praying at Clare Island, Gráinne heard that a ship had been wrecked nearby, and went at once to see it. There, she found a young man shipwrecked on the rocks. He was Hugh de Lacy, son of a Wexford merchant, and Gráinne took him as a lover. Hugh was killed shortly afterwards in an ambush while hunting deer in Achill. Grief-stricken, Gránuaile soon had her revenge on the MacMahon clan who killed him, taking their boats and leaving them stranded on Caher Island, where she picked them off one by one, and took the castle for herself.
Gráinne married again in her 30s to Iron Richard of the Burke clan – and so the stories go, she was much more careful to protect her rights and property with this marriage. It was said that Gráinne agreed only to a trial marriage, lasting for one year. If at the end of the year either party was unhappy, they could dissolve the marriage at that point. Some stories say that Gráinne took her soldiers and installed them at Richard’s castle in Carraigahowley, locking Richard out and dismissing him when the year had passed. But most historical accounts say that Gráinne stayed with Richard in marriage until his death in 1583.
Their son was called Tibbot na Long – Toby of the Ships. Tibbot got his name, so the stories go, because Granuaile gave birth to him while at sea on one of her exploits. Just after her labour, the ship was attacked by a Turkish Corsair, and Gráinne’s men called down to the cabin to tell her that they were in danger. May you be seven times worse in a year, you who cannot do without me for a single day! Gráinne exclaimed, but she sprung out of her bed, threw a blanket over herself, and came out onto the deck. There she attracted the attention of the Turkish pirates by dancing around the ship. Surprised at the strange figure in front of them, the enemies gathered to laugh at her, and immediately she stretched forth her guns and fired at the officers, killing most, then capturing their ship and hanging the rest at the castle of Carrigaholt. Her exasperation notwithstanding, she was proud of her men, and was often heard to say she prized a ship full of her crew higher than a ship full of gold.
Soon after the death of her second husband, the greatest threat to Gráinne’s rule and safety arrived. In 1584, a new governor of Connaught was appointed. His name was Sir Richard Bingham. Bingham and his brothers were ruthless leaders, and they were of the view that “The Irish were never tamed with words but with swords.” Richard Bingham took a special dislike to Gráinne, calling her “the nurse to all rebellions in the province for 40 years.” He also took a liking to the vast wealth that Gráinne had amassed – around a thousand cattle and horses. So he began to pursue Gráinne and her people with relentless attacks.
In 1586, the governor’s brother Captain John Bingham came to plunder the land of Gráinne’s eldest son, Owen. Owen retreated with his followers, but Bingham’s soldiers found the island where they were hiding – they caught Owen, tied him and 18 of his men with rope, and stole away their property – 4000 cows, 500 stud mares and horses and 1000 sheep. Owen’s followers were hanged without trial, and Owen was stabbed twelve times the following night, dying of his wounds.
Furious and devastated at the murder of her son, Granuaile rebelled against Bingham, supporting her son Tibbot and the Burke family of her late husband in revolt. She called on the Ulster chieftains O’Neill and O’Donnell, and likely with the help of O’Donnell’s Scottish wife Finola, secured a huge force of over a thousand Scottish mercenaries, or gallowglasses to fight against the governor. But in September 1587, as this vast army travelled down by land to Mayo, they were defeated and slaughtered by Bingham’s troops, and the rebellion collapsed.
After a brief imprisonment, Gráinne received a pardon through Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Deputy, Sir John Perrot, and resumed her pirating ways. But Bingham was soon closing in on her again. He managed to turn Gráinne’s own son Murrough O’Flaherty against her, and though Gráinne is said to have launched her forces on Murrough’s town, burning and plundering it, his loss was certainly great. Richard had also established a garrison at Castlebar, which cut off the Burkes from their allies. It was there that he crushed another rebellion from Gráinne’s son Tibbot in 1592. As well as this English Warships were now landing at Clew Bay where Gráinne ruled, uncovering the secrets of the channels, harbours and fortresses that for so long had allowed Gráinne’s activities to pass unnoticed. Gráinne’s half-brother Donal na Píopa O’Malley was arrested by Bingham for murder. And in 1593, as the Ulster chieftains were rising in rebellion for the Nine Year’s War, Bingham accused Gráinne’s son Tibbot na Long of conspiring to help them, charging him with treason and imprisoning him at Athlone.
Gráinne was in a very precarious position at this stage. Her wealth had been confiscated, including er ships and herds, her lands were destroyed by the fighting and her movements were greatly restricted. One son was dead, one had submitted to Bingham, and a third was now in prison for a crime that carried a penalty of death. She didn’t have a lot of options left. Her next move was risky – but it payed off, and it has risen into the ranks of legend to become one of the most famous stories about her life.
Gráinne wrote to Queen Elizabeth herself. She told her own version of the events, offered to surrender her family’s land, and asked for free liberty to evade with sword and fire all Her Highness’s enemies, wheresoever they are or shall be. And then, in June 1593, she sailed to England to meet the Queen at court.
Gráinne remained at the royal court for the whole summer, from June until September. It was an incredibly bold move – her history of rebellious conduct and her pirate ways were well known in England, and in sailing into plain view of the country’s leaders she risked imprisonment or worse. But she held out courageously, and finally, one day that summer, she was summoned to appear before the queen and put her case to her.
It is so fascinating to imagine this meeting. Two powerful women – so alike and yet so different – meeting almost as equals . Gráinne and Elizabeth were roughly the same age. They both ruled as leaders in a world of men. In other ways, though they were markedly different – one the leader of a dominating country, the other a chieftain of one small area in Ireland, that had been fighting for decades to maintain its independence from British rule. As one spoke English, and the other Irish, the conversation was carried out in their common language of Latin. Among other things Gráinne told Elizabeth about the plight that Irish women faced under the laws that governed them. In Ireland, Gráinne explained to the queen – wives who survived their chieftain husbands were not entitled to any maintenance or support after his death. They were allowed only their first dowry, and many woman had suffered greatly through husbands divorcing them under Brehon Law to marry another, leaving them destitute. The implication was clear – this was why Gráinne had to resort to piracy, to maintain her independence and not fall into the traps that so many Irish women faced.
It’s no wonder that stories of such an intriguing meeting have risen into folklore and legend. When Elizabeth extended her hand, it was told that because Granuaile was taller she was forced to raise her hand higher to the Irish queen. Although the Queen welcomed her in finery, Granuaile was said to have worn the dress of her country, barefoot, with a long cloak or mantle covering her head and body, hair gathered on her head and held with a needle, a yellow bodice and petticoat, and a breast bare of jewels or ruffles. She hid a dagger on her person which caused great consternation when it was discovered, though she claimed it was just for her own safety.
There were also many stories about the contempt Granuaile showed for English court customs and etiquette. Queen Elizabeth offered to make Gráinne a countess, which she refused, saying that as they were both princesses and equals neither had the power to bestow any titles onto the other. She also rejected a gift of the Queen’s prize lapdog – what would she want with such a useless pet? And when one of the court offered her a lace handkerchief, Gráinne blew her nose in it, and threw it in the fire, saying that Irish people were a cleanlier sort than to pocket what had come from their nostrils.
Most of these stories are fictional, embellishments on what was already a fascinating history. It’s difficult to know now how exactly the meeting played out. But what we do know is that Granuaile’s speech and story impressed Queen Elizabeth. The Queen demanded an explanation from Sir Richard Bingham on his treatment of Gráinne, and asked him to see how he could improve her situation. In September, Elizabeth ordered the release of Gráinne’s son Tibbot and brother Donal, and provided for Gráinne a maintenance from her son’s estates, that was to be deducted from their taxes to the crown. Writing to Bingham, the Queen urged him to favour Gráinne and her family, and in all their good causes protect them, to live in peace and enjoy their livelihoods. It was a stunning blow to the ruthless Governor, and an incredible victory for a Pirate Queen.
Already in her 60s at this point, Gráínne ní Mháille lived for about another 10 years. And, although she had promised Elizabeth to lead a good and dutiful life from that point on, that wasn’t quite what happened. She and her family continued to clash with Richard Bingham, to rise and rebel against him, and to continue her piracy undaunted. Her life was violent and eventful, and makes for a fascinating story – one which we may never hear the like of again.
It’s interesting to note though that Gráinne’s life was never recorded in Irish historical records, like The Annals of the Four Masters. What we know of her true history mainly comes from British letters and state documents. For a long time in Ireland, Gráinne, as a female ruler was not seen as a fitting chieftain to glorify, or even to remember. Also looked down on were these submissions to the crown, assisting Lord Henry Sidney during the Desmond rebellion, and pleading her case to an English Queen.
But, though erased from the early history books, her name lived on in folk tales long after her death, shifting and changing until it became not Gráinne of Umhall, or Gráinne na gCearbhach, or even Gráinne ní Mháille – but instead, the legendary Granuaile, a woman who dwells in myth as much or more as she does in history. And slowly but surely, her fame grew great again. As the cause of Ireland grew again in the 19th and 20th century Irish writers and musicians began to personify Ireland as a beautiful woman, weeping for the destruction of her people and urging the men of Ireland to fight in her name. Sometimes this woman was Kathleen ni Houlihan, sometimes Roisin Dubh, and sometimes, in story and song, the woman was Granuaile. So, long after her death, Granuaile suddenly rose to lead the men of Ireland again, fighting for a cause of freedom that she had always held so dear.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. I have some fun updates this week – last Sunday I was a guest on the Candlelit Tales Podcast, talking all things Samhain with the hosts, incredible storytellers Aron and Sorcha Hegarty. It was a great discussion and I really enjoyed taking part – do check out the episode and their podcast.
The other cool piece of news is that Unreal now has over 1000 followers on Spotify! I am so overwhelmed by the support people have shown over the last year – thanks so much to all of you for joining me on this folklore journey.
You can find links as always to the sources and music from today’s episode on my website, UnrealPodcast.com. If you enjoyed the show, why not spread the word to other people who might like it, and leave a review on Apple Podcasts? I’ll be back soon with another episode and story, and until then, Go néirí on bóthar leat.