A woman to be reckoned with

You don’t know Granuaile? You can’t be serious. You have to know Granuaile. Everyone knows Granuaile. She was one of the fiercest women Ireland’s ever known.

I don’t often feel stupid but this was one of those times I wish I’d paid more attention in school. Just who, exactly, was Granuaile?

I was in Mayo. On the coast. So odds were that she had something to do with the sea. If she was fierce, she was hardly a housewife, a nanny, or a governess. Adding sea to fierce, I got pirate! And the penny dropped. Granuaile aka Gráinne Mhaol aka Grace O’Malley.

IMG_9598 (598x800)Granuaile had inherited her father’s shipping business, her mother’s land, and everything her first husband, Dónal an Chogaidh Ó Flaithbheartaigh, had had to his name when he died. A rich woman, indeed, and one who knew her own mind. She married a second time, this time choosing Risdeárd an Iariann Bourke, owner of an ironworks and castle at Burrishoole (which, with its sheltered harbours, was ideal for someone with a piracy bent). ‘Twas the castle and the land (and not the man) that the bould Granuaile was said to have had her eye on. And it would take a strong man to derail her once she’d set her mind to something.

They married under Brehon Law – which conveniently allowed you to marry ‘for one year certain’. And, when the year the was up, she took the castle and ditched yer man. While she was in the castle, she apparently called out the window to him: Richard Bourke, I dismiss you. In Irish, of course. Brings a whole new meaning to the term quickie divorce, doesn’t it…and this was back in the sixteenth century.

Her biographer, Anne Chambers, says that accusations of promiscuity were typically levelled at any woman who stepped outside the social norms … and Granuaile was no exception. She’s said to have had at least one son out of wedlock but then rumours are rumours. (Mind you, it seems that half of Mayo claims her as an ancestor, so perhaps there is something to it.)

Like any woman out of the ordinary, she attracted her own set of legends. Who knows if any are true, but they certainly make for good reading. My favourite is one that supposedly happened in 1576, when Granuaile paid a visit to Howth Castle, where she found the castle gates closed. She was told that the family were at dinner and couldn’t see her. A little put out, when she accidentally happened upon the Earl’s grandson, she abducted him (as you would back in the day if you were a tad upset!) and only released him when the Earl himself promised to keep the castle gates open to all unexpected visitors and to always set an extra place at the dinner table. The Earl gave her a ring as a sign of this agreement and the ring is still in the family – and they still set that extra place at every meal. Even today.  Not a woman to be dismissed lightly apparently.

Amongst her many exploits, perhaps the most notable (from a societal point of view) was her visit with Queen Elizabeth I. Granuaile’s two sons and her half-brother had been captured by the English so she decided to go straight to the top to secure their release. Legend has it that the Queen sent her something akin to a questionnaire to fill out before the audience (these 18 Articles of Interrogatory, along with her answers, are preserved in the English State Papers today and are now on my list of things to be read). Word has it that Granuaile decked herself out in all her finery for the big meet at Greenwich Palace. But fine cloth never maketh the man (or woman). She refused to bow before the Queen as she didn’t recognise her as the Queen of Ireland.  Oh to have been a speck of dust on the curtains when these two strong women met.  As Granuaile spoke no English and the Queen no Irish, the pair had their conversation in Latin.  They each made promises that they then promptly broke (a woman’s prerogative and all that…), but by all accounts the lads were released – the Queen went back to ruling Ireland and Granuaile went back to supporting the rebels.

Another tale I heard while I was in the west (why am I pronouncing that as ‘wesht’ in my head?) was of a fire aboard one of Granuaile’s ships. Apparently she stripped to her waist and used her clothes to kill the fire and when the crew stopped to stare at the mighty bare-breasted spectacle before them, well… enough said. I can just imagine the stream of abuse she gave them. Granuaile must have made many a grown man tremble.

In fairness, I did know the name Grace O’Malley… it was the Granuaile (prounounced Granawale) that threw me. But now that we’re on closer acquaintance, Granuaile is on my list of dead people I’d invite to dinner. And for some odd reason, I have it in my head that I’d like to sit her next to Johnny Cash.

A statue of her stands in the grounds of Westport House. It’s a lovely spot to pop into, if you’re in the neighbourhood and have a few hours to spare to wander into the past. The house itself was built by Maud Bourke, who was Granuaile’s great-granddaughter, and her husband  Colonel John Browne. Open to the public since 1960, more than 4 million visitors have crossed its threshhold, and next time, I’ll be amongst them…

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  1. […] that in a previous life, I was Elizabeth Bennett or of her ilk. I have such an affinity with these big country houses that I’m sure I spent time in one – upstairs rather than downstairs. I have little […]

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