Authors: Anne Chambers
But who was Granuaile? Where did she come from? How did she choose such a strange and dangerous career?
Granuaile was born around the year 1530. She was the only daughter of Dubhdara (Black Oak) O'Malley and his wife Margaret.
Her father was chieftain of the kingdom of Umhall, a small, remote territory bordering Clew Bay on the coast of County Mayo.
At this time Ireland was a very different country than to today. It did not have a government or a king. Instead, it was divided into about 40 independent âkingdoms' or clans, like Umhall.
Each âkingdom' was ruled by a Gaelic chieftain like Granuaile's father, or by a descendant of the Anglo-Normans, who had come to Ireland in the twelfth century, like Granuaile's neighbour, the Lower MacWilliam Bourke, chief of the Bourkes of Mayo.
Each ruler had his own army to protect his kingdom and his clan from attack by an enemy. To strengthen his own army, a chieftain often hired mercenary soldiers called the âgallowglass' from Scotland.
The Irish chieftains ruled their territories by native Gaelic law, known as Brehon Law.
Brehon Law was different to English law in two important ways: how one became a chieftain and how one inherited property.
Chieftains and their successors, known as tanaiste, were elected by members of the clan. Unlike English nobility, they did not inherit their title automatically.
The chieftain had only a life interest in the lands he ruled on behalf of his clan. He could not pass them on to his eldest son, as the English noble did. On his death, the clan's lands reverted to the clan.
A chieftain measured his strength on the number of minor or client chiefs who paid him dues and provided him with troops when he went to war.
The client paid an agreed payment or tribute to the chief each year. These tributes ranged from a specific number of cattle, horses, bushels of wheat or jars of honey, to food and lodging for the chieftain and his family.
If the tribute was not paid on time, the chieftain could take it â and more â from his client by force.
In return, the chieftain was bound to protect his client and come to his aid in the event of his being attacked.
Granuaile's father was a client of the more powerful Lower MacWilliam Bourke of Mayo. Dubhdara's yearly tribute, however, amounted only to providing MacWilliam with a certain number of soldiers when he went to war.
The English had tried to conquer Ireland in the past. At the time of Granuaile's birth, however, they controlled only Dublin and a small area around it known as âthe Pale'.
The rest of the country was in the hands of the Gaelic chieftains and the descendants of the Anglo-Normans, many of whom, over time, had become âmore Irish than the Irish'.
But the English king, Henry VIII, wanted to rule all Ireland. He could not afford to send an army to conquer it by force. Instead in 1541 he tried to win over the Irish chieftains by a plan which he called âsurrender and re-grant'.
This plan meant that if a chieftain acknowledged Henry as king of Ireland and agreed to rule his lands by English rather than by Brehon Law, the king would re-grant him his lands and give him an English title.
Granuaile's father, Dubhdara, did not accept the king's offer but some of his neighbours did.
The Upper MacWilliam Burke, chieftain of the Burke clan of Galway, agreed and became the earl of Clanrickard. In Ulster, the O'Neill chieftain became the earl of Tyrone and in Munster O'Brien, the descendant of the great high king Brian Boru, was made earl of Thomond by the English king.
Just as the king intended, his policy divided the Irish clans. Some clans continued to elect their chieftain by Brehon Law. Those who lost out this way sought to gain the title by English law, with the help of the English, only too happy to have someone loyal to them in power.
While King Henry's surrender and re-grant policy took many years to take hold, it was the first step in England's plan to reconquer Ireland.
The Irish countryside in Granuaile's time also looked very different from today.
At this time much of the country was covered by great forests, woods and bogs. Wild animals such as wolves, wild boar and deer, roamed freely.
There were few roads and even fewer bridges by which to cross the rivers. This made travel by foot or horse very slow and difficult. It could take up to a month to get from the west coast to the east coast. Ireland was famous for its cattle herds which were important to the economy. The more cattle a chieftain and his clan possessed the wealthier and more powerful they were.
There was little money in circulation. Instead people bought and sold by barter, that is, by exchanging goods.
Chieftains like Granuaile's father lived in stone-built castles or towers. The ruins of these towers can still be seen all around Ireland today. They were three or four storeys high and had a
or courtyard surrounded by high walls attached.
The chieftain and his family lived in the upper storey of the tower, which had a fireplace and narrow slit windows. The servants lived in the lower floors.
The walls of the castle were lime-washed and hung with antlers, skins and green-leafed branches. Rushes were strewn on the bare flag floor for comfort.
Dubhdara had a number of these castles situated around Clew Bay; at Cathair-na-Mart (Westport), Belclare, Murrisk, Carrowmore, Clare Island and Achill Island.
The chieftain's followers, or clansmen, lived with their families in small round cottages, made of wattle, earth or stone. The cottages clustered around the chieftain's castle for protection.
Neither the castles nor the cottages were very comfortable, having little heat or light and even less furniture.
People lived mainly out of doors, hunting, fishing and looking after the cattle herds and other domestic animals. They got up at sunrise and went to bed at sunset.
Like the people at the time, Granuaile and her family enjoyed a varied diet. They ate meat, fish, vegetables and a type of porridge made from oatmeal and milk, flavoured with butter.
They drank wine which was imported from France and Spain, buttermilk, home-made ale and whiskey. On special occasions they drank mead which was made from honey.
The main meal of the day was eaten in the evening.
Granuaile and her family sat down to eat at wooden tables on benches or stools. The food was placed on large wooden or pewter platters from which everyone helped themselves. Food was eaten with a knife and spoon since forks were at this time rare.
Falconry was a popular sport among the chieftains and their families and some of the best falconries were to be found among the mountains of Mayo and Galway.
Deer hunting on horseback with Irish wolfhounds and hunting wild boar were other popular outdoor pursuits of the time.
The young Granuaile.
Travelling musicians and storytellers sometimes entertained Granuaile and her family in their castle. The harp and bagpipes were among the musical instruments then played.
These musicians and storytellers also brought news and gossip from other parts of the country. Because there was no postal system or newspapers, this was the only way people could find out what was happening outside their own area.
Chess, dice and cards were popular pastimes.
Granuaile became known as a shrewd gambler and was often called âGrainne na gCearbach' (Grace of the Gamblers).
Granuaile was born into a clan that was different from other Gaelic clans in one special way.
For hundreds of years, the O'Malleys had been sailing their ships around the coast of Ireland and farther afield to Scotland and northern Spain, trading, fishing and plundering.
The Gaelic poets called them âthe lions of the green sea'.
Granuaile's father commanded the O'Malley fleet. He was a strong and powerful chieftain.
Dubhdara dressed in the traditional
, a linen shirt, pleated at the waist, tight-fitting woollen trousers and square-toed leather shoes. Over his
he wore a sleeveless leather jerkin. When it was cold he wrapped himself in a large woollen
or cloak which had a deep fringe around the neck.
Women of Granuaile's time wore a linen dress under a sleeveless light woollen tunic reaching to the ground. Women also wore a
In summer the clan's cattle herds were driven up to the pastures high on the mountain and hillsides to graze. The chieftain, his followers and their families lived in small huts on the uplands and looked after the herds.
This custom known as âbooleying' was called after the type of houses, i.e.'booley', in which the people lived. It was a very ancient custom which had been in practice for centuries.
More than anything else Granuaile wanted to go to sea with her father. The sea was in her blood. But the sea was thought to be too dangerous and certainly no place for a girl, especially a chieftain's daughter.
There is a story that Granuaile cut her hair, dressed up in boy's clothes, stowed away on her father's ship and soon learned to be as good a sailor as her father. But one way or another, Granuaile could not be kept away from the sea.
She had much to learn. She had to become an expert judge of the tides, the currents and the many moods of the sea; to become, as the poet wrote of her clan, a âprophet of the weather'. She had to know when it was safe to sail and when to stay ashore.
She also had to learn all about the ships she sailed; about canvas, ropes, ballast and anchors; to know how to navigate by the stars and by compass; to steer her ship safely around rocks, shallows and underwater reefs.
Granuaile also learned about the business her father conducted by sea: how to trade, fish, pilot and plunder.
In summer the O'Malley clan fished for herring in the rich waters off Clare Island and Achill. The herring was then salted and packed in wooden barrels.
Together with wool, cattle hides, the skins of pine marten, rabbit and fox, tallow (made from the lard of cattle and which was used for making candles) and butter, the herring was transported in the O'Malley's ships to Spain.
The ships returned from Spain with cargoes of salt, wine, iron, weapons and alum, a substance used for dying clothes, as well as cloth, such as cambric and damask, and Spanish fashions and furnishings â for those who could afford them.
Dubhdara had the biggest fleet of ships in Ireland. As well as smaller boats, like coracles and curraghs, he had a number of larger ships called galleys.
Galleys were made of wooden planks which overlapped each other to make the ship water-tight. They had a small deck to the stern. They were powered by a triangular sail, known as a lateen sail. They were also rowed by as many as 30 oarsmen. The O'Malley galleys could accommodate up to 100 men in each and they were a fast and agile vessel in the water.
As well as trading the clan produce, the O'Malleys were often involved in the plunder and piracy of other ships, especially merchant ships on their way from England and the continent to the nearby town of Galway.
Wealthy merchants controlled the trade of Galway city. If Granuaile's clan wanted to sell their goods there, the merchants made them pay high taxes. This meant that they made little profit. That is why the O'Malleys traded their goods in their own ships directly to Spain instead.
To get their own back on the merchants, the O'Malleys made the Galway ships pay taxes, called tolls, to sail through O'Malley waters off the west coast.
If the ship's captain refused to pay, then the O'Malleys simply took some of the ship's cargo instead. The slow-moving merchant ships were no match for their faster galleys.
At this time there were no accurate maps of Ireland. The west coast, with its rocky headlands and underwater reefs, was much feared by foreign sea captains.
The O'Malleys were hired to pilot foreign ships and bring them safely along the dangerous coastline.
The O'Malley galleys and crews were also hired by other chieftains to bring in the mercenary soldiers, the gallowglass, from Scotland.
Granuaile's father issued licences to Spanish and English fishermen to fish in the rich waters under his control off Clew Bay.
As Granuaile grew up, she could see how important the sea was to her family. It provided them with an income.
But she also realised that as long as they had their own ships and controlled their sea territory off the west coast, the sea also made them independent and free.
It was a lesson she would never forget.