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Authors: Anne Chambers

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Chapter 6


While Granuaile continued to build her reputation and her business, political events were happening elsewhere that would soon affect her life and that of her country.

In Europe the old Catholic and new Protestant religions were coming into conflict.

The Catholics looked to King Philip II of Spain for protection while the Protestants turned to Queen Elizabeth I of England.

As well as religion, another problem had arisen between Spain and England.

English pirates, like Sir Francis Drake, with the blessing of Queen Elizabeth, regularly attacked King Philip's treasure ships as they returned to Spain from the Americas full of silver and gold.

King Philip began to plot revenge on Elizabeth.

Elizabeth feared the king might use Ireland as a back door to attack England. She realised that if she wanted to continue to rule England, she would have to control Ireland as well.

The sixteenth century was the age of exploration and discovery. There was a hunger in Europe for new lands and new sources of wealth.

For English speculators and adventurers, Ireland was nearer to home than the faraway Americas. If the feuding Gaelic chiefs could be overcome, their fertile lands would make a great prize.

In 1565 the idea of colonisation was introduced in England as a way to both conquer Ireland and satisfy this desire for land.

It was proposed to send loyal Englishmen to Ireland to settle on Irish-owned lands. The idea was greeted with great enthusiasm in England.

Armed with ancient deeds, most of them flawed, many going back to the Norman invasion of the twelfth century, which laid claim to the lands of Gaelic chieftains, scores of English adventurers arrived, firstly in Munster.

The Gaelic chieftains and lords of Munster tried to protect their lands by whatever means they could: some did it by force, others by converting to English law.

To protect the English colonists and to extend its rule outside of the Pale, the English appointed two governors to rule Munster and Connaught. With these governors came English judges, sheriffs and tax collectors.

The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland had started in earnest.

While Mayo, as yet, was not directly affected by these political developments, Granuaile could see that strength meant power. She decided it was time to look for an ally.

She chose Richard-in-Iron, chieftain of the Bourkes of Burrishoole and Carra. He was a strong if, at times, headstrong chieftain on land – an ideal mate for Granuaile whose power was by sea.

Richard had a number of castles on the north side of Clew Bay, including the seaside castle of Carraigahowley, which had a fine sheltered harbour.

It was thought that Richard got his nickname from a suit of old-fashioned armour he wore. It is more likely, however, that his nickname came from the iron mines on his land.

In 1566 Granuaile and Richard got married. Granuaile married her second husband on her own terms. She agreed to become his wife for ‘one year certain', meaning that if she wanted to leave the marriage she was free to do so after one year.

It was said that when the year was up Granuaile divorced her husband. She locked him out of his castle of Carraigahowley, installed herself with her followers there, and anchored her ships in his fine harbour.

It was also said that she kept the mooring rope of her favourite galley tied to her bedpost in Carraigahowley, in case Richard or anyone else tried to steal it from her while she was asleep.

Granuaile and Richard patched up their differences although Granuaile ‘wore the trousers' in her marriage to Richard. But together they made a formidable couple. He was powerful by land; she was powerful by sea.

This made the English very wary of crossing swords with them.

Chapter 7


In 1567, a son was born to Granuaile and Richard, whom they named Theobald.

He became better known in history as Tibóid-na-Long (Toby-of-the-Ships), a suitable name given how and where he was born.

Granuaile was returning from a long trading voyage when she went into labour. Tibóid was born on board her ship in the midst of a violent storm.

In the lull that followed, as she was nursing her new-born baby, her ship was attacked by North African pirates, known as ‘corsairs'.

The corsairs were much feared everywhere. They often took women and children prisoners and brought them back to North Africa as slaves.

At this time, North African corsairs had attacked many coastal villages, particularly on the south coast of Ireland.

The corsairs managed to board Granuaile's galley and a battle raged on deck.

Without Granuaile to lead them, her crew were all but defeated. Her captain hurried below and begged Granuaile to come up on deck so that her presence might rally her men.

Tired after the birth of her son and furious that her men could not beat off the corsairs without her, she gave out to them saying, ‘May you be seven times worse off this day next year for not being able to do without me for one day'.

Coming up on deck, Granuaile rallied her men. The corsairs could not believe their eyes when they saw a woman in command.

With sword in hand, she attacked them with such ferocity that they beat a hasty retreat, leaving many of their number dead behind them.

With such a start in life, it is little wonder that, like his mother, Tibóid became an accomplished seafarer. Like his father though, he was also skilled in warfare.

A poet described him as having ‘hawk-like blue eyes … golden-yellow hair … and ruddy cheeks'.

At six years old his parents fostered him with a neighbouring chieftain. Fosterage was a Gaelic custom. It was considered a mark of honour to be the fosterer of the son of a greater chieftain. It also bound both clans closer together in both peace and war.

Granuaile fighting the Corsairs.

In his foster home Tibóid received all the care, affection and training that his foster parents gave their own children.

As a future chieftain, from boyhood Tibóid was trained to use weapons such as the sword, lance, javelin and dart, both on foot and on horseback.

Later as a youth he learned all about sea-faring from his mother. He also inherited her keen and able mind which he used to good effect later in negotiating with the English.

Unlike most of his fellow countrymen, Tibóid was also able to speak and write both in Irish and English, and some of his letters are preserved in the English State Papers of the time.

Chapter 8


England continued to extend its rule into areas of Ireland which up until then were controlled by the Gaelic chieftains and lords.

It was not long before it began to affect Granuaile and her family.

In 1571, her husband, Richard-in-Iron, was elected tanaiste to succeed Shane Bourke, the MacWilliam of Mayo, chief of all the Bourkes.

To become the MacWilliam was the ambition of every Bourke chief in Mayo. The position brought great power, lands and wealth. Richard and Granuaile's future seemed bright.

In 1576 Queen Elizabeth's representative in Ireland, the lord deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, came with an army into Connaught. The lord deputy ordered the chieftains who had not yet accepted English rule to appear before him in Galway.

The MacWilliam of Mayo and his tanaiste, Richard-in-Iron, refused. They wanted no interference in the way they ruled their lands.

The lord deputy did not have an army big enough to attack MacWilliam and Richard. He had to think of another way to make them submit. He bribed their gallowglass away from them and so reduced the strength of their army.

Fearing that the English would attack his lands and overpower him, MacWilliam submitted to the lord deputy. He promised he would rule Mayo in future by English law and pay taxes to the Queen.

Granuaile heard of this disturbing development. Experience had taught her that, by English law, MacWilliam's nearest male relation would now succeed him when he died, instead of Richard, his tanaiste.

Granuaile vowed that her second husband would not be deprived of his rights, as her first husband had been.

She decided to let the English lord deputy see for himself that she and Richard were a force to be reckoned with – that if Richard did not become the MacWilliam, the English would have a fight on their hands.

When Sir Henry Sidney returned to Galway in 1577, he met Granuaile and, as she intended, he was impressed.

This is how Sidney reported their meeting.

There came to me a most famous feminine sea captain, called Grany I Mallye … with three galleys and 200 fighting men … She brought with her her husband … nicknamed Richard-in-Iron. This was the most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.

Sir Henry Sidney's son, Philip, who at that time was one of the most famous English poets of the day, also met and spoke with Granuaile. He had come to Ireland to visit his father and had accompanied him on his visit to Galway.

Granuaile's plan worked. The English lord deputy was sufficiently impressed to realise that with her army and ships she would make a better friend than an enemy.

He seemed less impressed with Richard-in-Iron, however, whom, as he wrote to the English court, seemed to play second fiddle to his wife.

She brought with her her husband, for she was as well by sea as by land well more than Mrs Mate with him …

Since the lord deputy had no ships of his own, he asked Granuaile if she would bring him in her galley for a trip around Galway Bay so that he might examine the defences of the city from the sea.

Granuaile agreed to his request. But, business being business, she made the lord deputy pay his fare.

Chapter 9


Satisfied that she had made the English realise the extent of her power, Granuaile returned to her usual seafaring trade.

She sailed south to plunder the rich lands of the earl of Desmond in Munster, the most powerful lord in Ireland.

This time, however, the mission did not work out quite as planned. She and some of her men were captured.

She was brought before the earl at his great castle at Askeaton in County Limerick. Desmond threw her into his dungeons where she remained for almost a year.

Imprisonment was a terrible fate to befall anyone but especially Granuaile. Since childhood she had been used to the freedom of the sea and had always been independent.

Now, like a wild animal, she was held captive, with execution her likely fate. Time ebbed slowly. Day after day she prowled up and down her narrow cell.

But her captor had his own problems. The English feared the earl's power and were envious of his vast estates and castles. They wanted to get their hands on his land to give to English colonists.

Granuaile imprisoned in Dublin Castle.

As well as that, England's chief enemy Spain, together with the Pope, was trying to persuade Desmond to lead a Catholic rebellion in Ireland against the Protestant queen of England.

The English were watching Desmond closely. At the time of Granuaile's capture, he played a waiting game. He was trying to make up his mind whether to join forces with Spain against England or remain as he was.

He desperately needed something to keep the English at arm's length. Granuaile provided him with the answer to his problem.

When the English president of Munster, Sir William Drury, and his army arrived before the walls of Askeaton Castle, Desmond produced Granuaile, as proof of his ‘loyalty' to the English queen.

Drury was suitably impressed. He wrote to his superiors in London about his famous prisoner. He accused Granuaile of being ‘a chief commander of thieves and murderers at sea' and described her as ‘a woman who had impudently passed the part of womanhood', in other words, that she had the nerve to compete with men.

While he completed his tour of Munster, Drury had Granuaile imprisoned in Limerick gaol.

From Limerick she was taken in chains and brought across the country to Dublin Castle, where the most important political prisoners were kept.

By now she had been in prison for eighteen months. Accused of plunder, piracy and treason, execution was staring her in the face.

But somehow she managed to secure her freedom. In early 1579 she was released from Dublin Castle. How she managed to get free is a mystery.

As rumours of Desmond's intrigue with Spain increased, perhaps the English did not consider plundering the lands of a suspected traitor was such a crime any more.

BOOK: Pirate Queen of Ireland
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