Authors: Anne Chambers
On her release from prison, Granuaile hurried back to Umhall. Her family and her men could hardly believe their eyes when they saw her. She had been gone for so long they thought she had been executed. Few prisoners ever got free from Dublin Castle. There was great joy and much celebration at her return.
But news of the return of the famous pirate was not welcomed everywhere. When the merchants of Galway heard of it, they knew their ships would have to pay tolls again. They decided to stop Granuaile before she could get started.
They paid for an army, commanded by Captain Martin from Galway, to sail into Clew Bay. They besieged Granuaile in her castle of Carraigahowley.
Granuaile was taken by surprise. Showing great bravery, she held out for 27 days before turning the tables on the besiegers and chasing them out of Clew Bay and right back to Galway.
In November 1579, her former gaoler, the earl of Desmond, finally made up his mind and rebelled. With a huge army, comprised of many of his client lords and chiefs in Munster, he decided to take on the English.
Queen Elizabeth had him proclaimed a traitor. This meant that if he was captured or killed, his huge estate would be forfeited to her.
The English army attacked his territory and the Desmond rebellion, which was to last for four years, began.
Desmond asked for help from the Connaught chieftains. Granuaile had no reason to help her former captor but her husband, Richard-in-Iron, set out with his army for Munster.
Granuaile was furious with her husband. Desmond's rebellion against the English in Munster had nothing to do with them. Her only concern was to protect and provide for her family and her followers.
She also realised that her husband's action would serve only to bring the English army into Umhall.
Granuaile was proved right. In 1580 the English governor of Connaught, Sir Nicholas Malby, drove Richard and his army from Munster, through Galway, back into Mayo, burning and looting everything in his path.
When his gallowglass deserted him, Richard fled to Granuaile for help.
Malby pursued Richard to the shores of Clew Bay. Richard escaped to one of the islands in the bay, leaving Granuaile to deal with Malby.
Granuaile opened negotiations with the governor. With great skill and cunning, she eventually succeeded in achieving good terms and a pardon for her husband.
More importantly, she got the English troops out of her territory.
In November 1580, the MacWilliam of Mayo died. By Gaelic law, as his tanaiste, Richard-in-Iron should have succeeded him. But since the MacWilliam had accepted English law, his title and lands would instead be inherited by his next male heir, his brother.
Granuaile and Richard were having none of it. They joined their forces to fight for their rights.
Granuaile's ships brought in the gallowglass from Scotland. The other clans in Mayo came out to support them.
The English army was still fighting the earl of Desmond in Munster and was already stretched to its limit. The English knew they stood little chance against the combined power of Granuaile, Richard and their allies in Connaught. They agreed to talk.
Both sides met in Mayo and a deal was struck. Richard was to become the MacWilliam. The previous MacWilliam's brother was to become his tanaiste.
Richard was to have the lands, amounting to 7,000 acres, and the castles that went with the title. He was to receive all the payments which the MacWilliam usually received by Brehon custom from his client chiefs in Mayo.
In return, Richard promised to rule his lordship by English law and to pay 50 cows to the English government each year in tax.
To put an English gloss on his Gaelic title of MacWilliam, the Queen knighted him as âSir Richard Bourke'.
The ceremony was carried out by the governor of Connaught in Galway. âThe MacWilliam â¦ and many gentlemen and their wives are here, among them Grace O'Malley who thinks herself to be no small Lady,' the Governor reported back to England.
So Granuaile became Lady Bourke, the wife of the most powerful chieftain in Connaught, as well as a chieftain in her own right.
But no one dared call her anything but Granuaile.
Granuaile and Richard moved with their son, TibÃ³id, away from Clew Bay, inland to Lough Mask Castle, the principal residence of the MacWilliam. TibÃ³id was fostered nearby with a clan called MacEvilly.
Granuaile and her husband were now at the height of their power. Every clan in Mayo paid them homage, as well as substantial dues in money, cattle, horses, sheep, produce and weapons, as was the Gaelic custom.
Granuaile with her husband, Sir Richard Bourke and clansmen.
When the English tried to force them to pay the tax they had agreed to, Granuaile and her army sent the tax collector and his armed guard packing. The tax collector feared for his life and reported that Granuaile had threatened to kill him.
For two years Richard and Granuaile ruled undisputed in Mayo. They were a powerful and wealthy couple.
In April 1583, however, Richard suddenly died. Granuaile was a widow once more.
Her second marriage, despite its ups and downs, had been a marriage of equals. Despite their differences, Granuaile and Richard were a well-suited pair. Both were brave but Granuaile was the cleverer.
On the death of her husband, Granuaile gathered together all her followers. With her own herds, which by then numbered 1,000 head of cattle and horses, she returned to Umhall.
She settled in her husband's castle of Carraigahowley, which she took in place of her dowry. Soon she was back to the life she loved best â the sea.
Granuaile was now 53 years of age. She seemed likely to live out her remaining years in comfort in her castle near the sea. But fate had other things in store for her.
Up to now Granuaile, by her sheer courage and ability, had managed to keep the English away from her territory. She was still a powerful leader by land and sea. She had her own ships, her own army, a fortune in cattle and horses, and her castle.
But the arrival of Sir Richard Bingham as governor of Connaught in 1584 spelled the beginning of the end, not only for Granuaile, but for her native Gaelic world.
Up to now the English had been content to try and persuade the chieftains in Connaught to accept English law by peaceful means.
But when England's enemy Spain began to support the Gaelic chiefs in their struggle against England â as they had done with the earl of Desmond in Munster â Queen Elizabeth decided that the time had come to conquer Ireland once and for all.
The fate of the once-powerful earl of Desmond was a terrible warning and example to other chiefs of Elizabeth's determination.
His great castle of Askeaton was gutted, his lands burned and pillaged. For two years the earl was hunted from one part of his lordship to the other, forced to live like a wild animal in the forests of Munster.
When eventually he was captured, Desmond's head was sent to the Queen in England. She had it put on a spike outside the Tower of London, where the earl's young son and heir was imprisoned.
Because the earl had died in rebellion, by English law, his huge estates were confiscated to the Crown. They were divided among new English planters and among the English soldiers who had fought against him.
Famous Englishmen like Sir Walter Raleigh and the poet Edmund Spenser were granted some of Desmond's lands and castles, while the earl's only son got nothing.
Now it was the turn of Granuaile and her neighbours in Mayo to either accept English law or have their property and lands taken from them also.
And Sir Richard Bingham was just the man to do it.
Bingham was a military man. His opinion was that âthe Irish would never be tamed by words but with swords'. Very soon he began to put that opinion into practice.
One of his first acts as governor was to hang 70 people in Galway. He next hit at the Bourkes in Mayo and hanged the MacWilliam's tanaiste, Edmund Bourke, and confiscated his lands.
The Mayo chieftains, including Granuaile and her family, rose in rebellion to protect their lands and property.
The rebellion spread into the territory of Granuaile's sons, Owen and Murrough O'Flaherty, in Iar-Chonnacht.
Captain John Bingham, the governor's brother, seized Granuaile's eldest son Owen and had him killed while he was in his custody.
Granuaile was devastated by the murder of her eldest son. She vowed vengeance on the English governor. Her ships brought in the gallowglass from Scotland to help the rebellion.
But very soon she herself was captured by Captain John Bingham, who trapped her near her castle of Carraigahowley.
Granuaile later told Queen Elizabeth what had happened to her. âShe was apprehended and tied with a rope. Both she and her followers were spoiled [robbed] of their cattle and she was brought to Sir Richard.'
Bingham was delighted to capture such an important rebel leader. He executed two of her nephews who had been taken with her and threw Granuaile into prison.
Knowing that she was one of the principal leaders of the rebellion and that she had brought the gallowglass from Scotland into Connaught, Bingham vowed to make an example of Granuaile.
He ordered a new gallows to be specially built on which to hang her publicly as a deterrent to others. Granuaile faced the end bravely.
While she awaited her fate, her daughter's husband, Richard Bourke, chieftain of Achill, tricked Bingham into accepting him as a hostage in her place. Once Granuaile was free, Richard Bourke also escaped Bingham's clutches by pretending to become a royal subject of the Queen.
Granuaile immediately set sail in her ships to Scotland to hire more gallowglass.
On her voyage north a violent storm overtook her. Her ships were so battered and broken, she was forced to put ashore for repairs in Ulster.
There she visited two of the most powerful chieftains in the country, O'Neill and O'Donnell. They had contacts with the Spanish court. They told her about the exciting news they had heard â that Spain was planning an invasion of England.
But her family and followers in Mayo were Granuaile's immediate concern. If she returned to Mayo though, Bingham would have her executed. She thought of a plan.
She knew there was little love lost between the new lord deputy in Dublin, Sir John Perrot, and Bingham. So she travelled to Dublin and put her case to the lord deputy.
Perrot listened sympathetically to her litany of complaints against Bingham.
She asked Perrot for a pardon for herself and the members of her family whom Bingham had accused of being rebels. Perrot agreed and promised he would do his best to have Bingham removed from office.
Armed with a Royal Pardon, Granuaile knew Bingham could not now harm her or her family.
By the time she got back to Mayo, she found that the rebellion was over. The land was ruined and the people exhausted from the fighting.
But Perrot kept his word and Bingham was removed from Connaught and transferred to Flanders.
The whole of Connaught breathed a sigh of relief and hoped they would never set eyes on him again.
Free once more to return to her business by sea, Granuaile made up for lost time.
On 29 July 1588, the 130 ships of the Spanish Armada were sighted off the south coast of England. Fiery beacons, from hilltop to hilltop, conveyed the terrifying news across England.
The long-feared Spanish invasion was at hand.
By sending small, unmanned fireships in among the bigger Spanish vessels, the English navy managed to scatter the great ships of the Armada in the English Channel before they could land.
Then a great storm arose and drove the Spanish ships northwards towards Scotland. England was saved.
There was nothing for the Armada to do but head home to Spain.
On the way, the wind and the strong currents drove the ships too close to the dangerous north and west coasts of Ireland.
The Spanish captains had no accurate map of the Irish coast. Many of the ships crashed on to the rocky headlands or went aground in the shallows.
The Spanish Armada.
Thousands of Spanish sailors and soldiers were drowned. Those who managed to scramble ashore received a mixed welcome from the Irish.
Few of the ordinary people in Ireland knew much about the Armada. When the great ships crashed onto the rocks and split asunder, the people along the coast thought only of the treasure they could salvage from the wreck.
They were also fearful of English reprisals if they helped the survivors.
Many of the Spanish castaways were killed, others were stripped of their belongings and left to fend for themselves.
Some Irish chieftains, like O'Neill and O'Rourke in Ulster, however, did save hundreds of survivors and eventually got them safe passage back to Spain.
Many of the Spanish ships were wrecked on the coast of Connaught. Two went aground in Clew Bay.
The English government feared that the Spanish would join forces with the Gaelic clans, especially Granuaile and her family. Some of them did.
The English made it a crime punishable by death to shelter the Spanish. Sir Richard Bingham was sent back to Connaught to put that order into effect and to round up the remaining survivors.