Authors: Anne Chambers
Bingham made up for lost time. On his arrival he immediately sent an army to search the lands of Granuaile and her family.
He also ordered that the property of any chieftain found sheltering the Spaniards was to be destroyed and their land confiscated.
The army, under the command of the sheriff of Mayo, John Browne, reached Granuaile's castle in February 1589. Granuaile's army and that of her son-in-law, Richard Bourke, barred his path.
In a battle that followed, the sheriff and many of his soldiers were killed.
On the strength of their victory Granuaile, her family and followers, together with the Bourkes and other Mayo clans, rose in all-out rebellion in a final attempt to get rid of Bingham.
They were soon joined by the O'Flahertys of Iar-Chonnacht, including Granuaile's second son, Murrough O'Flaherty, now chieftain of Ballinahinch.
Soon the west of Ireland was in arms. The Bourkes and the O'Flahertys burned and raided the countryside right up to the gates of Galway city.
By sea Granuaile attacked the Aran Islands which had been recently given to an English planter.
Bingham could do little to stop her. He reported her raids to the English government and described her as âthe nurse to all rebellions in Connaught for 40 years'.
But the English government were growing fearful. They knew that if the rebellion spread, their army in Ireland was not strong enough to defeat it.
They removed Bingham from office and ordered him to remain in Athlone Castle.
The lord deputy came down from Dublin. He invited the rebel leaders to meet him for a peace conference in Galway.
Bingham was furious. âTruly I have never heard the like of it between a prince and her subjects,' he complained angrily to London, âmuch less with a race of such beggarly wretches as these â¦ This dalliance with these rebels,' he warned, âmakes them more insolent â¦ Without the sword â¦ it is impossible to govern the Irish.'
But the conference went ahead regardless of Bingham's objections.
Fearing a trap, the Gaelic chieftains refused to go into Galway city. The negotiations instead took place in open land outside the city walls.
The chieftains presented the lord deputy with a book of complaints about Bingham. They demanded that he be removed forever as governor of Connaught.
Among the complaints about Bingham and his relations was that they were responsible for killing Granuaile's son Owen O'Flaherty and also her Bourke nephews.
The chieftains also demanded that the old MacWilliam title should be conferred on the claimant by right of Brehon Law. This was William Bourke, Richard-in-Iron's brother.
But the negotiations were no more than a smokescreen. The chieftains were only biding their time, awaiting the return of Granuaile, who had sailed to Scotland for the gallowglass.
The negotiations eventually broke down.
When seven of Granuaile's galleys arrived in Erris in north Mayo, full of gallowglasses, the fighting resumed once again.
With the additional forces brought in by Granuaile, the Bourkes pressed home their advantage against the English.
They recaptured Lough Mask Castle, chief castle of the MacWilliam, and plundered the country to the borders of Galway.
With Lough Mask Castle in their hands, they decided to restore the ancient MacWilliam title, outlawed by the English.
At a great assembley of all the Bourkes of Mayo at the traditional inauguration site of Rousakeera, William Bourke, Granuaile's brother-in-law, was elected the new MacWilliam. The rebellion now had an official figurehead.
As the rebellion spread, Queen Elizabeth's patience ran out. She ordered the lord deputy in Dublin to find Sir Richard Bingham either guilty or not guilty of the charges brought against him by the Bourkes.
In spring 1590, after a trial in Dublin, Bingham was found not guilty of the charges.
He was allowed back to Connaught to bring the rebellion to an end, by whatever means he chose. The means, as ever, was the sword.
With an army numbering over 1,000 soldiers, Bingham marched into Mayo. He captured Castlebar and then set out against the Bourkes who had assembled their forces in Tirawley.
The Bourkes, in the traditional Gaelic way of fighting, shadowed Bingham's progress from the protection of the woods and bogs. Then they made a sudden attack.
In the skirmish that followed, the MacWilliam was injured. His followers rushed him away and hid him on an island in Lough Conn. His injury was so serious that one of his legs had to be amputated.
By Gaelic law his disability made him unfit to continue as the MacWilliam and he had to resign from the chieftaincy.
Bingham pressed home the advantage and marched into Erris, killing and plundering as he went. The people fled before him into the mountains and woodlands. Bingham and his soldiers looted everything in their path and swept the countryside clean of livestock and crops.
He then doubled back to attack Granuaile.
Granuaile and her followers fled before Bingham to the safety of the islands in Clew Bay. For lack of ships, Bingham was unable to pursue them.
Instead, he took his anger out on the people left behind.
In his report to London, he boasted of how he âslew all their woman and children'. Granuaile could hear their cries and the sound of the slaughter across the bay.
In the face of such a massacre, the rebellion began to crumble. Some of the Bourkes' allies submitted to Bingham on promise of their lives.
Granuaile, her son TibÃ³id and her Bourke nephews and in-laws continued to fight on. Bingham plundered her castle of Carraigahowley, stole her cattle and horses and lay waste to the countryside around.
The sea and her ships were now the only way Granuaile could provide for her family and followers. She swooped again on the Aran Islands and plundered the property of the new English owners.
Granuaile's men driving off her son's cattle.
Then news was brought to her that her second son, Murrough O'Flaherty of Ballinahinch, had allied with Bingham. Her anger knew no bounds. She decided to teach her son a lesson he would never forget for siding with her bitter enemy.
Granuaile set sail for Ballinahinch and made landfall at Murrough's castle of Bunowen. She ordered her men to burn and plunder the castle and drive off her son's cattle. Some of Murrough's soldiers, who were defending the castle, were killed in the attack.
It was a severe lesson to have to teach her son. But it worked. Murrough never crossed his mother again.
By 1592 most of the senior leaders of the Bourkes of Mayo had been killed in the war with Bingham.
Granuaile's youngest son, TibÃ³id, began to emerge as their new leader. He was married to Maeve O'Connor, sister of Donogh O'Connor, chieftain of Sligo.
Like the Gaelic chieftains elsewhere in the country at this time, Granuaile and the Bourkes were merely fighting their own corner. Their sole ambition was to protect their lands and property and preserve the rights they enjoyed under Brehon Law.
If the Gaelic chiefs had united under one single leader they could have defeated the English.
But the Gaelic chiefs often hated each other more than they did the English. That was their greatest weakness and the English were more than happy to take advantage of it.
Ireland was still divided into many chieftainships and lordships. There simply was no one leader powerful or strong enough to unite and lead all the chieftains under one banner.
An uneasy peace had descended on Connaught. Although Bingham had robbed her of her cattle and horse herds and had plundered her land, Granuaile still had her ships.
With them, she now had to feed and provide for her family and followers who depended on her. Like her ancestors before her, the sea provided her with the means of survival.
But the sea also gave her freedom and kept her out of Bingham's reach.
That is until an ill-planned attack by her son TibÃ³id put her freedom and safety in jeopardy once more.
Red Hugh O'Donnell, the son of the chieftain of Donegal, escaped from Dublin Castle in 1591. To stop his father rebelling against them, the English had captured Red Hugh and thrown him into prison. Red Hugh started plotting with Spain against England. To keep the English from finding out what he was doing, he needed a diversion.
In the spring of 1592 he persuaded Granuaile's son TibÃ³id to attack Bingham in Connaught. O'Donnell promised TibÃ³id more than he could give, including help from Spain.
On the strength of O'Donnell's promise, TibÃ³id started a rebellion in Mayo and attacked Bingham at Cloonagashel Castle.
The attack was unsuccessful and TibÃ³id's army was driven away. O'Donnell had failed to deliver on his promise of help.
Bingham was furious and sought revenge. He came with an army into TibÃ³id's territory of Burrishoole, near Granuaile's home.
The countryside around was only beginning to recover from the effects of the previous rebellion. Bingham stripped it bare of crops and cattle once more.
But this time Bingham did not stop with the land. English warships sailed into Granuaile's sea territory of Clew Bay and captured her fleet.
For the first time the secrets of Granuaile's sea empire were revealed: the network of islands, channels, the hidden reefs and shallows, the sheltered harbours that had protected her for decades, had now been uncovered by Bingham's ships.
No longer could her ships run before the wind on missions of trade or plunder or bring in the gallowglass from Scotland. No longer were they safe from pursuit in Clew Bay.
This was the greatest blow to Granuaile's freedom and to her power. Up until then, whatever happened on land, she knew she could always fall back on the sea. It is no wonder that she was furious with her son.
Bingham was delighted with the success of his mission against the woman who, from the very beginning of his reign as governor, had been the greatest obstacle to his efforts to conquer Connaught.
With much satisfaction he wrote to the English court, boasting of how he had penetrated Granuaile's sea domain and made her powerless.
But Granuaile was not someone who took such a setback lying down. And especially so when it came from her hated enemy Bingham.
Now, at the age of 63, in her stout castle at Carraigahowley, her lands devastated, her cattle herds taken, her people starving, English warships patrolling her sea domain, she was already plotting her next move.
And what a crafty move it proved to be.
In the bitter game played between herself and Bingham, the dice so far had fallen badly for Granuaile. Bingham was master of Mayo. She knew there was no way she could get the better of him in Ireland.
To get rid of him, she decided to go over his head to his boss, Queen Elizabeth I. It was a gamble but she had little left to lose.
In the Spring of 1593 she wrote her first letter to the queen.
Aware that Bingham had already blackened her name at the English court, Granuaile knew she had to present her case to Elizabeth and her shrewd ministers, especially her secretary of state, Lord Burghley, with great care and cunning, carefully choosing the right words.
Granuaile's letters show her to be politically astute and very shrewd.
In her letter to the queen she gave her version of the past events.
She tells Elizabeth that it was Bingham's harsh treatment of herself and her family that forced her to âtake arms and by force to maintain herself and her people by sea and by land the space of 40 years â¦'
She knew that her part in past rebellions had been reported to the queen. She also realised that, as a result, her lands and those of her sons and her followers could, by English law, be confiscated.
Granuaile had to find a way to save her family's lands from falling into the hands of English planters and the English queen was the only person who could stop them.
Granuaile writing to Queen Elizabeth I.
To get around the charge of rebellion, she told the Queen that Bingham had forced her to rebel as the only way left to her to protect her people. Any plundering she had done by sea was simply to provide for them, as Bingham had taken their cattle and destroyed their crops.
Then, as a way to get back to sea, she asked the queen to give her âfree liberty during her life to invade with fire and sword all Your Highness' enemies â¦ without any interruption of any person whatsoever'. The person she had most in mind was Bingham.
It was an ingenious plan. In the guise of fighting for the queen, she could get the better of the queen's governor and continue her life at sea, free from Bingham's control.
She also asked for compensation for the damage done to her land and for the fortune in horses and cattle that Bingham had stolen from her.
Knowing that she and the queen were the same age, Granuaile played the sympathy vote and asked the queen to take into consideration her âgreat age' and the âlittle time she had to live'.
While her letter made its way to the English court though, something happened that added new urgency to her requests and which made Granuaile embark on the most dangerous voyage of her life.