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Feminist feats of marine matriarch


TWO QUEENS MEETBronach Joyce, who plays Queen Elizabeth I, and Regina McCormack, who plays Grace O’Malley.

Áine Ryan

WITH gender equality, female empowerment, ageism and the continuing reverberations from the #MeToo campaign still stoking the fires of feminism today, the staging of ‘Matriarchs’ in Westport Town Hall Theatre later this month is entirely timely. The fact that it is also the 40th anniversary of the publication of Anne Chambers’s groundbreaking book, ‘Grace O’Malley – Ireland’s Pirate Queen’ confirms the appropriateness of the location for the premiere of this play. The book was originally launched in historic Westport House, built on the foundations of one of the16th century pirate queen’s castles.
Both writer and director of this much-anticipated production, Anne Chambers observes: “Grace O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth I shine as inspirational beacons to what women everywhere can achieve, even like them, in the most demanding and difficult environments.”
‘Matriarchs’ stars local thespians, Regina McCormack as Grace O’Malley, Bronach Joyce as Queen Elizabeth I and Conor Clarke as Tibbott Bourke (also known as Tibbott na Long) and the Earl of Essex.
It tells the fascinating story of how, in July 1593, the Irish Pirate Queen Grace sailed up the Thames and met with the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, to seek the restoration of her lands from Richard Bingham, the Governor of Connacht, and to have her son, Tibbott, released from prison.
‘Absence from history’
BUT where did this lifelong fascination with Granuaile begin for Castlebar native and  former banker, Anne Chambers?
“Initially, it was Grace O’Malley’s absence from ‘official’ history that first motivated my own interest to research and write her true story, which I found mainly preserved in 400-year-old manuscripts in public and private archives in Ireland and England.
“And what a story it turned out to be. You could not invent it. An extraordinary leader of a private army by land and by sea, a politician, tactician, intrepid mariner, successful businesswoman, pirate and rebel, she was also a wife – twice over – the mother of four children, a lover, a grandmother and a great-grandmother.
“This ‘most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland’ breaching boundaries of gender imbalance and bias, in a period of immense social and political upheaval and change, re-wrote the rules to become one of the world’s first recorded feminist trailblazers,” Ms Chambers tells The Mayo News.
She says that among the ‘most satisfying outcomes’ of the publication of the biography was Grace’s rightful restoration to the pages of official history.
“Today she is now part of schools curricula in countries throughout the world, and her place and contribution to political, social and maritime history is acknowledged and celebrated.”
Indeed, Grace O’Malley had such an impact on Anne Chambers’ life that she left her career in banking to become a full-time writer.  This brave decision has brought her all around the world to tell Grace’s story, meeting people along the way ‘whose own lives have been inspired and shaped by this extraordinary woman’.
Over the years, Chambers has lectured and been interviewed about this pirate of the high seas all over the world, with the most recent interview in early August with ABC Australia.
“The biography has been the subject of numerous TV and radio documentaries, all of which I hope have also helped publicise the magnificent coastline of Mayo and Connemara, the physical background to Grace O’Malley’s life story,” she says.
But what of about the genesis of this play?
“One aspect of Grace O’Malley’s life story always fascinated me. This was her meeting with Queen Elizabeth I of England, the other iconic female leader of the age. A highlight of my research for the biography had been the discovery of a letter from the [English] queen about this meeting. I found that they met in 1593 as mature women, each with a lifetime of experience and knowledge behind them,” Chambers explains.
It was inevitable that this historic moment would command further examination, and thus the wiriting of ‘Matriarchs’ during 2018.  

The premiere of ‘Matriarchs’, a play by Anne Chambers, will be staged in Westport Town Hall Theatre on Friday and Saturday, August 30 and 31, at 8pm. Tickets, €20. To book, visit www.westporttheatre.com.

SET on the eve of the famous Battle of Kinsale, Matriarchs is a play about women’s relationships with fathers, husbands, lovers and sons; about the boundaries placed on women by society, marriage, motherhood and love; the juggling of a career with family life; breaching the boundaries of male power and bias as well as the challenges posed by female ageing. As Grace and Elizabeth emerge from the mists of time what they have to say on these issues may explain why these two iconic women remain as relevant today as they were over 400 years ago.