It is just over forty years since Anne Chambers’ magisterial ‘Granuaile – Ireland’s Pirate Queen’ was launched at Westport House. It was the book which revived the story of Grace O’Malley, which became the catalyst for a slew of articles, documentaries and dramas, and which affirmed that the Pirate Queen was no mythological heroine, but a real flesh and blood, fearless ruler of the western seas.
And if interest in her story may have waned a little in recent years, her legacy seems due for another revival if current developments are anything to go by. The latest edition of the prestigious National Geographic magazine devotes several pages to ‘The trail of Ireland’s legendary pirate queen’, an article which in turn has its origins in plans for a Granuaile Tourist Trail being developed by Mayo County Council and Fáilte Ireland.
According to Anna Connor, Mayo Tourism Officer, it will take two years before the signposted Granuaile Trail is complete, but the finished article will be detailed enough and sufficiently broad based that tourists will need at least two days to properly explore each site on the driving route. The trail will be centred on Westport House and will include the Clew Bay coastline, Grace’s castles on Clare and Achill islands; Ballintubber Abbey, burial place of her son, Tibbot na Long, and Clare Island Abbey where she herself was buried in 1609.
By happy co-incidence, this renewed global interest in the life of Granuaile comes at a time when the filmed version of Anne Chambers’ play, ‘Matriarchs’ received its first viewing some two weeks ago. ‘Matriarchs’ is based on one of the most famous incidents of Grace’s life, when the Mayo Queen of the Sea was received at Greenwich Palace by Elizabeth the First, Virgin Queen of England. It was a remarkable meeting in which Grace presented herself as an equal, not a subservient, and was received as such, and from which she secured the release of a number of captured relatives and, for herself, virtual immunity from any further British harassment.
Many pirates had visited London before her. Most had brief and brutal stays, executed at Wapping Dock and their corpses left dangling for days over the Thames. But Elizabeth was intrigued by Grace, in many ways a kindred figure, dealing with a male dominated world. Grace, for her part, did not see herself as inferior to British royalty. Her dominance was not gifted by bloodline, but whose wealth and power were earned by daring and doing on the high seas.
‘Matriarchs’ was originally staged in Westport two years ago to packed and appreciative audiences, with Regina McCormack playing Grace, Bronach Joyce as Elizabeth, and a versatile Conor Clarke playing the twin roles as the offspring of the respective queens. Set on the eve of the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, it is a powerful drama of two women from opposing backgrounds but who share the experience of the challenges of ageism and male domination.
Although ‘Matriarchs’ was to fall foul of the Covid pandemic, Anne Chambers hopes that the newly filmed version – an all Mayo production from start to finish – could prove the starting point for a renewed promotion of the county’s tourism, as well as providing an outlet for its creative talent. And the venture might act as a fundraiser for a Mayo based project based on one of the many themes inherent in the play. Four hundred years after she reigned over the western seas, it looks like the influence of Granuaile might be as potent as ever.