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Pirates of our past


Áine Ryan

NATURALLY, Ireland’s Pirate Queen Granuaile is central to author Des Ekin’s quest to uncover our swashbuckling past. Whether his claim to have debunked the ‘many myths’ about the 16th-century seafarer, who is reputed to be be buried within the walls of the Cistercian Abbey on Clare Island, will be accepted by her armies of fans is a matter for discussion – after reading this fascinating book, of course.     
‘Ireland’s Pirate Trail: A Quest to Uncover our Swashbuckling Past’ is the culmination of Ekin’s lifelong fascination ‘with freebooters and bucanneers’ and involved a trip right round the coast ‘in search of true-life adventure stories’. This seaside odyssey ‘uncovered an incredible forgotten history of swashbuckling sea-bandits, mutinies, massacres, captured princesses and buried treasure’.
The blurb says it all: “Alongside infamous buccaneers such as William Lamport of Wexford and Kinsale’s Anne Bonny, the scourge of the Caribbean, this book highlights lesser-known pirates whose bloodstained careers have long been forgotten.” There are the ‘brutal Viking sea-raiders’ and the ‘Irish privateers’ who sailed off to help win independence in the USA.
But for Co Mayo readers the chapters on our heroine, Granuaile are fascinating. For the author it all started at the little mainland pier at Roonagh harbour.  
0105 irelands-pirate-trail 1000“On this perfect May morning, the surface of Clew Bay is a deep Mediterranean blue, reflecting and intensifying the robin’s-egg shade of an almost cloudless sky. Drifts of mauve thrift tumble chaotically down the stone walls of Roonagh Harbour as our ferry chugs off towards Clare Island.”
Observing some of the tourists aboard the ferry, he notes that they are ‘in a sense, pilgrims: they have travelled from all over the world to worship at the shrine of a famous female pirate named Granuaile’.
On arrival, the caravan of tourists trek back along the road to ‘the abbey’ – dubbed a misnomer, by the author, since it was ‘never more than an out-chapel to a mainland parish church’. Commenting on the medieval wallpaintings, he then writes: “Along one wall is the famous canopy tomb that is reputed to hold the remains of Grace O’Malley. Curiously, the sober archaeological leaflet in the church says nothing at all about the Granuaile connection. It says the tomb is the last resting place of an O’Malley lord. There may be a clue in the fact that the plaque alongside, bearing the family coat of arms and cited by eighteenth-century sources as proof of her burial there, actually post-dates Grace by nearly a hundred years.”
Thus the scene is set for Edkin’s fascinating chapter (almost 30 pages) entitled: ‘Grania Mania’, a celebration of her truly fascinating life with a list of popular ‘myths’ challenged.
“For the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with her story, Granuaile was a notorious sixteenth-century Irish pirate, whose plundering exploits off Ireland’s west coast infuriated not only her neighbours but also the English colonists. ‘The affrighted natives trembled at her name,’ wrote one early historian, and an English viceroy agreed, saying she was ‘a terror to all merchantmen who sailed the Atlantic’.”
However, Ekin adds ‘the strange thing’ is that details of her actual piracy ‘are scant and sketchy’. He goes on then to tell her story using the broader narrative of the O’Malley clan and their exploits, as well as specific historic references.
This is not a history book, however, and thus draws very personal conclusions by the author about what may have been myth and reality.
Like his revelations about the many other legendary stories of pirates and their exploits around the coast of Ireland, it is clear by the colour and vibrancy of each chapter that the author is fascinated by his subject matter.
About the author
A former journalist and a native of Co Down,  Des Ekin began his career covering The Troubles. After moving to Dublin, he worked as an assistant editor and political correspondent at The Sunday World until 2012.
His book, ‘The Stolen Village’ (2006), was about a 17th-century pirate raid on the Co Cork village of Baltimore and how the band of Algerian marauders carried its inhabitants off to a life of slavery in north Africa. It was shortlisted Book of the Decade Awards in the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards 2010.

‘Ireland’s Pirate Trail: A Quest to Uncover our Swashbuckling Past’, by Des Ekin, is published by O’Brien Press and is on sale for €16.99.