Into Exile

Rathmullen, County Donegal

Photo of The Flight of the Earls by Rhodora, licensed under Creative Commons

4th September 1607

The French ship bobbed in the moonlit waters of Lough Swilly. Hugh O’Neill felt like he had reached the end of the world.

He was uncertain whether he would sail today. Born to the powerful family that were descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, he was still Earl of Tyrone, precarious though that position might be in these troubled times. He had played the political game, at times fighting with the English and at other times against them, but perhaps the game had finally caught up with him.

6 years earlier, he had been at the other end of Ireland, fighting alongside his good friend Red Hugh O’Donnell and a battalion of Irish and Spanish soldiers. But the Battle of Kinsale had ended in defeat, and Red Hugh died on his way to Spain to gather more support.

Rory O’Donnell had inherited the title of Earl of Tyrconnell from his older brother. He no more wanted to leave Ireland than O’Neill did, but the English authorities were tightening their grip and he saw no other choice. His wife had accompanied him, together with a retinue of servants. He looked towards his son — not yet a year old, named Hugh after his grandfather and uncle. The small boy grizzled at the lateness of the hour — it was near midnight — hiding his face in his nursemaid’s shoulder.

“A clear night, thank God,” said O’Neill, touching the gold cross that hung around his neck. It contained a relic of the True Cross, and he prayed now that it would give him guidance for making the right decision.

“You can’t rely on King James to pardon you again,” said O’Donnell. Following the Battle of Kinsale, O’Neill had pleaded his case in London. The Scottish king of England had shown mercy on the Irishman, but this had not been a popular move in his Parliament, and the recent Gunpowder Plot meant that Catholics were on shakier ground than ever.

Catherine O’Neill took her husband’s hand. He was startled — theirs was a political match and she wasn’t much given to public displays of affection. Their 7-year-old son Shane stood beside her, trying his best to look grown-up and unafraid.

“Ireland is no longer safe for us,” she said. “But we will return.”

“It will be a good day in Ireland when we do,” said her husband.

He decided to board the ship and sail from Rathmullan towards Normandy. The event would later be known as The Flight of the Earls and be seen as the death knell of the old Gaelic order in Ireland. O’Neill and O’Donnell never returned to see that “good day in Ireland”. They died abroad and were buried together in the San Pietro di Montorio church in Rome.

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The Year of the French

Killala, County Mayo

 Map of Battle of Ballinamuck 1798 from National Library of Ireland

 O! the French are in the bay,
They’ll be here without delay,
And the Orange will decay,
Says the sean bhean bhocht.

— The Sean Bhean Bhocht (Poor Old Woman), traditional song

When General Jean Joseph Humbert sailed into Killala Bay in County Mayo in August 1798, it was his second time to see the Irish coast but it would be his first time to land. Two years before, bad weather and the British Navy had prevented his fleet from landing at Bantry Bay in County Cork, but today the fickle weather was on his side and the British were nowhere to be seen.

At the end of the 18th century, revolution was in the air, bringing independence to the American colonies and upheaval to Humbert’s native France. Now revolution was arriving in a most unlikely location, far removed from any center of civilization. The people of North Mayo were rural and poor, disenfranchised by law and religious discrimination, speaking a language that few outsiders understood. The United Irishmen Rebellion had swept across the east and south of the country throughout the spring and summer of 1798, but the west remained in its usual languor. Until now.

But, hark! a voice like thunder spake,
The West’s awake! the West’s awake!

— The West’s Awake, Thomas Davis (1914-1845)

General Humbert must have seemed a strange sight, with his tri-cornered hat and his buttoned blue coat. He disembarked with a thousand French soldiers; they were met by local United Irishmen and paraded through the streets of Killala. The Mayomen were promised that more French troops would follow, and so they answered the revolutionary call. Peasant farmers stepped forward to receive arms and training. With not enough guns to go around, many lifted their pikes in the air as they roared the battle cry.

Few could have expected success from such a mob, but they routed the British militia of Castlebar; indeed, their enemies ran away so fast the event became known as “The Castlebar Races”. Captain John Moore, a merchant’s son, was proclaimed “President of the Government of the Province of Connacht”.

The army went on to further success at Westport and Newport, but both Irish and French were to have their expectations shattered. The promised reinforcements never arrived from France, and the Irish troops had neither the combat experience nor the artillery for a prolonged fight. They marched together towards the midlands in an attempt to join with other United Irishmen, grumbling in their own languages about the folly of the other.

At Ballinamuck in County Longford, they were surrounded by British troops. General Humbert surrendered after just half an hour, knowing that as prisoners of war his French troops would be well treated. The Mayomen were shown no such leniency; they were slaughtered where they stood. Any Irish leaders were tried for treason and hanged. Captain Moore died in captivity.

Humbert returned to France where he had a successful military career and, it is rumoured, an affair with Napoleon’s sister Pauline. His failed rebellion became known in local history as Bliain na bhFrancach, the Year of the French. Humbert Street in Ballina is named after him and contains a monument in his honour. The Mayomen who followed him to be slaughtered at Ballinamuck might wonder at that.

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The Sea Queen of Connacht

Clew Bay, County Mayo

The Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley by Tracy Feldman

 Tá Gráinne Mhaol ag teacht thar sáile,
Óglaigh armtha léi mar gharda.

Gráinne Mhaol is coming over the sea,
Armed warriors as her guard.

—  Óró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile, by Padraig Pearse (1914)

The castle on Clare Island had a perfect view. When she stood on its ramparts and looked eastwards, she could see the mainland ahead of her, Achill Island to her left, the holy island of Caher to her right, and the restless seas running between them. Her clan, the O’Malleys, controlled these waters; their motto was “powerful by land and sea”.

Her name was Gráinne Ní Mháille. The English would call her Grace O’Malley. She had grown up on Clare Island,  and as a child she’d asked her father to bring her on a journey to Spain with him. He told her that her long hair would get caught in the ship’s ropes. Ever practical, she’d shaved her head and snuck on board with the boys, and thereafter was known as Gráinne Mhaol (“Bald Gráinne”), or Granuaile.

Her parents arranged a useful political marriage between their teenage daughter and one of the Ferocious O’Flahertys, a pugnacious young man known as Donal An Cogaigh (“Donal of the Battles”). They had two sons and a daughter together, but Donal was better at getting into fights than at ruling a clan territory, and Granuaile was the de facto chieftain during their marriage.

Predictably,  Donal An Cogaigh died during one of his ongoing disputes.The young widow returned to the family home on Clare Island, which became a lucrative pirate base. Granuaile’s crew came from multiple clans who were normally at war with one another. The fact that they put aside their differences to unite behind one woman is testament to her abilities and charisma.

She had strongholds on her headlands,
And brave galleys on the sea
And no warlike chief or viking
E’er had bolder heart than she.
— Granuaile, traditional song

February 1st was Saint Brigid’s Day, a time of pilgrimage to the holy well on Clare Island. Granuaile may have felt a connection to the formidable Saint Brigid, who had stood strong in her own time against the prejudices of men. As Granuaile walked towards the well, a messenger stopped her with news of a shipwreck off Achill Island. There was plunder to be had, and neither religious duty nor bad weather would stand between Granuaile and plunder!

Her crew sailed hard into the wind across the narrow strait between the two islands. A ship was foundering off Achill Head and a young man clung to the rocks. He was Hugh de Lacey, son of a Wexford merchant, a handsome fellow at least a decade younger than Granuaile. She took him home with the rest of the booty, and the two became lovers in her castle on Clare Island.

This romantic interlude was sadly short. Not long afterwards, Hugh went hunting deer on Achill and was killed by a member of the MacMahon clan. Granuaile was heartbroken, the warmth of her love turning to a cold fury that demanded vengeance.

Another pilgrimage was due to take place, this time on the little island of Caher. From her castle she watched the MacMahons disembark from their boats, and then her own fleet swooped in to surround and overpower them. She killed Hugh’s murderer with her own sword, but her thirst for revenge was not slaked. The ships set sail for the MacMahon heartland of Ballycroy and captured Doona Castle for herself, further strengthening her hold on the Mayo coast.

Sometime later, Granuaile married again, to Richard An Iarainn (“Iron Richard”) Bourke. He brought her the Bourke family connections and another strategic holding on Clew Bay: Rockfleet Castle on the mainland. It was another political match, but this time she was the one to negotiate the terms. She married him under the traditional Brehon custom of “one year certain”, a form of trial marriage after which either could withdraw from the arrangement.

On their first wedding anniversary, Richard returned to find himself locked out of Rockfleet Castle. His wife shouted down at him from the topmost window.

“Richard Bourke, I dismiss you!”

Despite the divorce, Granuaile and Richard cooperated when it suited them. They had a son together, Tibbot Na Long (Tibbot of the Ships) Bourke, and they both needed each other to play the political game.

There came to mee a most famous femynyne sea captain called Grany Imallye… she brought with her her husband, for she was as well by sea as by land well more than Mrs Mate with him… this was a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.

— Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sydney, 1577

Granuaile remained “powerful by land and sea” into middle and old age. She was 60 when her sons and her half-brother were captured by the governor of Connacht, but this didn’t stop her sailing for London and meeting with Queen Elizabeth I to negotiate their release. To everyone’s surprise, she approached the English Queen as an equal; and to even more astonishment, Elizabeth was impressed enough to order the freeing of Granuaile’s relatives.

The English authorities in Ireland were none too pleased with what they saw as their queen’s capitulation, and they didn’t trust Granuaile’s promise to refrain from further piracy. On this last point they were correct, because the Pirate Queen, despite her advanced years, resumed her clandestine activities on the western seaboard.

The English Queen and the Sea Queen of Connacht died in the same year. Granuaile’s last days were spent at Rockfleet Castle, and she was buried in the abbey on Clare Island.

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Beyond the Ninth Wave

Kenmare Bay, County Kerry

Photo by P.J. McKenna

Am gaeth i m-muir
Am tond trethan
Am fuaim mara

I am the wind on the sea
I am the stormy wave
I am the sound of the ocean

— Song of Amergin

According to the legend, Ireland was once inhabited by a magical race known as the Tuatha Dé Danann. They survived several threats from invaders, until the last.

The last invaders came from Galicia in what is now Northern Spain, descendants of a man named Míl Espáine (“soldier of Spain”) and therefore known as the “Milesians”. They fought several battles until a truce was drawn. As one of the conditions, the Milesians were forced to withdraw to sea and set anchor beyond the ninth wave from the shore.

Of course the Tuatha Dé Danann had a magical trick up their sleeves. They brewed up a storm and sent it towards the Milesian ships. The wind roared; the ocean churned. Many Milesians lost their lives to the waters, and others clung on as the storm threatened to overwhelm them. The invaders had no magic of their own, so how could they hope to survive, let alone defeat the Tuatha?

But they had a secret weapon on board. He was Amergin, a poet. He took out his harp and he sang.

Coiche nod gleith clochur slébe
Cia on co tagair aesa éscai
Cia du i l-laig fuiniud gréne

Who made the trails through stone mountains
Who knows the age of the moon
Who knows where the setting sun rests

— Song of Amergin

His music had charms to soothe the savage seas, and the Milesians were able to come ashore at Kenmare Bay. They had several more battles to fight, but they eventually defeated the Tuatha Dé Dannan.

Amergin was given the task of dividing the land between both sets of peoples. He gave the portion above ground to the Milesians, and the underworld to the Tuatha Dé Danann, where they still reside and only occasionally meddle in the lives of humans.

According to the legend, the people of Ireland are descended from the Milesians, those warriors and poets from Northern Spain. Of course, that’s just the legend. However, recent DNA analysis found the closest relatives to the Irish people in Galicia and the Basque country. So perhaps some Iberian poet led them here, after all.

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