Image from Google Maps
I wrote another article for Ireland Before You Die: Galway to Donegal in 5 Days. Includes:
- Doolough Valley
- Achill Island
- Yeats Country
Image from Google Maps
I wrote another article for Ireland Before You Die: Galway to Donegal in 5 Days. Includes:
Photo by P.J. McKenna
The Ireland Before You Die website published my article 6 places in Ireland associated with pirates.
Here you’ll find out about:
Hope you enjoy!
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.
Erris Head, County Mayo
Photo of Belmullet by P.J. McKenna
When shall the swan, her death note singing
Sleep with the wings her darkness furled
When will Heav’n, it’s sweet bells ringing
Call my spirit from this stormy world ?
— Silent, O Moyle by Thomas Moore (1779-1852)
The swans’ wings beat rhythmically through the air, and the people turned their heads upwards to listen to their beautiful song. For these were no ordinary birds; they were the last remaining of that magical race, the Tuatha de Danann.
Lir, ancient king and ruler of the seas, had four children: his eldest son Aodh, his only daughter Fionnuala, and twin boys Fiachra and Conn. When their mother died, he married Aoife, but she was jealous of her stepchildren and turned them into swans. Yet the spell could not quench their magical voices, and when they told Lir what had happened, he banished Aoife into the mist.
For 300 years, the four swans lived near their father at Lake Derravaragh; the Tuatha de Danann were a long-lived people. But then they had to leave and spend the next 300 years on the Straits of Moyle, between Ireland and Scotland, where fierce winds gave them hardly a moment’s rest and they were frequently separated from each other.
The final leg of their journey took them to Erris Head on the Belmullet peninsula, to the far north-west of county Mayo. Beyond that was Inishglora Island. Few more remote places existed in Ireland. They settled on the island for another 300 years, and the people of Erris Head grew used to the sad song drifting across the water.
Babbles Conn the youngest, ‘Sister, I remember
At my father’s palace how I went in silk,
Ate the juicy deer-flesh roasted from the ember,
Drank from golden goblets my child’s draught of milk.
Once I rode a-hunting, laughed to see the hurry,
Shouted at the ball-play, on the lake did row;
You had for your beauty gauds that shone so rarely.’
‘Peace’ saith Fionnuala, ‘that was long ago.’
— The Children of Lir by Katherine Tynan (1859-1931)
Near the end of that time, a group of men sailed across in a calfskin boat, a currach. The swans stopped to look at them in their peculiar garb, their rough robes belted with rope, their hair shaved deliberately.
The men dug a well for fresh water and built stone huts to live in. The swans craned their heads, curious. The man who lead them, Brendan, had travelled beyond the great ocean, further than anyone in Ireland, and had returned to set up monasteries across Ireland: in Inchquin, Annaghdown, and now on Inishglora.
As Brendan stood back to admire the construction work, the swans hummed to themselves. Brendan approached warily. He knew how vicious a swan’s beak could be when they were riled.
“Who are you?”he asked.
“I am Fionnuala, the daughter of Lir, and these are my brothers. Tell me, what happened to my people, the Tuatha De Dannan.”
“I’m afraid that the Tuatha de Dannan have long left our land,” said the monk. The Tuatha had been driven out by the Milesians.
“But do your people not follow the old gods?” Aodh demanded.
Brendan explained that a new faith had come to Ireland. Aodh was grumpy about this, but Fionnuala was curious and listened attentively as Brendan explained about Jesus and his saints. Fiachra and Conn were more interested in his travel stories. He told them of one land where fire spewed from the earth; of another which was a paradise of birds; of an island that sank when the monks lit a fire on it, because it was no island, but a whale.
We sailed for a year and a day and hailed
No field nor coast of men;
No boat nor bird saw we ever afloat
For forty days and ten.
— Imram (The Voyage of Saint Brendan), J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)
In return, the Children of Lir told Brendan all about the Tuatha de Dannan and the days of old. He made marks with a quill on a vellum scroll. The swans were astonished when he told them these marks could be interpreted by others, could transmit words to people in far-away countries and could continue to do so long after the writer had died.
In the centre of the little community, the monks built a church with a high steeple. What a strange construction, Fionnuala thought, like nothing she’d ever seen. When it was finished, two men went inside to pull at the ropes hanging from the tower. Fionnuala started to sing her song, and her brothers joined in as usual.
The first chime of the bell came at the same time as the highest note reached by the swans. Its reverberations echoed in the voices of Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn, so much that it seemed hard to tell where the swan song ended and the bell began.
As the sounds mingled, the swans grew larger and began to shed their feathers. Out emerged four young people — one woman, three men, all astonishingly beautiful. The monks gasped with amazement. But within minutes, their skin began to shrivel and their hair to turn white as they rapidly aged.
“Brother Ciaran!” Brendan yelled. “Fetch me the baptismal water!”
Come, holy priest, with book and prayer;
Baptize and shrive us here:
Haste, cleric, haste, for the hour has come,
And death at last is near!
— Children of Lir (unknown author)
“Bury us together,” Fionnuala croaked. “As we have been together in life, let us be together in death.”
“And write our story on your scrolls,” said Aodh. “So we will be remembered always.”
They were buried on Inish Glora, Fionnuala in the middle, Aodh in front of her, Fiachra and Conn on either side.
Achill Island, County Mayo
Photo of Achillhenge by P.J. McKenna
Stonehenge was built on Salisbury Plain some 4000 years ago over a period of generations. An equivalent structure in concrete was thrown up on Achill Island in November 2011 over one weekend.
Joe McNamara was no stranger to controversy. The year before, he had driven a mixer truck into the gates of Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament), the words ANGLO TOXIC BANK emblazoned on its drum. This was a reference to Anglo Irish Bank, the institution the centre of the Irish banking crisis. McNamara, a hotel developer who lost millions when the bank pushed his business into receivership, was soon dubbed the “Anglo Avenger” by the press. While he was waiting to be charged with criminal damage and dangerous driving, he drove up again to the Dáil, this time in a cherry-picker from where he blasted Lady Gaga along with other protest songs. He received a warning but not a prison sentence.
No-one was sure why he decided to create a 4 metre-tall, 100-metre round concrete structure on a piece of common ground on his native Achill Island.Was he inspired by other Stonehenge homages, such as Carhenge in Nebraska or Fridgehenge in New Zealand? He didn’t have planning permission; he tried to claim exemption by saying it was an “ornamental garden”, a “place of reflection”. While work was still ongoing, Mayo County Council served him an order to stop construction, but the structure was completed and McNamara was again in court. This time he was served with 5 days in prison.
Opinion on Achillhenge is divided. Locals are more than willing to direct curious tourists in its direction, and hand-painted signs point the way up the mountain path towards the structure. Archaeologists complain that it’s too close to a Bronze Age site. It has been described as an eyesore, a place of contemplation, a daring piece of art, and a monument to the Celtic Tiger.
It is meaningless – in a way – so each of us can put our own meaning on it.
— Achill resident, quoted by the BBC News
A poll in a local newspaper showed a majority of residents wanted Achillhenge to stay. In 2013, it was used for a temporary art installation, “Our Nation’s Sons”, twelve-foot drawings of young Irish men adorning each pillar.
In 2015, McNamara struck again, this time in the heart of London. Several other Irishmen helped him to erect the unauthorized structure beside Tower Bridge: a 7-metre high sword driven through a heart-shaped Union Jack. This one lasted just one weekend.
Achillhenge, nearly 5 years after its unlawful construction, remains in place.
Clew Bay, County Mayo
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.