A Legen-dairy Death

Knocknarea, County Sligo

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Photo of Knocknarea by P.J. McKenna

Fógraím cogadh feasta
ar fhearaibh uile Éireann
ar na leaids ag na cúinní sráide
is iad ina luí i lúib i gceas naíon

War I declare from now
on all men of Ireland
on all the corner boys
living curled in children’s cradles
— Medb Speaks by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill

Furbaide Ferbend sat on the grassy hill and unwrapped the cloth that held his lunch. A hunk of bread, a roll of cheese, and a cup of ale — what more could a man want on such a gorgeous day as this?

It was a rare day indeed, warmest of the year, and there was a rare peace in the land. Furbaide had fought for many years in the army of his father, King Conchubar, and he knew that peace was a fragile thing. He was determined to enjoy this moment: the luxury of solitude, the sun shining above him, the lake sparkling below.

He noticed a movement in the water and his sharp eyesight picked up a woman swimming in the lake. She had a fine figure but she wasn’t young, not with that long grey hair floating about her. Then he recognized her face.

She was his aunt, Queen Maeve of Connacht.

He’d heard the story many times. How his father had married three sisters: Eithne, Clohru, and Maeve. The rivalry had grown murderous, and the sly-eyed Maeve drowned the heavily-pregnant Eithne. Clothru found Eithne floating face down in the pond and noticed that the child was still moving in her sister’s belly. Checking one last time that Eithne had stopped breathing, Clothru took out her knife and cut the baby free.

The boy was named Furbaide, from the Old Irish urbad meaning “cut”. That woman in the water was the reason he had never known his mother.

His aunt was notorious for other reasons besides. What Maeve wanted, Maeve got, no matter what the cost. She divorced Conchubar and her next few husbands had won her by successively beating the previous incumbents in single combat. The last husband was her former bodyguard, Ailill, the only one who could match her in greed and cunning.

I asked more of a husband than any Irish woman before me asked: the absence of fear and jealousy and meanness.
— Táin Bó Cuailgne: The Cattle-Raid of Cooley

Maeve and Ailill had caused war and destruction across Ireland, particularly in Ulster where King Conchubar lived. She seemed to reserve a particular fury for her first husband, almost enough to give credence to the story that Conchubar had raped Maeve when the clans gathered at Tara.

Furbaide frowned, not wishing to think ill of his father or to spare any pity for the woman in the lake. She stopped swimming and leaned back in the water, closing her eyes, no doubt enjoying the sun on her skin. How dare she take pleasure in life while Furbaide’s mother had never lived to hold her babe in her arms?

But perhaps the gods were on his side today? Perhaps this was his opportunity to take revenge? Surely his whole life, from the moment he had drawn a bloody breath, had led to this?

Furbaide was famous for his skills with a sling. He carried his weapon always, but he had brought no ammunition. Nothing but a picnic in an unwrapped cloth.

The cheese was round and hard, the perfect size for the sling’s pouch. Furbaide closed one eye and focused on his target: Maeve’s forehead, high and white. In combat, none could beat him, but this might be the most important shot of his life. It hit her between the eyes and she slunk dead into the water. The proud Queen of Connacht, felled by cheese.

She was buried in Sligo, at the top of Knocknarea from where she could view her entire kingdom. She stood upright, facing Ulster, so none of her old enemies could feel safe from her even in death.

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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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The Red Lady of Leamaneh

Leamaneh Castle, County Clare

Photo of the Burren by P.J. McKenna

In the early 165os, refugees wound their way westwards across Ireland, displaced from their homes in a policy known as “to hell or to Connacht.” Long years of war and slaughter had culminated in Cromwell’s conquest. Many Irish people were “ethnically cleansed” from the best land and resettled in the poor soil of Connemara and the Burren.

A country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him.
— Edmund Ludlow (1652), describing the Burren

Maire Rua Ní Mahon (Red Mary MacMahon) already lived in the Burren; she was a Clare-woman born and bred. She watched from the window of her home at Leamaneh Castle, and then looked at the children who now depended on her alone. She was in her mid-30s and already widowed twice. Her first husband, Daniel Neylon, had been an arranged match to bond families together, but her second, Conor O’Brien, was her true love. Now he lay dead, carried home from a battle against the Cromwellian soldiers, nursed by his wife until his final breath.

Her future looked grim. When Conor organized ambush gangs against the invading army, she rode alongside him and killed men with her own hands. So not only would Conor’s estate be forfeit by his actions, but if anyone identified Maire, she could find her neck in a hangman’s noose. She had already lost two daughters to the plague that travelled with the conflict. Her remaining children — three by Daniel and six surviving by Conor — could end up as paupers.

But Maire had a plan. She called her servants and made them dress her in her finest gown and jewels. She must have been an imposing sight: tall, with the red hair that gave her the nickname Rua. She travelled by carriage to Limerick, to the garrison of the invading army, and offered to marry the first officer who was willing.

English soldier John Cooper stepped up to the challenge, becoming the third husband of Maire Rua and master of Leamaneh Castle and its estate. He and his wife had a son together and became wealthy through land dealings, although they eventually overstretched themselves and were forced to leave Leamaneh.

One legend says that John made the mistake of taunting Maire about Conor’s death while they were on the third storey, and she responded by pushing him out the window. Another legend has it that she made him ride a horse over the Cliffs of Moher. Neither is true; both Maire and John lived into old age, although in later years they lived separate lives.

Other unflattering legends attached themselves to the notorious Maire Rua. She was supposed to have had 25 husbands and to have murdered each one. It was said that a maid who displeased the mistress of Leamaneh would be hung by her hair from the castle tower. The locals found it hard to forgive a woman who slept with the enemy instead of allowing herself and her children to starve as any decent woman would.

Donough O’Brien, Maire and Conor’s oldest son, moved the family home to Dromoland Castle, which remained in the O’Brien family until the 20th century. Maire Rua died in 1686 and was most likely buried alongside Conor at Ennis Abbey. Leamaneh Castle fell into ruin, and rumour says that a red-haired ghost still haunts there.

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