Among Savages

Streedagh Strand, County Sligo

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Illustration of Irish warriors by Albrecht Dürer in 1521, public domain

In 1588, Captain Francisco de Cuéllar sailed with the Spanish Armada, no doubt expecting victory over the English and a triumphant return to Spain. Instead, his fleet received a crushing defeat and he attempted to sail his galleon, the San Pedro, home via Scotland and Ireland. Off the coast of County Sligo, the San Pedro floundered and met its end on Streedagh Strand.

I escaped from the sea and from these enemies by having commended myself very earnestly to our Lord, and to the Most Holy Virgin, His Mother; and with me three hundred and odd soldiers, who also knew how to save themselves and to swim to shore. With them I experienced great misfortunes: naked and shoeless all the winter: passing more than seven months among mountains and woods with savages.

— Captain Francisco de Cuéllar

His travels through Connacht and Ulster brought further adventure and hardship. He walked barefoot and wounded along a stony road, and was robbed of all his belongings. Fortunately, some of the locals were kind enough to provide him with food and dress his wounds.

De Cuéllar and some of fellow Spaniards found themselves in County Leitrim, living with a man named MacClancy, “a savage gentleman, a very brave soldier and great enemy of the Queen of England and of her affairs”. The English governor was not happy that MacClancy was providing shelter to the Armada survivors, and attacked the castle.

After MacClancy and his clan hid up a mountain, De Cuéllar and his countrymen held off the governor and his forces for 17 days, until “our Lord saw fit to succour and deliver us from that enemy by severe storms and great falls of snow”. MacClancy declared the Spaniards as his “most loyal friends, offering whatever was his for our service”, suggesting that his sister would marry De Cuéllar. The captain turned down this enticing offer, and travelled to Antrim where he found passage to Scotland and eventually back to Spain.

De Cuéllar’s letter about his experiences provide a valuable picture, if not always a flattering one, of Tudor Ireland:

The custom of these savages is to live as the brute beasts among the mountains, which are very rugged in that part of Ireland where we lost ourselves. They live in huts made of straw.

— Captain Francisco de Cuéllar

He describes the men as “large bodied, and of handsome features and limbs”, wearing “tight trousers and short loose coats of very coarse goat’s hair” and with “their hair down to their eyes”. The women are “very beautiful, but badly dressed”. He notes sniffily that “these people call themselves Christians” but “the chief inclination of these people is to be robbers, and to plunder each other” and concludes that “in this kingdom there is neither justice nor right, and everyone does what he pleases”. But he also acknowledges that “if it had not been for those who guarded us as their own persons, not one of us would have been left alive”.

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A slightly longer version of this story was originally published on my other blog, A traveller from an antique land.

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 Ferocious O’Flahertys

Aughnanure Castle, County Galway

Photo of Aughnanure Castle by P.J. McKenna

Fortune favours the strong
— O’Flaherty family motto

The O’Flaherty clan could hold a grudge. They once owned land near the mouth of the River Corrib, but the Norman De Burgh family arrived in the 12th century and persuaded them by means of pointed implements that they should leave. That land became Galway City, populated by 14 Anglo-Norman families who were eventually known as the “Tribes of Galway”.

The O’Flahertys never quite forgave the De Burghs or the other “tribes”, and they would be a thorn in the city’s side for centuries.

The O’Flahertys still had extensive holdings in Connemara (then known as lar-Connacht), and they decided to copy the Norman custom of building defensive castles. Aughnanure Castle, near Oughterard on Lough Corrib, was built in 1490 and was perhaps their most impressive. It was a pleasant location, built over the River Drisheen, surrounded by a forest of yew trees (Aughnanure in Irish is Achadh na nlubhar, “field of the yews”). Lavish banquets were held here, with chieftains from Connacht and further afield coming to enjoy the rich food and the strumming of musicians in the gallery.

20160710-P1090167
Window at Aughnanure Castle, by P.J. McKenna

If you arrived at Aughnanure without an invitation, you could be assured of a more challenging passage. There was a river to cross, then two layers of walls with guardsmen firing arrows at you. If you somehow got through the two thickly-reinforced front doors, you’d find yourself underneath the “murder hole” from where O’Flahertys and their servants would pour boiling water or oil on top of you.

But as a wise man would later say, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”. The O’Flahertys had good reason to be paranoid of their neighbours, as much as their neighbours had good reason to be paranoid of them.

On one occasion, the De Burghs decided that an attack on the castle would be suicidal and they should instead starve the O’Flahertys out. After a long siege, the O’Flahertys promised to pay a tribute  of corn, cattle, and wool to the De Burghs if they’d just go away.

Three years later, this tribute was yet to be paid, and De Burgh sent his son to demand it. The young man arrived in the middle of a banquet and was invited to join the guests at the special seat of honour. Unfortunately for him, he brought up the subject of the tribute. The trapdoor beneath the seat was activated, plunging him into the river below.

Young De Burgh’s body was fished from the water and beheaded. O’Flaherty’s youngest son rode on horseback towards Galway city, the head swinging in a bag by his side. When he reached Tirellan Castle, home of the De Burgh clan on the outskirts of Galway, he was assumed to be bringing the tribute and the drawbridge was pulled down.

“Tell my Lord Earl,” young O’Flaherty yelled. “That this is the only tribute the O’Flahertys of lar-Connacht will ever pay to the De Burghs!”

At this, he threw the bloodied bag over the drawbridge and turned his horse to ride for his life. The De Burghs chased him out of town; a spear pierced his horse’s flank, but he managed to ride on until the animal collapsed. The De Burghs thought they had their man, but a large O’Flaherty force came over the hill. Only a few of the De Burgh men returned to tell their account of the resulting massacre.

From the Ferocious O Flaherty’s O Lord deliver us
— Plaque on the walls of Galway City

The De Burghs abandoned Tirellan Castle soon afterwards, never feeling quite safe there.

The O’Flahertys survived at Aughnanure until the Cromwellian invasion. O’Flaherty remains a common surname in County Galway. If you know someone of that clan, you’d do well not to cross them.

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