I am known here by my alter ego, at least in name: Qugrainne. This is a shortened, yahoo style handle, which comes from the name Gráinne Ní Mháille. Gráinne is also know as the pirate queen of Connaught – and her Anglicized name of Grace O’Malley.
Gráinne was born in 1530 in Ireland, of course. If you remember history, you will know that Henry VIII was the king of England at that time. Gráinne was of noble birth too: her father was chieftain of the O Mháille clan, and controlled much of what is now called County Mayo. Gráinne was the only child of her parents, who came from a long line of seafarers.
The story is, Gráinne wanted to go sailing too, just like her father. She was what we would in my childhood have called a tomboy. When she begged to go on a trip to Spain with her father, he told her she couldn’t go because her hair was too long and would have put her in danger of getting caught in the ships ropes. Easy solution to that problem, right? Of course she cut off her hair, and her father had no further excuse to deny her sailor’s rights.
She married at 16 to Dónal an-Chogaidh (Donal of the Battle) O’Flaherty and they had three children: Owen, who was murdered by the English when he was in his late 20’s, Margaret, who was much like her mother, and Murrough who was an absolute sexist and joined forces with his older brothers’ murderers. Gráinne never spoke with him again after this traitorous act.
Husband Donal was killed in battle, and in 1566 Gráinne married Richard-an-Iarainn Bourke, with whom she had one son. After a year of marriage, Gráinne yelled from their castle window, “Richard Bourke, I dismiss you,” and the divorce was final. She kept the castle.
Gráinne did follow in her family’s footsteps and amassed a fleet of her own. As the British charged tax for ships entering their waters, thus did Gráinne board ships to collect tax when they entered her waters. The English called this piracy. Eventually she got a little more aggressive, and became a pirate queen in earnest, attacking ships and fortresses held by other Irish clans as well as the English. She also became very wealthy.
In 1593 the English governor of Connaught, Sir Richard Bingham, captured two of Gráinne’s sons and her brother-in-law. Gráinne sailed to England to petition Queen Elizabeth for their release. It is the general consensus that Gráinne must have spoken Latin, because the Queen of England did not speak Gaelige, and Gráinne did not speak English. Gráinne also requested that Richard Bingham be removed from office, and in return she would stop supporting Irish rebellion. Elizabeth did not live up to her word so neither did Gráinne. She continued her pirating ways until her death in 1603, the same year that Queen Elizabeth died.
There are stories and songs written about the exploits of Gráinne Ní Mháille. She finds her way into movies, Broadway plays, and famous literature. My favorite take on the pirate queen was performed by Maggie Cronin in Milwaukee in 1999, at Cecilia’s Pub. Damien Jaques, the Journal Sentinel theater critic wrote a review of the one-woman play:
The best example of compelling stagecraft in Milwaukee is being presented on one of the city’s most unconventional stages. Irish actress Maggie Cronin is making her North American debut with her one-woman show “A Most Notorious Woman” on a small stage tucked into a corner of Cecilia’s Pub in Walker’s Point. In 85 engaging minutes, Cronin demonstrates that thrilling theater can happen anywhere. She plays all of the characters herself.
“A Most Notorious Woman” is about Grace O’Malley, a 16th century sea captain and pirate who harassed the English during their drive to conquer Ireland. In probably her most audacious act, Grace sailed her pirate ship up the Thames River to confront Queen Elizabeth I over the English’s kidnapping of her son. O’Malley was a “hard woman, a handsome woman, a wife twice and a mother,” to quote the play. Rumor had it that at least one of O’Malley’s children was born at sea.
After doing extensive historical research, Cronin, who lives in Belfast, wrote “A Most Notorious Woman” several years ago. Filled with sly and clever humor, the piece jumps back and forth in time and mixes historical periods with amazing ease and clarity. For example, Elizabeth I talks on a cell phone at one point in the play, but putting a late 20th-century gadget into the hand of a late 16th-century queen does not confuse or appear ridiculous.
Credit that to the perfect melding of text with actor. Cronin is clearly a writer. Her play is intelligent, inventive, playful and blessed with the Irish gift for vividly descriptive language.
She connects O’Malley’s unlikely life at sea with the 19th and 20th –century women who emigrated from Ireland by boat. That concept may seem on paper to be a bit of a reach, but in performance it makes absolute sense. Perhaps that is due to the spell Cronin the actress casts. She holds the room from the moment she first opens her mouth, creating magical moments with seemingly no effort. In the blink of an eye, Cronin folds a sheet of cloth into a wrapped newborn infant whose breath you can almost see. In another blink, her soft, pretty face twists into the contorted grimace of a salty old male pirate.
There is a raw and exciting theatricality at work here that cannot be bought with big budgets and fancy surroundings. “A Most Notorious Woman” also proves to be an entertaining history lesson. Cronin gives us a glimpse of a fractious tribal Ireland that fought itself as much as it fought the British.
What a treat it is to have Maggie Cronin in Milwaukee.
A grand time was had by all, the show was extended an extra week, all seats were sold. I regret to have lost touch with Maggie, and I have found there are no you-tube videos of her play. It is a loss for all of us because she was fantastic.
So that is the story of Queen Gráinne – Grace O’Malley. She was long my hero, and then I even got to meet her!