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Chasing the Irish Pirate Queen around the Aran Islands


Hats off to James McQuiston, editor and publisher of The Celtic Guide, a superbly professional magazine that reflects his passionate interest in Scotland and Ireland. The December issue (click here) features contributions from throughout the Celtic world. They include an excerpt from my latest book, Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation, which has just appeared in paperback (HarperCollins Canada). That excerpt begins as follows . . . .

Off the south coast of Ireland, in choppy seas, we sailed around Skellig Michael, a rocky island that rises, volcano-like, seven hundred feet into the air. We marvelled to think that, for centuries, Christian monks lived in beehive meditation huts near the top, and would reach them in the wind by clambering out of their coracles and climbing six hundred stone steps, narrow, steep, and often wet. We were circumnavigating Ireland with Adventure Canada, Sheena and I, going ashore once or twice a day in Zodiacs. Off the west coast, on Inishmore in the Aran Islands, where children learn Gaelic as their first language, we debarked and followed a rugged footpath uphill to Dun Aengus, a ritual site from the Bronze Age. Here one of us determined that, yes, we could terrify ourselves by lying on our stomachs, crawling to the edge, and looking straight down to where, a hundred metres below, white waves smashed into the black rock face.
But the most evocative moment of the circumnavigation of Ireland came on Inishbofin, which is located north up the west coast, off Connemara. As we rode from our ship to the dock at Inishbofin, eight or nine people to a Zodiac, we passed Dun Grainne, the remains of a fortress used in the 1500s by the legendary Pirate Queen “Grainne” or Grace O’Malley. Born into a powerful west-coast family, O’Malley rejected the traditional roles available to females. She became a skilled sailor, gained control of a merchant fleet, and conducted trade as far away as Africa. Her enemies denounced her as “the most notorious sea captain in Ireland,” and complained that she “overstepped the part of womanhood.”
The Celtic tradition that produced O’Malley—that of the dauntless woman, latterly known as feminism—has never been short of exemplars. Besides the Irish Pirate Queen and the Scottish Flora MacDonald, saviour of Bonnie Prince Charlie, there was Maria Edgeworth, who has been called the Irish Jane Austen. She kicked down doors through the early 1800s. And later that century, after seeing Irish tenants evicted from their lands, the activist-actress Maud Gonne inspired William Butler Yeats and thousands of Irish nationalists.
In Scotland, the first champion of Scottish independence to be elected to the British House of Commons was a woman, Winifred Ewing, leader of the Scottish National Party. Five years later, in 1972, and in that same hallowed house, a twenty-year-old Irish MP, Bernadette Devlin, delivered “a slap heard round the world” when the Home Secretary claimed that on Bloody Sunday, British troops had shot more than two dozen unarmed protestors in self-defence. Having witnessed the massacre – 13 died that day, and one later -- Devlin crossed the floor and slapped his face.
In this unbroken Celtic tradition of “overstepping women,” which extends backwards to Saint Brigid of Kildare (451–525) and forward to its flowering in the contemporary world, Grace O’Malley came early. In June of 1593, as she sailed up the River Thames to meet Queen Elizabeth I, she would have known little about what her privateering English counterparts were doing. Walter Raleigh was organizing an expedition to discover the Lost City of Gold in South America. Martin Frobisher, having conducted three expeditions to North America, was plundering ships off the coasts of France and Spain. Francis Drake, circumnavigator of the world, was ranging around North Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, seizing booty wherever he found it.
Grace O’Malley, commander of a fleet of galleys and several hundred sailors, had sailed from the west coast of Ireland to seek the removal of the ruthless Richard Bingham, the English-appointed governor of Connaught. Bingham was the one who had denounced her as “a woman who overstepped the part of womanhood,” and labelled her “the most notorious sea captain in Ireland.” She sought the release from Bingham’s jail of a half-brother and of her son, Tibbot. Also, she hoped to secure the right to maintain herself “by land and sea,” by which she meant forcibly collecting “tax” from any ships that plied the waters she patrolled. The merchants of Galway were allowed to do this: why was she prevented?
To read the rest click here . . . and then pick up a copy of the book, available in better bookstores everywhere. (Pix above by Sheena Fraser McGoogan.)


Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.

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