2012-04-12 / Features

The Pirate Queen of Connaught

By W. E. Tudor

This article is the third of five in a series by local author and history buff W.E. Tudor of Roscommon. The articles follow Tudor’s recent visit to Ireland where he conducted inquiries concerning the connection between Roscommon, MI and Roscommon, Ireland.

Just west of County Roscommon lies four other counties that, along with Clare Island, together make up the province of Connaught. This hilly, rocky area that forms a part of the west coast of Ireland turned out to be an important region in my search for the connection between Roscommon County, Michigan and County Roscommon, Ireland.

I knew from my researches that Roscommon County, Michigan was named at the suggestion of C.M. O’Malley, presumably a man of Irish descent. Accordingly, I began my inquiries in Ireland by focusing on the O’Malley name. When my prearranged tour of Ireland landed me in Connaught, I hit pay dirt; I had unwittingly ventured into the homelands of the O’Malley clan, a name that traced its ancestry to the Connaught region for hundreds of years. In Irish, a large part of modern day Connaught was called Umhall U’ Mha’ille (the territory of the O’Malley’s).

My first clue to the importance of the O’Malley clan came while visiting a medieval church and its adjoining cemetery. The cemetery (that continues to host burials to this day) had numerous upright marble slabs marking old burial sites. As I wandered among the slabs, one particularly old marker caught my eye; it was a monument to Maire (Mary) O’Malley dated 1511. The monument was in Mary’s honor to celebrate her gifts that allowed the building of several churches throughout Connaught. Obviously, this Mary O’Malley was a woman of means.

I soon discovered that Mary was one of a long line of O’Malleys who ruled Connaught during medieval times when Ireland was ruled by numerous local chieftains of Celtic origin. Each chief wielded absolute power, each lived in a grandiose castle, and each vigorously defended his territory from advances by rival chieftains. One of the chieftains was well known to the others as he vigorously defended his interests along the coastal shores of Clew Bay, west of Roscommon. He considered Clew Bay to be his personal fiefdom and his name was O’Malley.

[This ancient Irish clan surname derives from the pre 10th century Gaelic O’ Maoileoin, meaning “a descendant of a follower of St. John.” The relative smallness of the clan made it difficult for them to retain their lands so they turned to the water and became renowned for their maritime prowess. The first recorded spelling of the family name is believed to be that of Teag O’ Maille.]

This same Clew Bay gained notoriety during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when there arose a pirate who commanded a fleet of swift ships operating along the west coast of Ireland. The pirate harassed any ships who had the temerity to sail too close to shorelines that were anywhere near Clew Bay. Trading ships were especially vulnerable as the most renowned pirate of the times successfully captured rich loads of trade goods. The exploits of the pirate as a fighter and sailor gained purchase and soon people across the nation were talking about the famous pirate. The most extraordinary thing was that this Irish pirate was a woman! This, during the time period 1530 – 1600 when the status of women was little higher than children. She was The Pirate Queen and her name was Granuaile (Grace) O’Malley.

Grace had taken to the water and the ships at the hands of her father, the O’Malley Chieftain. Since she was his only heir, he reluctantly let her join him on his sailing exploits. Once she tasted the air of the open sea and the command of several vessels there was no stopping her. After her father retired, Grace assumed full command of the O’Malley fleet and improved it by purchasing swift boats made in Spain.

Queen Elizabeth of England heard of the exploits of the Pirate Queen and threatened naval action against her should any vessels of the Royal Navy be accosted. Grace knew she was no match for the armed vessels of the Queen so she carefully kept her fleet close to Clew Bay where she could never be found among the many hidden coves and islands that only she knew.

Grace also knew she was vulnerable to attack by land if Elizabeth chose to invade her beloved Connaught. Grace arranged a meeting with Elizabeth to sue for peace. The two most powerful women of their time met in Queen Elizabeth’s palace and arranged a peace pact of sorts.

In the end, it made little difference as chieftains all across Ireland were defeated by English forces. The conflict dragged on for years until Grace was no longer able to resist and she passed on the O’Malley territory to her son whom she had carefully groomed to lead the family.

Just like all the chieftains of Ireland, the O’Malley family ultimately lost their authority and most of their ancestral homelands. The overwhelming power of the English throne was too great to resist and the power and authority of the O’Malley name slowly faded into history.

As I discovered this history of the O’Malleys, it became clear to me that the Charles M. O’Malley who helped name Roscommon County, Michigan was probably unlike other Irish immigrants. Most who came to the United States were poor, uneducated men and women whereas our O’Malley would likely have been educated, possibly wealthy, and possessed of a rich history in leading other men and women. All this turned out to be true as I learned later. See the remaining two stories in this series for more about Charley O’Malley and how he came to name Roscommon County, Michigan.

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