Clew Bay, Clare Island, and Grace O'Malley

Just opposite Westport, at the entrance to Clew Bay, lies Clare Island, the residence of the ancient chieftainess of the County Mayo and its multitude of isles—Grana Uaile. One square and strong tower yet remains of her stronghold on the island shore. Of this "heroine of the west" Mr. Otway gives the following interesting account:—"Grace O'Mealey, which has been corrupted into Grana Uaile, was the daughter of Breanhaun Crone O'Maille, tanist or chieftain of that district of Mayo surrounding Clew Bay, and comprising its multitude of isles. This district is still called by the old people the Uisles of O'Mealey; and its lord, owning, as he did, a great extent of coast, and governing an adventurous seafaring people, had good claim to his motto, 'TERRA MARIQUE POTENS.'

Clew Bay from Westport

Clew Bay from Westport

Breanhaun Crone O'Maille dying early, left a son and daughter—the son but a child—the daughter, just ripening into womanhood, seemed to have a character suited to seize the reins of government, and rule over this rude and brave people. Setting aside, then, at once the laws of tanistry, that confined the rule to the nearest male of the family, she took upon her, not only the government, but the generalship of her sept, and far exceeded all her family in exploits as a sea-rover; and from her success, whether as smuggler or pirate, as the case might be, she won the name of Grace of the Heroes. Acting in this wild and able way, she soon gathered round her all the outlaws and adventurers that abounded in the islands, and from the daring strokes of policy she made, and the way in which she bent to her purpose the conflicting interests of the English government and the Irish races, she was called the Gambler. As a matter of policy, she took for her first husband O'Flaherty, Prince of Connemara; and there is reason to suppose that the grey mare proving the better horse the castle on Lough Corrib, of whose traditional history notice is taken elsewhere, was nearly lost to the Joyces, by O'Flaherty the Cock, but was saved and kept by Grana the Hen, hence it got the name, which it still keeps, of Krishlane na Kirca—the Hen's Castle.

Be this as it may, Grana's husband, the Prince of Connemara, dying soon, she was free to make another connexion, and in this also she seems to have consulted more her politics than her affections, and became the wife of Sir Richard Bourke, the M'William Eighter. Tradition hands down a singular item of this marriage contract. The marriage was to last for certain (what said the pope to this?) but one year, and if at the end of that period, either said to the other 'I dismiss you,' the union was dissolved. It is said, that during that year Grana took good care to put her own creatures into garrison in all M'William's eastward castles that were valuable to her, and then, one fine day, as the lord of Mayo was coming up to the castle of Corrig-a-Howly, near Newport, Grana spied him, and cried out the dissolving words—'I dismiss you.'

We are not told how M'William took the snapping of the matrimonial chain; it is likely that he was not sorry to have a safe riddance of such a virago. We shortly after this find Grana siding with Sir Richard Bingham against the Bourkes, and doing battle with the English. The O'Mealeys, on this occasion, turned the fortune of the day in favour of the President of Connaught, and most of the M'William leaders being taken prisoners, six of them were hanged next day at Cloghan Lucas, 'in order to strengthen the English interest.'

It is probable that it was in gratitude for this signal aid afforded to her lieutenant, that Queen Elizabeth invited Grana over to the English court; and it certainly confirms the Irishwoman's character for decision and firmness, that she accepted the invitation of the Saxon, of whose faithfulness the Irish nation had but a low opinion. Accordingly Grana sailed from Clare Island, and before she arrived at the port of Chester was delivered of a son, the issue of the marriage with M'William Eighter. He being born on ship-board, was hence named Tohaduah na Lung, or Toby of the Ship, from whom sprung the Viscounts Mayo. It must have been a curious scene, the interview at Hampton Court between the wild woman of the West, and the 'awe-commanding, lion-ported' Elizabeth. Fancy Grana, in her loose attire, consisting of a chemise, containing thirty yards of yellow linen, wound round her body, with a mantle of frieze, coloured madder-red, flung over one shoulder, with her wild hair twisted round a large golden pin as her only head-gear, standing with her red legs unstockinged, and her broad feet unshod, before the stiff and stately Tudor, dressed out (as we see her represented in the portraits of that day) with stays, stomacher, and farthingale, cased like an impregnable armadillo—what a 'tableau vivant' this must have been! and then Grana, having made a bow, and held out her bony hand, horny as it was with many an oar she had handled, and many a helm she had held, to sister Elizabeth (as she called her), sat down with as much self-possession and self-respect as an American Indian chief would now before the President of the United States.

Elizabeth, observing Grana's fondness for snuff, which, though a practice newly introduced, she had picked up in her smuggling enterprises, and perceiving her inconvenienced, as snuffers usually are when wanting a pocket-handkerchief, presented her with one richly embroidered, which Grana took indifferently, used it loudly, and cast it away carelessly; and when asked by Sir Walter Raleigh, why she treated the gift of her majesty in such a way, the answer of the wild Irish girl was of that coarseness that ought not to be read by eyes polite. Moreover, it seems Elizabeth was not happy in the presents which she proffered to the Vanathess; she ordered a lap-dog, led by a silken band, to be given to her. 'What's this for?' says Grana. 'Oh, it is a sagacious, playful, faithful little creature, it will lie in your lap.' 'My lap!' says Grana; 'it's little the likes of me would be doing with such a thing: keep it to yourself, Queen of the English, it is only fit for such idlers as you: you may, if it likes you, fool away your day with such vermin.' 'Oh, but,' says Elizabeth, 'Grana, you are mistaken, I am not idle; I have the care of this great nation on my shoulders.' 'May be so,' says Grana, 'but as far as I can see of your ways, there's many a poor creature in Mayo, who has only the care of a barley-field, has more industry about them than you seem to have.' Of course Elizabeth dismissed her soon: she offered at her last audience to create her a countess. 'I don't want your titles,' says Grana, 'arn't we both equals? if there be any good in the thing, I may as well make you one as you me. Queen of England, I want nothing from you; enough for me it is to be at the head of my nation; but you may do what you like with my little son, Toby of the Ship, who has Saxon blood in his veins, and may not be dishonoured by a Saxon title: I will remain as I am, Grana O'Maille of the Uisles.'

It was on her return from England, and when driven by stress of weather into the small harbour of Howth, that the often-told circumstance occurred respecting her abduction of the young St. Lawrence. Landing from her vessel, she and some of her followers proceeded to the castle and demanded admission, but were refused, on the ground that the noble owner was at his dinner and could not be disturbed. 'Oh, the Saxon churl!' says Grana, 'it's well seen he has not a drop of Irish blood in his big body; but he shall smart for it.' And so he did, for Grana, on her return to her vessel, entering into a comfortable cottage, and finding therein a beautiful boy, the eldest son of the baron (who was out at nurse, according to the Irish fashion), she carried him off, and brought him with her to her western land, where she kept him many a day, and did not restore him, until, besides receiving a large ransom, she made the stipulation that whenever a lord of Howth sat at his dinner, his doors should remain open for the admission of all strangers. It is said that the St. Lawrences have kept to the covenant ever since; if so, the observance in its spirit of open hospitality may explain why the lords of Howth are not the wealthiest of our nobility. Grana continued on her return to strengthen her power, and had strongholds guarding all the harbours along the coast of Mayo; and so active and vigilant was she, that it is said that in her castle at Clare Island, where her swiftest vessels were stationed, the cable of her chief galley was passed through a hole made for that purpose in the wall, and fastened to her bed-post, in order that she might be the more readily alarmed in case of an attempted surprise. At her death it would appear that the power which was but concentrated by individual vigour and ability, dissolved with the spirit that gave it energy."