Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Irish Pirate Queen Lives On!

Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s 16th century Pirate Queen, is still a big celebrity in the West of Ireland. The morning I spent at Westport House in County, Mayo, Grace’s ancestral home, was a fun and educational blast from the past during my recent trip to Ireland.

As the story goes—told with relish by a young, pretty tour guide—Grace, or Grainne O’Maille in Irish Gaelic, was an adventurer from an early age. As a girl, she lopped off her mane of vivid red hair and sneaked onto her father’s ship to work as a seaman. Naturally she was found out, and even now is fondly referred to as “Granuile” (pronounced "Gran-u-ale"), or “Bald Grainne” throughout the West.
Westport House

She grew up to become Chief of the O’Malley clan and a legendary pirate, ruling the seas from her castle on Clare Island, off the coast of Mayo. After her first husband died, she remarried, but apparently Husband #2 didn’t ring her chimes. This Elizabethan-era liberated woman kicked him out and went on her merry way. I’ve always been fond of the lore and legends surrounding Grace/Grainne—so much that I named the main character in my book Mother Love after her!

Here I am next to the Pirate Queen's
 statue near the mansion.
Back to the original Grainne: She owned several castles and fortresses in the area, one of which was on the site of Westport House. The current mansion was built over the ruins of her original home, which is the basement level of the mansion, or “dudgeon.”

The dudgeon is currently rigged up as a kind of hokey, haunted house-pirate ship, with skeletons, spooky lights and a treasure chest. It's not really scary, but it's definitely a highlight of the Pirate Adventure Park on the Westport House grounds. For me, more fun than the dudgeon was a room upstairs--lounging around a dining table were a dozen wax figures of notable Irishmen, Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats among them.

You won't find any Downton Abbey type grandeur at Westport House, since many of the furnishings are centuries old. Still, I was really drawn to the place, because Westport House is also the ancestral home of another of the Twelve Clans of Ireland, the Irish noble family of the Brownes! 

Westport House Dudgeon
Pirate Queen strikes a pose in the Dudgeon
Grace’s great-great-granddaughter married into the Browne family. While I wish I could claim some distant, connected-through-marriage relationship to the Pirate Queen, I...can’t. My husband John has traced his family back to Ireland, but has not yet found any direct link to this branch of the Browne nobility, much less to Grainne O'Maille.

Anyway, I've just dived into the book Westport House and The Brownes, by the 10th Marquess of Sligo, to get more detail on the mansion, the family and any additional nuggets about Grainne. You can find out more about Westport House at

I’ll be posting more highlights of my travels in Ireland, so stay tuned...And if you’ve been to Ireland, I invite you to share your adventures here!