Grace O’Malley was born, lived and died in County Mayo, land of her ancestors and clan. Situated in Connacht on the West Coast, Mhaigh Eo – plain of yews – is named after a small village in the south of the county.
On the West Coast of Ireland to the north of Galway is a bay. It’s small, hidden away between mountains and the entrance guarded by an island. Behind it is the Atlantic Ocean and hidden from view of passing ships by the natural hills is an old castle. Most people probably wouldn’t call it a castle when encountering it the first time – the general idea of castles tends to be giant buildings with hundreds of little towers and bridges, small windows and high peaking round roofs.
This castle is unlike any other.. Standing proudly above the harbour is an old house built out of stone, a few stories high with small windows, overlooking the bay. This castle, now called “Granuaile House”. Just a half hour walk away from this house is an old abbey from the late 12th century. Saint Brigid’s Abbey is known for its medieval ceiling and wall artwork which is one of the best preserved in Ireland. It depicts humans and mythological beasts such as dragons and galleys.
Rebuilt in 1460, it houses the graves of several O’Malley Chieftains with its most famous inhabitant – who was also married and baptised in the abbey –Grace O’Malley.
Grace lived most of her life around Clew Bay, or Cuan Mó as she most likely called it, returning to it after the death of her first husband. Before her, the O’Malley Clan had been inhabiting it for centuries.
Clew Bay is a work of art made entirely by mother nature. The waters of the Atlantic Ocean flows around countless isles all throughout the bay, giving it the look of a miniature world. The mountainous looking hills on Clare Island seem like a guardian of this small stretch of paradise, overlooking the rest of the Ocean and making the bay feel like its own space, protected by an unseen veil.
As most of the western coast of Ireland, bog fields form a big part of the scenery together with drumlins. These are long and small hills that were formed by the glaciers during the last ice age. Clew Bay is the best place in Ireland for finding these droimnín, as their name was originally.
But Clew Bay doesn’t only have small hills, it also has the biggest mountains in County Mayo around it. To the north there is the Nephin Range but most important is the mountain overlooking it all directly south of Clew Bay. Every year people travel to this mountain to climb barefoot, honouring one of Irelands most important Saints – the Croagh Patrick where Saint Patrick fasted for forty days.
The view from there is a scenery to behold. William Thackeray Makepeace wrote in his Irish sketch book that it was “unlike all other beauties [he] knew of”. The wide Atlantic Ocean stretching to one side with the beautiful grassland of Clare Island in the middle, the blue water and sparkling with the sunlight bursting through the clouds, the shadows of the other mountains peaking over the land.
The mountain had a different name before the arrival of Saint Patrick – it was called Cruachan Aigle. Whether Aigle is derived from the Latin root of the word “eagle” (aquila) or maybe the name of a person lost to time is up for debate. Cruachan, which translates to stack, could also have another meaning originally. Before Christianity came to Ireland, the people used to worship a god which, according to Christians, was appeased by human sacrifice. He was fertility or solar deity by the name Crom Cruach and his statue was founded near Croagh Patrick. The worship stopped with St Patrick smashing the statue.
Clare Island, or Oileán Chliara, guards Clew Bay, Cuan Mó, and used to be the stronghold and home island of the O’Malley’s, as centre of their territory.
North of Clare Island is the biggest isle in Ireland – Achill Island. When travelling up the narrow waterway that divides it from the main land of Ireland, there is another castle standing there, hidden from the view of passing ships – Carrickkildavnet or Kildavnet Tower, another of Granuaile’s castles.
Achill Island is connected to the main land by a bridge that was first completed in the 19th century, meaning that before that, one had to either swim, sail or paddle across the divide.
There used to be a railway station located at the Achill Sound which connected the island to the town of Newport and Westport but it was shut down. One of the factors was an old prophecy made by Brian Rua U’Cearbhain in the 17th century. Brian was a well-known prophet who lived in the north of County Mayo and once foretold that “Carriages on iron wheels, blowing smoke and fire, which on their first and last journey would carry corpses” and will travel through the land to Achill. This prophecy was made true – the first voyage was in 1894, carrying the bodies of the victims of the Clew Bay drowning. The last journey was made in 1937 – seven years after the closing of the railway. This time it was a group that had gone to Scotland for potato farming. A fire broke out in the night and the bodies were transported from Scotland to their home on Achill to be buried in Kildavnet cemetery.
Near Achill is a rock formation jutting out of the water of the Atlantic, nine miles from the shore. The Bill’s Rocks are named after a Dutch Captain who managed to steer his ship clear of the formation in the middle of a storm in January of 1782. His name was Mathias De Bile and after he died on St Patrick’s Day in Newport due to a fever he caught in the storm, the rocks were named after him.
The Rocks are a cluster of three which makes the water between them appear like a gateway – added to that is also the hole though one of the Rocks. So it is no wonder that an old legend talks of them being the last remnants of the lost island of Atlantis. Those who have seen them, or watched the new video of someone paddling through them, will understand why this would feel plausible. With the sun shining and the street – like passage, it looks ethereal.
Surrounded by mountains, Clew Bays position and island-strutted gulf is a perfect position for a clan of sailors. Clare Island has the perfect strategic position at the mouth of the bay, its mountains hide the castle from afar and is wonderful for checking the horizon and hiding the rest of the bay. That is also most likely why in the 12th century, during the first Anglo-Norman invasion, several families settled in the area. From these families, one shaped the power structures. The de Burgh family split into two branches in the 1330s – the Clanricarde branch (also the Mac William Uachtar or Galway Burkes) which moved to the south, and the Mac William Íochtar, also Mayo Burkes. Granuaile’s second husband, Richard-In-Iarainn would later be the chief of that clan for a few years, thanks to her.
Grace spent her life defending her family, her people and her land. Visiting Clew Bay should be a given to people who want to understand the Irish Pirate Queen – and what better way to relish in the splendid view of the Atlantic Ocean than with a bottle of Whiskey? To that we say Sláinte!