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The O’Malleys of the Owals

The O'Malley Crest of Grania Uaile 1530-1607
The O’Malley Crest of Grania Uaile 1530-1607

theserpentI was always intrigued that I could lay claim to being at least a quarter Irish, it was really a quarter Irish-American, but I do wish that someone had told me that an ancestor of mine was one Crimthann Cuilbuide, King of Aicill and Umhall in 190 AD. I would definitely have had the upper hand in rebutting the friendly taunts of a few nationalistic Irishman I have come across over the years.

I could and should say that I am indebted to my Uncle, Frank Lyons, who, knowing of my interest in compiling our family history, passed to me a bundle of papers and said, ‘…we have O’Malley ancestors you know, it’s all in there David’. Amongst it all was a massive genealogy chart, a rolled A.1 sized photograph, together with a small publication, published in Philadelphia in 1908, entitled ‘The Genealogy of the O’Malleys of the Owals’. Excitedly, pointing to feint, almost illegible, pencil marks on the chart, Uncle Frank added, “that’s the link!”

The marks leading to Grania
The marks leading to Grania

Initially sharing his excitement, the instant thought of having ancestors amongst some ancient and noble Irish clan, it then occurred to me that I might be stepping into the realms of some mythical tale thanks to a favourite Uncle. But no matter, it does present an opportunity to add a chapter that may grab the readers attention derived from our Irish roots, the Lyons, O’Mearas, O’Connells, Malones & O’Malleys. I have loosely promised that all these chapters are factual, but this tale, steeped in Irish folklore, may rely on more than a bit of imagination to accept the family connections… maybe you should just take it as a history story.

So, from the pile of papers, I have chosen to focus on our ancestor, the legendary Grania Uaile or Granuaile or Grace O’Malley, the famous Queen of Clew Bay. She was the notorious pirate chieftain of the O’Malley seafaring clan, and lived from 1530 to 1603. She was presented to the court of Queen Elizabeth and was said to have made a unique contribution to Irish history. There are many references to her on the Internet and there is even a film planned on Grace O’Malley for 2009, but I will do something different.

Firstly, I give you my concise ‘History of Ireland’ – A fertile island occupied by many warring pagan tribes dispersed in defended rural settlements ruled over by numerous Irish Gaelic Kings. In AD 432, St. Patrick arrived and converted the heathen island to Christianity, and bought a great age of learning. In AD 795, marauding Viking invasions shattered that relative peace, followed later, in AD 1167, by the arrival of Norman knights who, through oppression, initiated an almost perpetual onward struggle by the natives. In 1536, after a few centuries of conflict, Henry VIII the Protestant King of England decided to re-conquer Catholic Ireland and bring it under proper crown control, once and for all. Over the following centuries, the British Crown continued its sustained effort to crush any resistance, forcing subjugation of the Irish population but without ever breaking its Gaelic spirit.

With a millennia of history I ask the reader to consider what is meant by ‘Gaelic’? Maybe it is some romantic, if not ludicrous, notion to recreate an ancient race; it is certainly important to some Irish people. For me, there is little point in talking about national boundaries in family history. ‘Irishmen’ have immigrated and integrated into so many different societies and cultures around the world to such an extent that there is probably a drop of Irish blood in us all! And, before any Irishmen have a go at my brevity, inaccuracy or conclusion, please remember who I am descended from!

According to ancient genealogies of Ireland, the O’Malley clan was descended from the eldest son of the High King of Ireland, Brian Orbsen, King of Connaught, who was killed at the battle of Dam Chluain near Tuam, circa A.D. 388. In the Book of Rights (leabhar na gCeart), the O’Malleys are listed as being tributary kings to the provincial kings of Connaught. They were the hereditary lords of the region called Uí Mhaille, anglicized as the Owals, a territory of two baronies, Murrisk and Burrishoole. The barony of Murrisk was called Umhall Uachtarach or The Upper Owal, which included the islands of Clare, Inishturk, Caher, Inishbofin, Inishark and the smaller islands of Clew Bay. The barony of Burrishoole was called Umhall Iochtarach or Lower Owal, which included Achill.

It was during that Tudor period of Henry VIII that our heroine Grace O’Malley, to use her anglicised name, lived. Her father was Dubhdaire O’Mailley was the chieftain of the Upper Owal, The Barony of Murrisk and her mother was Margaret Ni Mailley. Their lands included about twenty townlands or settlements, with eighty quarters of cultivated arable land and all the ocean Islands of Achill, Clare, Inishturk, Caher, Inishbofin and Daviiaun in the Counties of Mayo and Galway. The terms ‘townlands and quarters’ were the predecessors of we understand as Parishes. With so much coastline, The O’Malleys were always a seafaring clan and it is said that there never was an O’Malley who was not a sailor.

Grania was born around 1530 and brought up on Clare Island, where it is likely that she received an education from the Carmelite Friars at The Abbey founded by her forefathers in 1224. Doubtless too, that it was there that she acquired her passionate love of the sea, as well as her skills in seafaring. It is said that Grania knew more about rigging and sailing a galley that she did of drawing-room etiquette. As a woman and heiress, under Brehon Law, she could not inherit the title of Chieftain but she always retained the respect, love and obedience of her clansmen, especially in the islands and became ‘the captain of her nation’.

Power during this period of history was based on allegiances and alliances. Clans like The O’Malleys were leasehold tenants of The Earl of Ormond, an unpalatable reality, but, in providing due conformity to the lord and master, tenant clans were relatively left to their own devices. Marriage was a necessity for Grania and when, in about 1550, she married Donall of Bunowan, the heir to all the western O’Flahertys, forming a strong alliance between the ruling families of Murrisk and Ballynahinch. They were to have three children, sons Owen and Murrough and daughter Margaret. After the violent death of Donall during conflict with another clan, Grania married Sir Richard Burke, another union of convenience designed to strengthen her empire, and they had a son, Tibbot (or Theobald).

Grania had several large galleys, built by skilled shipwrights in oak from the ancient woods of Murrisk and flew, from the mastheads fore and aft, pennants of the sea-horse for O’Malley and the lions for O’Flaherty. These galleys were capable of carrying sixty or seventy men each, with twenty or thirty oarsmen to work them and they were a match for any ship, even against the much larger English vessels that would never pursue them into the creeks and island channels of Clew Bay; at Carrigahowley they had a safe, deep, and well-sheltered harbour. Grania and her crews were not very scrupulous in differentiating their enemies declaring their trade as ‘maintenance by land and sea’, in other words piracy, and they lifted and carried off whatever came handy on sea or shore from Celt or Saxon and also English, Turkish and Spanish pirate ships. But, they also traded their spoils with other clans and we quite happy to act in a mercenary capacity.

It’s a matter of not upsetting the wrong people and Grania finally came to grief for raiding settlements on the Shannon estuary, land belonging to The Earl of Desmond. She was captured and incarcerated for 18 months before being sent to Dublin, where, because of her status, she was allowed to return to her western isles. It was not long before Grania continued her warring ways and more troops were sent to subdue her. Each time she would withdraw to one of her impenetrable castles, particularly Carrigahowley; her ultimate refuge was always her Castle at Clare Island with its heavily fortified battlements bristling with batteries of heavy guns plundered from Spanish ships.

She spent difficult years fighting against the English, particularly Sir Richard Bingham, the ruthless Governer appointed by Queen Elizabeth I to rule over the Irish territories. When her second husband, Sir Richard Burke, died she was refused her legal entitlement as a widow to inherit a proportion of his, and her first husbands estate. This action was all designed to suppress the willful Grania and her clansmen and when, in 1593, her son Theobald and brother Donal-na-Piopa were arrested and thrown into prison enough was enough.

Grania, the acknowledged Queen of the Owals, petitioned Elizabeth, Queen of England. She wrote letters demanding justice, but received no response. If you are a woman of action and letters have no effect what do you do? Grania went to London in person to demand their release and ask for the Queen’s help in regaining the lands and wealth that were rightfully hers.

Grania Uaile meeting Elizabeth I at Hampton Cout in 1593
Grania Uaile meeting Elizabeth I at Hampton Cout in 1593

No one really knows why Queen Elizabeth agreed to meet with Grania, let alone why she did not have her executed or imprisoned on the spot. They met in August 1593 at Hampton Court. Both Grania and Elizabeth were the same age, neither were vain and they were both fluent in Latin and able to converse freely. The fact is that they were both noble but in different ways; Elizabeth was possibly the most powerful monarch in the world whereas Grania was a queen of far more ancient nobility. They were a match for each other and whilst The Court was amused by Grania’s ‘barbaric magnificence and wild native attendants’, Elizabeth really liked Grania.

Grania explained her that her actions in the past had been neither rebellious nor treasonous but rather acts of self-defence. She explained to Elizabeth how her rightful inheritance, arising from the deaths of her husbands, had been wrongfully withheld from her and asked for her estates to be returned. She also asked for the release of her son and brother. In return Grania pledged to use her strength and leadership to defend the Queen against her enemies on land and by sea. Surprisingly, Elizabeth succumbed to Grania’s arguments and granted her every request. Grania returned to Ireland with the sealed orders of Elizabeth and demanded the release of her son and brother and the return of her lands by order of the Queen. Sir Richard Bingham had little option but to adhere to the order for the  release of  the two captives but never did he restore Grania’s rightful possessions.

The story of Grania Uaile is colourful, if not romantic and certainly a good subject for a Hollywood Film. It is about the struggle of the native Irish that has continued for hundreds of years. She maintained her independence longer than most from insurmountable English pressure, action dedicated to eradicate her Gaelic culture. English rule dominated Ireland and whilst Grania might have been known as a fearless leader and fierce fighter in her 70 years of life she and her kinsmen never forgot their heritage. This spirit is in the blood of every Irishman. Grania, who was no paragon of virtue or piety, died in 1603 and quite where she is buried no one knows. The Irish say she is buried at the old Abbey on Clare Island and I won’t argue with that. No better epitaph could a person leave … No Irish chieftain ever made a greater effort to preserve the old Gaelic way of life than Grania, the famous Queen of Clew Bay.

In another chapter I will describe how the descendants of Grania Uaile, The Irish of The 19th Century, emigrated to American; these were other difficult times.