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A bit of Irish history you weren’t meant to hear about

County Mayo and Connemara, part of the ancient west coast Province of Connacht (Connaught), have always been special places – bleak and beautiful, desolate yet full of human tragedy and heroics. The landscape has a dazzlingly watery green beauty, readily appreciated by city dwellers who see the tranquillity of open hillsides and moorland although local farmers see more than that – they see the poor soil that won’t grow food and they know of the harsh way of life that used to be lived here.

The O’Malley family were hereditary lords of the Mayo coast and the many islands around Clew Bay. If you weren’t an O’Malley or were not for the O’Malley’s they made formidable enemies.

In the sixteenth century the remarkable and unprecedented Grace O’Malley (gaelic= Granuaile, 1530-1603) lived in County Mayo but was written out of official Irish history so that tales of her exploits were relegated to local myth and legend. In life she caused havoc to ships passing off the west coast, which was well documented (with considerable annoyance) in English State papers during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Granuaile (pronounced Granya Wale) was an embarrassment to the recorders of Irish history because she did not play the part of the typical heroine beloved by history recorders. She flouted every conceivable law, tradition and social custom, yet she also sailed her ship up the Thames to meet the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I in London.

Uniquely for the sixteenth century her charisma and daring made her the leader of an army of 200 men and captain of a fleet of galleys. Sometimes she was a legitimate trader but when business was slow she was also a pirate, plunderer, mercenary, rebel and was renown as the scourge of the Galway coast in the way that Blackbeard was the scourge of the Spanish Main.

Grace O’Malley was a unique character and someone who deserves a little more recognition from the annals of history.

So I took a train from Dublin which meandered westwards through the rich fertile eastern and midlands to the end of the line at Westport on Clew Bay. I cadged a lift to Roonah Quay, a few miles from Westport, and took the tiny ferry across to Clare Island.

Approaching the sparsely inhabited island the most notable landmark is the promontory fort or Tower House on the harbour where Granuaile was born. It’s a sixteenth century three-story, square stone keep with battlements and would have been new when Granuaile was born.

For such a fabulous monument its left wide open to the public, but very few people ever visit. An iron gate is swinging open and inside there are stone stairs, fireplaces but the upper wooden floors have rotted away long ago. It seems cold and bleak but in its day it was probably considered pretty swish.

Clare Island is a modest place of 15 square miles with hills, bogs and small patches of woodland. It’s beautifully unspoilt, around 130 people live there now and it’s about ‘as away from it all’ as you can get.

I strolled across the island to the small 12th century Cistercian Abbey where Granuaile is buried. The frescos have been badly affected by weather so since the Abbey has been made water tight it’s been kept locked – but a note says that the key is with Bernie, next to the O’Malley store.

Bernie’s two dogs rush out to greet me and he shouts ‘come on in’ through his open front door. There’s an upturned bike in the living room and he says, ‘my friend here is having a little trouble, do you know anything about bikes?’ So I sit on the floor and fiddle with the brakes while Bernie makes us a cup of tea.

Key in hand I set off back to the Abbey and the little old storekeeper asks me to give her a hand with her rubbish bins. What fabulous little vignettes of island life – that it’s a matter of course that passing folk will give you a hand if you need it.

The Abbey must have been much larger in its heyday but now the remaining building is just the size of an average village church.

Inside there’s an elaborate O’Malley crest but the burial site of Grace O’Malley is not evident. It has the ambience of a barn but contains some remarkable, although badly damaged, medieval wall and ceiling frescos. The frescos would once have covered the entire ceiling in a kaleidoscope of colourful mythical, human and animal figures including dragons, a cockerel, stags, men on foot and on horseback, a harper, birds and trees.

I took the Greenway back to the pier, walking between the giant hump of Knockmore at 1,516 feet and the more gently sloping Knocknaveen. I didn’t see a soul but there are many signs of long gone people.

There were old potato ridges, or ‘lazy beds’ everywhere; leftovers from the 19th century when the island’s population peaked at 1,700 and the famine came, even to this isolated island.

The islands history is not just the 16th century O’Malley’s and the 12th century Cistercian monks because there’s also a prehistoric Bronze Age story with megalithic tombs and Bronze Age cooking sites dating from 3,500 BC.

Grace O`Malley, the Pirate Queen of Mayo, was a tyrant of the ocean, adventurer, clan chieftain, mother, wife and amazing survivor. Her deeds are now obscured by time, but her legacy survives in the ruined monuments and the folk-consciousness on Clare Island and beyond.

She had plenty of other castles and hideouts so I’m off to Rockfleet, Achill Island and Lake Corrib to look for some more.

I’ve been writing about travel for the past 14 years and have travelled extensively from [A]ustralia to [Z]imbabwe. I’ve been around the world a few of times and have written widely for the international press in America, Australia and the UK, for newspapers, magazines and websites.I am also the author of a definitive guide to Wildlife Conservation Volunteering (Bradt, 2012) and have worked on volunteer projects in South America, Africa, India and Europe. Working from a riverboat on the Amazon has to be my favourite conservation project – a bit of comfort and luxury at the end of the day after getting filthy ploughing through the muddy jungle.I think the best way of getting around is travelling by train, not just because it’s eco-friendly but because I enjoy the journey as much as the destination. I’ve written a lot about train travel and am a contributing author to Great Railway Journeys of the World (Time Out 2009). My enthusiasm for travelling on trains culminated in 2011 – 2012 when I travelled around the world by train - from London to Sydney. This was the most amazing trip I’ve ever done and I spent three months because I couldn’t stop myself getting off to explore what couldn’t be seen from the window.Naturally it’s now a book!

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