Grania Uaile (Grace O'Malley) and the Abuction of the Heir of Howth

John Healy
Grania Uaile (O’Malley) | start of essay


Grania, as she always preferred, travelled by sea, and on her homeward voyage landed, it is said, at Howth, no doubt to procure supplies. Tired of the sea, and perhaps hungry too, she sought admission to Howth Castle during the dinner hour, but she found all the doors closed, and was not admitted to the Castle.

This was not the Irish hospitality that Grania was accustomed to in the West, so she was wrathful, and happening to meet the young heir of Howth with his nurse in the grounds, she carried off the boy to her galley, and made all sail straightway for Clew Bay.

The Lord of Howth, great nobleman as he was, found it necessary to come to terms with Grania, and the child was restored, not on ransom, but on condition of the Lord of Howth promising to keep his door open during dinner, and have a cover always set for the chance wayfarer by land or sea. More power to Grania for teaching them that lesson of hospitality!

Such is the story, of which the strongest proof is the fact that this custom has been for centuries undoubtedly observed at Howth Castle, and that a picture in the Castle Hall depicts the whole scene of Grania’s exploit; but there is no really authentic evidence of the truth of the story.

Mr. Knox in his paper declares that it is borrowed from a really authentic incident recorded by McFirbis in his Great Book of Genealogies. McFirbis though writing only some 60 years later than Grania’s time, makes no reference to this alleged abduction of the heir of Howth by Grania, but he does narrate the fact that Richard O’Cuairsce Burke, who was McWilliam from 1469 to 1479, “carried off the Lord of Benn Edair that is Howth, and brought him away to far Tirawley, and there nought else was required for his ransom but to keep the door of his court open at dinner time.”

Mr. Knox thinks this authentic story was transferred from the McWilliam of the fifteenth century to Grania at the end of the sixteenth. Yet, after all, why should not both stories be true? Grania might have heard her husband who was great great grandson of Richard O’Cuairsce, tell the story of that chief’s exploit, and that knowledge would just naturally induce her to follow his example in similar circumstances.

I think I have given you all the authentic information obtainable concerning the Queen of Clew Bay, except perhaps one incident recorded by Bingham in 1590, when, he says, at the instigation of the O’Flahertys, “with two or three baggage boats full of knaves,” she landed on Aranmore and spoiled two or three tenants of Sir Thomas Le Strange—who, we may add, had most unjustly got a grant of the island. But Bingham adds that “he heard the Devil’s Hook, her son-in-law, had her in hands with a view to induce her to restore the spoils and repair the harms.”

There are, as you know, many living traditions about Grania and her doing still lingering about Clew Bay, but I cannot now refer to them in detail. I should greatly wish, however, to see them collected and embodied in a consecutive narrative.

It is not quite certain where she was buried—some say at Burrishoole; others say in the old Abbey on Clare Island, which is more probable, and the islanders, as you know, still point out her grave there.

I cannot undertake to say that she was a paragon of virtue or piety; but she was a good mother and faithful wife, and her frequent raids on her enemies would not at all prevent her from being recognised as a good Christian in those wild days. At any rate she had all her castles near to some church or religious house.

Murrisk Abbey was not far from Belclare or Carramore, and was founded by her ancestors for the monks of St. Augustine, so early as the middle of the thirteenth century.

The “lone grey abbey by the sea,” on Clare Island was also founded by her ancestors for the good Carmelites about 1224—and it was only a short mile or so from the castle on the beach.

Then she had the Dominican Convent of Burrishoole, founded by the Burkes, quite near her castle of Carrigahowley; and she had the old church of Kildavnet, near her castle on Achill Sound.

So when Grania wanted spiritual advice and absolution she had not far to go to find a confessor, and one, too, who would not be too hard on her for pillaging the Saxons and their adherents.

Murrisk Abbey

Murrisk Abbey

It is fully 300 years since she died, but her memory still lives around the shores and islands of Clew Bay, and will outlive the memory of all her contemporaries.

Every guide book tells some more or less fantastic stories about her; every tourist wishes to see her castles, especially on Clare Island and Carrigahowley.

She has been the heroine of at least three novels by distinguished writers; one of the greatest of our Irish poets, Sir Samuel Ferguson, has left us a fine poem descriptive of her life on Clew Bay; our antiquarians write papers about her history; and grave prelates like myself make her the subject of popular lectures.

I might have hesitated myself to take Grania as the subject of this lecture, but a greater Archbishop of Tuam made Grania the subject of a very stirring poem of which at least some stanzas may be found in the life of the illustrious John McHale by O’Reilly.

The latter describes John of Tuam as pausing awhile from his battles with recreant statesmen and false patriots, forgetting the sorrows of the past and the portents of the present, to call up and sing the praises of the heroine who faced and braved Elizabeth’s wrath in London—he might have said more truly who for forty years had faced and braved Elizabeth’s wrath on the shores of Clew Bay.

Grania Uaile is no unworthy representative of what Ireland once was, and still might be, if she could once more launch her vessels on the main.

Here are some of the Archbishop’s stanzas about Grania:

One night as oppressed with soft slumbers I lay,

And dreamed of Old Erin oft thought of by day,

With the long, wasting wars between Saxon and Gael,

Up rose the bright vision of fair Grania Uaile.

Old Erin’s green mantle around her was flung,

Adown her fair shoulders the rich tresses hung,

Her eyes like the sun of the young morning shone,

Whilst her harp sent forth strains of the days that are gone.

Of Erin’s fair daughters a circle was seen,

Each one with her distaff surrounding the Queen,

Whose sweet vocal chorus was heard to prolong

The soul stirring anthems of harp and of song.

To Erin what shame and lasting disgrace

That her sons should be crushed by a vile foreign race,

Who have banished her priests and polluted her fanes,

And turned to a desert her beautiful plains!

The great Archbishop then, by a large stretch of poetic license, represents Grania as denouncing the payment of tithes, and foretelling a brighter future for Ireland:

When the dark reign of terror had come to its close,

And a period is put to its crimes and its woes,

Not leaving a record its trophies to tell,

But the cairn of rude stones where the Tithe Demon fell.

I am proud to note that my illustrious predecessor felt a similar interest to that which I feel in the great career of Grania Uaile.

In her own person she typifies the unending struggle for Faith and Fatherland which ever goes on in Ireland. In her own day, and with her own weapons by land and sea, as Bingham said, for more than forty years she fought a stubborn fight on the shores and islands of Clew Bay. Her memory still clings as close as their sheltering ivy to the old castles that she built.

No student of the past will ever sail over the glorious expanse of Clew Bay without thinking of Grania Uaile, and I honestly believe that when the statesmen and politicians of our own time are dead and forgotten, the memory of the Queen of Clew Bay will still be green in the hearts of the men of the West; yea, as long as the holy mountain of St. Patrick stands in its place of pride, looking down like a guardian angel on that beautiful bay with its myriad islands, which Grania kept so stoutly and loved so well.

Almost everything around Clew Bay is associated with her memory. Her undying presence still haunts its shores and islands.

In the words of a great poet, slightly changed, it may be said that:—

The waters murmur of her name,

The woods are peopled with her fame;

The silent abbey, lone and grey,

Claims kindred with her sacred clay;

Her spirit wraps the dusky mountain,

Her memory sparkles o’er the fountain,

The meanest rill, the mightiest river,

Rolls mingling with her fame for ever.