Pirate Queen of the Wild West

The Guardian -
March 2001

Provisioned with a couple of bottles of the hard stuff - Holy water from the Shrine Shop and a packet of Lucky Sawdust for the Traveller - to cover all eventualities, I left Knock airport. The airport is the 1986 brainchild of a local priest built to enable pilgrims to visit the shrine of a 19C Virgin Mary sighting. But I was on a pilgrimage of another kind. I was heading for the wild west - the west of Ireland that is, to visit a pirate queen's hang-out 60 miles away.

pirate fish
Rain-slicked snaky roads bounced and bucked our multidented hirecar between tumbling hedges of fuchsia and lopsided fields glittering with bog. I and my companion drove to neatly Georgian Westport where scarlet and sky-blue John Deere tractors lurched into town bringing in their flat-capped owners to do some weekend shopping.
We stayed here, and feasted on local salmon in a converted 18C chapel. Next morning we saw the 2500 foot cone of Croagh Patrick looming to the south, its pointed tip shredding the coastal mist floating off towards the Connemara mountains. Here the saint fasted, prayed and banished snakes and toads from Ireland in the 5C. Every July barefooted and masochistic pilgrims make a try for the summit.
pirate fish
My destination was Clare Island, one of the homes of feisty pirate queen Grace O'Malley who controlled these coastal waters 400 years ago. Clare is the largest - 15 square miles - of 365 islands scattered in Clew Bay, bounded by mountains mooching around its horseshoe curve.
pirate fish
At a time of great political upheaval, when a land riven by chaotic tribal rivalries was being overwhelmed by a 16C Elizabethan takeover, Grace O"Malley managed to retain her sea and land power against all odds for forty years along this wild western coast. A shrewd operator, fearless navigator and sailor, she sailed the western coast intercepting Galway's continental trade to the south and irking the English until she was in her 60s. It's said that the day after the on-board delivery of her son Tibbot-ne-Long she went up on deck to successfully fight off rival Algerian pirates. By various twists of fate Grace's son was eventually given a title by Charles1. His descendant the Marquess of Sligo lives in elegant Westport House on the mainland, where his wife runs its gift shop.
pirate fish
At tiny Roonagh Quay 18 miles south of Westport 2 ferries were moored alongside, the "Island Princess" and the "Pirate Queen". We were handed flyers from rival Portacabins above the pier. "Dolphins frequently spotted" and "Spacious sundeck" read one optimistically. The ferry service was originally run by the O'Gradys, but then the O'Malleys got in on the act, I was told by a young O'Grady on board the "Pirate Queen".
The 2 crews did not acknowlege each other. The ferries run at more or less the same time 3 times a day, and charge the same. We took the O"Malley ferry.
pirate fish
We rolled our way over 3 miles of Atlantic swell with two other passengers, Germans who clutched each other and sang extracts from "The Flying Dutchman". After 15 minutes a humpy long-necked island necklaced with golden sand surged into view. The harbour is guarded by Grace's sturdy castle, a square stronghold with 2 chimneys pricked up like ears. The tower's slit windows command strategic views of all the secret inlets and islets of Clew Bay.
pirate fish
We walked past a few cars skirted with frills of rust to a narrow road running along the south of the Island. In the distance loomed the jagged outline of Inishturk Island and beyond that great hulking mountains undulated towards Connemara. The weather changed every few minutes. Buckets of rainwater sloshed over our heads followed by apocalyptic sunbursts. We peeled off our waterproofs in a heat haze. A succession of rainbows leapfrogged the islands. Below us were old ridges of potato fields, scar tissue of the 19C Famine. We bought mugs of tea from a cottage above the road, whose rosy-cheeked owner talked about the Famine as if it were yesterday.
pirate fish
Rare and wonderful plants grow on Clare, but my city eyes were too slow to spot the elusive Irish Hare. Stony litter of earlier tourists, hole-in-the-ground cooking sites from the Bronze Age, lie in rugged folds of the landscape. Nowadays 10,000 tourists visit the island every year, and the number is likely to increase - a new pier and airstrip is planned which will change the lives of its160 inhabitants.
pirate fish
We came to the remains of a Cistercian Abbey, whose grilled gateway was fastened with a bicycle lock. A churchyard overflowed with O"Malleys, their graves heaped with Baby Jesuses and steamed-up domes crammed with plastic flowers. I knocked on the door of a tiny cottage and was given a key by an emaciated man with ears like scoops.
pirate fish
The interior of the Abbey is being restored. Its flaking damp walls are decorated with faint medieval imagery of a knight, griffins, a lyre. On one wall is the stone tracery of a tomb and a plaque carved with the motto 'terra marique potens' - powerful by land and sea. This is the O'Malley coat of arms, and the tomb traditionally that of the pirate queen. As I photographed the stone carving - a helmet, a ship, a wild boar flecked with traces of crimson - a sudden wild gust of wind slammed the makeshift door of the abbey, plunging me into darkness.
pirate fish
I returned the key to its owner. "Would you be an O'Malley now?" he wondered. I wasn't, but he was half one. O'Malleys from all over the world come here to their ancestor's island. They have their own Website, and organise reunions and get-togethers via the Internet. "Are there any O'Malley pirates left?" I asked the guardian of the key. "Only the one with the ferry," he replied, showing several teeth.
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