16th-century Grace O’Malley aka Gráinne Mhaol continues to inspire the author who unearthed her backstory, writes Margaret Jennings
SHE is a fearless feminist icon who grabbed life with both hands right up to her death in older age, but it wasn’t until four decades ago that Grace O’Malley, the 16th-century pirate queen of Connacht, was proven to be a flesh-and-blood living legend, rather than a mythical figure, when one Irish woman delved into her background and brought her into the light.
O’Malley aka Gráinne Mhaol was airbrushed out of the history books until a then 20-something, Anne Chambers, working in a Dublin bank, diligently unearthed the details to her backstory, culminating in a bestselling book which has never been out of print.
Now, that 60-something author says O’Malley changed the direction of her life, as she left the bank and devoted herself to being a writer, with 12 other books, many also biographies, to her credit since.
There isn’t a single day, says Anne, that someone doesn’t communicate with her regarding the pirate queen at home and abroad, as she lectures, provides workshops, tours, responds to media events, and manages a website in her honour.
The flame of admiration for the legendary heroine is clearly burning as passionately as ever for Anne, who admits to asking herself down through the years, ‘What would Grace do?’ when faced with challenging situations.
While other human’s stories touch all of us in our lives, O’Malley has not only been an inspiring figure for modern-day feminists, but also a positive ageing icon, as she remained tough and adventurous right up to when she died at age 73 — which, in the context of the time, 400 years ago, would be the equivalent of being in her 90s nowadays, says her biographer.
“Her health must have been extraordinary. When you look at those old tower castles — my god, they’re so uncomfortable! They were built for military reasons rather than for family living; you can imagine the coldness that seeped in there. You can imagine her being out on the wild Atlantic Ocean. How Grace O’Malley survived to be 73, when the average life expectancy then was 35 or 40, is absolutely extraordinary.
“She was fearless by land and sea: She was a political practitioner and a rebel. But she was also a daughter and a mother of four children; she was a widow twice over; she was a divorcee; she was a grandmother, a great-grandmother and a matriarch.”
For all of us following in her footsteps, she is the embodiment of positive ageing.
“She epitomises for me the business of living your life to the fullest — for as long as you are physically and mentally able, of course. And to not be afraid of challenges and obstacles that all of us will undoubtedly encounter along the way, but to use the great experience and the knowledge we have accumulated throughout our life, to circumvent them, and reach another goal maybe,” says Anne.
“Through her example, I hold that our age of maturity, as we might call it, is not a terminus, but as she might have looked on it — as merely another port of call. And I hope I will continue to play a role and make a contribution as a writer; continue to be open to change and new ideas, which, I think, is important as well. And maybe even have the courage to embark on new writing directions in the future.
“To stay engaged is awfully important — she was engaged to the very end — within everybody’s own life, within your capabilities both physically and mentally, there are great things to be achieved and life is for living within whatever constraints you have — but you should push these a bit, push yourself.”
The Rathgar-based writer, when not tied to her nine-to-five routine in her home study, keeps fit, “always flying on my bike everywhere, and walking”. Anne also loves cooking, grows her own vegetables, and likes the physicality of gardening.
She has recently written a play based on O’Malley, a film script for a six-part mini-series, and a biopic based on the book, which is being looked at by a few interested parties “that will take me off in a new direction again”.
She is devoted to her writing. “I love it — you will never be a millionaire, but you’re bringing a life that for one reason or another has been forgotten, or not even known about, and restoring their place in a particular time.
“Money can’t buy anything like that — particularly when I get access from documents that never saw the light of day from when the author put quill to parchment — and I was the first one to open these documents. That is a great thrill. ”
The 40th-anniversary edition of Grace O’Malley: The Biography Of Ireland’s Pirate Queen, 1430-1603, by Anne Chambers, costs €12.99 and is published on October 25 by Gill Books.Anne’s website on Grace O’Malley is graceomalley.com