Rock-fleet Castle (Carraig-an-Cabhlaigh), also known as Carrickahowley Castle, stands at the mouth of a small inlet on the northern shores of Clew Bay in County Mayo. The Castle is renowned for its links with Grace O`Malley (or Granuaile), a pirate sea Queen who inhabited the castle in the latter part of the 16th Century. Grace was reputed to have command of three galleys and some 200 fighting men with which she was able to give the merchant ships to and from Galway a hard time. In fact she became so successful in this that, in March of 1574, the English sent an expedition of ships and troops to put an end to her maritime exploits. They laid siege to the castle for many days but Grace turned the tables on them and the hunters became the hunted.
A 16th-century Irish chieftain and pirate who headed a fleet of 20 ships, fought against Queen Elizabeth I’s forces, and, oh yes, was a woman. Luckily for the producers of Riverdance, whose swashbuckling rendition of The Pirate Queen has just opened on Broadway, it’s all true. The real pirate queen, Grace O’Malley, took refuge from her foes on Clare Island, County Mayo, and is thought to have died in nearby Newport in around 1603. I chose to forgo the Broadway treatment of Irish history and embarked on a journey to find out why this island offered her the perfect hideaway.
Grace O’Malley commanded a dozen ships and the obedience of thousands of men. Her empire stretched from Connaught on the Irish coast to the cobalt aters of Africa. Through the daring of her piracy, Grace nearly bankrupted the English treasury-and her outright defiance brought embarrassment to Elizabeth I. Yet the lives of these two amazing women were inextricably intertwined-and their eventual meeting during the most brilliant and romantic era that Europe has ever known would shock the world.
Grace was born and raised at Belcare Castle near Westport. During her reign, she acquired several other castles through conquest and marriage, including Doona on Blacksod, Kildavnet on Achill Island, the O’Malley Castle on Clare Island and Rockfleet in Clew Bay, where she eventually died.
The historic meeting with Queen Elizabeth I and the ‘pirate queen’ took place in September 1593 at Greenwich Castle. Their conversation was carried out in English, as Grace spoke no Latin and Elizabeth spoke no Irish. The encounter was a success for Grace as Elizabeth granted each of her requests on the condition she ceased all rebellion against the crown.
Almost everything around Clew Bay is associated with her memory. Her undying presence still haunts its shores and islands.