Thursday, January 24, 2008

Grace O'Malley

Having read “The True Story of Grace O’Malley” by Anne Chambers I threw up my hands. I thought it was all fiction... Yet, it is a true story!

Granuaile (anglicized Grace O'Malley) was born in approximately 1530 in Gaelic Ireland. A daughter of a well-known seafarer, she was to become his ‘son’ in the image of a woman when she begged and achieved to come on board of the ship with him—unheard of for women of those times. That was the beginning of her career. A famous seafarer, notorious pirate and plunderer, shrewd politician, a captain and commander-in-chief of a sophisticated army of men who passionately followed her to their deathbeds, she rebelled against all gender roles and usurped and surpassed the men’s role turning into an anathema for the powerful men of the times.

She seemed well used to power, as one that hath
Dominion over men of savage mood…

The charisma, power and courage of this woman are exemplified in myriads of folktales handed down to us through hundreds of years. Because of long-lived sexism she was not even mentioned in the historical annals and her story reached us only thanks to the folktales and original parchments of state papers. This itself lends credence to the legend that she is. The Queen of the pirates, she was equal to the very Queen Elizabeth of England, whom she personally met and impressed.

An account of this meeting further reveals her character. During the meeting she needed a handkerchief and Elizabeth gave hers. Upon using it, Granuaile threw it into a nearby fireplace. To the rebuke of the Queen that it was supposed to be put in her pocket, Granuaile told her that in her country they had a higher standard of cleanliness. Another story shows how unrelenting she was. During a battle, her son lost courage and hid behind her for safety. She turned to him in anger, “Are you trying to hide behind my backside, the place you came from?”

She was an object of admiration, exaltation but also of awe, fear and revulsion. Personally leading her men to battle, she was fierce and instilled much fear in the chieftains.

… dared the tempest in its midnight wrath
And through opposing billows cleft her fearless path.

Lord Justice Drury said about her, 'Chief Commander and Director of thieves and murderers at sea.' But she called it ‘maintenance by sea and land.’ Twice married to notable chieftains, she was never a Mrs. Maid, and was fully independent, excelling her husbands in war, seafaring and politics. Her legend received a deep political dimension because of the turbulent times she lived in and the role she played. Subjugation of Gaelic Ireland-- sheltered from Renaissance and divided into tribes and clans-- by a more sophisticated and modernized England was set in motion. In the midst of this tempest and fire she was to play a unique role of a woman rebel, but also a pragmatist devoid of nationalism or patriotism. Survival as her innermost instinct, she was known ‘as the nurse of all rebellions,’ but also sought and achieved protection of the Queen to continue her trade in exchange for loyalty to the Queen.

Captured and locked in castles a few times by her male foes, she escaped the execution by miracle and survived to live for almost 70 years. The fact that she could persuade the Queen, her adversary, to protect her points to her incredible political talent. Perhaps, the similarities between these two women contributed to it. Grace O'Malley was listed as the only woman political leader in Ireland of her times. But while the Queen ruled by the Divine Will, Grace O'Malley ruled by her personal will and the power of her own sword. As one editor described her, “… the original trail-blazer and mould-breaker. It is only now that women were beginning to achieve in politics, business and in the maritime field, the goal set for them four hundred years ago by Grace O’Malley.”

Truly, the story of this woman makes me wonder about the true potential of a human being and whether after all, there are any limits to it. The reason that traditionally women were always portrayed as inferior to men is perhaps a result of the hidden fear of this potential. The women in the West have come a long way, but most women in the rest of the world are still suffering from this long-standing prejudice and have not yet been able to march forth with full swing. I only wish more women in the world set their ships into the freedom of the ocean, fearlessly and with no regard to culture, religion and law, just like Grace O’Malley.

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