The Pirate Queen

You can’t expect me to have a week in Ireland without coming back with some stories that intrigue me and although the tale of Grace O’Malley is not a spooky one, hers is a story that captured my imagination.

5th September 1593 a strange meeting was taking place between– Queen Elizabeth I and Grace O’Malley, the Irish Pirate Queen – both in their twilight years yet still fiery and not to be trifled with. Grace O’Malley had sailed from Ireland to England to plead her cause with the Queen directly.There must have been something about Grace that appealed to the Queen – perhaps because she was a bit of an adventurer at heart herself – but whatever the case she listened to Grace and granted all her requests much to the dismay of the Queen’s counsellors.

Grace O’Malley was born around 1530 to clan chieftain Owen O’Malley. The family was a seafaring one, trading from the west coast of Ireland to Spain, Portugal and Scotland. Legend has it that the young Grace was keen to sail with her father’s fleet but with true sailor’s superstition, it was held unlucky to sail with a woman on board, so her parents tried to keep her at home. In response, Grace is said to have cut off her long red hair, dressed as a boy and stolen on board one of the ships proving she could handle the life of a seafarer. From then on she was a regular member of the crew and became a skilled sailor and navigator.

When she was 16 she married Donal O’Flaherty, a good match strategically and politically. Donal was heir to the chieftain of the O’Flaherty clan and owned the castles of Bunowen and Ballinahinch. He appears to have been an angry and violent man with a quick and wicked temper. Throughout the 16th century Ireland was wrought by inter-tribal branglings, politics and power struggles – Grace’s marriage strengthened both family and tribal ties and protected their interests.

Grace bore three children by O’Flaherty but never settled for the life of a “good” wife. The following years saw her taking over the fleet and managing the business and political dealings of the clan. Her ships were banned from Galway, a major trading port at the time and Grace was forced to take her cargoes directly to Spain, Portugal, Scotland and Ulster. Not one to be coerced she developed what she called “maintenance by land and sea” – an early protection racket. In other words she would have her ships lie in wait off the coast and on the approach of the slower merchant ships, she would bear down on them to offer the captain safe passage with a pilot in return, of course, for a suitable wodge of cash. If her protection was refused then she simply denuded the ship of everything of value. The protests of the merchants of Galway went unheeded.

In 1560 her husband Donal was killed in yet another clan spat and Grace dealt with her husband’s killers … in a very permanent way. Under Irish law she was unable to inherit her husband’s goods and chattels which peeved her majorly, she returned to O’Malley land with her followers and established herself on Clare Island in Clew Bay. It was from there that she could extend her operations – the three P’s –pilots, protection and plunder. She and her followers became wealthy.

Clare Island

Clare Island

Before long before most of Clew Bay was in Grace’s hands. To secure a foothold in the remaining part she married Richard Burke of Rockfleet. The marriage was arranged on a trial basis – each party agreed to give it a go for a year after which either party could divorce (under Irish law at the time). Grace duly gave it a year, moved her fleet and her followers to the castle at Rockfleet and gave Richard his marching orders… although afterwards she did help him several times to get out of sticky situations of his own creation – he seems to have been a bit of a thickie – and to achieve his succession as clan chieftain.

Rockfleet Castle

Rockfleet Castle

Ireland was a hot brew of rebellion during the latter part of the century and was a cause of anxiety to the English especially as many of the Irish nobles had links with Scotland (also in ferment) and Spain. Clan chieftains swore allegiance to the English throne one day and then joined the rebels the next. The English were systematically trying to Anglocise (is there such a word?) Ireland by changing the laws and outlawing the age-old system that the clans used to elect their chieftains. Gradually though, more of the clan chieftains bowed to the inevitable and submitted to Elizabeth I and the English throne.

During this time Grace moved carefully, picking her way through the turmoil, joining the rebels then swearing loyalty to the English Crown when politic to do so. She survived the threat of the hangman’s noose after being arrested for piracy and insurrection. Why she was freed is a cause of speculation. Some sources suggest that Grace was actually in the pay of Francis Wolsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster and that her knowledge and insight about movements of ships particularly the Spanish fleet were too valuable to England to lose.

When Richard died Grace, remembering that she was robbed (as she saw it) of her inheritance from her first husband, took matters into her own hands and made off with around 1000 head of cattle and her followers to take possession of Rockfleet Castle.

The arrival of Sir Richard Bingham in Ireland as Governor of Connaught started a new chain of troubles for Grace and he became her chief enemy. Here was a man, ruthless, cruel and full of guile who was totally dedicated to wiping out the old Irish laws, customs and way of life. It was he who took Grace prisoner and appropriated all her cattle and lands leaving her destitute.

Her response was to muster new forces and join the rebellion that was now well and truly on the boil throughout the west of Ireland. She attacked Bingham’s army, carried soldiers to join the rebel forces, raided seaports and generally made a serious nuisance of herself. Bingham tried all he could to dislodge her from her power base by using a scorched earth policy – indiscriminate killing, destruction of land, livestock and shipping until Grace finally had enough and wrote to Elizabeth I about the injustices done in her name. In the letter she requested that the Queen give her freedom to attack all the Queen’s enemies. In return the Queen sent a number of questions to Grace regarding her life, politics and activities. Whereupon, perhaps fearing he was being outmanoeuvred by Grace, Bingham arrested Grace’s son and brother and accused them of treason. That was the final straw. Grace upped anchor and sailed to Greenwich to see the Queen in person. Furious, Bingham dashed off a letter denouncing her as a traitor…”the nurse of all rebellions.”

And so Grace, the Pirate Queen met Elizabeth I the English Queen and it appears that the two ladies got on well together. It must have been a strange meeting – the elderly regal Elizabeth and the weather-beaten Irish pirate, yet there were common strands in their lives; both knew power and how to use it; both had spent much of their days fighting for their rights and their lives. The outcome of the meeting was a letter from Elizabeth to Bingham ordering him to release Grace’s son and brother and restore all her property. Furthermore she informed Bingham that Grace had the Queen’s permission to “fight in our quarrel with all the world” without let or hindrance as it were.

With the security of the Queen’s letter behind her Grace resumed business as usual, eventually dying in (it is suggested) 1603…coincidentally the year of the death of Elizabeth.

The Quotation Challenge

Today I have picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Half-baked in Paradise to share three quotes, meaningful for me and perhaps for others too. I fear they may reveal the true depth of my character – as Oscar Wilde said: “Only the shallow know themselves”. (That’s a bonus quote; now engaging smug mode).

So quote number one will be familiar, or at least the first words will be. They are chanted like a mantra by just about every personal/life coach and self-help book on the planet. However, it is what follows that has more impact for me.

“When one door closes another door opens but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the ones which open for us.” (Alexander Graham Bell)

In my occasional reflective mode I look back over my life and see a pattern of doors not opened through fear – of change; of the unknown; of lack of ability. Sadly in the past, I have fallen into the trap of gazing wistfully at the closed door but I’m making up for it now! A door opened, I stuck my foot in it, burnt all my boats and bridges in the UK and, voila, here I am, in France, loving life and learning to become the best writer I can be – which brings me neatly on to my second quote.

When I started to write, I mean seriously write, I plotted, planned, characterised my characters within an inch of their lives and read every “how to write a best-selling blockbuster in 24 hours” book. In doing so I accumulated more scrap paper (yes I still write longhand, I’m an old-fashioned kinda gal) to replant a rainforest. Then I came across this, from poet Ted Hughes (Poetry in the Making):

“Imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves, like magic.”

Something just “clicked” for me and this is how I try to write now. I let the story roll through my mind like a film, fuzzy at first but eventually coming into focus. I let my characters take me over for a while. I can be seen flitting distractedly around the garden grizzling to myself like a demented bumblebee as I develop one of my characters. My upcoming book of short stories represents the first dip of a toe in the water of this Hughesian philosophy… it’s much more relaxed and fun to work this way.

So, my last quote for day comes from Zen Buddhism:

“Tension is who you think you should be; Relaxation is who you are”.

I have spent the greater part of my life, stressed and uptight, trying to be who I think I should be – conscientious student, good wife, dynamic business-woman, empathic coach blah, blah, it is only now that I’m discovering who (and what) I am. The tragedy for many of us is that this awareness (and the time and space to sit back and breathe again) often comes so late in life.

It is never too late.

In France, I have learned to relax and reacquaint myself with myself. I still “work” hard but at something I really love so it doesn’t count as work and I remember now to value the little things of life – watching the lizards playing tag on the sunny courtyard wall; treading barefoot on squishy turf that sparkles with dew, listening to an irate blackbird defend its territory and wanting to tell it to ‘chill out man there’s room for everyone.’ It is these little things too, that remind me to walk softly and thoughtfully on this beautiful planet that struggles so hard to combat the depredations we inflict on it.

That’s it folks!

The Adventure Begins…well almost

So, the big day dawns this week and I’ve packed and re-packed. My dreams are filled with cardboard cartons and the squeal of  brown sticky tape as it comes off the dispenser. This is my last post for a short while as I discover the delights of a left-hand drive vehicle and wend my way to SW France.

I wonder what I’ll really find when I get there. How close will vision and reality meet? but, more to the point, I wonder what my new neighbours will make of me? Hopefully they’ll not find me quite as amazing and outlandish as Colonel Harrison’s Pygmy Troop when they turned up in England in the early years of the twentieth century.

Whilst moving to France is nothing unusual these days, (may even be de rigeur), the  story of the Pygmy Troop is totally out of tune with today’s attitudes and culture. However back then curiosity, ignorance, imperialism and a general sense of superiority over the rest of the world all played a part in bringing this type of entertainment to England. Oh dear that does remind me of some expats I’ve met!

Moving swiftly on, here’s the story.

In 1904 Colonel James Harrison of Brandesburton Hall in the East Riding of Yorkshire was travelling through the Congo river basin. This was not as odd as you might surmise since he was not only a soldier but also an explorer and big game hunter. Travelling in darkest Africa is what explorers are supposed to do.

There in the remoteness of the Congo he made the acquaintance of the Pygmy tribe of the Ituri forest. No doubt after a deal of huffing and puffing he persuaded six of his new “little pygmie friends” to return to England with him. So it was that Bokane, Quarke, Mogonga, Matuka, Amurape and Masutiminga arrived in 1905, to take London by storm. Appearances at the London Hippodrome, Olympia and even the staid old House of Commons were followed by a tour of the whole country when all and sundry could pay up and gawk at them.

In their “down” time the group stayed at Brandesburton Hall and went hunting in the parkland there. They made appearances at various venues in East Yorkshire including the coastal resorts of Hornsea and Withernsea where they met with much interest…to put it mildly. During their stay they made a record of their stay, speaking in their native language – I intend to do something similar in writing. Watch this space.

All six survived their English tour and returned to their homeland in 1907/8. Whether I shall eventually follow their example is in the lap of the gods.


The Desperate DoZen

Only twelve desperate days to go before the BIG MOVE. I wish I could say I was in a state of grace and serenity as I glide from my English life to my new French one.  Did I say glide – I mean stagger, lurch and stumble.  The awesome bureaucratic machine that is French administration with its insatiable appetite for papers (preferably bearing the expensive insignia of a notaire or English solicitor) and requests for documents that are currently unobtainable, has already given me a couple of hors d’oeuvres to swallow. I need to open a bank account? I need a utility bill to do this. I can’t have a utility bill until I’m sent one. When will that be? Oh a couple of months and then I must pay by cheque. But I haven’t a bank account. Open one. Need a utility bill. Soooooper.

Still it’ll give me the opportunity to practise for my Zen mastership.

Actually so much is happening at once that I do need that inner calm. My local history book “Close to the Edge” is completed, edited and just awaiting a few permissions for some of the older photos. One of the publishers I approached is making all the right noises but is still havering so I’m looking again at self-publishing, Print on Demand and all that jazz. If anyone who reads this has any experience of using Lightning Source I’d be really pleased to hear from them. The idea of marketing a book from 1000 miles away seems a little daunting but since I’ve got to come back to the UK for day job work every now and again, I’m sure it’s possible.

In the meantime I’m moving on to my next keep-me-in-Blanquette (fizzy wine, local to my new home to those that don’t know) book. I enjoy writing these short quirky history books. My original idea was to develop them alongside fiction that I want to write to help pay the bills. It’s a bit of a cop out in some ways because the non-fiction is easier to write and sell, although not in huge quantities. But I do think that maybe I’m avoiding something here. My track record in fiction writing is limited to a few short stories and a radio play.  Lurking in a drawer I have four half-finished novels where I’ve run out of steam or gotten a bit bored with them. Basically I think I’m a coward and won’t face up to the possibility that I’m a crap fiction writer. My head teems with ideas and I’m pretty good at visualising scenes and situations; dialogue runs well for me too. I often walk on the beach, in character as it were, creating pretty good dialogue (to the amusement of many a dog walker) but the minute I try to write it all down, pouf! The gremlins that live in the dust balls under the bed steal it all away whilst I’m asleep.

So do I take the easy road and conjure up a few more eclectic histories or do I bite the bullet and finish off one of the four unfinished opusses (yes, pedants, I know it’s not the plural of opus)? Perhaps the change of scene will do the trick. There again, perhaps the warm spring airs, the lure of the mountains and the scent of the garrigue will do for me entirely.


A little peep at the new des.res.

Stranger in a Strange Land

It’s getting nearer to the first day of my French adventure. Every room in the house is littered with cartons, tape and squidgy bubble wrap that I spend hours squashing, row by row with obsessive neatness. Here I sit like Dido in the ruins of Carthage amidst this devastation and wonder what the hell I’m doing, where I’m going and where I’ll end up. Well actually I know the answer to that – a tasty lump of worm food…but hopefully not for a good while yet.

These last preparations are all about decisions, what ifs, why not try…and any variation thereof.

There’s a period of limbo to deal with whilst I’m between houses and waiting for the money to transfer. Where do I go? Hotel? Friend’s sofa? Back seat of the car?

Do I take my car with me? Sell it here? buy a LH drive here or in France -where used cars are expensive?

How can I open a French bank account as soon as I get there when I won’t have any utility bills to brandish?

What if I…It goes on…and on.

There are so many decisions, choices, options and what-have-you that when I try to draw little coloured decision trees I end up with a London Underground map gone haywire.

Add to all that the realisation that what is known and familiar as a holiday destination suddenly becomes rather weird and foreign with bureaucratic dictats in a language so unlike the friendly “Salut, bonjour Toto, ça va?” of camping holidays. For a while at least I’ll be a “Stranger in a Strange Land” (thank you Mr Heinlein).

It’s only pre-emigration nerves I know that. As someone once   said “it’ll be alright on the night” although whether it was stage   or wedding-night fright I have no idea. Does anyone suffer from wedding-night fright these days I wonder? How  deliciously old-fashioned.

But all this palaver reminds me of the writing process (as I know it). All these ideas jostling for space in your head; characters half-forming and then disappearing without as much as a by-your-leave; plots that could go this-a-way or that-a way and, in my case, no-a-way and the minute you try to write anything down the ability to put pen to paper or digits to keyboard becomes unaccountably difficult, nay impossible until at the very least you’ve cleaned the car, re-decorated the house, ironed everything that could be pinned down and scorched and circumnavigated the globe twice. Displacement activity? What displacement activity?

However, to be serious a mo – you’re not getting rid of me. I’ll still be blogging here and will dazzle you with tales of the conquest of France – Sheila’s revenge for 1066 and a certain Duc de Normandie.

Now please excuse me. I have an article to write but I dropped a whole bag of birdseed on the drive this morning and I have to go and pick it all up, grain by grain…with chopsticks.

I Blame the Merlot

Now the Humbug of Christmas is over (sorry, still unrepentant) I can indulge in one of my favourite sofa exercises – R & R – reflecting and reviewing of course. This requires some preparation viz: –

– A full log basket so I don’t have to move again for at least…ooh, lets say three hours;

– A large quantity of high calorific comestibles to stoke up the r & r levels;

– A bottle of something suitable to quench thirst and stimulate creative thinking (last time I did this I found 17 different ways to fall off a sofa);

– A large notebook, a flipchart and quantity of coloured pens (never try to separate a coach and trainer from the flipchart and coloured pens…it’ll end in tears).

Once assembled it’s time to light the blue touch paper of my frontal lobe and we’re ready to begin our dialogue. It goes something like this.

Um, err, well …what’s happened this past twelve months?

Oh bugger I can’t remember, that’s last year, so long ago.

Fool, it’s only three days ago. Think.

You think, you’re the brain.

Well what about your book?

Oh yes, I’d forgotten about that. Time for Your Life it was called.


Didn’t set the world alight. Everyone was too busy living their lives to stop and read it. Paid the bills for a while though.

Thanks to my inspirational idea to licence it.

Ok, Ok, don’t brag. You’re the brain after all; you’re supposed to give me inspirational ideas and come to think of it, you’ve been slacking off in that department recently.

Slacking off! Who came up with all those ideas for mags and rags?

I think you mean magazines and newspapers; don’t be derogatory about a source of income that keeps us in peanuts.

Pays us in peanuts I think you mean

How dare you! Editors everywhere forgive my grey and wrinkly friend here. The Merlot is reaching places where it didn’t oughta go. Moving swiftly on…

If you must, but if you think anyone is going to read your jaundiced maunderings you’ve got rats in your attic.

Ha! Ha! Since you’re the attic…

Oh shut up and get on with it. What else?

There’s Close to the Edge – a sort of ‘Orrible ‘Istory of ‘Olderness for adults wot is languishing in a publisher’s in-tray as we speak…

The adults are languishing in an in-tray?

Gawd, you’re a pedantic git sometimes. You know what I mean. Then of course there’s the French adventure…

That’s for this year; you’re supposed to be looking back – r and r …remember?

Well I can’t remember anymore, except it rained a lot and I grew some fantastic veggies.

How wonderful! Your readers will be riveted…fantastic veggies indeed!

Yes but, if you’d done your job properly I’d be popping with ideas and inspiration. As it is…


And so it goes on until the bottle is empty, the fire burned out and the carpet awash with Quality Street wrappers.

The result?

A blank flipchart, a few doodles in a notebook and the bathroom scales recoil in horror every time I approach them.

So let’s not bother with the who, what, when and why.

Suffice it to say I made it through the year in one piece even though the world didn’t fall at my feet in awe of my limitless talent. Through this blog, I found  a whole lot of lovely people out there who, damn them, are far more talented than me…or should that be I? My grey and wrinkly friend is AWOL this morning.

Oh and of course, blogging opens a whole new motorway of opportunities for being a smart-arse. So to those of you who can and do read this – I hope your New Year brings you all you deserve…did I really write that? It’s a typo, I mean desire…you knew that didn’t you?

Bah Humbug!

I shall be AWOL for a while as I lurk in the deepest bat cave I can find to avoid the stuff-yourself-silly and declare-yourself-bankrupt season.

In my persona as old-trout-on-the-beach one of my most favourite hates is the adverts that herald the arrival of the big event. In particular those that seep nostalgia  with mumsy laden like a pack mule with food and last-minute guilt presents wandering home staring up at a starlit sky as snow begins to fall and little children with rosy-noses play joyfully in the street throwing snowballs .  But their iniquities fade to nothing when put up against those  arty-farty perfume ads featuring guys with chiselled chins and soigné stubble and women with improbable pouty puff-adder lips. Do they really think that if we douse ourselves in eau de comeandshagme that we’ll all be walking bow-legged by New Year?

And the food and drink?  At my local supermarket I watch in awe as not one, not two but three trolleys, linked in a chain and stuffed way beyond the Plimsoll line, are manoeuvred and docked at the checkout. Have these people been on bread and water all year just so they can gorge at Christmas? Or is it pay-day loans all round?

As for me, well I have a love-hate relationship with food. But Christmas food? Oh no thanks; turkey’s boring, stuffing and sprouts turn me into a trumpeter royal and I loathe Christmas Pud having been scarred for life by THE Pud incident when I was an infant.

It was my kindergarten year and the whole class trooped into the school kitchen to watch Mrs Dixon making the Pud.  Each of us, in turn, was invited to approach the huge kitchen table and give the gloopy yellow mix, spotted with what to my simple mind looked like something out of my pet rabbit’s backside, a bit of a stir. Unfortunately quite a few of my classmates were smitten with snotty colds and the sight of Anne Throstlethwaite (name changed for libel purposes) sneezing over the pudding basin, stirring with one hand whilst wiping her nose with the back of the other created such an impression on my unfolding psyche that I have never been able to watch the march of the cannon-ball Pud to the table with anything other than revulsion.

I’m sorry to sound like such a grouch.  I know there are some of you out there – people of faith- for whom Christmas has real meaning and I can respect that. Others seem to embrace the spirit of Christmas sans religion and bring a certain joie de vivre to the season and yet others just embrace the spirits. Whatever your preference, for those of you who read this blog (yes, you three, I know who you are) I just want to wish you Happy Festivities whatever you are doing. For those who don’t read this blog…well there’s no point in making a witty if somewhat cutting remark is there?

Have fun (no I don’t need the gory details) and I’ll be back in the New Year.