Margaret Evans

 

A little known woman outside Wales, Marged uch Ifan was born in 1695 in Llanberis, Caernarfon. In a completely male dominated world, Margaret was reputed to be a ‘crack shot’, and the best at hunting and fishing in her time. She was also a champion wrestler, a blacksmith, a boat builder, a maker of harps and an excellent fiddle player.

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Gráinne Ní Mháille (Mhaol - of the cropped hair)

Gráinne, who the English call Grace O’Malley, is a particularly interesting and formidable character. Born to Eoghan O Mháille a sea chieftain in Mayo, she married Donal of Connacht when she was fifteen and had three children. In 1558, when Elizabeth I came to the throne, Gráinne was twenty-eight, only four years younger than the British queen.

Elizabeth began to interfere in the politics in Ireland, which led to an attack on Donal’s fortress. During the battle, her husband was killed but Gráinne successfully defended the castle.

 

When she returned to Mayo with her family and men, Gráinne beat off any male succession to her father’s fleet, and began ‘protecting' the coastal waters. After a while, this turned into piracy, attacking and looting any English vessels she found in the coastal waters, from Connacht to Munster. Gráinne became a well-established pirate captain, commanding at least two-hundred fighting men in three fast ships.

 

In 1566, Gráinne married Risteard-an-Iarainn Bourke, nicknamed 'Iron Richard'.

 

‘a plundering, warlike, unquiet and rebellious man’.

The Four Masters

 

Their 'handfasting' was formalised under Brehon law, which allowed them a two year trial marriage. Their relationship, though turbulent, survived and Gráinne found herself giving birth to their son on board one of her ships. Shortly after the delivery, Algerian corsairs attacked the ship, and Gráinne was forced to leave the infant to join her men on deck, brandishing her cutlass.

 

‘What?’ she roared at the first mate. ‘Can you not do without me for one day?’

 

Her son was named Tibbot na Long (Tibbot of the Ships) to reflect the circumstances of his arrival in the world.

 

Piracy brought Gráinne to the attention of the English.  Several attempts were made to subdue her, but they failed time and again. Gráinne’s ships were advanced versions of Hebridean birlinns, strong but manoeuvrable, with both oars and sails.  She was caught and imprisoned a couple of times, but always resurfaced to fight again. What really gave Gráinne the upper hand though, was her knowledge of the local waters.

 

When Risteard died in 1583, Gráinne claimed his rights under Brehon Law and became leader in his place. Elizabeth’s interest in Ireland increased, as did Gráinne’s illegal activities. She undertook contracts to ferry mercenaries to fight in Ireland against the colonists. Gráinne made herself very unpopular with the new governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, who took her son Tibbot as a hostage. Bingham was her fiercest adversary, and he tirelessly harassed and attacked Gráinne at every opportunity.

 

In 1593, she was sixty-three, and had tired of the fight with Bingham. In a brilliant but dangerous gamble, Gráinne decided to bypass him and meet directly with Queen Elizabeth. It seems that the Queen was curious about her and a meeting was arranged. It was held in Latin, which both women spoke, though Elizabeth may have tried out a few words in Irish. Legend has it that the Queen had to hold her hand up for Gráinne to kiss, the latter being a much bigger woman, and that Gráinne considered it a meeting of equals.

 

Gráinne’s gamble paid off and Elizabeth reined in Bingham, who was recalled to England eighteen months later. The Queen also gave Gráinne a letter allowing her to ‘hang the Queen’s enemies’ - a transparent permission to return to piracy.

 

Elizabeth and Gráinne both died in 1603 and Gráinne was buried on Clare Island, surrounded by the sea she loved. Gráinne’s legend lives on, and she has become immortalised as an iconic Irish figure in songs, poetry and art.

The History

Cúchulainn’s women

 

Emer

Scáthach (Shadowy one)

Aoife

Irish Mythology

The Fighters

The Celtic Myths

Welsh Mythology

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The Celtic Women

Rhiannon

Aranrhod

Blodeuwedd

Gwenhwyfar and Arthur

Branwen

Olwen

The Mórrígan

Macha

Nemain – Frenzy

Badb – Rage, fury, violence.

Medb, warrior – Queen of Connacht

Nessa

Feldem Noichrothach (nine times beautiful)

Coinchend

Mis

Étaín

Gráinne

Deirdre

The Beauties

Book One

 

Hiraeth

a mark - marc

Book Two

 

Hiraeth

a burden - baich

Book Three

 

Hiraeth

a loss - colled

Gwenllïan

Siwan

Gwerful Mechain of Powys (1462 -1500)

The Lady of Vix

Macha Mong Ruadh

Boudicca

Cartimandua

Elen of the hosts

Nest of Dyfed

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© 2014 Liz Riley Jones