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Pirate Queen, Tony Lee and Sam Hart

Pirate Queen: The Legend of Grace O’Malley, by Tony Lee, illustrated by Sam Hart, Walker Books, 128 pp, £9.99, 978-1406347357

Grace O’Malley, or Gráinne Ní Mháille, or Gráinne Mhaol (Granuaile), born some time around 1530, was the leader of the O’Malley clan of Mayo after the death of her father, Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille. At the unveiling of a statue to her in 2003 (she bears, it must be said, a certain resemblance to Molly Malone ‑ but more martial), the late TK Whitaker said: “She was an extraordinary woman, a precursor of the rare but growing category of women achievers, judging where her interests lay and deploying intellect, charm and even force at times to get her there; one hand firmly on the tiller, the other ready to draw her sword ... “ As such, she is perhaps a natural heroine, or even ‑ depending on one’s attitude to that “force” – a role model for young girls. And this, and the many exciting features of her story, have no doubt contributed to making her a suitable subject for a graphic novel aimed, the publisher says, at children aged nine and over.

Well, as we know, children of any age can be bloodthirsty enough and they will hardly blench, as their elders might, at snatches of dialogue like this:

Oisin (strangely, a woman): I swear, I don’t know any more than that. Please don’t kill me.

Grace: Oh, I don’t intend to kill you. You can’t suffer if you’re dead.

Or this:

Richard Burke: I’m sorry to hear of your father’s death, Grace. I know you took revenge on the McMahons ... but the real killers will be brought to justice.
Grace: The real killers are in England, Richard. So I’ll have to do with killing all the English I can find.

Grace O’Malley’s chief enemy, in Lee and Hart’s account, was Richard Bingham, who in 1584 became governor of Connacht. He had been present at Smerwick in 1580 when several hundred members of a papal invasion force were slaughtered after surrendering. He presided at the Galway assizes in 1586, when over 70 death sentences for disloyalty were passed. Bingham’s main function in Pirate Queen is to be a black-hearted villain (“I hate the Irish!”) and to stand as a contrast to the somewhat more sympathetic Queen Elizabeth. (The book could not be accused of being lukewarm in its Irish patriotism but one supposes that a wholly negative portrait of the Virgin Queen might have been too much for an English readership.) And thus the queen, like many an English ruler before and since, emerges as a well-intentioned spirit rather let down by her servants:

I might not agree with your methods, Sir Richard, but you did bring me results. Return to your duties, but with a lighter touch.

It is historically attested that O’Malley met Queen Elizabeth at Greenwich Palace in London in 1593. She had gone there to plead for the release of her two sons and half-brother, who had been taken captive by Bingham. The interview between the two powerful women was apparently conducted in Latin, since Grace had little English and Elizabeth’s Irish was not up to snuff either. Lee and Hart may have missed a trick here by not switching for a few frames to the classical language, though admittedly this might have tested the ten-year-olds (but what are footnotes for?)

The agreement reached at Greenwich did not last and Grace O’Malley eventually returned to her rebellious ways during the Nine Years’ War, dying in 1603, the same year as Elizabeth. In the Pirate Queen version of history, Elizabeth reflects ruefully some time after Greenwich:

I have spent my whole life facing enemies at every corner. People who never wanted me as queen, people who don’t want me to stay as queen. Many of them are family. Add to them the problems currently with Spain, our unstable alliances with the French and the Dutch ... Even my father never faced war from so many directions. I need Ireland. And so I make an enemy of the one woman that I’ve felt understood me the best. At least she was able to save her kin. That’s a small victory.

This may not, strictly speaking, be history, but it’s human, engaging and fun. This is a great swashbuckling romp with an indomitable female hero which may well lead some young people into a greater engagement with the romance of history. And if not it will at least keep them well-entertained.

Enda O’Doherty
18/4/2019

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