Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Pirate Queen & Belleek Castle

Statue of Grace O'Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland
Did you know that Ireland had a Pirate Queen? I didn't. But goodness, she was a true pirate and a rebel during Queen Elizabeth's time (late 16th century). I've become so enamored, I've named a character in my Irish Jane Austen styled novel, after Grainne Ni Mhaille (Granuaile O'Malley, aka Grace O'Malley), the pirate queen, and the children tell numerous stories of her exploits.

For the full history of the Pirate Queen, I recommend wikipedia, or this man's far more humorous version filled with proper swear words and scenarios that even Ni Mhaille might find offensive, but still appreciate. Bad Ass of the Week.com - Great blog!

How did I learn about the Pirate Queen while in Ireland? I walked into her bedroom.

Belleek Castle in Ballina

Map of Ireland with Ballina dotted - Home to Belleek Castle and it's 1000 acres of woodlands
First, a quick game of connections:
    -We were staying with our Irish friends at their castle in County Mayo, Turin Castle 
Turin Castle

    -Turin is an old "de Burgh," aka, "de Burgo," aka "Bourke" castle. One of many that dots the western coast of Ireland. The Bourke's were a powerful merchant family.
    -Another Bourke castle is Rockfleet Castle, which was essentially stolen by the Pirate Queen.

Rockfleet Castle - Look similar?
How does a Pirate steal a castle? Pirates only steal things on the seas, right?

Here's the quick story:

By 1566 Gráinne Ní Mháille had married a second time, this time to Risdeárd an Iarainn Bourke, called "Iron Richard," an appropriate corruption of his Irish name as he is reputed to have always worn a coat of mail inherited from his Anglo-Norman ancestors. The nickname may also have come from the fact that he controlled the ironworks at Burrishoole, where his principal castle and residence were.

NOTE: The mother of my fictional Irish family is a Bourke and the family income is made by ironworks. Why bother making stuff up when the truth is far more interesting.

Back to the quick story:

Traditionally it is said that the Bourke marriage was motivated by Ní Mháille's desire to enlarge her holdings and her prestige. Bourke was owner of Rockfleet Castle, also called Carraigahowley Castle (Much cooler name!), which was strategically situated near Newport, as well as other lands like Burrishoole, with sheltered harbors in which a pirate ship could hide.

According to tradition they married under Brehon law 'for one year certain', and it is said that when the year was up Gráinne divorced Risdeárd and kept the castle. Brehon Law is another crazy Irish world, which amazingly still exists today in some really remote West Ireland towns. The Brehon Law basically lets you live together for a year as a trial marriage. (Personally, I think this is a great idea!)

Legend says that when the one year had passed, Gráinne Ní Mháille and her followers locked themselves in Rockfleet Castle and Gráinne called out a window to Bourke, "Richard Bourke, I dismiss you." Those words had the effect of ending the marriage, but since she was in possession of the castle she kept it. Rockfleet remained for centuries in the O'Mháille (O'Malley) family and is today open to the public.

Despite the divorce story, Ní Mháille and Bourke appear mentioned as husband and wife in English documents of the period, so appeared to remain married, at least allied, as far as the English were concerned. In her answers to the questions from Queen Elizabeth I (Yes, there were infamous Queen to Queen negotiations), Ní Mháille said she was Bourke's widow.

NOTE: There is now a Pirate Queen story my fictional Irish daughter (of marriageable age) tells to the family. He-he! Yes, demands for Brehon Law might be requested! She's a feisty daughter.

The Pirate Queen's Bedroom

In steps Belleek Castle and the owner, Paul Marshall Doran.

Belleek Castle - Bar - Made from real pirate ships!
We were honored to dine at Belleek Castle with the owner, his lovely wife, our friends and the castle accountant, which proved immensely educational on many fronts. (But that's a whole other post.)

FYI - Dinner at Belleek is pretty darn amazing; all around 5-star inventiveness, fresh greens from the castle gardens and gorgeous presentation.

Filet Mignon's skewered on a Spanish Sword and flambeed. Magnificient!
The dining room is a Spanish Galleon Ship (yep, a real one) which was my first introduction to Pirate architecture. 

This is the upper deck of the dining room. You can see the tables and chairs below on the lower deck of the ship.
Then the owner took us on a tour of this amazing pirate ship castle. We saw interior wooden panels with carvings of New World caricatures, like Native Americans, Merchants, Traders, etc, ancient treasure chests, canon balls, ship models, captain's quarters, and rum!

Belleek Castle - another bar - loaded with real ship pieces. 
 Then we got a private tour of the recently organized collection.

Belleek recently opened a museum inside the castle showcasing the family collection.
And there it was, Grace O'Malley's bedroom!
But it gets better. Not only did I get to meet Grace O'Malley (figuratively), feel the walls and smell the stories of 500 year old pirate ships, but then we got to play, yes PLAY, in the armory. 

Brenden (friend) and Wes (husband) handling 13th century swords.
Wes said afterward, "I knew I shouldn't be touching something so historical and precious, but I really wanted to touch it."

Then the owner gave them proper head gear and the battle began!
We decided that Wes chopped off Brendan's leg (see previous picture) and declared him the winner.
The owner demonstrated how to properly attack with two swords. 
Not only did we get to play with swords, but we learned how to properly handle them like a proper pirate. Not your standard night out, huh? (Yes, I'm gloating a bit here.)

So, in one night, I learned enough history and experienced a tantalizing dance of the senses that now allows me to spin fun (& fact) filled pirate tales by a fictional Irish fireside.

If you're on the west coast of Ireland, get thee to Belleek Castle!

Back at Turin Castle, our friends honored us with the Lord and Lady suite for the weekend, which is the entire top floor of the CASTLE, so yes, it's amazing. And surprise, surprise - on the bookshelf sat Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility by my favorite gal, Jane Austen.

Turin Castle - Lord and Lady Suite bookshelf of classics, including Austen.
But, surprise, surprise, the books weren't real. Instead the bookcase swung open, gothic style and revealed a secret passage!

Secret passage behind the bookcase!
Is the secret passage featured in my fictional book? Of course it is! Where does the passage lead? You'll have to stay at Turin Castle (You can rent it) to find out for yourself. Or read my book when it's done.

Bottom line - Get out into the world! As a writer, your imagination is a great place to create the world of your novel. But your novel will be so much better if it's inspired by the real world and the real history you are attempting to portray. 


  1. What a great story! Love reading this. The photos are priceless as well.

    1. Hi Julia,

      Thank you for reading! It was quite a surprising evening. Loved it.

  2. The only thing cooler than an Irish castle is an Irish castle with a Pirate Queen!

  3. I have to ask...is that ship inside of a ship? That's like a ship version of a turducken!

  4. LOL! Yes, you're right. It's a ship inside of a ship inside of a castle! If you look real close, I'm sure you'll also see a leprechaun.