The Pirate Queen

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.

O'Malley Country
O’Malley Country
O'Malley country
O’Malley country

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 or a pilot to navigate the dangerous inshore water in return, of course, for a suitable sum of money.  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 so 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 rest 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 and surviving despite being arrested for piracy and insurrection and then, unaccountably released. There is some speculation 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.

Sir Richard Bingham
Sir Richard Bingham

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 – killing, destroying land, livestock and shipping until Grace finally had enough and wrote to Elizabeth I about the injustices done in her name. 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 Story So Far

I’m about to disappear for a week in the wilds of the west of Ireland so I thought I’d take the opportunity to recap on where I am with The Novel. I am about three-quarters of the way through –   60,000 plus hand-written words – (I just cannot write direct to my PC…too many distractions) – building up to what I hope will be a thrilling climax.

 

60.000+ hand-written words
60.000+ hand-written words

It has been truly hard labour these past weeks. I have a track record of starting to write a novel and then throwing in the towel at about the mid-point as I always seem to lose my way. This time I have been determined to get past the mid-point. Now I think I know what the ending is going to be so I truly believe I’ll get to the finishing line. (sorry about the mixed metaphors!)

My “baddies” the vengeful Madame Ombrine and the inscrutable Oskar have ridden through the centuries, thanks to…oops no, can’t tell you that (but it’s not a time machine), lying, cheating, robbing and killing to arrive in France in 2013.  As a last throw of the dice in the game they have been playing they open the Nonesuch Club – a club for struggling writers. There they draw in my neurotic protagonist, Richard a writer of ghost stories who is broke, blocked and bedevilled by his past.

Are these the doors to the Nonesuch Club?
Are these the doors to the Nonesuch Club?

In the club’s writing room Richard finds he can shake off his writer’s block and, at the same time, lay some of the ghosts of his past to rest. But all is not as it seems and Richard becomes suspicious as other club members begin to disappear and ….That’s all for now folks.

So, a week exploring the Emerald Isle seems like a fair reward and I feel quite sure I’ll come across a heap of spooky stories to provide new material.

A Devilish Tale

The beautiful medieval Cité of Carcassonne offers rich pickings for a writer of ghost stories and things supernatural.

http://<a href=”https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotos-g187151-Carcassonne_Aude_Languedoc_Roussillon.html#29819955″><img alt=”” src=”https://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/01/c7/04/33/il-castello-delle-fate.jpg” /></a><br />This photo of Carcassonne is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Within the walls and narrow streets of the Cité ghosts wail, weep and wander, fairly aimlessly by all accounts; cowled monks manifest only to disappear through walls but the spooky story I particularly like concerns a large well – The Well of the Fairies – which was one of several providing water for the inhabitants.

http://href=”https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotos-g187151-Carcassonne_Aude_Languedoc_Roussillon.html#189931226″><img alt=”” src=”https://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/0b/52/1e/da/plenty-of-affordable.jpg” /></a><br />This photo of Carcassonne is courtesy of TripAdvisor

One dark night back in Medieval days seven archers went on a bit of a binge, roistering the night away in a number of local taverns. Well and truly sozzled they tumbled out of the last ale house and wandered through the deserted cobble streets. Filled with boldness and courage (I’m told drink can do that)they began to chunter among themselves and during their grousing and grumbling they were extremely rude about the patron saint of the Cité, St Gimer, the first archbishop of Carcassonne. They then compounded their discourtesy by dissing the Devil and all his powers.

As they stopped to draw breath after all their shouting and hollering, they noticed something just ahead of them in the narrow street – a donkey no less and one that was blanketed with a rich (and no doubt valuable) cloth.
It did not seem to occur to them to wonder why a richly-clad donkey should be wandering the streets of Carcassonne at that time of night rather they grabbed hold of it and one by one scrambled on its back. As each archer jumped onto the animal, it performed an extraordinary anatomical feat – that of stretching its back so that each man could be comfortably seated.

Once all were aboard the donkey set off at a fair old pace, the archers whooping with glee. The donkey headed for the cemetery where the gleeful whoops turned into cries of terror as one by one the graves opened up and their occupants moaned a piteous lament.
‘Sacré bleu’ (and other appropriate French oaths) screamed the men, ‘it’s the Devil himself’ and they tried to dismount and flee but strangely they seemed stuck to the donkeys back by some sort of supernatural glue. The beast then whipped round and charged back through the streets to the great well in the square. There it plunged down the well with its doomed cargo who were never to let loose an arrow again.

If, one stormy night you dare to approach the well, you may find it lit up by the fires of hell and hear the heavy groans, moans and pleas of tortured souls rising up to greet you and if by chance, you are there when the clock of the church of St Nazaire strikes midnight, you too may find yourself transfixed with terror as the chimes resonate with the shrieks of the damned.

A bit of a wicked glint?
A bit of a wicked glint?

Do You Believe in Ghosts?

I have never been able to make my mind up about Ghosts and as a writer of spooky stories and things that go bump in the night this may seem a little odd, (but then I am a little odd). I think I may have had a few supernatural experiences; sometimes a place or building seems to me to resonate with times and people of the past – the battlefield at Culloden in Scotland was one such place; other times I have thought I saw someone or something out of the corner of my eye that just shouldn’t and couldn’t be there. Maybe there is a rational explanation:

1. Over-enthusiastic imbibing of alcohol
2. Over-heated imagination
3. Fatigue

There is just one experience where my rational jury is still out.

I was fifteen at the time and on an exchange holiday in France. I was thoroughly miserable at the time suffering an outbreak of teenage angst. After another day of trying and failing dismally to “fit in” with the crowd of posh teenagers on the beach who formed the circle of friends of my exchange family, I went to bed sore, sunburned and sniffing snuffles of self-pity. I shared my bedroom with Arianne, the seven year old daughter of the family with whom I was staying.

Sometime during the night I woke up. In the corner of the room was a huge ‘peacock’ chair, one of those woven basket-work affairs like a throne, and sitting in the chair was my Gran of whom I was very fond and who had died earlier in the year. She looked at me, smiled and said “don’t worry love, it’ll be alright, just be yourself.” Then she seemed to fade away. It was all very calm and not a bit scary.

I would probably have put this down to a half-waking dream or subconscious thoughts of my Gran were it not for the fact that my roommate, little Arianne asked me in the morning who the nice lady was that I was talking to in the night – the one sitting in the chair. “She had a kind face.”

My Grandmother as a young girl
My Grandmother as a young girl

Now umpty years later as I am writing spooky stories I still wonder – was it a ghost who came to comfort me? I don’t know but whatever it or who it was, my French exchange holiday took a turn for the better.

What about you? Do you believe in or are you a sceptic?

Life in France – ‘Tis the Season to be Merry

No, there isn’t a breach in the time-space continuum, the season in question is the start of the vide-greniers – aka car boot/yard sales and I have to admit I am a v-g junkie.

When I moved to France  I rapidly discovered that every week from about now onwards, the v-g’s start. They vary widely and I prefer the small village affairs where there is anything and everything on offer – from great-granny’s frilly bloomers to rusty scrapers for getting the hairs off a pig’s skin – once it had been swiftly dispatched first of course and a load of other ancient artefacts whose purpose escapes me completely.

Oh, the rustling, rifling, poking and picking over in boxes of…well, stuff…only to stand up, victorious holding just the thing you were looking for. The cut and thrust of complex negotiations to get the price down by 50 centimes; the waving of arms, pulling of faces ( you have no idea how many different faces a Frenchman can pull to express his disapproval and disappointment at your offer); I love it.

Among all the trash and gash there are goodies to be found for anyone like me trying to “dress” a room once it is renovated. The room in question this week is my Tart’s Bathroom (or to give it a more genteel title, Guest Bathroom). Granted there is tiling to be done, the bath to be installed – well to be honest it has yet to be totally renovated – but it’s never too early to start collecting bits and pieces together. This bathroom is to be a vision of black, white and silver, with a bit of saucy wallpaper to boot.

Saucy Wallpaper
Saucy Wallpaper

I’ve been seeking out bits and pieces for this room. This is my haul to date which includes a ceramic oil lamp for those lazy soaks, two silvered champagne buckets and a bath salts jar- a gal has so many bits and pieces to store, wrought iron hooks and a pair of opalescent glass wall lights for around the basin.

Goodies haul
Goodies haul

The V-gs are very sociable affairs and there is always time for a cup of thick black coffee, a natter with friends and neighbours (they aren’t always one and the same thing) and a reveal of each other’s ‘finds’.

The serious buyers, (dealers and brocante shop owners) as opposed to flibbertigibbets like me walk round purposefully, like hunting dogs on the scent. Eagle-eyed, elbows sharp and at the ready, their hands reach over your shoulder to whisk away the object you were about to pick up and mull over. You have to be quick to make up your mind; ‘after you’ has no place at a v-g.

Then, when you get your haul home, unpack it, try it out in its designated future place, that is the moment when you find that it is just perfect or perhaps, just perhaps, it’s not quite what you were looking for. Ah well, it can go back in a box for a while, it’ll come in handy some time.

 

When Sorrows Come They Come Not as Single Spies but as Battalions

The sorrows I’m talking about are snails – from the Big Daddy with mottled brown shells to the smaller more delicate brown yellow and cream ones. Over winter they gather in gangs in my plant pots and down the bed-edgings discussing tactics and waiting for spring and a humid evening before launching their assaults. They’re here! It’s happening now.

Big Daddy
Big Daddy
Let's start on the wisteria buds
Let’s start on the wisteria buds

When I moved here the house walls were covered with Virginia Creeper and Wisteria. I had to strip it back to make repairs to the stonework and in doing so evicted hundreds of the beggars. Last summer was the summer of the snails’ revenge. They tiptoed among the tulips; gobbled the hostas; crunched the clematis and invaded the veggie boxes razing lettuce, spinach, peas and beans. They breached the defences. Gravel, grit, eggshells – bring’em on, no problem; sticky tape – we eat it; mass eviction to the fields beyond – ha we’re homing snails; copper wire – shock? What shock?

Tea for Two
Tea for Two

This year the Gardener Fights Back. But how?

I can’t bring myself to deliberately stamp on them but if I accidentally squish one I confess I get a hypocritical shiver of satisfaction when I hear the juicy crunch.

I have Mr (or possibly Mrs) Toad by my side. He lives in a disused drain and comes out to sit on the stone bench where I take my nightcap (drink that is, not headwear). We have had long meaningful conversations about strategy – granted he doesn’t say much apart from ‘ribbit ribbit’ – however I have installed a number of small water features intended to facilitate the expansion of the Toad family.

Similarly the hedgehog that slept all winter under a pile of leaves has joined in the battle enticed by a promise that I will create a more des. res. for her…perhaps a little more insulation…for next winter.

Then there are the birds. I don’t recognise some of them that frequent this French garden but we are entering into negotiations which exclude the use of the gut-busting pellets and include a daily donation of juicy morsels.

Eating them? Out of the question. I know I live in the land of snail eaters but have you ever tried eating them? They are truly tasteless, rubbery and without question one of the most unappetising comestibles ever.

Can I win this battle? I doubt it but possibly I may be able to agree a compromise and cease-fire. However any tips and hints that exclude the use of noxious chemicals and pesticides to add to my armoury would be more than welcome.