Tara 3017

Every year, like clockwork, a story about Grace O’Malley (1530-1603) appears in time for St. Patrick’s Day. Small wonder—it’s a compelling story, even if most of it is more speculation and myth than historical fact. O’Malley—Granuaile is an elision of her Gaelic name Gránne Ui Mháille—came from seafaring stock, was married (and widowed) at a young age, had a bad second marriage, and around 1576 began engaging in some piracy. Beyond these bare facts things get murky.

In legend O’Malley’s the “Pirate Queen,” an Irish patriot resisting Queen Elizabeth's attempt to reassert English control over Ireland. (Her piracy may have less noble origins; she perhaps raided her first castle when its owner slighted her and her second because the family that owned it killed her lover.) O’Malley was also rumored to have told off Elizabeth in person, unlikely as Grace spoke no English, Elizabeth no Gaelic, and had O’Malley been so defiant she would not have been a free woman for the last ten years of her life. Symbolism and historical fact often sleep in different beds, however. Granauile became enshrined in the pantheon of Irish patriot rebels and she’s invoked by feminists as a role model of a woman who led men and controlled her own economic, sexual, and political destiny.

There are many bad tellings of the O’Malley story, including the nonsense section in Finnegan’s Wake and the panned musical “The Pirate Queen.” In fact, other than Anne Chambers’ imaginative biography, I only know of one other good version—Shaun Davey’s folk orchestral suite, Granuaile—and it’s not just good; it’s one of the finest overlooked albums of the past 25 years. Originally released in 1985, Tara Records reissued it in 2006. (Available at Amazon.)

Granuaile works for several reasons. First, composer Shaun Davey, an underappreciated musical genius, builds off the O’Malley legend—the defense of Hen’s Castle, her self-proclaimed divorce from her second husband, her affair with Hugh de Lacy, concessions wrung from Elizabeth …. Davey admits that there are holes in the historical record, but myth makes more dramatic music. And what glorious music he created! Davey wrote a suite for a twenty-two piece chamber orchestra, which he fronted with Irish traditional music players such as Des Moore (guitar), Donal Lunny (bouzouki), and Marian Doherty (harpsichord). But the stars of Granuaile are vocalist Rita Connolly and Uileann piper Liam O’Flynn. Each of the eleven tracks is a marvel, but suffice it to say that every time I’ve ever played “Ripples in the Rockpools” those within hearing distance rush to me and ask, “What’s that!?” Connolly’s voice is a gorgeous glory and when O’Flynn’s wild pipe notes kick in, you have but to close your eyes to conjure a young woman on the shore, seaweed swirling at her feet, and wooden ships in the distance with sails snapping in the breeze. And we follow as sixteen-year-old Grace evolves from hopeful bride-to-be into a defiant middle-aged pirate. Davey brings her full circle. “The New Age,” the album’s final track, has O’Malley again standing by the shore, this time an aged woman torn between the hope of her youth, the rebelliousness of her maturity, and the knowledge that the world is changing. It’s a deft stroke by Davey and, if it’s not true, it ought to be!

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