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Irish pirate queen frustrated chauvinistic English rulers, BYU professor finds

As Irish-Americans celebrate in honor of St. Patrick, a Brigham Young University professor is distinguishing a little-known Irish heroine who influenced Irish culture and defied traditional gender roles.

Brandie Siegfried, associate professor of English, is researching pirate-queen Grace O'Malley, who dominated the province of Connaught on Ireland's west coast during the late 1500s. O'Malley and her clan of raiders were notorious in her time for thwarting English colonial efforts, but four centuries later she has become little more than an afterthought in literature. To amend this perception, Siegfried has written chapters for two books forthcoming this year and is working on her own, "The Literary History of Grace O'Malley."

The research done by Siegfried goes beyond the folklore to establish a scholarly history of the enigmatic O'Malley, known in Ireland as Grainne Ui Mhaille. As part of her research, Siegfried analyzes English political correspondence of the day regarding the O'Malley factor.

"I was struck by how gendered the commentary was about O'Malley," Siegfried said, referring to letters written by male colonial officials. "They were afraid because she crossed too many boundaries."

The Earl of Desmond referred to O'Malley as "a woman that hath impudently passed the part of womanhood and been a great spoiler, and chief commander and director of thieves and murderers at sea to spoille this province."

One metaphor used by the colonial officials, who were frustrated by this powerful female rebel, was that of an unruly wife -- Ireland -- receiving firm but benevolent guidance from her husband, England.

Siegfried said this gender rhetoric sometimes worked against the colonial governors by agitating their own ruler, Queen Elizabeth Tudor, and providing a framework with which O'Malley could forge an alliance with the queen. In 1593, O'Malley's clan was on the verge of defeat, besieged by an English governor, Richard Bingham. O'Malley appealed directly to the queen, justifying her past rebellion as necessary "safeguard and maintenance" and pledging future support for Elizabeth.

After a meeting between the queen and the pirate-queen, Elizabeth wrote a letter to Bingham, ordering him to withdraw and "protect them (O'Malley and family) in peace to enjoy their livelihoods." It was in that letter that Siegfried first read of O'Malley, which opened her new line of research.

"Elizabeth was obviously struck by O'Malley," Siegfried said.

O'Malley rose to a position of power through her successive husbands, aggressive sons and collection of castles. She earned the moniker "Grace of the Gamblers" by deeds such as attacking and ransacking a ship belonging to her own son, who had momentarily allied himself with the colonial English government.

"She came to symbolize Irish resistance to English colonization as well as resistance to English culture," Siegfried said.

Siegfried conducted her research by studying and often transcribing primary documents, such as letters exchanged among family members and by colonial officials, archived in the National Library of Ireland and the Trinity College Library in Dublin, and the Public Record Office and the British Library in London. To translate several documents for her book, Siegfried is teaching herself to read Irish Gaelic.

"Often the writing in such documents is a braid of two or three languages and might include Latin, English, Irish, Spanish or French," Siegfried said. "In contrast to later negative caricatures of the Irish, such documents illustrate the linguistic agility Irish leaders of the period could put to good use in forming international political alliances."

Siegfried completed undergraduate and graduate literature programs at BYU. She also earned a doctorate in English and American literature as well as a master's in women's studies from Brandeis University before returning to teach at BYU.

"Much more work needs to be done on this historical figure," Siegfried said, noting Anne Chambers' book "Granuaile: The Life and Times of Grace O'Malley."

Writer: Joseph Hadfield

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