Ireland’s Clare Island: A Lighthouse Inn, An Ancient Abbey, and Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen
By Hilary Nangle
Misty rain dampened my enthusiasm as I hopscotched puddles between the parking lot to the Roonagh Pier ferry terminal, about 17 miles west of Westport, Ireland. Whitecaps dancing on Clew Bay’s storm-gray waters had me questioning my desire to stay at the Clare Island Lighthouse Inn. Still, I boarded O’Malley Ferries’ True Light and squeezed into the pilot house with about a half dozen other bedraggled passengers for the three-mile crossing to the island stronghold of Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s Pirate Queen.
My love for islands and lighthouses is rooted in my childhood on the Maine coast. Even now, I consider a foghorn’s moan or the waves crashing more of a lullaby than an annoyance. Perhaps that also explains my love for Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, which ebbs and flows along the often raw and ragged western coastline. While I’ve explored many of its nooks and crannies, this was my first visit to one of the offshore islands salting the route.
At five miles long and three miles wide, Clare ranks as the biggest island in Clew Bay. Two peaks define the rolling and rugged landscape dotted with whitewashed houses and sheep. Knockmore rises 1,520 feet to cap the island’s east-west ridge. The second highest, Knocknavean, rises 729 feet. When I arrive in late September, the tourists and summer folk are gone, leaving this 4,053-acre island to the handful of visitors who’ve come to walk the trails, spy seabirds, follow the Clew Bay Archeological Trail, or simply relax.
Fewer than three higgledy-piggledy miles from the dock, Clare Island Lighthouse Inn, known for its two towers, tops magnificent sea cliffs on the island’s northern tip. In season, thousands of kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, choughs, and puffins nest in the cliffs, and their presence attracts nest-robbing Peregrine falcons. A whitewashed stone wall hugs the cliff’s edge and surrounds the complex. The original tower burned in 1806, so the second tower was built in 1818. It blinked its warning until extinguished in 1965.
After settling into my comfortable and aptly named Cliff Corner room, I joined two other guests on a guided island tour with assistant innkeeper Martina Keane. Although we took in numerous island sights and even hiked to signal tower ruin dating from the Napoleonic wars, the Pirate Queen headlined the tour.
Some might call O’Malley plucky; I’d opt for badass. “When analyzed within the historical context of the traumatic epoch in which she lived, as well as being a wife, mother, divorcee, lover, widow, grandmother, and great-grandmother, she emerges as a fearless leader, by land and by sea, a shrewd political tactician, an intrepid seafarer, successful independent businesswoman, ruthless plunderer, mercenary, rebel, the protective matriarch of her family and her tribe,” writes her biographer, Anne Chambers. “Above all else, she was a woman who broke the mold and refused to allow the barriers placed in her path, either by society or by nature, to deter her from her quest.”
The only daughter of O’Malley chieftain Dudara O’Malley, Granuaile, as she’s known in Irish, came to call this mountainous, windswept, and mostly tree-barren island home. Born in 1530 and allegedly baptized, married, and buried in St. Bridget’s Cistercian Abbey, she ruled Clew Bay from the tower-house castle guarding the town dock.
This smart, fierce, accomplished seafarer led an army of 200 men; piracy and plunder were her stocks in trade. O’Malley oversaw an international shipping and trading empire, became Ireland’s first female chieftain, and commanded respect not only from the Irish but also from the English. She even had an audience with Queen Elizabeth in 1593 to petition for the release of her sons, brother, and half-brother. Notably, the British Queen granted the Pirate Queen’s request in exchange for ceasing to rebel.
Keane shared some of the myths and legends about the Pirate Queen as we visited the castle grounds, and intrigued, I discovered others. Her castle tips a point framed by the main harbor and a pocket cove. Local lore has it that O’Malley hid a ship in the cove, and when she spied enemy ships approaching, she would escape down a rope strung from her top-floor bedroom window to her boat.
According to another tale, as a child, Grace wanted to sail with her father but was refused because her long hair might tangle in the ropes. So, Grace cut off her hair, earning her the nickname Gráinne Ni Mhálle or Bald Grace.
But this story is my favorite: Within an hour of giving birth to her son, Tiobóld, at sea, Algerian pirates ambushed and boarded her ship. With her swaddled son cradled in her arms, she appeared on deck, rallied her crew, and captured the pirates and their ship—total badass.
Just up the road from the castle is St. Bridget’s Abbey, established as early as 1220 but rebuilt in 1460. I love touring old churches, and this one, with a Perpendicular Gothic-style chancel added in the 1500s, didn’t disappoint. Keane pointed to its barrel-vaulted ceiling with magnificent images between the painted ribs. I spy a stag, an archer, a hunter, an organist, and a harp that Keane says is the oldest depiction of the instrument in Ireland. More images, including a mounted horseman, beasts, and a hunting scene, decorate the walls.
Near a wall tomb, a plaque with the O’Malley crest reads Terra Mariq Potens O’Malley or O’Malley – powerful on land and sea. When asked who was buried here, Keane replied: “Controversial question. Allegedly the Pirate Queen. Experts think this is one of two or three spots she’s buried.” This location makes the most sense to Keane since the grave has been dated to O’Malley’s time.
We didn’t have time to delve into the island’s rich archeological history, which includes Iron Age huts and field systems, promontory forts, and a 5,000-year-old court cairn. Still, as we looped back to the inn, Keane pointed out sites related to the island’s heritage. These included stumps in a bog, all that’s left of an ancient pine forest that covered most of the island thousands of years ago, and ridged lines on hillsides indicating where the ground was tilled to grow potatoes. Ireland’s Great Famine, which began in the mid-1840s, hit Clare Island hard. In 1841, about 1,700 people lived on the island. By 1956, that had dropped to fewer than 240. Now it’s 165.
Back at the inn, I gather with the other guests for a multi-course, family-style dinner. Afterward, we retreat to the living room, where chocolates, tea, and coffee are served. I didn’t think the day could get any better, but the real fun started when Innkeeper Roie McCann launched an impromptu evening of traditional song, poetry, storytelling, and music; heaven! After that musical finale for the day, I padded back to my room, and with a lullaby of rain lashing and waves crashing, I fell asleep in an island state of grace.
Much to her parents’ dismay, Maine-based Hilary Nangle dropped out of grad school to become a ski and whitewater bum, earning a Registered Maine Whitewater Guide license and editing publications for the U.S. Men’s Pro Ski Tour and canoe and rafting companies. After positions as managing editor for Gourmet News and features and travel editor for a daily newspaper, she became a full-time freelance journalist and editor specializing in Maine, alpine skiing, soft adventure, and general travel. She has enlightened AARP’s readers about the Northern Lights, visited isolated villages aboard a container-cruise ship for the Boston Globe, dished about the world’s best chocolates for Black Card/Luxury, skijored in Les Gets for Snow, breakdanced an Olympic downhill for VIA, shared a winter’s night atop Mount Pilatus with Afar, and stalked Africa’s Big 5 for Private Clubs. Betwixt and between, she’s on the road in her home state updating her four Moon-series Maine guidebooks (Maine, Coastal Maine, Acadia National Park, and Best of Acadia National Park). Find her sharing Maine’s best and other adventures on MaineTravelMaven.com.