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BYU prof digs story of queen of pirates

PROVO — Americans know St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland who converted thousands on the island from paganism to Christianity in the fifth century.

Many wear green each year on this day to celebrate the Irish spirit or simply to avoid the penalty for not joining in the revelry — a firm pinch.

But fewer know the story of Grace O'Malley, the pirate queen whose legend in Ireland rivals St. Patrick for her defiance of English colonialism in the 16th century.

Brigham Young University English professor Brandie Siegfried is working on a book about the rebellious seafaring woman who is said to have avenged one husband's death, raided numerous ships and outwitted her English rivals by striking an unexpected alliance with their queen, Elizabeth Tudor.

Siegfried describes O'Malley, who was born in 1530, as both a "radical, rowdy, piratical woman" and a courtier able to finesse political situations with diplomatic aplomb.

"She's been famous in Ireland for 400 years," Siegfried said. "There are

reasons she became identified with Irish nationalism because she resisted to the end of her days English encroachment and English colonialism."

In fact, Siegfried has written, O'Malley has been identified as a "nurse to all rebellions."

When her first husband died in a battle with another clan, she defeated them in retaliation.

And she was charming, too. A year after she was arrested by the Earl of Desmond in 1577 and confined to a castle in Limerick, she became a guest and soon secured her own release.

Siegfried is filling a gap in history by studying letters between English colonial officials — all men, by the way — discussing their problems with O'Malley.

"I was struck by how gendered the commentary was about O'Malley," Siegfried said. "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 murders at sea to spoille this province."

No physical descriptions of O'Malley, whose Irish name was Grainne Ui Mhaille, have survived. Legend has it that she cut her hair and wore boys' clothes to prove she could go to sea with her father. That earned her the nickname "Bald Grace."

No stories of actual swashbuckling can be confirmed. Siegfried tells one legend about the time O'Malley was in labor in the hold of one of her ships when it was attacked.

When one of her frightened men — she had as many as 200 raiders under her command at a time — ran screaming to her, she yelled crossly, went above board and set her hair on fire to enhance her fearsome mien.

"The folklore," Siegfried said, "is fairly outrageous."

True stories prove her toughness. When a man was sent from Dublin to collect taxes from O'Malley for Elizabeth Tudor, he rode up to her property, only to be confronted aggressively.

"She shouts she will beat him up if he comes onto her land," Siegfried said. "It's very interesting to read these accounts because it's clear they don't know what to make of this woman. Do you fight a woman who threatens you?"

Siegfried is writing "The Literary History of Grace O'Malley," a look at references to the pirate chieftain in literature. She said it's clear that O'Malley's contemporary, Edmund Spenser, patterned a character after her in a book published during her lifetime. Spenser introduced Radigund by describing her as Queene of Amazons in his fifth book of the "Faerie Queene."

Her fame in life, her legend in death and the meaningful symbol she became for Irish independence leads Siegfried to place O'Malley on St. Patrick's level.

"St. Patrick has become almost a caricature of Irishness," Siegfried said. "O'Malley represents a soul that will not bow, and I think that's why she remains such a revered figure."