GROWING UP O'MALLEY - Excerpt

Growing Up O'Malley by Mary Frances Fish

During the Great Depression, the O’Malley clan was able to weather the Depression with love and shared memories. Mary O’Malley had her hands full caring not only for her rambunctious brood and running a household but also tending to the needs of her own mother.

            With foresight and luck, Elizabeth Ginley contributed to the O’Malley family’s diminishing funds during the Depression from money deposited into Feighan’s Bank, the only institution to remain open during the Great Depression.

            Elizabeth loved to sit in a rocking chair by the fireside as she smoked her corn cob pipe, filling the air with sweet-smelling cherry tobacco. Her clear blue eyes sparkled despite life’s disparaging tragedies that would cripple others. But Elizabeth would not allow them to define her life or dictate her actions. She wore her long, gray hair with wisps of red—a solitary reminder of her youth—in a braid wrapped around her head.

            When Elizabeth was surrounded by her seven grandchildren, nothing else mattered as she plied her rapt audience with tales of her favorite subject—Ireland and its grand history filled with adventure and excitement.

            She proudly regaled memories of days long ago while growing up in Ireland, lovingly referred to as the Auld Sod. Elizabeth vividly recounted the lush green fields, thatch-roofed cottages, and sheep roaming the countryside—memories to fill the hearts and souls of anyone blessed to be immersed in Elizabeth’s colorful accounts. Her daughter, Mary, remained in the background as her eyes misted over when her mother’s words ignited her own recollections of the land she left behind.

            But the most exciting tales, related in exquisite detail to fill the O’Malley children with a longing to visit their ancestral home, involved stories of the famous pirate queen—Grace O’Malley (Granuaile or Ghrainne Ni Mhaille in Gaelic.) In spite of Irish law prohibiting Grace from becoming the official chieftain of the O’Malley clan in the male-dominated society, she was awarded the unofficial title of Ireland’s Pirate Queen through her successful and highly profitable exploits. Elizabeth’s stories included childhood explorations of the O’Malley castles, many commandeered by Grace’s successful battles with rival clans throughout county Mayo on Ireland’s western seaboard.

            Elizabeth enthralled her grandchildren with tales of Grace’s fierce battles and pillaging that carved out her sixteenth century motto “Powerful by Land and Sea.” Legends and folklore documented her grit and the sheer force of her prowess, which endeared Grace to hundreds of men under her command. Considering the age of her audience, Elizabeth withheld tales of Grace’s alleged sexual exploits—a woman who transcended societal norms by using lovers for their ability to aid her exploits when her own spouse proved to be a weak and ineffectual leader. Grace was able to rebuild the sagging fortunes of the O’Malley clan, depleted by her husband’s ineptitude, in addition to fighting against Great Britain’s tyranny.

           With Grace’s enviable leadership skills, she attracted fighters skilled in all manner of sword fighting. Her army grew in numbers and strength beyond the borders of Ireland to include Scottish Highlanders, Celts, and Vikings. By joining forces with Grace, her army was assured their seafaring adventures of ransacking British ships to relieve them of precious jewels and treasures promised great wealth. 

Elizabeth took great pride in regaling stories of the relationship between Grace and Queen Elizabeth I, reveling in her grandchildren’s incredulity. Despite Grace’s successful naval battles against British ships to commandeer their precious cargo, Queen Elizabeth I admired the young leader’s tenacity and accomplishments on behalf of her impoverished nation.

            “Did the two women ever meet, Nana?” inquired William, practically salivating at the spectacular sword fights he imagined occurred on the high seas between rival nations.

            “Aye!” Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled with exhilaration as she relayed one of her favorite stories. “Grace considered herself a queen and equal ta Britain’s sovereign. Legend has it that Grace’s arrival in England ta the customary port at Howth was a complete disaster. Lord Howth was dining and refused Grace and her crew entry ta the castle. They were forced ta remain outside Howth’s locked castle gates, and the custom of providing a meal ta seafaring visitors was ignored. His rude and disrespectful behavior toward Grace’s entourage was too great ta be overlooked. Furious, she abducted the son of Lord Howth and went back ta Ireland with him in tow.”

            “Was the son returned unharmed?” asked Mayme, with hope-filled eyes for a happy ending.

            “Aye. Lord Howth’s initial offer of a ransom fer his son was scoffed by Grace. Instead, her simple demands were the implementation fer expected decorum of the day. She gave his son safe passage once Lord Howth agreed ta meet two simple requests: a promise ta keep the gates open ta anyone seeking hospitality; and assure a place setting in the dining hall would always be maintained in anticipation of future guests.”

            “And did he keep his promise?” 

            “Aye, he was so relieved when Grace returned his son, that Grace’s demands are said ta exist ta this very day.”

            “Did she meet Queen Elizabeth I at that time?” asked Ellen softly.

            “No, legend notes Grace did not meet the Queen until 1593 when Grace was sixty-three years old. ’Twas a high honor, and though no record of their conversation exists, it is believed the Queen was in awe of Grace’s achievements given she was a woman without the formal support of a country, government, or established armed forces. Letters from the Queen document she aided Grace in her personal and political struggles, including those of her family. But can ye picture the amazing energy present when these two powerful women from widely diverse backgrounds finally met on equal footing?”

            Her grandchildren shook their heads in unison, and Elizabeth noted each child sat up a little straighter in response to her query. Elizabeth was in awe of the courage and bravery exhibited by Grace O’Malley, feelings she hoped were conveyed to the Pirate Queen’s seven direct descendants sitting at her feet.     

            “In the end, Grace even defied the natural laws of life expectancy in the sixteenth century—averaged at thirty-five years, yet she lived from 1530 ta 1603 and died at the robust age of seventy-three.”

            Without an abundance of food, stories from their nana fed their passion for adventure once again and assuaged hunger pangs until they became a distant memory. Just as the traveling storytellers from long ago in the Auld Sod, the O’Malley children shared their nana’s stories of exciting escapades with pride throughout the neighborhood. Imaginations were ignited in the O’Malley neighborhood as they engaged in spirited recreations of sword fights with garbage can lids as shields.

            Without realizing it, their actions were a repetition of centuries-long escapades by Irish children, including the Ginleys in their youth. During forays to the O’Malley castles throughout County Mayo, determination rallied their passion while standing in the presence of historical greatness. Reenactments of epic battles were carried out with fervor using wooden sabers as they clashed one another in homage to the infamous Pirate Queen confronting the British. Transcending space and time—whether County Mayo or Cleveland—one predictable outcome was certain. Hungry bellies were temporarily replaced by the glory of battle and high adventure. 

                                                                              ☘ ☘ ☘ ☘ ☘ ☘ ☘ ☘ ☘ ☘ ☘

For Ellen, her nana’s stories about Grace O’Malley became a source of innate power through potential achievements. Ellen knew her path was destined for greatness. Her middle name of Grace practically demanded it, and Ellen was determined to live up to her legacy.