By L. Metcalf
Ireland. The name evokes endless rolling hills in so many shades of green one can’t possibly name them all, windswept beaches and ancient ruins dotted with hundreds of sheep and cows, and city centers rife with music, pubs and pints. It is all that and so much more especially if one ventures farther afield than the traditional tourist places.
Stories of might and passion have filled many an Irish history book. Mythic legends wrestle with truth who have been made larger than life by their heroic deeds. One such tale is that of Grace O’Malley or Grainne Mhaol as she’s known to the Irish. The lady Grace took up piracy and was well-known for plundering English ships that sailed too close to her domain. Stories tell of large fires being lit on nearby islands which would act as a signal to Grace that prey had come within reach. Her history is quite remarkable and O’Malley even met the Queen of England.
The town of Westport in County Mayo sits on the western side of Ireland and it is here the hunt for Grace O’Malley begins and it's a town included in the bike tours offered by Green Marble Cycle Tours, a tour operator that has been leading Ireland bike tours for the last 20 years.
Others offering tours of the area include: westirelandcycling.com, cycleholidaysireland.com, and irondonkey.com. Westport is the former seat of the seafaring clan O’Maille and with a little imagination it isn’t hard to envision what the area might have been like before modern buildings and transportation. The holy mountain Crough Patrick (named after Saint Patrick) looms large and serves as a magnificent backdrop to Westport. You’ll be immediately immersed in local culture via quaint pubs and small shops that dot the city center.
There are plenty of opportunities to ride in the area which includes the Great Western Greenway – the 26 mile Greenway created along a former rail line, winds its way through some of the most breath-taking scenery Ireland’s Atlantic coast has to offer including mountains, bays and islands.
Westport Tourism.com offers a variety of hotel options, but for that unique experience, check out Turin Castle, about 46km southeast from Westport. It is beautiful!
While biking the area look for several tower houses that are credited to Grace O’Malley. Tower houses are tall stone buildings originally created as both a residence and a fortification. Most are four to five stories tall, the tops of which provide great vantage points of the area. A famous one is Carrickahowley Castle also known as Rockfleet Castle.
On Achill Island the Tower of Kildavnet is said to have belonged to Grace O’Malley, while on Clare Island – a short boat ride from Westport- another O’Malley stronghold stands at the entrance to the harbor.
On both Achill Island and Clare Island, venturing inland has its perks as both contain small medieval churches. The one on Clare Island claims Grace O’Malley was buried within the church. Stepping into these ancient buildings is to step back in time. Whether you manage to climb to the top of one of the towers to view the haunting beauty of the restless sea or you are gazing at the remains of a medieval fresco still visible in the fading afternoon light that enters through narrow windows made to look like candles, you cannot help but wonder at the woman who chose piracy over something entirely more suitable to a lady of that time.
For a truly unique experience consider renting a tower house for your stay. While they can be drafty when the wind howls across the hills, there is nothing like the experience of acting as your own lord or lady for a few days.
For those interested in learning more about Grace O’Malley, there are several good books available, but the original biography that incorporates all known factual evidence about the life and times of Grace O'Malley is Granuaile: Grace O’Malley – Irelands Pirate Queen by Anne Chambers.
L. Metcalf is a blogger who spent time in Ireland.