Clare Island viewed across Clew Bay (via the Museums of Mayo website)
Last week we talked about Grania ni Maille, the famous Pirate Queen of Ireland, and her long running operation out of Clew Bay in what is now County Mayo. Of course with St. Patrick's Day upon us, it seems only fitting to talk of Ireland once more. For La Padraig, let us revisit the bay and the stronghold at her mouth known as Clare Island.
The Bay has been in use by the people of Ireland for fishing and commerce probably since before any documentation of ships coming and going was kept. It stands in the shadow of Croagh Padraig, the famous mountain named for the island's patron saint that may have been the holy place known as Tara, home of the Celtic gods.
The Maille or O'Malley clan probably laid claim to the bay and it's islands as early as the 1200s. The fortress on Clare Island from which Grania commanded the bay and the Western ocean is a thick walled, square medieval building in the style of the early or mid-14th century. Certainly by the 1400s, the O'Malleys were large and in charge in the area with seafaring for fish and booty as their main source of income.
Clew Bay is known in Ireland as the bay with an island for every day of the year. Technically there are not 365 islands out there in the bay, but there are over 100. The rest are what is known as drumlins. This is a corrupted Gaelic word meaning "mound". They are essentially little hills of silt and sand left behind when glaciers retreated. Though not islands proper, they can be treacherous to ships that are not familiar with the area. Even locals in shallow draft vessels have been known to go hull up on a drumlin. This also made the bay attractive to those in the covert businesses of piracy and smuggling. Any place difficult to navigate will almost ensure privacy for the people that know it well.
Even after Grania's death and the O'Malleys' conversion to English gentry, Clew Bay continued to be used by smugglers. It was a notorious hideout for rebels during the troubles. So much so that troops were landed there in July of 1922 to ferret out the Anti-Treaty groups. Later in the 20th century Clew Bay turned from notorious to luxurious. Fish farms were established, the Glenans Irish Sailing Club set up a base on Collanmore Island and John Lennon purchased Dorinish Island for his private use in 1967.
Of course the legends of the roguish O'Malleys still remain as does the clan, but the wild days are unfortunately over. All the same, shlante! to Erin's pirate haven, the great Bay of Clew. Remember her tonight as you enjoy your beer and corned beef. Your humble hostess (a bit Murphy from my mother's side) most assuredly will.