Life And Art

Piracy on the High C’s

A new Broadway musical sexes up the life of Grace O’Malley.

About a minute after my travel book, The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea, hit bookstores three years ago, I began to get mail from swashbuckling readers craving more about pirates.

I’d written about my travels around the North Atlantic looking for stories of women and the sea. Although there were several chapters about 16th-century sea captain Grace O’Malley, there were also less-glamorous stories of Orkney herring lassies and Icelandic fishers. My publishers and I had changed the title to pump up the sales reps: “Everybody loves the idea of women pirates,” said marketing. But I also felt that Grace O’Malley was a wonderful role model for any woman who’s ever dreamed of running away to sea.

This brings me to the new Broadway musical The Pirate Queen,based loosely on the life of Grace O’Malley and created by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, of Les Miserables and Miss Saigon fame. * If you’re a pirate fanatic, you won’t find what you’re looking for at the Hilton Theatre. And if you want to understand the historical context of this bold Gaelic sea captain, you should read a biography. On the other hand, if you’ve ever wondered what Irish set dancing would look like if the dancers were also waving around cutlasses or oars, this is the production for you. It’s also, perhaps in spite of itself, an inspiring story with two strong women at its core.

Grace—called Granuaille in Ireland and Grania in the musical—was born in 1530 into the seafaring O’Malley family of County Mayo in the west of Ireland. Their base, including a castle that still stands, was on Clare Island in Clew Bay. Her father, Dubhdara, was head of the clan, and Grace was his equal in maritime skill and courage. The O’Malleys weren’t the pirates of the Caribbean, but they had a habit of boarding merchant vessels en route to the town of Galway a little further south and removing items of interest. Galway was controlled by the English, and the western Irish clans, who held out longest against colonization, were forbidden to trade there.

Grace was married off at 15 to Donal O’Flaherty to cement an alliance. She had three children with him, and after he died in a feud with a rival clan, she returned to the O’Malley castle on Clare Island and began to amass galleys and men to sail them—200 sailors, all told. Her feats at sea were celebrated, but her rebellions against the encroachment of the English eventually earned the ire of Elizabeth I, who sent Sir Richard Bingham to bring western Ireland, and Grace, to heel. Bingham nurtured a particular distaste for this “nurse to all rebellions in Ireland” and managed to capture and imprison her. He would have hanged her, but she escaped.

In 1566, Grace had married Richard Bourke for his castle at Rockfleet, which had a protected moorage deep inside Clew Bay. Although at one point she was said to have divorced him by uttering the words “I dismiss you,” she had his child and was his ally until his death. As Grace aged, she grew tired of being relentlessly hunted down. After sending a long letter to the British in which she detailed her unfair treatment by Bingham, she decided to sail to London and meet the queen. Whatever they said to each other, Elizabeth gave instructions to lay off Grace and her son and to return her impounded ships. Both women died in 1603. Grace was 73 and had remained a “scourge of the English” until the end.

Most of the facts of Grace’s life are present in outline in the musical—only softened and romanticized. To serve the book, a romance between Grace and Tiernan, a childhood sweetheart, is conjured up, with a lot of sighing, singing, and tortured looks. Grace’s husband Donal O’Flaherty is a hissable cad, and Grace has only one grudging baby with him before she finally gets up the nerve to “dismiss” him. In real life, Donal was a hot-headed chieftain; he would never have betrayed Grace to the English, as his fictional counterpart does in the musical. Richard Bourke—whom she really did divorce, only to reunite with him in a powerful political union—isn’t in the musical at all. In the second act, Bingham takes over the role of chief villain, until he is dismissed by Elizabeth.

Boublil and Schönberg aren’t exactly known for their subtlety. *Madama Butterfly was a perfectly lovely Puccini opera until they and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. added a helicopter and turned it into Miss Saigon. The wrong done to Grace O’Malley in this musical is not so much one of fact as of interpretation. The story is bent to a familiar pattern: a tomboy who claims “the freedom to dream” ends up singing about the joys of love and motherhood.  There are relatively few scenes that show Grace as a leader in battle. A particularly odious historical revision takes place when Grace and other women left behind at the O’Flaherty castle pretend to entice a British regiment with the movements of harem girls, only to strip them of their weapons. This incident is presumably based on the real story of Grace’s defense of one of the O’Flaherty castles by melting the lead roof and pouring metal down on the invaders, who were members of the Joyce clan, which had killed Donal O’Flaherty.

In the numbers with Elizabeth back in England, the queen looks like an enormous cake, with flounces and a giant ruff, surrounded by petits fours of ladies-in-waiting. The parallels between the two women are drummed in relentlessly, with Elizabeth made to look envious of Grace, who not only has a husband, lover, and child, but also gets to wear trousers. Their apparent solidarity on stage near the end of the musical, when the two chat, laugh, and then retire to discuss business, belies the fact that Elizabeth had a hundred times more power than the Irish pirate queen and was using it to crush a country.

But who goes to a big Broadway musical for the facts? Although the score is instantly forgettable and the lyrics inane, the maritime set is fabulous, and the big production numbers—of Dubhdara’s funeral and Grania’s baby’s christening—are dazzlingly choreographed and performed. The wild energy of the dancers gives this musical a step up, and how cool is it to see a woman on stage with a saber in one hand and a baby in the other? The historical scene between Queen Elizabeth and Grace O’Malley is unlikely to have happened quite as smoothly as in the musical. But it is true they met and talked and that the queen no longer pursued Grace afterward. In the end, something of their connection lingers, with an intriguing question: What if women in the past had indeed had the power to sit down and talk with each other and make decisions about war and peace?

There could have been more about pirates, though.

Correction, May 18, 2007: This piece originally misspelled the name of Alain Boublil, one of the writers of The Pirate Queen. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)