Local Hero: Pirate Grace O'Malley
By all accounts, Grace O’Malley—a.k.a. the “Pirate Queen”—was a woman ahead of her time. Born in 1530 on Clare Island, she grew up to be an adventurer, pirate, gambler, mercenary, traitor, chieftain, noblewoman, and general badass. And while she is remembered now with affection, at the time she was feared and despised in equal measure.
Even as a child, Grace was fiercely independent. When her mother refused to let her sail with her father, she cut off her hair and dressed in boys’ clothing. Her father called her “Grainne Mhaol,” or “Bald Grace,” later shortened to Granuaile (pronounced Graw-nya-wayl), a nickname she’d carry all her life.
At 16, Grace married Donal O’Flaherty, second in line to the O’Flaherty clan chieftain, who ruled all of Connacht. Her career as a pirate began a few years later when the city of Galway, one of the largest trading posts in northern Europe, refused to do business with the O’Flahertys. Grace used her fleet of fast galleys to waylay slower vessels on their way into Galway Harbour. She then offered safe passage for a fee in lieu of pillaging the ships.
She is most fondly remembered for refusing to trade her lands in return for an English title, a common practice of the day.
When the English captured her sons in 1593, she went to London to try to win their release. In an extraordinary turn of events, she actually secured a meeting with Queen Elizabeth herself. History records that the two women got on quite well (although legend has it that Grace initially tried to smuggle a knife in with her, in case things went differently). A deal was struck; Elizabeth agreed to release Grace’s sons and to return some captured lands, if Grace would agree to renounce piracy. This she did and returned to Ireland triumphantly.
The truce did not last, however. Grace got her sons back, but not her property—so she took up piracy again and continued her legendary seafaring career until her death from natural causes in 1600.
When the Golden Age of Hollywood Came to Mayo
But what’s really surprising is that visitors still flock here on Quiet Man pilgrimages, even though the film is well over half a century old, and Cong merrily continues to hang its hat on its brief brush with stardust. The Quiet Man Museum, Circular Road (www.quietman-cong.com/cong-museum; [tel] 094/954-6089) is a charming little thatched cottage that has been transformed into an exact replica of John Wayne’s house in the movie, right down to the furniture. From April to October, it’s open daily from 10am to 4pm. Admission costs €5 adults, €4 seniors, students and children, and €15 families. They usually run tours of the village every day at 11am, and other times if demand is high.
Just around the corner on Abbey Street are the ruins of Cong Abbey. Founded in 623, it was rebuilt in the 12th century, then comprehensively destroyed by Henry VIII in the 1540s. The ruins are an open site, which you can wander at leisure—but even here there’s a reminder of this town’s love affair with an old Hollywood movie. The Quiet Man Statue, a full-size bronze of Maureen O’Hara being whisked off her feet by John Wayne, was unveiled just outside the abbey in 2013. Since then it’s become an almost obligatory focal point for souvenir selfies.
Unfortunately, the countless movie fans Cong has attracted haven’t always treated the town with respect. The actual cottage used as John Wayne’s house is little more than a pile of rocks now, having been gradually torn apart over the years by souvenir hunters. The museum will tell you where it is if you really want to see for yourself. Just don’t be one of those people.
Aside from the Quiet Man, Cong is most famous as the location of Ashford Castle. Built in the 13th century, it is one of Ireland’s biggest and most complete medieval castles. Unfortunately you can’t tour the inside unless palatial luxury is within your price range, as it is now a super-exclusive hotel and resort. However, there’s nothing to stop you driving up and having a wander around the grounds. And if you want to spend a little more time here, consider the more modest splurge of dinner at Wilde’s, an outstanding restaurant in the former estate keeper’s house.
Cong is roughly halfway between Galway and Westport, on R344, R345, and R346.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.