Thursday 10 November 2022

Charlie Hill, "The Pirate Queen"


Charlie Hill is a critically-acclaimed writer of novels, short stories and memoir. The Pirate Queen is his first historical novel. His next book is a collection of satirical short stories called The State of Us, which will be published in April 2023, and his website is here.

About The Pirate Queen, by Charlie Hill

The Pirate Queen is set in Mayo in 1650 and tells the story of the Irish clan chief and pirate Grace O'Malley, or Gráinne Ni Mháille, who spent her life fighting the forces of Queen Elizabeth 1st before sailing up the Thames for a summit meeting with the English queen. In the book, Grace's story is being recounted to her great great granddaughter by her tutor, Catherine, who is a native of Dublin.

You can read more about The Pirate Queen on the publisher's website here. Below, you can read an excerpt from the novel. 

From The Pirate Queen

It was three years ago now. Catherine, twenty two years old, was living in Dublin. ‘Come to Castleburke,’ Theobald had suggested, ‘and teach my daughters.’ They were talking in The Stationer’s Company, a shop managed by Catherine’s father; Theobald had been thumbing the latest print of Foras Feasa ar Éirinn and Catherine had indulged him in conversation. She was educated but not a teacher and had barely heard of Mayo, yet she agreed to the proposal with scant consideration. Many times over the course of those three trying years she thought back to that decision. 

Because Catherine was born to Dublin. For as long as she could remember she had immersed herself in its manifold charms, the challenge of its filth and dazzle. She walked streets that reeked of fish and human waste, on her way to the orchard at Piphoe’s Park, where she read plays from her father’s shop under laden trees and enjoyed the opining of her contentious peers; she had been euphoric in the gloomy wash of the street lights – whoever could conceive of such a thing! – and shocked by the pity of the city’s crumbling walls. Then there was the theatre on Werbergh Street. That had been a common haunt. The place was run by a serious minded young man called John Ogilby, who was known to her father. Most of the performances were considered unsuitable for a young girl but Catherine was not to be denied and spent many hours enthralled by Shirley’s Constant Maid or Burnell’s Landgartha; on occasion she was allowed backstage or to tread the boards in an empty house she imagined filled with an audience for her own work. The theatre was a short lived enterprise – it closed when Catherine was just sixteen, a casualty of the rebellion – but by then Dublin was in her bones. 

Yet life in the city had its disadvantages too. Foremost amongst these was a lack of free rein. Her father was kind-hearted and encouraged her reading and her interest in Werbergh Street, but Catherine knew if she stayed in the city she was tied fast to the Stationer’s Company and this was not enough. Catherine was ambitious and even if hers was a nebulous want, its presence was no less demanding for that. There were other constraints too. Although she was a confident woman, Catherine could not move about the place unaccompanied – instead she was allocated a chaperone, the wife of a friend of her father’s. Catherine questioned why. It was true there were dangers in the streets of the city, but the woman’s near constant presence was more a sop to propriety; she was employed to safeguard Catherine’s virtue and Catherine resented this and failed on many counts to see the need. 

Her decision to take the role in Mayo then, might have been a whim – Catherine knew she could be inconstant – but there had been sense there too, for as much as she loved the city she was keen to sample something new. Perhaps some time beyond the Pale would provide her with a unique stimulation? A greater freedom? Something new, the chance to live a little differently? Perhaps the need to fit into the moulds of men would lessen and Catherine would be able to abandon herself to an adventure of her own making? It was certainly a possibility. ‘Connacht is different,’ her friends told her, their eyes alight with excitement and alarm, and although she paused to question the evidence on which they had based this judgement, there was an irresistibility to its logic. 

Her father was unconvinced. ‘I forbid you,’ he said.

‘Oh father. We have spoken about that.’

‘Very well. Then I would rather you reconsidered your decision.’

‘I understand.’ 

They travelled to Mayo together. Although Catherine didn’t ride well, they went by horse. It took days. They crossed the Shannon at Snámh Dá Éan and before long her hopes were struggling like their mounts through the cold wet earth. Because Catherine’s friends had been right in their surmisings. Connacht was different. It might have been a different country so far removed was it from the life she had known. Connacht was wild and dark – a deep and ancient dark, a dark both clamorous and hushed – and without the obvious refinement and sophistication of the city. They passed through villages called Annaghdown and Ballinrobe and Kinturk. They stayed in lodgings where they were served curd pancakes, from which Catherine, though game, recoiled. There were abbeys and ruins of abbeys through which howled winds with more intent than even those of the coast back home. There were castles. There was evidence too of the rebellion that had caused so much anxiety in Dublin just six short years before: forts and fortified houses pock-marked by musket fire, disquieting people, harrowed and hollowed-out by war: on the road they saw men with muskets, men on horseback with lances, they saw Scottish fighters armed with long swords and small round shields, mercenaries abandoned by their old paymasters and waiting for their new; they passed brown-robed monks and sisters in black habits; there were townspeople who stood and stared at Catherine’s suede gloves and riding dress – was that envy? mistrust? or disdain? – and she felt alien and unwanted in their eyes. 

The most disturbing encounter took place in a town called Tuam. Catherine and her father were watering their horses when they were greeted by a farmer herding sheep. Her father asked how far it was to Castleburke and the man’s friendly demeanour changed. He demanded to know their business there and when informed that they were to meet with Viscount Mayo, he hurried off without reply. After that Catherine had to remind herself with each passing mile that the journey had been her choice and that it should be considered more of a challenge than a trial. 

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