Scratching My Irish

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On Thursday night, I got to tell a story about Grace O’Malley (or Gráinne Mhaol, or Graunuile,) the Sea Queen (or Pirate Queen!) of Connacht to a group of friends and strangers, and to play some Irish music on my cello. It was a wonderful night and a culmination of sorts for me. I lived in Dublin in the 1990s and got my Masters degree in Irish Literature at Trinity College. Ever since I returned to the states, I’ve experienced a need to regularly “Scratch my Irish” (as I’ve come to think of it.) I scratch it in various ways — through my writing, my reading, through travel, through music, through film. A year or so ago, I started taking Irish language lessons and playing the cello, with a secret, embarrassed wish to, someday, play some Irish music. It’s been a terrific journey, and one that led directly to Thursday evening.

My Irish language teacher Maura leads a small band of folks who are interested in Irish language, culture, music, and literature. Some members of the group were born in Ireland, some have Irish parents, and some of us have Irish heritage or just a deep and abiding interest in Irish culture. Last year, Maura and the group spearheaded a celebration of the centennial of the Easter Rising and this year she asked the group to focus on Irish storytelling and folklore. On a chill May evening, we gathered at a pub and told stories about selkies and fairy trees and changelings. We had rousing recitations of Yeats’ poetry, and a tale of the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill. And we had music. I (nervously) played along with the musicians on Eamon an Chnoic, and The Song of the Sea. We had Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile and a sung version of The Lake Isle of Innisfree. It was smashing, a celebration of good words, good cheer and good conversation.

I’ll be writing regularly here about “Scratching my Irish” and all the adventures that come along with it. But for now, do you know the story of how Gráinne Mhaol got her name?

Well, I’ll tell you. Most people know Gráinne as the Irishwoman brave enough to go to England to stand up to Queen Elizabeth. But when she was just a girl growing up in Clew Bay, County Mayo, Gráinne asked if she could go along with her father on one of his sea voyages to Spain. He told her that girls weren’t allowed on ships because their long hair would caught in the rigging. So what did Gráinne do? She cut off her hair. Thereafter she became known as Gráinne Mhaol, for mhaol means bald in Irish. As for how she came to meet Queen Elizabeth, well that’s a story for another day . . .