Eleanor Fairburn,
The White Seahorse
(Heinemann, 1964;
Allen Figgis, 1970;
Wolfhound, 1995)

Ireland has many heroes wrapped in the mists of long-ago legends. But one, who lived within the span of written history, is also somewhat mysterious: Granuaile, a.k.a. Grace O'Malley, the pirate queen who lived in the age of Elizabeth I. Although recorded in the annals of England history and mentioned frequently in letters of the day, Irish chroniclers for unknown reasons omitted her name from history books of their own.

Eleanor Fairburn does a good job of reconstructing Granuaile's life in The White Seahorse, a historical novel taking us from her childhood through her latter years and final conflict.

The book begins in 1537. Graunya is 7 and already pining for a life at sea with her father, the O'Malley clan chieftain. She cuts her long hair off simply to prove her willingness to stay out of the way of his crew, and earns herself a place on his trading ship.

Fairburn traces her life through her first marriage, the birth of four children and the growth of her own merchant fleet until the death of her husband, Dhonal Nacugga, in a foolish raid; her establishment of a naval base on Clare Island, long an O'Malley holding, and her defiance of an English ban on Irish trade; her second marriage (for defense purposes), her separation, her growing troubles as Ireland's rebellion grows, and her direct confrontation with Queen Elizabeth.

Likewise, Fairburn provides a colorful narrative on events in England during Graunya's lifetime, beginning during Henry VIII's tumultuous reign and successive wives and following on through Lady Jane Grey's nine days of power, Bloody Mary Tudor's violent time of oppression and into young Elizabeth Tudor's rise to power. Graunya's and Elizabeth's lives run parallel in many ways, and Fairburn spotlights that similarity as two powerful women rise in a world ruled by men.

It's hard to know, without doing the research myself, how much of Fairburn's version of events is correct and how much she invented for the book. But it reads well, held my interest with ease, had a feeling of truth and made me want to learn more about the real Granuaile. All marks of success for a work of historical fiction.

If Irish history fascinates you, The White Seahorse will keep you absorbed from beginning to end.

[ by Tom Knapp ]



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