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An Author in Love With the Pluck of the Irish

March 17, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A particularly memorable publicity photo shows Morgan Llywelyn wielding a large ax, vintage perhaps 1599. Llywelyn looks fierce, menacing. She looks like the kind of woman who, in her day, might have captained her own ship, outlived several husbands, survived imprisonments, squared off with Queen Elizabeth, kidnaped a troublesome earl and punished her errant son by burning down his barn and slaughtering most of his livestock. She looks like the type who never questioned her equality with men, simply assumed it.

She looks, in fact, not unlike the word-picture Llywelyn has drawn of "Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas" (Crown: $17.95). That real-life heroine of Irish history was Grace O'Malley--Grania in Gaelic--a 16th-Century merchant, trader, privateer, fighter and leader of the clan O'Malley. If Grania's valor earned her a firm foothold in the annals of Ireland, her lusty abandon made her the star of bawdy songs and romantic poetry, not a little of which will be recalled, as always, on this St. Patrick's Day.

Said Llywelyn: "You can't avoid her in Irish history."

Llywelyn's passion for the history of that island dates back a lifetime, back to her earliest memories in the kind of family where one member of each generation was unofficially designated tribe archivist. Llywelyn is three-quarters Irish, one-quarter Welsh, but "from the earliest I can remember, whenever people would ask me where I came from, I would always say, 'Well I'm Irish.' "

In 1960, she and her late husband made their first of what would grow to be 20 visits to the land of Eire. Llywelyn fell "hopelessly, totally in love." At some quite primal level, it was home.

"The air smells right," Llywelyn said. "The ground feels right under my feet. If I take my shoes off, my feet know that place. And I could always find my way around. Charlie would take out a map, and I would say, 'No, we don't need it. I know where we're going.'

"When your soul knows a place that well," Llywelyn said, "you just keep going back and back and back."

'You Ought to Write a Book'

For years, every time she went back, "people would say, 'You ought to write a book about Grania.' " As the author of four other historical novels, Llywelyn had long since discovered that "when you are a writer, people always say, 'You ought to write about so-and-so.' " Usually that so-and-so is the speaker's relative, and generally it is someone Llywelyn would probably not choose to ride a bus with, never mind write a book about. Said Llywelyn: "I immediately turn off."

But Grania was different. Llywelyn seemed to trip over her at every turn in her travels through Irish history. Invariably, the O'Malleys that she would encounter would parade out the proud tale of their foremother. Llywelyn found references to Grania in Yeats. She learned that Cecil, secretary to Queen Elizabeth I, once described Grania as "stout in person and in courage." Llywelyn began to feel she knew this woman. She certainly knew she wanted to write about her.

What drew her so strongly to this near-mythic figure was that "she functioned in absolute equality with men." Grania demanded and received complete parity.

By tradition, Irish women had always enjoyed eyeball-to-eyeball equality with their men. The earliest Celtic culture was a matriarchal society, and "of course," Llywelyn said, "in pre-Christian Ireland, women were a metaphor for Ireland." Celtic custom permitted them to own property, to divorce their husbands and, if there was a divorce, to take their property with them. Liberation was a non-issue, because those women had never been anything but liberated.

After the Norman Conquest, the Irish began to have imposed on them the ways of Western Europe. Suddenly, women were chattel. But "I don't think Grania ever recognized that anything had changed," Llywelyn said. "Her life pleased her. She liked being independent. She loved her ships, she loved the sea, she loved hard work and she understood it. She liked danger. Grania was daring, bold and she considered herself equal to any man. She was certainly equal and actually superior to a number of them."

As a young girl, Grania sheared off her hair and sneaked aboard her father's ship. "From then on," Llywelyn said, "he couldn't keep her off." For 40 years, Grania captained her own ship. She battled her first husband for 17 years until his death, then divorced the next one. A shipwrecked sailor she rescued became her lover, and when the McMahon clan murdered him, "Grania wreaked terrible havoc upon them."

Sometimes Grania dressed up--"to the nines," Llywelyn said--but often she wore trews, the leotard-like, skintight worsted trousers of Irish sailors of her day. Still, Grania never tried to be a man, to imitate male habits: "She lived a woman's life," Llywelyn said. "She had four children. She functioned entirely as a woman."

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