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Ken McGoogan on Grace O'Malley: Pirate Queen and True Canadian

Why does Canadian history insist on finishing at the Atlantic Ocean? Ken McGoogan argues that it doesn't, and that Scottish and Irish history is Canada's history too. 

Book Cover How the Scots Invented Canada

"Talking History" is a biweekly series made possible through a special funding grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage. The series focuses on a wide range of topics in Canadian history, exploring the notion of history as a compelling form of storytelling of interest to large audiences. These articles by Canada's foremost historians and history experts use the power of narrative to bring the past to life, drawing connections between then and now to show how these stories are not just relevant, but essential to our understanding of Canada and the world today.

Ken McGoogan is the best-selling author of a dozen books, among them 50 Canadians Who Changed the World and How the Scots Invented Canada. Please see his full bio at the end of his post.


Grace O'Malley

One of the most evocative moments of a recent circumnavigation of Ireland with Adventure Canada came as we arrived at Inishbofin, a small island off Connemara. As we rode from our ship into the harbour, eight or nine to a zodiac, we passed Dun Grainne, the remains of a fortress used in the 1500s by legendary pirate queen “Grainne” or Grace O’Malley.

Born into a powerful west-coast family, O’Malley rejected the traditional roles available to females and became a skilled sailor and a ferocious fighter. She gained control of a merchant fleet, conducted trade into the Mediterranean and North Africa, and, in an effort to rid western Ireland of a ruthless autocrat, visited Queen Elizabeth in London. Her enemies declared her “the most notorious sea captain in Ireland,” and complained that she “overstepped the part of womanhood.”

Book Cover 50 Canadians Who Changed the World

If contemporary Canada can boast few notorious female captains, the country abounds in “overstepping” women. In 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, I hailed a multitude of them: Margaret Atwood, Naomi Klein, Alice Munro, Irshad Manji, Louise Arbour, Maude Barlow, Joy Kogawa, Deepa Mehta, Michaelle Jean, Joni Mitchell, Samantha Nutt...

But what struck me while circumnavigating Ireland was that all of these Canadian women, regardless of ethnic origin, can be seen as emerging from the same Celtic or Norse-Gaelic cultural tradition as Grace O’Malley. That tradition of audacious women also includes the Scottish Flora MacDonald, who in 1746, after the Battle of Culloden, risked her life to save Bonnie Prince Charlie. And it spins forward through time into Canada. Viewed culturally, O’Malley and MacDonald belong to Canadian history. They are Canada’s ancestors.

"Grace O’Malley and Flora MacDonald belong to Canadian history. They are Canada’s ancestors."

Back in 1972, in Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Margaret Atwood suggested that we Canadians developed certain attitudes and a sense of ourselves in response to the vastness of the wilderness around us. Other writers, starting with Hugh MacLennan, point to the French-English divide as Canada’s defining characteristic, the “two solitudes” having emerged from the duality of our colonial past. Pierre Berton contended that Canada was shaped by notions of “peace, order, and good government.” In 2008, with A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada, John Ralston Saul repudiated that notion, arguing instead that Canada is a “Métis nation” shaped by aboriginal values.

But wait. The emerging academic orthodoxy suggests that all such national approaches to Canadian history are hopelessly outdated. Certainly, Contesting Clio's Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History argues that the notion of a “national narrative” is, well, a thing of the past: history. Personally, I’m not so sure. This I know: we Canadians have never investigated the demographic reality that more than nine million Canadians claim Scottish or Irish ancestry.

Canadians in search of their personal or family roots have long since realized that an ocean is an artificial barrier. Assisted by scientific advances (notably DNA studies) and new technologies, we cross the water and go back as far as we can: five generations, seven generations, nine. We trace our individual stories to people who lived centuries ago in Kintyre, County Kerry, the Aran Islands. Genealogists revel in such explorations.

But instead of travelling with genealogists, Canadian historians stay at home with geographers. They stop investigating at the Atlantic Ocean. But why? Canada is more than a physical territory, an expanse delimited by co-ordinates on the earth’s surface. It is a multi-dimensional creation: political, social, cultural, legal, economic.

To the east, Canada’s geography finishes at the Atlantic. But like genealogy, and whether we recognize it or not, the nation’s history crosses that ocean. And it does so more often to the Celtic or Norse-Gaelic world than to anywhere else. This country’s population now exceeds 35 million. Of that total, according to Statistics Canada, more than 9 million claim Scottish (4.7 million) or Irish (4.5 million) ancestry. Taken together, those of Celtic heritage comprise the largest minority of Canadians: 26.5 per cent, compared with 18 per cent English and 14 per cent French.

Yes, Canadian historians have written about both Scottish and Irish immigrants, exploring why they sailed and how they fared after arrival. One of my own books, How the Scots Invented Canada, tells part of that story. But here is a further question: did the immigrant ancestors of more than one quarter of our population arrive here without cultural baggage? No history, no values, no vision? What about those who nurtured and shaped the immigrants? Did such legendary figures as Grace O’Malley and Flora MacDonald not influence those who have turned up in Canada? What about Robert Burns, Jonathan Swift, James Boswell, or The Chieftains?

"Did such legendary figures as Grace O’Malley and Flora MacDonald not influence those who have turned up in Canada? What about Robert Burns, Jonathan Swift, James Boswell, or The Chieftains?"

By global standards, Canada is a young country with a short written history. Within that context, the Scots and the Irish began arriving early enough, and in sufficient numbers, to exert a profound shaping influence. And they kept arriving in large numbers into the twentieth century. More than that, because they shared a common Norse-Gaelic heritage, and despite differences that emerged out of religion, Scottish and Irish immigrants brought matching sets of bedrock values.

Those values, honed through centuries of difficult history, comprised a vision of the country in which they wished to live. And here’s a surprise which  should not be one: that country looks a lot like contemporary Canada at its best.

Certainly, it is not difficult, in this country, to find xenophobia, racism, cowardice, systemic discrimination, you name it. That is Canada at its worst. But­–dare I reveal it? I am more interested in Canada at its best. I am more interested in the positives of our collective work-in-progress, in the nation we are still developing.

Canada at its best is not just audacious, but also independent, democratic, pluralistic, and persevering. We Canadians never tire of proclaiming that we are politically independent of our neighbor to the south. We react with outrage to any attack on symbols of Canadian democracy. We have written pluralism into our constitution. And still we celebrate a decades-old “goal of the century” that is an iconic example of never-say-die perseverance.

These Canadian realities, I would suggest, can be traced back to Scotland and Ireland. Can I prove this? Not in the way that Einstein proved E=mc2, perhaps. And not in the space we have here. But I do believe I feel a new book coming on. 

Further Reading: 

Book Cover 50 Canadians Who Changed the World

50 Canadians Who Changed the World, by Ken McGoogan:         

Using the successful format of How the Scots Invented Canada, Ken McGoogan takes the reader on a compelling journey through the lives of 50 accomplished Canadians born in the 20th century who have changed—and often continue to change—the great wide world. McGoogan profiles an astonishing array of activists, humanitarians, musicians, writers, comedians, visionaries, scientists and inventors, all of them transformative figures who have made an impact internationally. From Jane Jacobs, Deepa Mehta, Marshall McLuhan, Stephen Lewis and Romeo Dallaire to Samantha Nutt, David Suzuki, Margaret Atwood, Oscar Peterson, Leonard Cohen and forty others, McGoogan shows us why and how Canadians have made their mark globally as initiators and agents of progressive change.

Book Cover A Fair Country

A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada, by John Ralston Saul:

In this startlingly original vision of Canada, renowned thinker John Ralston Saul argues that Canada is a Métis nation, heavily influenced and shaped by Aboriginal ideas: Egalitarianism, a proper balance between individual and group, and a penchant for negotiation over violence are all Aboriginal values that Canada absorbed. An obstacle to our progress, Saul argues, is that Canada has an increasingly ineffective elite, a colonial non-intellectual business elite that doesn''t believe in Canada. It is critical that we recognize these aspects of the country in order to rethink it''s future.

Book Cover How the Scots Invented Canada

How the Scots Invented Canada, by Ken McGoogan:

No matter where you enter the history of Canada—through exploration, politics, business, education or literature—you find that the Scots and their descendants have played a leading role. Today, almost five million Canadians identify themselves as Scottish, and their influence is felt throughout the land. Starting with his own deep roots in Scotland and early Canada, Ken McGoogan has created a lively, entertaining narrative that focuses on more than 60 Scots who have led the way in shaping this country. Early arrivals included explorers Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser and the "Scotch West Indian," James Douglas. Later, Scots such as Lord Selkirk and John Galt encouraged thousands to immigrate. Nation-builders followed, among them John A. Macdonald, James McGill and the reformer Nellie McClung. Then came the visionaries, Scottish Canadians such as Tommy Douglas, Doris Anderson and Marshall McLuhan, who have turned Canada into a nation that revels in diversity. McGoogan commemorates the first settlers to land at Pictou, Nova Scotia, and celebrates such hybrid Canadians as the Cherokee Scot John Norton, Thérèse MacDonald Casgrain and the kilt-loving John George Diefenbaker. He honours the war contributions of Scottish Canadian regiments, and he toasts Sir Walter Scott and the beloved Robbie Burns. Beautifully illustrated and handsomely packaged, How the Scots Invented Canada is an exuberant celebration of the building of a nation.

Book Cover Contesting Clios Craft

Contesting Clio's Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History, edited by Christopher Dummitt and Michael Dawson:

This book offers innovative thoughts on present and future approaches to the study of the Canadian past. Moving beyond the political vs. social history debates that have dominated the field since the 1970s, these essays suggest novel questions and approaches while delving into recently overlooked subjects. The authors place a particular emphasis on international, transnational, and comparative approaches to the past. Essays cover such topics as the Atlantic World, oral history, postcolonialism, public history, historical periodization, Canada''s place in the British Empire, and French-English relations. The art of history as a discipline and practice is also discussed. A must read for Canadian historians, Contesting Clio''s Craft will also appeal to international scholars interested in these issues and curious about the contribution that Canadian history has made to the broader history of the Americas.

Book Cover Granule

Granuaile: Grace O'Malley—Ireland's Pirate Queen, by Anne Chambers:

“There came to me also a most famous feminine sea called Granny Imallye with three galleys and two hundred fighting men... This was a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland” -Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland, 1576. Fearless leader by land and by sea, political pragmatist and tactician, rebel, pirate and matriarch, the "most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland" Grace O'Malley challenges and manipulates the turbulent politics of the 16th century a period of immense social change and political upheaval. Breaching boundaries of gender imbalance and bias, she re-wrote the rules to become one of the world's documented feminist trail-blazers. In this, the original international bestselling biography of this historic icon, from rare and exclusive contemporary manuscript material, author Anne Chambers draws Ireland's great pirate queen in from the vagueness of myth and legend and presents the historical reality of one of the world's most extraordinary female leaders. First published in 1979 Granuaile has become an inspiration for documentary and film makers, composers, artists and writers from a range of creative disciplines worldwide. In this 30th anniversary edition, as well as some textual additions, the inclusion of new transcriptions of contemporary 16th-century manuscript material, located and deciphered by the author, will be of special interest to students, teachers and historians as well as to the general reader.


Ken McGoogan's four books about Arctic exploration, which include Fatal Passage and Lady Franklin’s Revenge, won the Pierre Berton Award for History, the University of British Columbia Medal for Canadian Biography, the Canadian Authors’ Association History Award, the Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize, the Grant MacEwan Author’s Award, and an American Christopher Award for “a work of artistic excellence that affirms the highest values of the human spirit.”  A past chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, Ken teaches creative non-fiction through the universities of Toronto and King’s College, and sails as a lecturer with Adventure Canada.

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