Our Hero explains why Canada abounds in ‘overstepping women’

Our Hero turns up in “Talking History,” a biweekly series happening over at the 49th Shelf.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.

Ken McGoogan

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.

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.”

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 . . . .

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