A Woman Among Men: Grace O’Malley ~ Ireland’s Pirate Queen
Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille) was a woman of fire and adventure. She was among other things a pirate, mercenary, chieftain and noblewoman in her lifetime. Born in 1530 at Clare Island Castle in Clew Bay, County Mayo, Ireland, she is commonly known by her nicknames "Granuaile" and “The Sea Queen of Connaught” in Irish folklore and history. Hers is a story of feminine empowerment that speaks volumes even today and is one which was boldly out of its time and place.
Her father Owen “Dubhdarra” (Black Oak) O’Malley was a well-known sea captain and chieftain of the Barony of Murrish. The O’Malley family were known for their sailing prowess since 1123 and traded with Spain and Scotland on a regular basis. Grace’s love of the sea was apparent in her early years, she vowed to follow in her father’s footsteps as soon as she was old enough despite her mother’s protestations. She was taught to read Latin and schooled at the castle under the family’s motto “Terra Mariq Potens’” (Invincible on Land and Sea.) Grace continued to insist that she would go to sea and it is said that she once begged her father to take her with him on a trip to Spain. When she was denied because her mother felt it unsuitable for a young lady who was destined to be a noblewoman, she went to her room, cut off her hair and dressed in boy’s clothing. Her father and half brother were greatly amused and she earned the nickname “Grainne Mhaol” (meaning “bald one”).
Legend has it that she sailed often with her father during her childhood. One tale relates that Grace once saved her father’s life during an attack by an English ship. She had been instructed to go below if the ship was sought upon. When a siege indeed happened, Grace did not go below as ordered, but climbed the rigging instead and leaped forward while screaming thus landing on the back of her father’s assailant. This distraction was enough for the O’Malley crew to gain control of the conflict.
In adult life, Grace was married to Donal O’Flaherty in 1546 when aged sixteen. Marriages in those days were arranged by the families and this was considered quite a match. Donal was the “tánaiste” or heir to The O”Flaherty seat, the head of the clan and chieftain of all ‘Iar Connaught’. During this time, she became actively immersed in politics, fishing, trading and tribal disputes. As time passed, she eventually overshadowed her husband and became well respected by the men of the clan. She soon became head of the clan’s fleet of ships, which was greatly unusual for the times.
The city of Galway, one of the largest trade centers in the British Isles, refused to trade with the O’Flaherty clan. In recompense, Grace would sweep down on approaching vessels in her galleys thereby waylaying them. She would then bargain with the ship captains for a fee of safe passage (an extortionist tactic of the times). If her demands were refused, she would let her crew pillage the ships before letting them go their way.
Her husband Donal died in a fight with a rival clan. As his widow Grace was entitled to one third of her husband’s estates, but unfairly, this was never paid to her. She returned to the O’Malley clan with her three children and 200 of her husband’s followers where she made her home on Clare Island. Between piracy and charging for safe passage she regained her riches. She soon had a thriving piracy empire with control of five prominent castles in the area.
Rockfleet Castle on the northeast side of Clew Bay belonged to the powerful Richard Bourke. Grace valued the property for its important location as she used her string of outposts as defensive fortifications. Legend has it that Grace went to Castle Rockfleet, knocked on the door and proposed marriage of one year as allowed by Brehon Law to Bourke. She explained the union would allow both clans to resist the British invasion that was taking Irish lands around them. Bourke agreed to the arrangement and when Grace offered to release him at the end of the year he declined because he had fallen in love with her. She however did not share his feelings and said to him “Richard Bourke, I dismiss you.” Those words had the effect of ending the marriage, but since she was in possession of the castle she kept it. Despite this proclamation of divorce, she and Bourke are mentioned as husband and wife in documents of the period so apparently the couple remained married or at least allied until his death seventeen years later. Grace had a son with Bourke, Theobald nicknamed “Tibbot of the Ships” who was born about 1567. Tibbot was later knighted as Sir Theobald Bourke and was created first Viscount Mayo in 1626 by Charles I.
The English continued to take much of the land, either by force or offering the Irish lords English titles and thereby peace. Grace, always independent, refused to be bought and continued to rebel against the English invasion of her land and country.
At the age 56, Grace was captured by the ruthless English Governor Richard Bingham who was determined to stop her piracy and rebellion. Bingham arrested Grace and some of her followers and planned to hang her. As she awaited execution, she continued to retain her dignity and refused to plead for mercy. Before the execution was to take place, her son-in-law offered himself as a hostage and curiously she was released. While she made a tentative agreement to stop her sea activity, Bingham nonetheless stripped her of her cattle, horses and some of her lands which again forced her into poverty.
The Irish rebellion continued during these years. There was much fighting and loss of life and lands. The Spanish Armada patrolled the Irish coasts and were waging war against the English. Grace dispatched hundreds of Spaniards on the ship of Don Pedro de Mendoza near the castle on Clare Island in 1588. She was well into her late fifties by this time and proved to be as fierce at this age as in her younger years.
In 1593, Bingham again fearful of her influence, worried that Grace would impact the rebellion. He had her son and brother arrested. Although she was virtually penniless at this time and unable to raise much of a force against the English, he attempted to keep her in his control by these efforts. Grace appealed to the English Queen, Elizabeth during this time asking for the release of her family and help in regaining her lands. She sailed to England herself in a daring move unheard of at the time.
No one knows why Elizabeth agreed to see Grace, but they met in September of 1593 at Greenwich Palace. The English Queen apparently took to Grace, who was three years older. Their discussion was carried out in Latin, as Grace spoke no English and Elizabeth spoke no Irish. Being of a bold and physical nature, she may have seemed out of place in the genteel English Court even though she was fashionably attired in an expensive gown in the style of the day. Grace refused to bow before Elizabeth because she did not recognize her as the Queen of Ireland. A story is told in which Grace is said to have sneezed during her audience. A member of the court handed her an expensive lace handkerchief in which she proceeded to blow her nose and then toss into the fire. The court was aghast at what seemed rude to them. To throw such an expensive gift into the fire was thought intolerably coarse. The Queen gently chided her and told her she should have put it into her pocket instead. Grace replied that the Irish did not put soiled articles into their pockets and therefore must have a higher sense of cleanliness. A nervous chord of laughter began in the court which turned into a loud roar of amusement. The Queen laughed and the seeming effrontery was turned into an ice-breaking moment of humour. The two, after much talk, agreed to a list of demands. Elizabeth was to remove Richard Bingham from his position in Ireland, and Grace was to stop supporting the Irish Lords’ rebellions. She sailed back to Ireland with the belief that the meeting had done good as Richard Bingham was removed from service. However, several other demands (i.e. - the return of the cattle and land that Bingham had stolen from her) remained unmet. Within a rather short period of time, Bingham was sent back to Ireland. Upon his return, Grace realized that the meeting with Elizabeth had been useless and went back to supporting Irish rebellions. Disappointed, Grace only nominally directing her raids against the “enemies of England” during the Nine Years War, and thusly maintained her end of the bargain despite the fact that the favour had not been returned.
Grace most likely died at Rockfleet Castle around 1603, while in her 70’s, the same year as Elizabeth, though the date and place of death are disputed. More than 20 years later, an English lord deputy of Ireland recalled her ability as a leader of fighting men, noting her fame and favour which still existed among the Irish people.
The Pirate Queen was a fearless warrior and was active on the sea well into her sixties. In her lifetime she maintained the old principles of the Gaelic and Brehon systems of law. She was able to survive with style and courage unheard of in her time. She was a revered and honoured Chieftain of her people and is remembered as such even today…
(seen portrayed here by model/actress Lily Cole)