Who doesn’t love pirates and the stories of their seafaring adventures? We’ve heard of Black Beard, Red Beard and their ilk but I am pretty certain most do not know about famous lady pirates. One of them was Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of Ireland (c. 1530 – c. 1603). In Irish her name is Gráinne Ní Mháille.
Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland met O’Malley in 1577 and said of her: “A most famous, feminine sea captain… famous for her stoutness of courage… commanding three galleys and 200 fighting men… This was a most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.”
She was born in 1530, the only daughter of the lord of the Ó Máille dynasty and ruler of the Kingdom of Umhall, in Clew Bay, Country Mayo, western Ireland. The O’Malleys were a seafaring clan, who controlled castles and lands in western Ireland, traded across the ocean, compelled taxes for fishing in their waters, and also occasionally plundered. The legal system in Ireland did not use primogeniture (where title was passed on to the first-born son) but instead elected its chieftains (Brehon Law). While women could hold property and could inherit, they could not become chieftains. During her childhood Grace most likely lived at her family’s residence of Belclare and Clare Island. She was formally educated, since she spoke in Latin when she met Queen Elizabeth I in 1593. Her family’s long association with the sea created a desire in Grace to follow in her father’s footsteps.
According to local legend, Grace wanted to go on a trading expedition to Spain with her father. He told her that she could not because her long hair would get caught in the ship’s ropes. So, she cut off her hair, earning the nickname “Gráinne Mhaol” (from maol meaning bald or having cropped hair), anglicised as Granuaile.
She was married to Dónal an Chogaidh Ó Flaithbheartaigh in 1546, a neighbouring chieftain’s heir, when she was 15 years old. She had two sons and a daughter with Donal, who was killed by a rival clan in 1560. Grace took charge of her husband’s land and ships and even succesfully defended her castle from his killers. She returned to Clare Island with her husbands men and made it her base of operations, embarking on a career in piracy. Her leadership at sea is what made her famous.
Irish historian and novelist Anne Chambers described her as: a fearless leader, by land and by sea, a political pragmatist and politician, a ruthless plunderer, a mercenary, a rebel, a shrewd and able negotiator, the protective matriarch of her family and tribe, a genuine inheritor of the Mother Goddess and Warrior Queen attributes of her remote ancestors. Above all else, she emerges as a woman who broke the mould and thereby played a unique role in history. (Granuaile: Grace O’Malley: Grace O’Malley – Ireland’s Pirate Queen, by Anne Chambers; Foreword; Gill & Macmillan Ltd, 2006)
She was a fearless leader – another legend has it that in 1565 she took a shipwrecked sailor as her lover, and when he was also killed by the MacMahons, she attacked their castle of Doona and killed his murderers. This earned her the nickname ‘Dark Lady of Doona’.
In 1566, she married Risdeárd an Iarainn (“Iron Richard”) Bourke, from the powerful MacWilliam family and it is thought that the strength of his castle (Rockfleet) is the reason for this politically shrewed marriage. The terms of the marriage followed the common practice of a trial marriage, whereby a couple would marry for twelve months and then either party could withdraw. Which is exactly what Grace did. She and her men locked her husband out of Rockfleet Castle, ostensibly with the words “I dismiss you”. Grace had a son with Richard in 1567, while on board her ship, as Barbary pirates were attacking it. Just hours after the birth she wrapped him in a blanket and went on deck to command her men and fire at her enemies.
The Kingdom of Ireland was a client state of the English Crown. Because Rockfleet Castle was so far away from Dublin, and Grace was often at sea, it was difficult for the Crown to excercise control over her and her lands. And Grace did all she could to limit their power over her part of the country – even offering Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney, the use of her fleet, resulting in Rockfleet maintaining some autonomy.
She continued her piracy but was captured during a plundering expedition against the Earl of Desmond in Munster, handed over to the English Crown and held in Dublin Castle till 1579. She somehow managed to secure her release, going on to plunder English ships and defeating the army sent to take over her castle.
Although Grace had chucked out her husband earlier, they reconciled and would remain together for 20 years, till his death. However, Grace was the power behind her husband and had helped him to become the heir to the MacWilliam clan in 1580. Because of English law now governing Ireland, the death of MacWilliam chieftain in 1580 meant that a male heir and not Grace’s husband would take over. She and her husband rebelled and forced a deal, whereby he became chief and she became Lady Bourke. His death in 1583 meant she could no longer exert power over the dominion, so she took the men loyal to her, a castle and property owed to her and established herself at Rockfleet. Although she was not allowed to be a chieftain, her leadership abilities meant that she was able to garner loyalty from not only her men but also of neighbouring clans where the chieftains had died or did not protect their people.
The English however had not given up trying to reign her in. Sir Richard Bingham, became governor of Connaught in 1584, and became a lifelong enemy of O’Malley and her family, claiming that she was “nurse to all rebellions in the province for this forty years”.
In 1586, her son was killed by Bingham’s brother and she was captured when she went to avenge him. She was condemned to death but was released after her son-in-law intervened. Together they again joined the rebellion against the English taking over Ireland. Her political acument was such that in 1587, when Bingham was away, she compellted the new Lord Deputy of Dublin, Sir John Perrot, to pardon her for all her past offences, as well as those of her children. The deal was that she would retire and stop her piracy. Grace did not keep to her end of the bargain. She kept fighting with Bingham’s forces. Eventually her sons and half-brother were captured by Bingham. Instead of negotiation with him, she went to his boss – Queen Elizabeth I – somehow managing to get an audience through her contacts. Elizabeth I famously sent O’Malley a list of questions, which she answered and returned. She eventuallly met the Queen in Greenwich in 1593. O’Malley who considered them both equals, wore a fine gown and refused to bow in front of Elizabeth. This is when they conversed in Latin because the Queen could not speak Irish.
Elizabeth, impressed by another powerful woman in a man’s world, released her sons and allowed her to return to her ‘maintenance by land and sea’, which meant that Grace could go back to her piracy, this time with the Queen’s blessing. In fact, Elizabeth was so impressed by her that when a new map of Ireland was drawn, Grace O’Malley was named as chieftain of Mayo. But many of her demands remained unmet, including the return of her property stolen by Richard Bingham. And the English takeover of Ireland continued, eventually encroaching into Grace’s area. She continued leading her men at sea and land well into her 60s and died in 1603 at Rockfleet (the same year as Elizabeth I). By 1602, Ireland had completely fallen into English hands.
History, mostly written by men, has not remembered Grace O’Malley and her story has only survived through legends, songs and folktales. As Anne Chambers declares, “Grace O’Malley did not conform to the patriotic, God-fearing and dutiful image of Gaelic womanhood promoted by later generations of Irish historians and was consequently airbrushed”.