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Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland

Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland

Posted by Allison Krier on 9th Mar 2020

Grace O’Malley. Feminist icon to some, to others, a folk hero rebelling against English rule. She was certainly as charismatic and remarkable a historical figure as she was unimaginable. She truly led a people, and indeed, conducted acts of piracy. Not exactly a sixteenth-century feminine archetype. Her skill navigating not only the seas but also the politics of a man’s world set her apart. Her adventures, conflicts and romances are of theatrical proportion, and so, the come blurring of fact from fiction where oral histories begin to embellish archival documentation.


Statue of Grace O'Malley at Westport House, County Mayo. Statue of Grace O'Malley at Westport House, County Mayo. (Suzanne Mischyshyn / Geograph)

Grace was the daughter of Eóghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, the chieftain of a dynastic and seafaring clan in Connacht and ruler of Umhall. Known by her Irish name Grainne Ní Mháille, and at times, referred to by the fusing of both her Christian and surname, Gránuaille (pronounced like Grania Wail), Grace became her anglicized name; however, it is not the accurate translation of Gráinne. Her clan’s territory mainly included the southwest regions of what is now County Mayo. There is no actual record of her birth but she was likely born about 1530. The stated lore describes Grainne coming into this world in a monastery on Clare Island and the claim is quite likely true, and although a little murky, it seems she was reared on and around Clare Island. Despite a half brother–though some accounts make her the only offspring of her father’s–Gráinne inherited the leadership of the realm. As a girl she accompanied her father on his ships evolving her seafaring prowess This with her natural gravitas compelled great respect paving the way for her reign as chieftain and the establishment of a fleet of formidable force. What is evident is that both men and women were keen to follow her lead.

High born in the milieu of old Irish ways, Gráinne, would have been fairly well-educated for a woman of the era in Europe. It is said she spoke with Elizabeth I in Latin during her meeting in 1593 displaying her erudite stature and that she was on a level worthy of the English court and perhaps the Queen herself despite the contradictory nature of piracy and pillaging to that of cultivated femininity and aristocratic prestige. Illustrations show her dressed to the nines, appropriately for a woman at court. Her reputation as the pirate queen was borne out of the tradition of Gaelic clan systems where poaching and stealing of cattle, or in the case of the Ó Mailles, the opportunistic plundering and pillaging of stray ships in their territories, was the way of things. Smaller, weaker clans were compelled to give their allegiance to larger more powerful ones. Between her father and her own command it appears they amassed significant material wealth, and extended territory and influence. They were as capable and just as comfortable on land as they were at sea, which served them in their quest to gain greater eminence and a larger following. Gráinne’s astute capability to maneuver not only her ships but also her mastery with the politics of men was clearly the lynchpin of her power.


Clare Island, County Mayo, is the ancestral home of Grace O'Malley. Clare Island, off the coast of County Mayo, is the ancestral home of Grace O'Malley. (Christian McLeod / Fáilte Ireland)

Romantic ideals of love are often the motivation for a marital unions; however, for those of noble rank marriages were contracts of a critical calculation for which daughters were pivotal. Marrying them to current or potential enemies, or to leverage an effectual alliance was paramount in the ever shifting and cutthroat political landscape of Europe whether nations or Irish clans. Inversely, in a patriarchal society, Gráinne’s supremacy and autonomy made it possible for her to make her own choices in wedlock and make ones that were beneficial for herself increasing her clout as well as fodder for legendary melodrama. Her first marriage was to Dónal-an-Chogaidh O’Flaherty (aka Tadg Chogadh, meaning Thady of War), around 1550, of Bunowen in the barony of Ballinahinch in Connacht (Connemara) and the heir apparent to the O’Flaherty (Flaithbheartaigh) chieftainship. The marriage produced three children: two sons, Owen, the eldest (Eórgan), and Murrough (Murchadh), the youngest, and one daughter, Maeve (Méadhbh), the middle child. Albeit a strong clan that expanded her realm–she essentially maintained as chieftain of the O’Flaherty’s–her husband had a reputation for being short-tempered, some what inept in leadership, and rash in judgement. He was nearly always feuding with the Joyces creating tense political situations, which, finally, made for his demise. He died in a skirmish over territory.

Upon O’Flaherty’s untimely death, Gráinne settled on Clare Island and was back at Umhall as her home base. It is this period, after her first marriage and before her second, that Gráinne earns her infamous renown as the pirate queen. It’s difficult to know exactly the scope of her escapades and the scale of her fleet at any given moment. But it does appear she exploited her power as much as possible with a claim to maintain her status, her restitution. Under Gaelic law, she would not be entitled to any of his lands; however, she would be able to retain her own. Conversely, under English law at the time, a woman’s land and inheritance would transfer to the husband upon marriage. If the husband were to die, the wife was entitled to a maintenance for life, approximately one third of the land and holdings. Later, in her meeting with Queen Elizabeth I, her plea for what is deemed unscrupulous activity drew upon the necessity to sustain herself in regard to Gaelic law and the heavy hand of English rule that was upon her.

Rockfleet Castle, or Carraig an Caghlaigh, on Clew Bay, Grace O'Malley's second home. Rockfleet Castle, or Carraig an Caghlaigh, on Clew Bay, Grace O'Malley's second home and where she died in 1603. (Keith Salvesen / Geograph)

A remarkable, romantic, perhaps lurid even, tale is Gráinne’s affair with a young shipwrecked sailor. The tryst was short as he was attacked and killed by the MacMahons of Ballyvoy. Her reaction was severe. She launched an assault against the MacMahons at Doona Castle in Blacksod Bay slaying all her lover’s murderers. This alleged act resulted in the nickname of “Dark lady of Doona.” Another variation of this entanglement is that Gráinne as a youthful woman rescued a shipwrecked sailor and he fell madly in love with her. They married and shortly after he was murdered by the MacMahons. There is no reliable record for this account, particularly that of any kind of legal union.

Gráinne’s second marriage also proved to be advantageous as well as of sensational tales. She married Richard-na-Iarainn Bourke of Burrishoole and Carra in 1567 once again extending her territories and strengthening her fleets. Bourke’s territory included the north shore and Clew Bay, where they took residence at the Rockfleet Castle, also known as Carraig an Caghlaigh, rather than Umhall or Clew Island, her clan’s home. Bourke had been knighted and bestowed the title of Lord; she then became Lady Bourke. Their spirited natures were the cause of seemingly many a marital spat and a basis for gossip and myth including one of a divorce after a year of wedlock. One tells of an agreement for one year of marriage for a more politically strategic partnership and at the one year they divorced. There is no record of this or any Gaelic laws that provide for this situation legally. Likely a fabrication that is rooted in a domestic quarrel after about a year of marriage. The story goes describes Bourke returning to Carraigahowley to find his clothes packed by Gráinne, doors locked as well as a dismissal from the fortification. This interpretation of a divorce seems to have been a premature judgement and fodder for tabloid worthy rumors that became a history. However, they continued to present themselves as husband and wife and she accompanied him to official engagements as Lady Bourke until his death. Perhaps not always wedded bliss, but clearly the commitment lasted beyond a year’s contract.

Coat of Arms of the Bourke family, Viscount Mayo and Earl of Mayo. Coat of Arms of the Bourke family, Viscount Mayo and Earl of Mayo. (Wikimandia)

The birth of Gráinne and Bourke’s only child, Tibbot-na-Long, is also a fantastic story. Their son apparently was born whilst at sea on one her galley ships, a fitting scenario for Gráinne that is apparently accurate. The enhanced account details the harrowing birth taking place during a siege by Algerian corsairs (another account states Turkish privateers). Gráinne after birthing her youngest son, rose up, joined the battle turning its tide partly by a wily act of ensconcing herself in a blanket dancing and howling about. The dumbfounded invaders paused and gathered around her; she then shot all of them. After defeating their ship, she took them ashore and consequently had them all hung.


Sir Richard Bingham, painted by an unknown artist, c. 1564. Sir Richard Bingham, painted by an unknown artist, c. 1564. (National Portrait Gallery)

Always able to surmount adversities, Gráinne met her political match with Sir Richard Bingham who was appointed Lord Deputy in 1584. There was an overall desire for the crown to anglicize the Irish people. It’s clear that Sir Richard did not take well to Gráinne’s wicked sprees and independent nature. The overall directive from England was one of balance and unity with the existing ruling chieftains and nobles of Ireland. Surrender and Regrant created a path for the Irish to become subjects of the crown while its nobles and chieftains kept much of their power over their lands. Chieftains became Earls and Lords of their realms but loyal to the crown.

Following the death of her second husband, Gráinne experienced further turmoil and misfortune. This was primarily at the hands of the Lord Bingham, who became the provincial Lord President of Connacht in 1584. He was appointed by John Perrot who was the Lord Deputy of Ireland and responsible to rule over local chieftains who possessed self-sovereignty over their territories and many of which had already taken the route of Surrender and Regrant. Bingham did not adhere to the Tudor policy that sought a more coöperative process to smooth over the alienation felt by outside rule and supported by Perrot. Bingham, alternately, believed in more confrontational approach and targeted Gråinne specifically pegging her as a trouble-maker. This also intertwined the Bourkes, the family of her late husband. It centered around another enacted of a Composition, a form of surrender and regrant which entailed tariffs and the Bourkes. The Bourkes rebelled and Gráinne’s son Owen was imprisoned by Bingham and killed. Gráinne also led then led the rebellion. She was captured and held and later released. She fled to waited in exile as possibly her ship were damaged from a storm. Bingham, at that point, was sent to aid the Dutch in the Spanish assault. Gráinne pleaded to Perrot who granted her and her family pardons. Bingham was recalled to Ireland when in 1588 the Spanish Armada set sail for England with a possible landing in Ireland. Rather than making peace with Bourkes as ordered, Bingham’s continued his wrath. He devastated her lands at Carraigahowley. She and her youngest son, Tibbot, continued their defense and rebellion. Bingham successfully destroyed and confiscated her lands, impounded her ship at Clew Bay cutting her off and leaving her without property or any means. Tibbot was forced to surrender.


"Grana Uile introduced to Queen Elizabeth," by W. Beauford in Anthologia Hibernica "Grana Uile introduced to Queen Elizabeth," by W. Beauford, printed in Anthologia Hibernica, vol. 2, 1793. (New York Public Library)

Desperate and fearing that her son would be executed, she pleaded to Elizabeth I. This notable 1593 meeting at Greenwich Palace perhaps demonstrated the understanding and respect between the women, two women in a man’s world. Gráinne was, without doubt, artful in her overture. The sympathetic Queen rather than hanging Gráinne–the plea and charges by Bingham–was granted a pension by diverting the taxes levied on her son’s estates. Bingham was later in 1595 imprisoned as he fled Ireland after continued activity attempting to defy these latest orders by his sovereign.

Extraordinary, majestic, and full of moxie, Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of Ireland, is what legends are made of. Her life captured the imagination of songwriters and novelists alike. James Joyce givers her a due in the opening chapter of Finnegan’s Wake. Bands such as the Canadian folk-punk band The Dreadnoughts have a song on their Victory Square album named Grace O’Malley and more recently the folk-metal band makes reference to her in a song as well as the title of their 2014 album The Sea Queen of Connaught. And several other Irish folk sing-songwriters find a spark for expressive production in Grace. It’s difficult not to see Keira Knightley’s character Elizabeth Swan from the Pirates of the Caribbean as nod to Gráinne. Although her life account grew into fantastic tales, Grace O’Malley’s life was, in fact, exceptional, one of fortitude and resilience and worthy of spectacle.