Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland

Grace O’Malley, the 16th Century Pirate Queen of Ireland


Grace O'Malley was Queen of Umaill, chieftain of the O Maille clan, rebel, seafarer, and fearless leader, who challenged the turbulent politics of 16 th century England and Ireland. While Irish legends have immortalised Grace as a courageous woman who overcame boundaries of gender imbalance and bias to fight for the independence of Ireland and protect it against the English crown, to the English, she was considered a brutal and thieving pirate, who controlled the coastlines through intimidation and plunder.

Grace O’Malley was born in Ireland in around 1530, as a daughter of the wealthy nobleman and sea trader Owen O'Malley. Upon his death, she inherited his large shipping and trading business. From her earliest days, she rejected the role of the sixteenth century woman, instead embracing the life on the sea with the fleet of O'Malley trading ships.  The income from this business, as well as land inherited from her mother, enabled her to become rich and somewhat powerful. 

During a time when Ireland was ruled by dozens of local chieftains, O’Malley— also known in legends as Granuaile —commanded hundreds of men and some 20 ships in raids on rival clans and merchant ships. She also ran afoul of government officials, who made repeated attempts to curb her activity.

Under the policies of the English government at the time, the semi-autonomous Irish princes and lords were left mostly to their own devices. However this was to change over the course of O'Malley's life as the Tudor conquest of Ireland gathered pace and more and more Irish lands came under their rule. 

The O'Malleys were one of the few seafaring families on the west coast, and they built a row of castles facing the sea to protect their territory.  From their base at Rockfleet Castle, they reportedly attacked ships and fortresses on the shoreline, plundered Scotland’s outlying islands, and taxed all those who fished off their coasts, which included fishermen from as far away as England. O'Malley's ships would stop and board the traders and demand either cash or a portion of the cargo in exchange for safe passage the rest of the way to Galway. Resistance was met with violence and even murder.

Artist’s depiction of Grace O’Malley

Artist’s depiction of Grace O’Malley. Credit: Anton Batov .

Ambitious and fiercely independent, her exploits eventually became known through all of Ireland and England. By March, 1574, the English felt they could no longer ignore her ‘predatory sieges’, so a force of ships and men laid siege to O’Malley in Rockfleet Castle. Within two weeks, the Pirate Queen had turned her defence into an attack and the English were forced to make a hasty retreat. But such victories could not go on forever. The English had been changing the traditional laws of Ireland, outlawing the system of electing chieftains, and O’Malley was a threat to their aims.

At the age of 56, O’Malley was finally captured by Sir Richard Bingham, ruthless governor that was appointed to rule over Irish territories. She closely escaped death sentence, and over the course of time her influence, wealth and lands faded, until the brink of poverty. After hearing about the capture of her brother and son, O’Malley petitioned the Crown for redress, and then set sail for England. During a historic 1593 meeting with Queen Elizabeth I, she somehow managed to convince her to free her family and restore much of her lands and influence.

The Pirate Queen

Stephanie J. Block, left, as Grace O'Malley and Linda Balgord as Queen Elizabeth I in the musical "The Pirate Queen”. Photo source .

During the 70 years of her life, Grace O'Malley built for herself a notable political influence with the surrounding nations, as well as great notoriety at sea, making her one of the most important figure of the Irish folklore. She successfully protected the independence of her lands during the time when much of Ireland fell under the English rule.

Grace O’Malley finally died around 1603, in Rockfleet Castle. Many folk stories, songs, poems, and musicals about O'Malley have continued to this day, preserving the legend of the Pirate Queen.

Featured image: Artist’s depiction of the Pirate Queen. Credit: Shrikant

By April Holloway


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nisa burkay's picture

I would love to see a movie made from this history.

Nisa Carroll Burkay

you should stop doing that, because in this day and age, it is "white people" who are the target of gencoide. the genocide they are facing is miscegnation, affirmative action, placing criminals in white communities on purpose so they will be victimized, and the mainstream media's attack on everything white, including how it is not considered "racist" to say "kill white people" or talk about committing violence against white people.

so now you should be taking sides with the English, because you are both "white people" in the eyes of your many, many enemies

You pair are a perfect example of what is wrong with humanity.maybe I should 'stomp on' every seppo I come across, seeing as though they're so determined to bring the globe to the brink of ruin.

Blood Debts are real bitch; may the Spirit of Gracie OMalley live on forever and ever, in the Upright Women, all over this world.

That being said, and being a Native American Man (Ojibway) - i can totally empathize with this post, and its poster. The struggle to survive genocide certainly is something our respective communities have in common, to this very day. Plus I too, stomp the shit out of every British guy i there's that as well :)

Be well

YES my family left IRELAND,and moved to the pacific north west,in 1842,I've heard hundreds of stories about life in early IRELAND,When the british were kidnapping our women and children for their sugar cane fields in the carabine,AND THEN,they starting poisoning our crops to starve us out,THEY would raid our homes and murder everyone but the children and take them to the cane fields,WE just didn't have good enough weapons to fight them off,SO THE DECESSION was made to leave IRELAND,after we left, the british kept raiding the farms and villages of IRELAND till they had killed another 6,000,000 million IRISH citizens,between 1845-1854,they were trying to wipe out the IRISH RACE of people,and still are to this day,SO TO THIS DAY ,I stomp the shit out every british person I meet........


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