Grace O’Malley, The 16th Century Pirate Queen of Ireland
Grace O'Malley was Queen of Umaill, chieftain of the O Maille clan, a rebel, seafarer, and fearless leader who challenged the turbulent politics of 16th century England and Ireland. While Irish legends have immortalized 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.
Through the course of her life, Grace raised and led armies, commanded a fleet of ships, was captured (twice), imprisoned, faced execution, secured her freedom (twice), fought pirates, was a master of political negotiation, and struck fear into one of the most powerful countries of the era – England. Yet, despite her accomplishments, Grace O’Malley was not remembered in Irish history . In The Annals of the Four Masters , the seminal source of Irish history compiled just a few years after her death and in a region where Grace was active, there is not one mention of her name. The only explanation for such an enormous ommission from Ireland’s historical records is that Grace’s power was uncomfortable for the men of her era and in Catholic Ireland. Fortunately, thanks to the work of biographer Anne Chamber s, Grace’s life has been pieced back together, largely from English state records, and she is now a much loved hero in Ireland.
Grace’s Seafaring Origins
Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille) was born in Ireland around 1530 as a daughter of the wealthy nobleman and sea trader Dubhdara O'Malley, who commanded the biggest fleet of ships in Ireland.
For hundreds of years, the O’Malleys had been sailing their ships around the coasts of Ireland, Scotland and northern Spain, trading, fishing and plundering. When Dubhdara died, Grace inherited his large shipping and trading business. From her earliest days, she rejected the role of the 16th century woman, instead embracing the life on the sea with the O'Malley fleet. The income from this business, as well as land inherited from her mother, enabled her to become wealthy and powerful.
During a time when Ireland was ruled by dozens of local chieftains, Grace 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.
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 plundered ships and fortresses on the shoreline and on 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.
Plundering and piracy was part of seafaring life for any coastal clan and Grace made no exception. But it came with great risk – the penalty for piracy was death by hanging.
To be a female commander of pirates was even more dangerous. To earn the respect and protection of her men, Grace had to lead from the front and be as courageous as those she commanded.
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Modern representation of Grace O’Malley. (Makerva/ Deviant Art )
Under the policies of the English government at the time, the semi-autonomous Irish chieftains were left mostly to their own devices. However this was to change over the course of O'Malley's life as the English conquest of Ireland gathered pace and more and more Irish lands came under their rule. Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I , England implemented a ‘Divide and Conquer’ policy. They could not afford to send an army to conquer Ireland by force, so instead Queen Elizabeth used the feuding between Irish chieftains to her advantage, replacing Chieftains with those who promised to be loyal to her and adopt English law. But Grace would have none of it. England would not deny her or her husband, Richard-in-Iron, their rightful place in their clan according to Gaelic law. It was to this end that Grace raised armies and led rebellions, and it was not long before news of this rebel pirate had reached England – letters written about her and sent to the English government described her as the “nurse to all rebellions for 40 years”.
Rockfleet Castle. (Mikeoem/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Grace O’Malley Faces Off Against England
Ambitious and fiercely independent, her exploits 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 defense 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 Grace O’Malley was a threat to their aims.
O’Malley was a threat to their aims. ( YouTube)
At the age of 56, Grace O’Malley was finally captured by Sir Richard Bingham, a ruthless governor that was appointed to rule over Irish territories. She closely escaped the death sentence, but over the course of time her influence, wealth, and lands faded, until she was on the brink of poverty. But she was already plotting her next move. She decided to go over Bingham’s head and straight to his boss, the Queen of England. She wrote to Queen Elizabeth explaining her plight. She asked the queen to give her “free liberty during her life to invade with fire and sword all your highness’ enemies without any interruption of any person whatsoever.” It was an ingenious plan, in the guise of fighting for the queen, she could continue her life at sea, unhindered by the English and free from Bingham’s control.
However, her situation took a turn for the worse. Her dearest son, Tibbot na Long (‘Toby of the Ships’), who had also been engaging in rebellions against the English, was also captured by Bingham and was facing execution. Grace O’Malley jumped straight in a ship and set sail for England, undertaking the most dangerous journey of her lifetime – the seas around the coasts of Ireland were patrolled by English warships and Grace was a notorious rebel, who would be seen as a great prize by any English captain. Grace sailed her ship down the Thames, determined to seek an audience directly with the Queen.
It was a great risk. Grace could have been thrown straight into the Tower of London and executed, but fortunately for her, Queen Elizabeth was intrigued by this head-strong, rebel woman. Grace and Elizabeth shared something in common – they were both powerful women in what was, at the time, very much a man’s world. Through carefully worded letters and petitioning to the Queen’s advisors, Grace secured her meeting with one of the most powerful women of her era.
During the historic 1593 meeting with Queen Elizabeth I , Grace came face-to-face with the woman against whom she had rebelled and in whose hands her life and her son’s life now lay. Grace explained to the queen that her actions were merely to protect her family and her people. The queen listened with admiration and pity as Grace told her story and how she suffered at the hands of the English, and in particular, Sir Richard Bingham. In this astounding meeting of two powerful women, both who fought for what they believed in, Grace managed to convince the queen to free her family and restore much of her lands and influence. Armed with a letter from the queen to this effect, Grace returned to Ireland. Her son was released from prison a broken man – he had been tortured and could barely walk.
‘The meeting of Grace O'Malley and Queen Elizabeth I.’ ( Public Domain )
Despite Grace’s success in England, political unrest and turmoil continued to grow in Ireland, culminating in the historic Battle of Kinsae, which brought the curtain down on the old Gaelic way of life. It signalled the end of the world of clans and chieftains and a new political age dawned. By this time, Grace was old and weary. She lived out her last years in the comfort of her fortress at Rockfleet.
The Legacy of Grace O’Malley
During the 70 years of her life, Grace O'Malley built herself a notable political influence with the surrounding nations, as well as notoriety at sea, making her one of the most important figures of Irish folklore . She successfully protected the independence of her lands during the time when much of Ireland fell under the English rule. She died around 1603 in Rockfleet Castle.
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But her story lives on as many folk stories, songs, poems, and musicals about Grace O'Malley have continued to this day, preserving the legend of the Pirate Queen. The following is an extract from the song ‘Granuaile,’ believed to have originated in Co. Leitrim about 1798, with the survivors from Mayo of the Battle at Ballinamuck between the Franco-Irish forces and the English:
[…]‘Twas a proud and stately castle
In the years of long ago
When the dauntless Grace O'Malley
Ruled a queen in fair Mayo
And from Bernham's lofty summit
To the waves of Galway Bay
And from Castlebar to Ballintra
Her unconquered flag held sway
She had strongholds on her headlands
And brave galleys on the sea
And no warlike chief or viking
E'er had bolder heart than she
She unfurled her country's banner
High o'er battlement and mast
And gainst all the might of England
Kept it flying to the last
The armies of Elizabeth
Invaded her on loand
Her warships followed on her track
And watched by many a strand
But she swept her foes before her
On the land and on the sea
And the flag of Grace O'Malley
Waved defiant proud and free […]
Statue of Grainne Mhaol Ni Mhaille (Grace O'Malley, 1530-1603), the Irish Pirate, located at Westport House, Co. Mayo, Ireland. (Suzanne Mischyshyn/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
“The idea for a whiskey dedicated to Grace O’Malley was initially conceived by Stephen Cope over 10 years ago, combining two of his passions in equal measure - quality Irish whiskey and the legend of Granuaile.
“I was on an annual pilgrimage with some friends to Inishbofin and brought a book about Grace by Anne Chambers with me to read on the trip. The social aspect of the trip, the combination of the scenery around Bofin, Turk and Clare Island, along with the stories of this formidable woman who ruled the west coast during a particularly turbulent time in Irish history were inspiring.””
Grace O’Malley continues to spark an interest even today.
Top Image: Representational image of Grace O’Malley, an Irish pirate queen.
Chambers, A. (2014). Pirate Queen of Ireland: The Adventures of Grace O'Malley . The Collins Press, Ireland.
Chambers, A. (2018) Grace O'Malley: The Biography of Ireland's Pirate Queen 1530–1603 . Gill Books, Ireland.
Cook, J. (2013). Pirate Queen the Life of Grace O'Malley. Tuckwell Press, Scotland.
Maxwell, R. (2004) The Wild Irish: A Novel of Elizabeth I and the Pirate O'Malley . Perennial, New York.