Born in 1530 in the far west of Ireland, Gráinne Ní Máille (anglicized as Grace O’Malley) was the only child of Margaret & Owen O’Malley. Her father was chieftain of the O’Malley clan and made his money through seafaring, fishing, international trade and exacting tolls on shipping in the O’Malley waters off Mayo. As a child Grace’s determination and indomitable spirit was apparent, legend has it that on being told she couldn’t sail with her father’s fleet because her long hair would get caught in the ships rigging, she cut her hair and was subsequently nicknamed Gráinne Mhaol – bald Grace.
At the age of 16 Grace married in to the O’Flaherty clan. Her husband Donal was heir to the chieftain . As a noble woman Grace retained control of the property she brought to the marriage as dowry which included both galleys and men. Over the next five years she gave birth to three children Owen, Murrough and Margaret.
O’Flaherty spent his time feuding and engaging in territorial disputes and was killed by the Joyce’s when he seized Cock’s Castle in Lough Corrib. Grace assumed leadership of the O’Flaherty’s and avenged Donal’s death after which the castle became known as Hen’s Castle. Widowed, she returned to the O’Malley stronghold of Clare Island in Clew Bay and it was here that her reputation as ‘Pirate Queen’ was forged. Commanding 200 men and her father’s fleet Grace set about her maritime activities, trading and raiding, plundering and pirating shipping up and down the coast.
A second marriage to Richard–an-Iarainn Bourke, elected successor to the Mac William the foremost chiefdom in Mayo, took place in 1566. They married for a period of one year under Brehon law, which allowed them to part after this time. Having set up home and moved her ships and army to Richard’s strategically located castle at Rockfleet in the north of Clew Bay, Grace then divorced him. Myth suggests that on returning home Richard was locked out as Grace shouted ‘I dismiss you’ from the ramparts, indicating that the marriage was over and the castle now hers. However, they remained together and the following year Grace gave birth to their son Tibbot-na-long. Tibbot was born on board his mother’s ship which was attacked by Turkish pirates the very next day with Grace appearing on deck to rally her men.
Grace’s exploits continued until she was captured by the Earl of Desmond after looting his land. Jailed in Limerick, she was handed to the English Governor who moved her to the dungeon in Dublin Castle. Her husband rebelled and Grace was released from prison in order to bring him in to line.
However over a short period of time her fortunes changed; her husband died in 1583 and soon after Sir Richard Bingham was appointed by Queen Elizabeth 1 as provincial president of Connaught. Whilst Grace consolidated her power at Rockfleet castle and its environs ignoring English law, widespread unrest began throughout Mayo as the clan chiefs rebelled. Bingham’s suppression was swift; he confiscated over 1,000 of Grace’s cattle and horses and ordered seizure of her son Owen O’Flaherty’s land, leading to Owen’s death. Continuing rebellion resulted in Grace being captured and once more her property was seized, she was released after her son in law pleaded her case. Bingham later looted Grace’s land while she was at sea and persuaded Grace’s son Murrough to side with him. Enraged, Grace set fire to Murrough’s town and his cattle, refusing to speak to him ever again.
Worse was to come, in 1593 after Tibbot led another rising against Bingham he took his revenge against Grace by impounding her fleet and taking her land. Tibbot was imprisoned and charged with treason. Having lost her ships and land, her son facing a death penalty Grace petitioned Elizabeth 1, citing her old age (she was 63) and poverty and asked for return of her property in exchange for her allegiance. Knowing that Tibbot may be executed she left for London in 1595 to plead her case in person.
Sailing up the Thames to Greenwich the two women met and she stayed at court for 3 months. A shrewd negotiator, Grace secured Tibbot’s release and a pension from her son’s estates in return for her loyalty to the crown with Elizabeth agreeing to remove Bingham from Ireland. Unfortunately Grace’s land and herds were not restored and Bingham returned to Connaught . Grace died at Rockfleet in 1603 and is buried at Clare Island Abbey.
Today the O’Malley clan meets every two years and at each gathering they remember Grace, the pirate queen. A formidable woman, she embodied the O’Malley clan motto: ‘ Terra Marique Potens’ – powerful by land and sea.
Written for Sheroes of History by Geraldine O’Malley
Find out more…
Anne Chambers scholarly book ’Granuaile. The life and times of Grace O‘Malley’ was published in 1979 and an updated 7th edition was released in 2009. Anne also has a website where you can find out more.
Find out about 9 more female pirates here!
This short video is one in a series about Warrior Women and brings to life Grace’s story: