Saturday, October 24, 2015

Badass Women of History- Grace O'Malley

Grace O'Malley

The Pirate Queen



Ireland’s pirate queen, Grace O’Malley, is a folk hero of the Emerald Isle.

The story of her life is often more legend than hard history.

Contemporary accounts are scarce and there’s little doubt much of her exploits have been embellished.

Nevertheless, she had a grand and fearless life. One that definitely makes her a badass woman of history. 

Born in 1530 in what is now County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast, Grace (Gráinne in Irish) was a member the region’s powerful O’Malley clan. 


The Ireland of Grace’s time was a land of conflict. The island was not united and was broken up among many different clans who often fought each other over territory. 


For three hundred years the O’Malleys had dominated the cost of Mayo from their stronghold at Clew Bay. 


Clew Bay- Grace's ancestral homeland and her base of operations


Grace’s father, Eoghan ‘Black Oak’ O’Malley was the clan’s chieftain. A famous warrior, Black Oak had continued the O’Malleys’ long tradition of raiding ships that passed near their shores. 


As a child Grace begged her father to go out to sea and join his raids. Grace’s mother refused, using the excuse that her daughter’s long hair would get in her way when breezes came. 


Grace swiftly responded by shaving herself bald with a dagger. She then sneaked onboard an O'Malley ship disguised as a boy. She was discovered but Black Oak was impressed by her determination. 


He agreed to let her sail and at an early age Grace became a pirate, a fighter and a leader of warriors far more seasoned than herself. 


By the time she reached 16, she commanded several ships and dozens of men.


Despite her courage and ferocity, Grace was still bound by the customs of the time.


In 1546 her family married her off to Donal O’Flahtery. The marriage cemented an alliance between their two families and Donal later became chieftain of the O’Flahterys. 


Grace bore two sons and a daughter through the marriage and took an active role in managing some of the O’Flahterys’ affairs. Grace was able to maintain control over the men and ships she had commanded while a girl. She also continued to hone her skills as a leader and a raider. By some accounts she took over the majority of the O’Flahterys naval operations.

However, Grace’s husband was hotheaded and held grudges. For much of their marriage he was engaged in a blood feud with the Joyce clan. Eventually, he was wounded in a skirmish with his rivals and died of his injuries. 


Ever a dutiful wife, Grace avenged her husband by leading a retaliatory raid on the Joyce controlled, Cock’s Castle. She sacked the fortress which was subsequently renamed Hen’s Castle in her memory.

Hen's Castle

With her vengeance satiated, Grace abandoned rule of the O’Flahterys to her two sons and returned to her father’s clan. Taking her men and ships with her, she assumed leadership of the O’Malleys and embarked on a career of piracy. 

Controlling a fleet of around twenty ships and a force of several hundred men, Grace raided the ships of rival Irish clans, along with English merchant vessels. Her ships also taxed vessels that were willing to pay her protection fees for safe passage and attacked coastal settlements not under their control. Grace’s men maintained a network of small castles along the shore which they used as bases to launch their expeditions. 


Granuaile's Tower- One of many small castles Grace controlled along the shores of Mayo


They also abducted important members of other clans and held them for ransom. Grace is said to have kidnapped the heir of the Earl of Howth, who had snubbed her when she and her men came to visit him at his castle. In addition to a large sum of money, Grace demanded that the Earl set an extra meal at his table for her every night. The Earl paid the ransom and for the rest of his life put out a plate at dinner for the Pirate Queen.

Grace led her fighters into battle many times. In 1565 she rescued a shipwrecked sailor named Hugh De Lacey. The two became lovers but their romance was cut short when De Lacey was killed by one of Grace’s enemies, the Macmahons. Grace was so devastated by his death that she waged all-out war with the Macmahons for years.

The Pirate Queen of Ireland

Following De Lacey’s death, Grace arranged her second marriage in 1566. Her new husband was Richard ‘Iron Dick’ Bourke, a powerful clan leader who had crossed swords with Grace on prior occasions. Though they remained together until Bourke’s death, Grace ran both their clans’ affairs becoming the power behind Bourke’s throne. 


They did have one son, Tibbot, who was born on the open sea. According to one story, a day after giving birth to her youngest son Grace’s ship was attacked by a group of Corsairs.


Her crew tried to fend off the attack without their leader who was recovering from childbirth. However, they were outmatched and were soon close to being overwhelmed. 


Hearing the battle outside her cabin, Grace rose and took command of her crew. She rallied them and turned the tide. She drove the Corsairs off and captured their ship. 


Along with her Irish rivals, Grace also became an enemy of the English. 


Under the rule of Elizabeth I the English had been expanding their influence in Ireland. Each year brought more and more clans under the Virgin Queen’s domain.

Queen Elizabeth I of England

Though she submitted publicly to English rule in 1577 Grace’s problems with London became worse. This was mainly because she continued her pirating ways and attacked Irish rivals who had also submitted to the English. Eventually she was captured by an English ally and handed over to them. Her husband rallied to her side and the English, fearing a rebellion, released her. 


There was no respite however. From that point on, Grace and Bourke resisted English encroachment, often violently.


In 1579 Grace successfully defeated an English army that laid siege to her castle at Rockfleet. 


Bourke died in 1582 leaving Grace to resist the English and their Irish allies alone. 


The tide turned against her and the O’Malleys in 1584, when Sir Richard Bingham became the English governor of Mayo. 


Grace's most challenging enemy Sir Richard Bingham

Bingham, a ruthless agent of the English Crown, had a vocal hatred of Irish traditions. He had been handpicked by Queen Elizabeth to bring Grace and other troublesome Irish chieftains to heel. 


Bingham launched a relentless campaign against Grace and her clan, capturing large numbers of their livestock, seizing her castles and imprisoning her eldest son Owen. 


Grace refused to yield and her defiance prompted Bingham to execute Owen.

To make matters worse, Bingham succeeded in convincing one of Grace’s other sons, Murrough, to join him in hunting his mother. Despite Bingham’s ruthlessness, Grace evaded capture and harassed the English armies from the bush and the sea. 


Still, by 1593 she was backed into a corner. She had lost most of her ships and was running out of safe havens. That same year her only loyal son, Tibbot, was captured by Bingham. Her brother was taken as well. 


Desperate for a way out, Grace turned to Queen Elizabeth herself. In a passionate letter, Grace told the Queen her side of the story and pleaded for an audience to negotiate her son and brother’s release. 


Despite Bingham’s strong objections, Elizabeth agreed to see Grace at her court in London. 


The two women met face to face within a year. Nothing is known of what they said to each other behind closed doors. What is known is that Grace, perhaps playing on the fact that they were both strong women thriving in a male dominated world, was able to convince Elizabeth that she would be a helpful agent of the English in their struggle to control Ireland. 


Grace (L) and Elizabeth (R) meet face to face

When the meeting was done Elizabeth had agreed to grant Grace and her people amnesty. Her captured son and brother would be released and Grace would have the English crown’s prerogative to fight its enemies wherever they emerged. Essentially, this gave Grace permission to continue pirating as long as she fought only rivals of the English. 


In a complete reversal of his fortunes, Bingham was recalled to England in 1594 after being forced to release Tibbot and Grace's brother. Accounts are that he never overcame the bitterness he felt at having been outmaneuvered by the O'Malley chieftain. 


Grace continued her career of piracy uninhibited until her death in 1603 at the age of sixty seven. She remains a folk-hero and a legendary figure with songs and statues dedicated to her memory. 


Grace O'Malley statue in Westport, Ireland


  1. What a thorough history! I have a friend who is a descendant of Grace. I'm referencing her relationship to Grace in a blog post of my own and would love to use that first image. I think it captures her spirit quite well!
    Can you tell me where you found the original? I will cite your blog as my source but would like to add citation to the original source as well if you know it. Thanks!

  2. Here is the blog post where I used the image from your blog.
    I referenced your delightful article as my image source but I was hoping I could include the original source of this image as well. Do you happen to remember where you found it?