Grace O'Malley

Female Irish Pirate

Born: c. 1530

Died: Unknown

Clew Bay, home of the O'Malleys.It must've been something to see. They were both older by then, Gloriana in her waning years and Grace O'Malley weather-beaten and lined, but both still afire with life and dangerous to anyone who was careless enough to take them lightly. Grace O'Malley had traveled to England to plead her case with the Queen directly, and to the amazement of almost everyone, Elizabeth I agreed to see her. She must have liked what she saw, because against the wishes of her counselors, she granted all Grace's requests. Being something of a pirate herself, perhaps the Queen of England saw in Grace the woman she might have been.

So who was this wild Irish woman? She was certainly a pirate, but also a soldier, a gambler, and a leader of men. She lived through great changes in Ireland, but had inflicted as much grief as she had endured. Proud, feisty and indomitable, O'Malley is largely forgotten today, even in her native Ireland, but in her day she was legend.

Grace O'Malley was born around 1530 to Owen "Black Oak" O'Malley, the elected chieftain of the Barony of Murrisk. Known as seafarers since 1123, the O'Malley ships traded from the west coast of Ireland as far afield as Spain, Portugal and Scotland, and it's from this trade that we first hear of young Grace. Eager to sail for Spain, she begged her parents for permission to sail with the O'Malley fleet. Her mother told her that such a life was not suitable for a lady. Grace vanished, only to return with her long red hair cut short. In all likelihood this was probably not the first time that they'd seen the flash of anger and independence in their daughter. Legend has it that the chief of the O'Malleys has the ability to look out to sea and predict the weather, and that Grace's father took his illegitimate son, Donal of the Pipes, out to see if he had the gift. But the one who saw the storm was his wild girl.

At 16 she was married to Donal O'Flaherty, a good match considering that he was next in line to be chieftain of the O'Flahertys and owned the castles of Bunowen and Ballinahinch. A man of violent temper, he was suspected of murdering his step-nephew so that Richard, his sister's son, could become chieftain of the MacWilliams. Tribal politicking and wrangling had always been a feature of Irish life, and in spite of the greater English presence on the island, it continued unabated through much of the 16th century.

Tudor galley. This is a reconstruction of the Golden Hinde, a warship. Grace's ships would have been faster and lighter.Grace had three children by O'Flaherty: Owen, Murrough and Margaret, but she was not the sort to settle down to home and hearth. Over the ensuing years, she gradually eclipsed her husband, taking over the captaincy of the fleet and supervising their business and political dealings. In time, the O'Flaherty ships were banned from Galway, one of the major trading ports in Ireland. Grace was forced to take her wares directly to Spain, Portugal, Scotland and Ulster, but she didn't let matters rest there. She would lie in wait off the coast and swoop down on the slow merchant ships in her galleys, negotiating with the captain of whatever unfortunate vessel she had waylaid for money for safe passage (a Renaissance protection racket), and if they declined she would simply plunder their vessel for everything it held.

O'Flaherty died during a revenge attack by the Joyce clan. He had captured their island castle of Caislean-an-Circa and they had mustered all their strength to try and regain it. If they thought they'd won when Donal died, they were sadly mistaken. Grace took up the battle and defeated her husband's killers. The castle became one of her favorites, and she defended it against all comers, including the English. During one particularly desperate siege, she ordered her men to remove the lead from the castle roof, then melted it down to make shot. The English were forced to retreat to the mainland, but Grace wasn't done with them yet. She sent a messenger through a secret passage to the mainland where he lit beacon fires alerting her fleet. The ships put to sea, defeated the English and raised the siege.

Although by law she was entitled to a third of her late husband's estate, her two sons denied her the property (what were they thinking!) so Grace returned to O'Malley land with 200 followers and set up operations on Clare Island in Clew Bay. From there she could monitor all traffic in and out of the bay and between providing pilots, protection and piracy she made herself and her followers wealthy.

As you would expect, there are numerous romantic legends about the lady pirate, most with the tragic twist of Celtic lore. One story, for example, has her setting out to rescue (yeah, right) a ship that she had heard had foundered on the rocks near Achill. She set sail in a gale, but when she got there the ship had vanished, broken on the vicious rocks. The only survivor was a young man, Hugh de Lacy, and he was near death. Grace nursed him back to health and the two fell in love and married. (You know this is going to turn out badly, right?) They were blissfully happy, until one day while out deer hunting he was killed by the MacMahons of Ballycroy. Grace, grief stricken, tracked the killers to the island of Cahir where they had gone on a pilgrimage. She burned their boats and killed those responsible with her own hand, then sailed back to their castle of Doona in Blacksod Bay, defeating its defenders and taking it for herself. This was not a woman you wanted to cross.

Rockfleet CastleIt wasn't long before almost all of Clew Bay was in O'Malley hands. The one piece of property left was governed by Iron Dick Burke from the castle of Rockfleet. By the way, this is the nephew whose future her first husband had killed to ensure. In 1566 she married him (apparently they weren't too concerned with those pesky consanguinity rules that the Church kept coming up with) and a year later gave birth to a son, Tibbot. Tibbot was supposedly born on board ship while Grace was returning from a trading mission. The day after the birth the ship was attacked by Turkish pirates. The captain made his way to Grace's cabin to tell her that the fight was going against them. Grace leaped from bed, "May you be seven times worse this day twelvemonth," she stormed, "Who cannot do without me for one day!" She grabbed a musket on her way up to the deck and blew a Turk away, "Take this from unconsecrated hands!" They captured the ship, killed its crew and added it to their fleet.

By this point, the English felt they couldn't really ignore her, so on March 8, 1574 Captain William Martin took a force of ships and men and laid siege to Grace in Rockfleet Castle. Within two weeks, Grace had turned her defense into an attack and the English were forced to beat 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 in favor of the European system of primogeniture, and they had consolidated their power where it counted. Each year more Irish chieftains submitted to the English throne, including the head of the O'Malley clan. In 1577, Grace herself submitted. The current MacWilliam chieftain had submitted the year before; Iron Dick Burke had been elected next in line, but if The MacWilliam decided to follow the first-born rule he would be out of luck. They needed to build a political base if they were to ensure their place in the clan.

Sir Philip SidneySir Henry Sidney, as Lord Deputy of Ireland, was responsible for Irish matters at this time, and we have his son, the poet Sir Philip Sidney, to thank for many of the stories about Grace. He was fascinated by her, and they spent many hours in conversation. His letters home form the foundation of our knowledge about her exploits, though many have been lost. A favorite story was how she stopped to restock her ship in Dublin and went to the Lord of Howth for hospitality, as was Gaelic custom. When she reached the castle, however, she found the gates locked against her by the servants, who told her that their Lord was eating and was not to be disturbed. Furious, she headed back to her ship, but as luck would have it who should she meet on the way but the Lord's son. You can almost see the smile on her face as she hauled the boy off and put to sea. The Lord of Howth promised to pay any ransom for his son's safe return, but Grace instead demanded that his gates never be closed against anyone asking hospitality and that an extra place always be set at table. The Lord of Howth obeyed and to this day there is always an extra place at table at Howth Castle.

Sound apocryphal? Well, most of the tales about her do, but there is little doubt that unlikely or not, many of them are true. These were wild times and grand gestures were admired. Power often lay in the ability to create one's own legend.

In 1580 The MacWilliam died and after a brief struggle Richard duly became clan chieftain. The following year he was knighted and Grace was more powerful than ever. Her time at the top was to be short-lived, however, for two years later her husband was dead (of natural causes!). Having been cheated out of her inheritance the first time, Grace left nothing to chance. She took 1,000 head of cattle and all her followers and took possession of Carrikahowley.

Fate had not finished with her, however. In 1584 the Governor of Connaught died and was replaced by Sir Richard Bingham, a man who was dedicated to the destruction of the traditional way of life in Western Ireland. Within two years he had managed to capture Grace and her son Owen, though for some reason he let her go (maybe as a newcomer he didn't realize how powerful she was). Grace found that Bingham had confiscated all her livestock and property and left her with nothing. While she was trying to muster her forces, Owen was murdered.

Grace's Castle on Clare Island, County MayoRebellion raged throughout the west of Ireland for several years, and Grace harried Bingham's troops with her fleet, disrupting trade, carrying troops to the rebels, and raiding seaport towns. Bingham tried everything he could to defeat her, and even succeeded in wooing her son, Murrough, to his side. Besieged on all fronts, in 1593 Grace finally wrote to the ultimate authority, Queen Elizabeth I. The letter, which survives, harps on about injustice and Grace's own advanced age but ends up requesting the Queen, "to grant unto your said subject under your most gracious hand of signet, free liberty during her life to invade with sword and fire all your highness enemies, wheresoever they are or shall be, without any interruption of any person or persons whatsoever." Not exactly your usual frail little old lady.

The Queen sent Grace 18 "Articles of Interrogatory," a series of questions to be answered by her on her life, her business and her actions. Grace duly complied, but before the Queen could respond, Bingham arrested both her son and her brother. At this point Grace did something totally unexpected - she sailed for England.

Queen Elizabeth I (The Armada Portrait)When Bingham heard where she'd gone, he fired off a letter to the Queen, vilifying Grace and denouncing her as a traitor. It's not known if Elizabeth read his letter before or after Grace's visit, what is known is that they did meet on the 6th of September, 1593 and apparently hit it off. Did each see something of themselves in the other? Was Elizabeth charmed by this woman who had achieved with fire and sword what she had achieved with politics and wit? We will never know. What we do have, however, is the letter that Elizabeth sent to Bingham following their meeting. In it she orders him to release Grace's son and brother and restore her property to her. But she didn't stop there, the letter informs Bingham that Grace O'Malley has the Queen's permission to "fight in our quarrel with all the world."

Bingham tried to weasel out of submitting to Elizabeth's order by simply doing nothing, but Grace would have none of it and threatened to return to England and tell Gloriana that her servant was disobeying her orders (not recommended if you valued your head). The Governor reluctantly returned her family to her and she put to sea again.

Over the next years the English fought the Irish clans, who alternately sided with their foes in an attempt to gain advantage, fought against them, or destroyed each other. Grace eventually retired to Rockfleet Castle where it is thought she died in 1603, the same year as her Queen.

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