Grace O'malley, Irish Pirate

Grace O'Malley was a woman of fire and adventure. She refused to be beaten down by the English in their take over of the Irish lands.

Grace O'Malley was a woman of fire and adventure, a pirate, mercenary, traitor, chieftain, and noblewoman in her lifetime. She was born in 1530 at Clare Island Castle, County Mayo, Ireland.

Her father Owen "˜Dubhdarra' (black oak) O'Malley was a well-known sea captain and chieftain of the Barony of Murrish. The O'Malley family were known for their sailing prowess since 1123 and traded with Spain and Scotland on a regular basis.

Grace's love of the sea was apparent in her early years, she vowed to follow in her father's footsteps as soon as she was old enough. This caused much dissension with her mother who wanted her to settle and be a noblewoman. She was taught to read Latin and schooled at the castle under the family's motto "Terra Mariq Potens'" (Invincible on Land and Sea.) Grace continued to insist that she would go to sea and it is said that she once begged her father to take her with him on a trip to Spain. When she was denied because her mother felt it unsuitable for a young lady, she went to her room, cut off her hair and dressed in boys clothing. Her father and half brother were greatly amused and she earned the nickname "Grainne Mhaol" (meaning bald), and from tales of her future exploits one can assume she made the trip to Spain.

Other legends have it that Granuaile, another nickname of Grace's, sailed often with her father during her childhood. One tale relates that Grace once saved her father's life during an attack by an English ship. Grace had been instructed to go below ship if they were ever attacked. When the English ship attacked Grace did not go below as ordered, but climbed the sail rigging instead. At one point while her father was being attacked from behind, Grace leaped from the rigging, sailed through the air screaming and landed on the attacking Pirate's back. This distraction was enough for her father's people to gain control of the fight and win in the end.

Grace was married to Donal O'Flahetty in 1546. She was sixteen years old. Marriages in those days were arranged by the families and this would have been considered quite a match for Grace. Donal was the tainist (next in line) to The O"Flaherty, the head of the clan and chieftain of all Iar Connacht.

Grace became actively immersed in politics, fishing, trading, and tribal disputes as time passed, she eventually overshadowed her husband and was well respected by the men of the clan. She soon became head of the clan's fleet of ships. It was unusual for a woman to lead men in this era.

The city of Galway, one of the largest trade centers in the British Isles, refused to trade with the O'Flaherty clan. Grace took it upon herself to annoy them as much as possible. She would sweep down on slower vessels in her fast galleys and waylay them. She would then bargain with the ship captains for a fee of safe passage, if they refused to pay she would let her men pillage the ships before letting them go their way.

During the 1560's another young war chief of the O'Flaherty clan was causing the British trouble. He defeated the British Earl of Clanrickard outside of Galway. The British were unhappy but unable to do much about it at this time, their treasury was low and to attack full force would have crippled them. They offered this young chieftain a treaty in which he would observe peace in return for the position of chieftain of all the Iar-Connacht. This ousted the current O'Flaherty and their tainist, Donal.

Donal soon died in a fight with a rival clan. As his widow Grace was entitled to one third of her husbands estates, but this was never paid to her. She returned to the O'Malley clan with her three children and 200 of her husband's followers.



Grace made her home on Clare Island in Clew Bay and between piracy and charging for safe passage she regained her riches. Soon Grace had a thriving piracy empire and control of five castles in the area

There was a last castle on the northeast side of Clew Bay that she coveted, this castle belonged to Richard Burke. Legend has it that Grace went to Castle Rockfleet knocked on the door and proposed marriage to the owner, Richard Burke. It is said that she proposed marriage for one year, she explained the union would allow both clans to resist the British invasion that was taking the Irish lands around them. Burke agreed to the arrangement and when Grace offered to release him at the end of the year he declined. They were married until his death seventeen years later. Grace had a son named Tibbot to Burke.

During this time the English were taking over much of the Irish land, either by force or offering the Irish lords English titles and peace. Grace, always independent, refused to be bought and continued to rebel against the English invasion of her land.

At the age of 56, Grace was captured by the English Governor Richard Bingham who was a ruthless leader and determined to stop Grace's piracy and rebellion. Bingham arrested Grace and some of her followers and planned to hang her. As Grace awaited execution she continued to retain her dignity and refused to plead for mercy. Right before the execution was to take place Grace's son-in-law offered himself as a hostage and Grace was released. She was made to promise to stop all her on sea activity and Bingham stripped her of her cattle, some of her lands and forced her into poverty.

The Irish rebellion continued during these years. There were much fighting and loss of men and lands. The Spanish Armada patrolled the Irish coasts and were waging war against the English. Grace assassinated hundreds of Spaniards on the ship of Don Pedro de Mendoza near the castle on Clare Island in 1588. She was well into her late fifties by this time and proved to be as fierce at this age as she was in her younger years. It is unclear whether she was helping the English at this time or just protecting the little land and properties she had left.

In 1593, Richard Bingham was fearful that Grace would join the rebellion that was fast brewing and had her son Tibbot and her brother Donal-na-Piopa arrested. Although she was virtually penniless at this time and unable to raise much of a force against the English, he continued to try to keep her in his control by these arrests.

Grace appealed to the English Queen, Elizabeth during this time asking for the release of her family and help in regaining her lands and wealth. When she didn't receive a reply in the time she wanted she sailed to England herself. It was a daring move, not many Irish lords would dare set foot on English soil for fear of imprisonment or execution.

No one knows why Elizabeth agreed to see Grace, but they met in September of 1593. Grace was fluent in Latin and she and the Queen were able to converse freely. Grace explained to the Queen that her acts were not of rebellion but merely acts of self defense as Bingham had taken upon himself to destroy her and all of Ireland. She asked for the release of her brother and son and agreed to use her prowess at sea to help the Queen defeat her enemies.

Grace was very out of place in the English Court and it is amazing that she did as well as she did in her conference with the Queen. A story is told about the meeting: Grace had sneezed in the presence of the Queen and court members. A member of the court handed her a very expensive handkerchief of lace and delicate embroidery, a costly item indeed. Grace proceeded to blow her nose into the hankie quite loudly and then tossed it into the fire. The court was aghast at her rudeness, to throw such an expensive gift into the fire was intolerably coarse. The Queen gently chided her and told her she should have put it into her pocket instead. Grace replied that the Irish did not put soiled articles into their pockets and therefore must have a higher sense of cleanliness.

The court was amazed that the Queen didn't have her arrested on the spot. A nervous chord of laughter began which turned into a loud roar of amusement. The Queen laughed and all was forgotten.

Queen Elizabeth finally agreed to Grace's offer of services and wrote Bingham commanding him to release Grace's family and restore her possessions. Bingham released her son and brother but never did give her back her lands and wealth. She continued to struggle against him for many years, pirating and doing the things she had done all her life.

Grace was a fearless warrior. It is said she died in her early seventies and was active on the sea into her sixties. Grace died approximately around 1603 at Rockfleet castle. In her lifetime she maintained the old principles of the Gaelic and Brehon systems of law. She was able to survive the times with style and grace. She was a revered and honored Chieftain of her people and will be remembered as such.

Trending Now

© High Speed Ventures 2011