Grace O' Malley | Irish female pirate

Grace O’Malley (a. 1530 - 1603) is one of the most famous pirates of all time. From the age of eleven, she forged a career in seafaring and piracy and was considered a fierce leader at sea and a shrewd politician on land. She successfully defended the independence of her territories at a time when much of Ireland fell under the English rule and is still considered today ‘the pirate queen of Ireland.’

Grace O'Malley facts

  1. Grace’s name in Irish is Gráinne Ní Mháille which has led to many different spellings and pronunciations of her name in English, from Granny ni Maille to Grainy O'Maly. 
  2. Legend has it that when Grace was young, she wanted to travel on an expedition with her father. She was told she couldn't go as her long hair would catch in the ship's ropes. To embarrass her father, she cut off most of her hair which earned her the nickname "Gráinne Mhaol" which means Bald Grace. 
  3. Folklore suggests that Grace was pregnant with her son Tiobóid while at sea. Within an hour of giving birth, Algerian pirates ambushed and boarded her ship. Wrapping the child in a blanket, she appeared on deck and rallied her crew, leading to the capture of the pirate vessel.
  4. In 1546, Grace married the heir to the O'Flaherty clan, Donal O'Flaherty. During this time, she became active in Irish politics and was taught by Donal the arts of pirating. When her husband was murdered by a rival clan, she took back Donal’s castle after defeating the people who killed him.
  5. To this day, Grace O'Malley is seen as a symbol of Ireland and an inspiration for many modern songs, theatre productions and books. Through these, her legend lives on. 

 Clare Island Abbey, County Mayo, Ireland | Believed the baptism, marriage and burial site of Grace O'Malley
Clare Island Abbey | Believed baptism, marriage and burial site of Grace O'Malley | Wikicommons © Andreas F. Borchert

Where was Grace O'Malley born?

Grace was born in Ireland around 1530. She grew up in County Mayo, Connacht, a province in the West of Ireland. 
 
Little is know about the details of Grace O'Malley's childhood. She was the only daughter of the Irish Chieftain, Owen (Irish: Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille) and Margaret O'Malley. 
 
Unlike most other Irish lords who made their living by farming, the O'Malleys were a seafaring family. They controlled Clew Bay and local areas, where the clan fished, traded, and taxed others who fished off their coasts.  
 
Rockfleet Castle | Tower House near Newport in County Mayo, Ireland.
Grace O'Malley's Castle at Rockfleet, County Mayo, Ireland | Mikeoem © Wikicommons

Grace O'Malley's Castle

Grace was born and raised at Belcare Castle near Westport. During her reign, she acquired several other castles through conquest and marriage, including Doona on Blacksod, Kildavnet on Achill Island, the O’Malley Castle on Clare Island and Rockfleet in Clew Bay, where she eventually died. 
 
Each stronghold was situated in a strategically important location in guarding the coastline and defending the local waters against potential attacks. 
 

Grace O'Malley's meeting with Elizabeth I 

At the age of 56, O’Malley was captured and imprisoned by Sir Richard Bingham, the English governor who was appointed to rule over Irish territories. While she narrowly escaped a death sentence, her confinement meant she lost influence and wealth as English power in Ireland increased, until she was on the brink of poverty. 
 
After hearing about Bingham's arrest of her brother and sons (Tibbot Burke and Murrough O'Flaherty, and her half-brother, Dónal na Píopa), O’Malley petitioned the Crown for compensation and set sail for England. 
 
Grace O'Malley, Sea Queen of Connemara, meeting Elizabeth I | Wikicommons, Author Unknown
Grace O'Malley meeting Elizabeth I
 
The historic meeting with Queen Elizabeth I and the 'pirate queen' took place in September 1594 at Greenwich Castle. Their conversation was carried out in Latin, as Grace spoke no English and Elizabeth spoke no Irish. The encounter was a success for Grace as Elizabeth granted each of her requests on the condition she ceased all rebellion against the crown. 
 
However, several of O'Malley's other demands (including the return of the land that Bingham had stolen from her) remained unresolved. Furthermore, Elizabeth eventually reinstated Bingham in Ireland. Upon Bingham's return to power, Grace realised that the meeting with Elizabeth had been useless, and her clan supported the Irish insurgents during later clashes with the English.
 

Grace O'Malley’s death 

As a pirate, O'Malley was largely written out of Irish history, so limited information exists of her life. Contemporary Irish historians were usually religious monks, and being a woman, Grace was largely ignored in their writings. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the precise year and location of her death. 
 
However, modern historians think Grace died at Rockfleet Castle in 1603, the same year as the Elizabeth I. She was buried in the abbey on Clare Island, the same abbey she learnt to read and write as a child.
 
During her life, some considered Grace a bold and courageous heroine; others thought of her as a cutthroat thief. Whatever the case, Grace chose an adventurous life that was rare for a woman in her time. The O'Malley clan's motto, "Powerful by land and by sea" was an accurate description of Grace herself.