BORN: 1530 • County Mayo, Ireland
DIED: 1603 • County Mayo. Ireland
Grace O'Malley, known as the "Pirate Queen," led a clan of seafarers and pirates on the west coast of Ireland. Her ships, including swift-moving galleys that were propelled by oars, controlled access to ports near Galway and Clew Bay, demanding payment from merchant ships or even seizing their cargoes. When Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry) sent officials to Ireland to force chieftains there to accept English political authority, Grace defied them. She sailed to London, demanded an audience with the queen, and obtained royal permission to live freely in Ireland. Some considered Grace a brave and daring heroine; others considered her a ruthless thief. Whatever the case, Grace chose a life of power and control rare for a woman in her time. The O'Malley clan's motto, "Powerful by land and sea," was an accurate description of Grace herself.
"This was a notorious woman in all the costes [coasts] of Ireland."
—Sir Philip Sidney. Quoted by Anne Chambers in Granuaile: Ireland's Pirate Queen.
Childhood and early life
Little is known about Grace O'Malley's childhood. She was the only daughter of Owen and Margaret O'Malley, and she had a brother, who some historians believe was not Margaret's child. Grace's father, who was known as "Black Oak," was chieftain of a powerful clan in western Ireland. Unlike most other clans, the O'Malleys made their living by the sea. They controlled Clew Bay and surrounding areas, where the clan fished, traded, and sold licenses to others who wished to fish in that area. As was customary in coastal Ireland at the time, the clan demanded payment from ships entering waters under its control. This meant that trading vessels were forced to pay a percentage of the value of their cargoes before they were allowed to pass through or anchor. Sometimes the clan seized everything a ship carried and stole the ship as well. The O'Malleys also raided along the Irish coast, and they transported fighters known as "gallowglasses" from Scotland to Ireland, where they were hired to fight in battles between clans.
The term "gallowglass" comes from the Irish word for foreign soldiers, "gallóglaigh." The gallowglass were fierce warriors from the clans who lived in the northern mountains and western isles of Scotland. These Scottish clans were related to the Irish, but also had Viking heritage. They served chieftains in Scotland and Ireland, who hired the gallowglass to fight their clan battles. From about the mid-1200s to the late 1500s the gallowglass played a major role in clan warfare and in Irish resistance to English control.
The gallowglass fought with broadswords and a type of two-handed axe, six feet in length, that the Vikings had been noted for using.
They wore chain-mail armor and iron helmets. They were paid in cattle, with each warrior receiving three cattle per quarter-year and all the grain and butter he could eat. Officers were paid even more, often buying land which enabled them to settle comfortably in Ireland. So fiercely did the gallowglass fight in rebellions against the English that, in 1573, the English governor in Ireland ordered some seven hundred of these foreign fighters to be executed. After guns became a more common weapon of war in the late 1500s, the role of the gallowglass began to weaken. But they continued to participate in Irish wars until around 1640.
Piracy—the raiding of ships at sea—was very common in the Elizabethan Era, the period associated with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) that is often considered to be a golden age in English history. Nevertheless, pirates were outlaws. They kept their stolen property by force, not by legal right. Pirates risked attacks from rival ships as well as arrest by government authorities; the punishment for piracy was death by hanging. In order to protect themselves the O'Malleys had built strong castles at strategic points along the western shore of Ireland and on Clare Island. These sites were well guarded by forests and water. It was almost impossible for the clan's enemies to attack them in these strongholds.
Grace grew up in her family's castles and on her father's ships. Although she may not have been formally educated, she could read and write, and she knew several languages. Historians believe that she probably spent much of her childhood learning the complex skills of seafaring from her father. According to legend Grace was a fearless girl who loved the sea. When her father told her that she could no longer sail with him because she was a girl, she chopped off her long hair in order to look like a boy. She also climbed into the rigging (the ropes around the sails) of her father's ship, pulled down her trousers, and defiantly exposed her backside to the rival pirates that were chasing them. Grace once saved her father from assault when sailors from an English warship boarded O'Malley's ship. Shrieking as loudly as she could to alert her father to the danger, she jumped onto the back of a sailor who had drawn a knife.
Makes herself an independent chieftain
When Grace was sixteen she married Donal O'Flaherty, a chieftain's son from a neighboring clan. She moved south to Connemara, where she lived with her husband in Bunowen Castle. They had three children: Owen, Murrough, and Margaret. "Donal of the Battles," as her husband became known, was a reckless man who paid little attention to leading the O'Flaherty clan. Grace herself began to take over this role. She started to raid ships bound for the port of Galway, demanding payment for safe passage through O'Flaherty waters.
When O'Flaherty was murdered in his fortress, Grace defended it from the rival clan from which Donal had originally stolen it. When English soldiers were called in to force her to surrender, she ordered her men to strip the lead from the castle's roof and melt it down. She then ordered the molten lead poured on her enemies' heads. However, Grace was finally forced to surrender because laws in that part of Ireland did not allow her to inherit her husband's property. She returned to O'Malley lands and settled in their castle on Clare Island, taking with her several O'Flaherty fighters who had shifted their allegiance to her.
Grace now began to assemble her own forces. After her father's death she inherited all the O'Malley ships. She was able to gather two hundred sailing and fighting men under her command, and began raiding ships—mostly merchant vessels from France, Portugal, or Spain—that sailed near Clew Bay. Life at sea was difficult. Ships provided little privacy or physical comfort, and bad weather and storms created dangers. In addition, as Anne Chambers describes in Granuaile: Ireland's Pirate Queen, there was "swearing, disregard for hygiene, carousing, violence, as well as the sexual difficulty posed by the presence of a female among an all-male crew." To command the respect of her followers, Grace had to be an exceptionally strong leader. She could never show weakness, and she had to demonstrate greater physical strength and bravery than the men under her command.
Power and wealth
Grace's exploits soon made her famous. She attacked castles all along the coast and raided fishing ports. She was known to be ruthless in avenging what she considered to be wrongs against herself. According to one traditional story cited by Chambers, Grace seized Doona Castle on the coast of Erris because it belonged to the MacMahon clan, who had killed her lover, Hugh de Lacy. In another story, Grace and her crew had anchored in Dublin to take on supplies. She rode north to nearby Howth Castle to seek shelter for the night, which, according to Irish custom, was her right. But she was turned away. Furious, she retaliated by kidnapping the Lord of Howth's grandson, whom she met on the neighboring beach. She took the boy back to Clare Island. When Lord Howth offered a ransom, Grace refused. Her only demand for the boy's release was that Howth Castle should never again refuse hospitality to anyone. That tradition has been honored to this day.
Rich and powerful, Grace owned several castles and more than one thousand head of cattle—the symbol of Irish chieftains' wealth. Through her second husband, Richard Bourke (known as Iron Dick), she obtained his clan's castle at Rockfleet in the northern region of Clew Bay. Legends claim that Grace proposed the marriage, telling Richard that she wanted both him and his castle. Legends also claim that the marriage soon ended in divorce. Even so, Grace bore Richard a child, Tibbot-ne-Long ("Toby of the Ships"). According to legend Grace gave birth to this fourth child while she was at sea. When she went into labor she decided there was no need to go ashore; she went below deck and delivered the baby. The next day, while she was recovering from childbirth, Algerian pirates attacked her ship. Grace's first mate came below and begged her to lead the crew in defense. Angry that her men could not cope without her, she charged onto the deck half-dressed and swearing. She fired her musket at the pirates and screamed at them. They were so shocked at the sight of her that they fled.
Despite stories that Grace was not happy in her second marriage, she and Bourke worked well together as business partners. After Bourke died in 1583 Grace was able to claim a third of his property. She also ensured that their son received his proper inheritance.
Trouble with England
By the 1570s the government in England was growing impatient to bring Ireland under its control. Though the English had conquered Ireland in the twelfth century, the ruling lords in Ireland had intermarried with local nobles over the years and had become more Gaelic than English. Ireland remained a country ruled by rival clans and Gaelic customs. King Henry VII (1457–1509) of England had imposed new policies to subdue the Irish and force the chieftains to accept the authority of English governors. His son and successor, Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry), declared himself king of Ireland as well as England. But it was Elizabeth I who set out systematically to make Ireland conform to English laws. She offered the chieftains a bargain: if they agreed to submit to the authority of the English monarch, they would be "regranted" their rights to their ancestral lands and given titles. But the chieftains had to agree to accept English law. They would have to pay rent and taxes to the English government on lands that they had owned for centuries.
This scheme caused much resentment. Some chieftains battled with English troops to retain their ancestral freedoms; others chose to submit, though many of these did so without really intending to obey the terms of the agreement. In 1577 Grace went to Galway to appear before the English authority there, Lord Deputy Henry Sidney (1529–1586). She offered her services to Sidney and told him she accepted the queen's authority. But soon afterward she defied English law by raiding the estates of the Earl of Desmond, one of the Irish chieftains who had submitted to the government and received an English title. The earl captured Grace, however, and turned her over to the English authorities. She spent eighteen months in prison at Limerick and in the dungeons of Dublin castle.
Soon after Grace's release from prison Rockfleet Castle was attacked. Realizing the danger that they faced from the English, as well as from rival clans, Grace and Richard Bourke submitted to the government and received titles in 1581. But in 1584 northwestern Ireland was assigned a new governor, Sir Richard Bingham. He disapproved of how the clans promised obedience to the queen while, at the same time, they continued to resist English authority. He set out to force them into submission by military might. And he made Grace one of his primary targets.
Bingham declared that Grace, now a widow, had no right to inherit Bourke's property. He also blamed her for encouraging rebellions among the clans. Intent on destroying her power, he executed two of her stepsons and, evidence shows, may have ordered the murder of her oldest son, Owen O'Flaherty. He also kidnapped her youngest son, Tibbot, and kept him as a hostage. Bingham sent Grace to prison and began arrangements to have her executed. He agreed to release her, however, after her daughter's husband offered himself as a prisoner in her place.
Petitions Queen Elizabeth
Grace returned to her stronghold in Clew Bay, where she resumed raiding. Bingham responded by killing her cattle, burning her crops, and finally sailing into Clew Bay and capturing her ships. With no way to make a living Grace decided to contact the queen herself. She sent a polite letter to Elizabeth in 1593, making the case that she and her clan should be allowed to resume their seafaring activities without interference. Grace also asked Elizabeth to order Bingham to release her son from captivity.
After sending the letter Grace set sail for London. This was a daunting journey for a woman already in her sixties. Not only was there the danger of storms and treacherous waters, but there was also the risk of chase and capture by rival pirates known to sail these seas. Grace took the chance, however, navigating around southern England and up the Thames River to London. There she waited for an audience with the queen. She also managed to impress Elizabeth's most influential advisor, William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520–1598; see entry). He knew of her reputation and demanded that she fill out a questionnaire about her background and her motives for coming to England. In this document, reproduced in Chambers's book, Grace stated that she lived a farmer's life in the county of Connaught, and "utterly did she give over her former trade of maintenance by sea and land." She presented herself as a harmless woman who was only trying to earn a living, and she minimized her role in stirring up rebellion against the English in Ireland.
Cecil's support helped Grace obtain an interview with the queen. Earlier chieftains who had attempted to argue their cases before the royal court had been imprisoned, but Elizabeth listened to Grace and agreed to everything she asked for. According to Barbara Sjoholm in The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O'Malley and Other legendary Women of the Sea, Elizabeth wrote to Bingham ordering him to "have pity for the poor aged woman," which is how Grace evidently presented herself to the queen. Elizabeth told Bingham to release Grace's son and to allow Grace to live undisturbed. The queen also gave the O'Malleys her permission to raid ships from France and Spain, which were then enemy countries of England.
Grace took this royal command to mean that she could return to her life of piracy. She built three large galleys, each big enough to hold three hundred men, and resumed her raids along the Irish coast. When Bingham continued trying to punish her, Grace made a second trip to London two years after her first. She asked Cecil to help her, saying that Bingham's actions were making it impossible for her to claim her property and conduct her legitimate business. She returned to Ireland with Cecil's support.
In 1595 Bingham fled to England after his own followers turned against him. Without this enemy, Grace was now free to go back to the business of piracy. One of the last written references to her, from an English captain who was able to capture one of her ships, was dated 1601. Grace was seventy-one years old that year, and she was still a pirate.
Grace died in Rockfleet Castle in 1603. Her son, Tibbot-ne-Long, realized that times were changing. He took the side of the English in the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, where the Irish were finally defeated. For this he was made a knight and given title to extensive lands. (A knight is a man granted a rank of honor by the monarch for his personal merit or service to the country.)
Though Grace O'Malley has received relatively little attention in history texts, her story has lived on in legends and songs. Grace refused to accept a passive or minor role in the affairs of her family or her country. She is remembered today as a woman who challenged assumptions about women's traditional place in society, and who acted as she thought necessary to increase the wealth, power, and influence of her clan.
For More Information
Chambers, Anne. Granuaile: Ireland's Pirate Queen. Wolfhound Press, 1979; reprinted 2003.
Sjoholm, Barbara. The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O'Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2004.
Colombraro, Rosemarie. "Grace O'Malley." Renaissance Central. http://www.rencentral.com/oct_nov_voll/graceomalley.shtml (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"Royal Galloglas." http://home.earthlink.net/∼rggsibiba/html/galloglas/gallohist.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).
Staley, Judy. "Grace O'Malley." Adventurers. http://www.rootsweb.com/∼nwa/grace.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).
Workman, Brian. "Grace O'Malley." Irish Clans. http://www.irishclans.com/articles/famirish/omalleyg.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).
"O'Malley, Grace." Elizabethan World Reference Library. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/omalley-grace
"O'Malley, Grace." Elizabethan World Reference Library. . Retrieved March 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/omalley-grace
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