Granuaile (Grace O'Malley)

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Granuaile (Grace O'Malley)

Chieftainess, pirate, and Gaelic heroine, Granuaile or Grace O'Malley (c. 1530–1603) was born in County Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. Her father, Owen Dubhdara O'Malley, was chieftain of the barony of Murrisk. The O'Malleys, like their neighbors the O'Flahertys, traded with Spain, Portugal, and Scotland and were famous both as pirates and fishermen. As a teenager, Granuaile was married to Donal-an-Choghaidh (of the Battles) O'Flaherty, the heir or tanist of the O'Flaherty of Ballinahinch. The alliance gave the two families control of the western seas and all of Connemara. Granuaile bore Donal three children before he was murdered at the hands of rival clansmen, the Joyces. Denied the one-third of her husband's property accorded by Brehon (traditional Gaelic) law, Granuaile returned to O'Malley territory with 200 followers. From Clare Island, Granuaile began to make her own fortune by raiding ships en route to the English-controlled port of Galway, charging for navigational information, and extorting money for safe passage. In 1566 she married Richard-an-Iarainn (Iron Dick) Burke, chief of the Burkes of Carra and Burrishoole, heir to the title of MacWilliam, and governor of Rockfleet Castle. The marriage brought her control of all Clare Island and Clew Bay. Brehon law permitted divorce after one year of marriage, and Richard was accordingly dismissed. Granuaile retained possession of Rockfleet, the base of her enterprises. In 1574 an English fleet under Captain William Martin was sent to capture her fortress and to put an end to her forays. This expedition failed, but the Crown continued its efforts to subdue Connacht. Most Irish chieftains had already surrendered to the Crown, exchanging their Irish titles for English ones. The O'Malleys did so in 1576. Faced with growing English opposition and uncertain of their own power base, Granuaile and Richard Burke submitted to Sir Henry Sidney in the following year. It was a ruse for time; Irish attacks on English ships soon resumed. An unsuccessful raid on the earl of Desmond ended with Granuaile's imprisonment, though she was again released on the promise of good behavior. The pledge was also broken; in 1586 she was captured and her possessions were confiscated by Sir Richard Bingham, governor of Connacht. In 1593 an impoverished Granuaile petitioned the queen for the restoration of her property, claiming that the lawlessness and discord that reigned in western Connacht had forced her and her family "to take arms and by force to maintain [my]self and [my] people by sea and land the space of forty years past" (Calendar of State Papers, Ireland. 63/170 No. 0204, quoted in Chambers 1983). Summoned to defend herself in England, Granuaile met with Queen Elizabeth at Greenwich Palace. Particulars of the meeting are not known, but the queen was sufficiently impressed by the elderly Irishwoman to give her a pardon on condition that in the future she direct her "activities" against enemies of the Crown. Little is known of Granuaile's later life, but a 1601 entry in the Calendar of State Papers reports that her galleys, presumably illegally engaged, were attacked by English patrol ships. It is believed that Granuaile died at Rockfleet Castle in 1603; her burial site is not known.


Calendar of State Papers, Ireland. 1574–1601.

Chambers, Anne. Granuaile. 1983.

Monica A. Brennan