Known as the Pirate Queen of Connaught, this heroine was a fellow Irish woman, who lived an extraordinarily unconventional life in the 16th century. A brave woman who defied convention, she lived her life, refusing to be anything other than who she was. She is remembered as one of the most remarkable people in Irish history.
She was born in 1530, at the time when Henry VIII was turning the kingdom upside down and breaking away from the Church in order to divorce his Queen, Catherine of Aragon and marry another favorite heroine, Anne Boleyn.
Grace started life as Gráinne Ní Mháille, born to a sea-faring family on the west coast of Ireland. Her father was chieftain of the Ó Máille clan and made his wealth from trading with the wealthiest kingdoms of Europe, Spain, Portugal, France and England. He also charged fishermen for use of his waters. Grace’s sense of adventure was apparent right from the beginning. She begged her father to take her with him, on a shipping expedition to Spain . Probably because he wasn’t keen to take her out into pirate-infested territory, he refused, claiming that her long hair would get caught in the ship’s ropes. He arrived at the dock the next day, to find Grace already there before him, her hair chopped like a boys. She got her expedition, and also a new nickname, “Gráinne Mhaol” , “maol”meaning bald.
Grace proved herself aboard merchant vessels, able to lead men, work hard and was not afraid of a fight! Legend has it that when their ship was attacked by pirates. Grace saved the lives of one of her fellow crew members by leaping from the rigging, straight down onto his attacker.
When she was 16, she was married off to a man named Donal of the Battle (real name Dónal an Chogaidh Ó Flaithbheartaigh). It was a good match politically, as Grace’s father and now husband were both heads of their respective clans. Grace and Donal had 3 children, Owen, Margaret and Murrough. Murrough grew to be an unpleasant man who betrayed his family and seems to have hated women. Donal was a hot-headed warrior who was eventually killed in battle. Grace recaptured what is now known as Hen Castle, and returned to her family’s clan, taking many of the O’Flaherty clan with her. Later for political reasons, she married Richard Burke, known as Iron Richard. After one year, Grace divorced him under Brehon Law, keeping control of his castle, Rockfleet Castle. According to legend, she locked herself and her followers into the castle, then she leaned out the window and yelled “Richard Burke, I dismiss you.” And so, it was goodbye Mr Burke. Because she was in possession of the castle, she was entitled to keep it and it remained in her family for centuries. Today, it is open to the public.
Upon the deaths of her father and husband, Grace O’Malley inherited coastal lands and castles. Complaints about her started when she decided to impose a tax on ships traveling in her waters. Her and her men would stop and board the ships, demanding payment. If they refused, the situation tended to rapidly deteriorate into violence and bloodshed. Once they had their toll, Grace’s ships would quickly disappear. Later on, she recruited fighting men from both Ireland and Scotland and began raiding not just ships, but fortresses and holdings along the coast line.
It’s inevitable that a heroine like this has many legends told about her exploits. One of the more well known ones is that she visited Howth Castle as a courtesy call. She was told that the family was at dinner and the gates were closed against her. Determined to teach them manners, Grace abducted the Earl’s 10 year old grandson. He was eventually released when the Earl agreed that from that day on, his gates would always be open to visitors and an extra place set at mealtimes. He gave her a ring as token of the agreement. The ring is still in Grace’s family, and to this day, the Earl’s descendants honor this agreement.
One of her other legends is that she captured Doona Castle, owned by the MacMahon clan, as revenge against the murder of her young lover, Hugh de Lacey. When the members of the MacMahon clan visited Caher Island on pilgrimage, Grace captured their boats and then murdered the ones responsible for killing her lover. She then sailed to Ballycroy and took Doona Castle for herself.
In the later part of the 16th century, Elizabeth I was Queen of England, and she increased her power in Ireland. Soon, she was encroaching on Grace’s territory. In 1593, two of Grace’s sons and her half-brother were taken prisoner by the English governor of Connaught, Richard Bingham. Grace set sail for England and went to meet with Elizabeth directly. Astonishingly, the two women seemed to take a liking to one another. They met at Greenwich Palace. Grace refused to bow to Elizabeth, as she did not recognize her as Queen of Ireland. It is also said that Grace had a dagger with her, which was found when she was searched. Grace explained that it was for her own protection, and though it was taken from her, Elizabeth accepted this explanation and did not seem worried. They conversed in Latin as Grace didn’t speak English and Elizabeth didn’t speak Irish. After much discussion, they agreed on a list of demands. Richard Bingham was to be removed from his position as governor and Grace’s sons and brother were to be released. In return, Grace was to stop supporting the Irish lords’ rebellions. Grace returned to Ireland and initially, it seemed as if the historic meeting had done some good. Richard Bingham was removed from his position. However, Elizabeth did not honor parts of the agreement, including the return of castles and lands, taken from Grace by Richard. Richard was also eventually reinstated as governor. Grace saw that the meetting had been a waste of time, and went back to supporting the rebellions of the Irish lords.
She also returned to piracy although she gave it a thin veil of validity by directing it against “England’s enemies” during the Nine Year War.
She is said to have died in 1603, at Rockfleet Castle, a quiet and peaceful end to an otherwise extraordinary and exciting life.