Grace O'Malley, a true Irish Pirate Queen

Illustration of Grace O'Malley, Irish Pirate and Queen.
Illustration of Grace O'Malley, Irish Pirate and Queen. | Source
Grace O'Malley's biography written by Anne Chambers.
Grace O'Malley's biography written by Anne Chambers. | Source

One of the great legends in Irish lore is the story of Grace O'Malley, a true Irish Pirate Queen. Her biography has been written by Anne Chambers, the leading authority today on Grace O'Malley. It is an interesting read that will thrill you with Grace's exploits on sea and land.

Grace was a fierce woman who suffered no fools. And, in later life she had a face to face meeting with Queen Elizabeth I, a meeting of two strong-willed women, and Grace held her own and came out of that meeting intact.

She was a tomboy, much to her mother's distress, who grew up into a beautiful woman, who became the most wealthy woman on the western coast of Ireland and who married twice and also took a lover fifteen years her junior.

Grace was a formidable woman who earned the loyalty of those men who followed her and owned not just castles and land but also approximately a thousand cattle and horses.

Her life story is the stuff of legends and Grace O'Malley was a legend in her own time, notorious as well as loved by her crew who served her loyally and unquestioningly. Grace was a swashbuckling woman who dared to live as she pleased at a time when men dominated the lives of women. This woman would not be tamed.

Grace O'Malley ruled!

Clew Bay and Clare Island, Ireland, where the O'Malley clan was headquartered.
Clew Bay and Clare Island, Ireland, where the O'Malley clan was headquartered. | Source

Grace O'Malley 1530 - 1603

Grace was born in 1530 at the family's home in Clew Bay, County Mayo in Ireland and given the Irish name of Grainne Ni Mhaille, which is anglicized as Grace O'Malley. She was known by the nickname, Granuaile.

She was born into a wealthy seafaring family and one of few such families on the west coast of Ireland. Her father was Eoghan Dubhdara O' Maille who owned a huge shipping and trading business on the west coast of Ireland. Her mother Margaret or Maeve was also a Ni Mhaille and had inherited lands in her own right.

The O'Malley clan built a row of castles facing the sea to protect their territory and this territory remained in their clan even after Grace's death in 1603.

As part of their sea business, the O'Malley's taxed all those who fished off their coast which also included fisherman from as far away as England. The O'Malley's had no love of the English and did not recognize their authority. They were fiercely loyal Irish men and women and fiercely loyal to their O'Malley clan.

Grace grew up as the only girl in her family and even though her mother hoped for a young lady who would marry well and become a noblewoman who remained in the castle, that was not to be.

Grace, who was formally educated and spoke Latin fluently along with Gaelic, was a tomboy who dreamed of sailing with her father and working in the sea business. As a young girl she pestered her father to allow her to accompany him on his ships trading with Spain and France. Her father would have none of it and told Grace she could not accompany him on his ships because her long hair would get caught in the ship's ropes.

According to legend, Grace immediately cut off her hair and dressed in boy's pants and shirt and presented herself to her father and brothers. They roared with laughter and nicknamed Grace, Grainne Mhaol, Grace the Bald. Eventually her father gave in and permitted her to go along on his sea trips.

Grace loved her life at sea and took to it well. When the ship she traveled on was attacked she joined in fighting and defending the ship. When they overtook Spanish or French ships, they pirated them and took captives who surprisingly became loyal to the O'Malley clan.

When her father died, Grace inherited all his ships and trading business along with the Irish land from her mother.

Western coast of Ireland where 16th century trading ships navigated the rocks and islands near the coastline where Grace O'Malley rulled.  Achill Island in the background.
Western coast of Ireland where 16th century trading ships navigated the rocks and islands near the coastline where Grace O'Malley rulled. Achill Island in the background. | Source
Source
Rockfleet Castle (Carraigahowley Castle)
Rockfleet Castle (Carraigahowley Castle) | Source
Ingraving of the meeting between Grace O'Malley (left) and Queen Elizabeth I.
Ingraving of the meeting between Grace O'Malley (left) and Queen Elizabeth I. | Source

Grace in her prime

It is this western point in Connacht that was be base for Grace's shipping and trade activities. She successfully defended her lands in battle with the Irish and the English. She taxed ships that sailed through or by her coast and when they refused to pay the tax she and her crew would pirate and pillage the ships.

She also attacked and pirated ships as far away as Waterford, south central coast of Ireland, and closer to her home, northwestern coastal Ireland. Not only did she attack the ships, she also attacked fortresses and castles on the shoreline conquering them and adding them to her lands.

In 1546, Grace married Donal an Clogaidh O'Flaitheartaigh (O' Flaherty) who was heir to the O'Flaherty clan title. This was an advantageous marriage and Grace added the O'Flaherty lands to her holdings. They had three children: Owen, who was later killed as a young adult; Maeve or Margaret, and Murrough.

Together the O'Malley's and the the O'Flaherty's joined forces and ruled the western coast of Ireland. Sadly, Donal O' Flaherty was killed in battle but Grace was not without male comfort for long.

In 1566, Grace married a second time to Risdeard an Iarainn Bourke (Richard Burke or Iron Richard, as he was known). He owned Rockfleet Castle (Carraigahowley Castle) which Grace wanted to add to her land holdings.

It was strategically located near Newport, Country Mayo, and because of Burke's leadership position he would eventually be eligible for election as MacWilliam (the second most powerful office in Connacht)

Grace and Richard were married under Brehon law "for one year certain." They had one son, Tibbot. When the year came to and end, legend has it that Grace divorced Burke by saying "Richard Burke, I dismiss you." She said this out the window of the castle to Burke on the ground below, and because she was in possession of the castle, Grace was able to keep his castle and all his lands.

Despite this divorce story legend, Grace and Richard appear to have remained married in English documents produced from the period. By now Grace was quite wealthy by land and sea.

Divorced or not, it is said Grace took a lover, Hugh de Lacy, fifteen years her junior. When he was killed by the MacMahon clan, Grace sought revenge. She captured their ships and killed the MacMahon's responsible for de Lacy's death and took their castle and all their lands.

By 1593, Sir Richard Bingham, the English governor of Connacht, finally had enough of Grace and the O'Malley clan's 'business dealings on the sea' and took two of her sons and her half brother captive and stole part of her lands from her. Grace was furious and sailed for England to meet with Queen Elizabeth I at Greenwich Palace.

Grace wore a fine gown, but when meeting Elizabeth face to face she refused to bow to the Queen because Grace did not recognize Elizabeth as Queen of Ireland. By now, both women were in their sixties. Grace and Queen Elizabeth talked for quite a while and finally came to an agreement:

The captives, Grace's two sons and her half brother would be returned unharmed and Sir Richard Bingham would be removed from his position as governor in Ireland and return to England, and in return, Grace would stop supporting the Irish Lord's rebellions against the English throne.

It has always been a surprise to historians and biographers that Queen Elizabeth I did not imprison Grace O'Malley when she had the chance. That Elizabeth entered into an agreement with Grace was a surprise to Elizabeth's court officials and to historians today. It is believed that Elizabeth and Grace got on so well because both were very strong willed and formidable women and greatly respected one another. They were more alike than different.

Grace's other demands of the return of her lands and castle that Bingham had grabbbed were not returned to her, so Grace continued to support the Irish Lords in their rebellions against Elizabeth. Grace continued with her shipping, trading, and pirating business until her death.

It is believed Grace O'Malley died in 1603, the same year as Queen Elizabeth I, at Rockfleet Castle, but the year and place of Grace's death has been disputed over the years.

Although deceased more than four hundred years ago, Grace O'Malley has been immortalized in song and many have been written about her over the years.

Bronze statue of Grace O'Malley at Westport House in Ireland.
Bronze statue of Grace O'Malley at Westport House in Ireland. | Source

Westport House

Westport House was built in the 18th century by Colonel John Brown, a Jacobite, and his wife Maude Burke, Grace O'Malley's great-great granddaughter. It was built on the original grounds that Grace owned during her pirating days in Ireland.

Today, it contains an exhibition on the life of Grace O'Malley put together by Anne Chambers, her biographer and leading authority on Grace O'Malley. You can also walk the grounds and view the bronze statue of Grace included there.

The statue was sculpted by artist Michael Cooper.

The Grace O'Malley float of "Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley".
The Grace O'Malley float of "Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley". | Source

Find your inner pirate - arrrrrgh!


Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley, Tampa, FL. All women out there who like and admire Grace O'Malley can find their inner pirate by joining Grace's krewe in Tampa, Florida. This group was formed in 1992 by fourteen women, all active volunteers, in the Tampa community. They created an all female krewe as a social organization from the inspiration of Grace O'Malley as a strong, unstoppable woman.

Today they are 250 members strong and participate in more than seven parades throughout the year in the Tampa area. Members must be a Tampa community volunteer to join the krewe.

In 2007, they built their permanent float, pictured above, using Rockfleet Castle as their location on the float. The seahorse is their mascot.

The women are known as "Ladies of Grace" and dress in authentic 16th century grand court gowns that they wear for parades and special events. They have a grand ball each year as one of their special events to raise money for charity.

Their motto is "Fun, Friendship and Frivolity," but if you think all they do is play around as pirate Queens, that is not it at all. They volunteer many hours around the Tampa area and compile points for their volunteering and for raising funds for charity.

But, their main purpose is to show tribute to Grace O'Malley, a true Irish Pirate Queen and a formidable woman who ruled in her day!

© 2014 Suzette Walker suzettetaos

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Comments 37 comments

Ashok Rao profile image

Ashok Rao 2 years ago from Mumbai, India

It's hard to believe, what I have just read. Is is a fact or fiction. How come I've never heard about her. I am definitely going to read the book. What surprises me is that, being a woman she was able to achieve the impossible. It was not only interesting but also entertaining. I am dying to share this with my friends.


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

I read about her doing my pirate hubs but not this much; very informative and sounds like a fun club too. I would love to dress up like that!


billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

Fascinating story! That is a lady I would not mess around with. Thanks for the education; I loved her story.


ologsinquito profile image

ologsinquito 2 years ago from USA

I'm not sure Grace was my kind of gal, and it's a life I don't care to emulate, but you did a great job with this story. You are an incredible writer.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Ashok: This article is based on Anne Chamber's book. As mentioned in the article, parts of her life story are legend, so we don't know for sure how true they are. Her meeting with Queen Elizabeth I is also documented in Elizabeth's court records. Chamber's is the historical authority in this area and I do recommend reading her book. She is pretty thorough. She was an unusual woman for her time, I agree. I also find it interesting that when her father died, his business was inherited by Grace and not one of her brothers. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. LOL! So glad you enjoyed reading this.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Jackie: It was your article on female pirates that reminded me I had read Grace O'Malley's biography. I think these female pirates are interesting and I had heard of a couple of them you mention in your article. So, this article is a result of your inspirational article. Thanks so much for reading this. I know, the group in Tampa, FL sounds like a lot of fun and I would love to dress up in dresses from that era too. Thanks for the read and your comments. Most appreciated.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Bill: Glad you enjoyed reading this one. Grace was quite a woman and no, not anyone I would mess with either. Thanks so much for your comments - most appreciated.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

ologsinquito: Thanks so much for reading this. Not all of us women are as wild as Grace. She certainly lived a noteworthy life and her biography is an interesting read. A lot of it is folklore so I don't know how much is exactly true. Folk stories seem to exaggerate over the years. LOL! Thanks so much for your comments. Most appreciated.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

What an extraordinary woman and life she lived indeed! This is such a great read. I enjoyed it very much. I bet she was so free, doing as she wanted ... how liberating that would be no doubt. My husband and I lived in Tampa, Florida, back in the day when he was in the Air Force when we were first married, and I remember the annual celebration Tampa had, Gasprilla Day, and all the ships would be out in the Bay and all would dress up as pirates. It was great!

Great hub! Up and more and sharing.

Have a great evening,

Faith Reaper


rdsparrowriter profile image

rdsparrowriter 2 years ago

Nice :) I'm always a big fan of pirates :) It's very interesting :) Thank you. Voted up and awesome :)


Jodah profile image

Jodah 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

What an enthralling tale. She must have been some strong woman to gain so much respect, land and power in a time when men really ruled in almost every way. Yes, strange that she inherited her father's estate, unless her brothers were disowned or deceased at the time. Anyway you told the story really well, and Anne Chambers book would be an interesting read. Voted up.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Faith: I found this story amazing also. She was quite unusual for the time period she lived in, but then being wealthy, she probably was able to do as she pleased. You know about Gasprilla Day. That is such a fun day and regatta. So glad you experienced that. Thanks so much for your comments - most appreciated.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

rdsparrowriter: Thanks so much for reading this and I am glad you enjoyed it. This was a fun write. Your comments are most appreciated.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Jodah: Thanks for reading and for your insightful comments. I appreciate your visit. She was wealthy and so that probably allowed her to do as she pleased. I find it amazing that these pirate men followed her and were so loyal. But, then, by following her they were all the 'terror' of the western coast of Ireland, so I suppose that was why. She certainly had an amazing life.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 2 years ago

What an exciting background on OMalley. She was a hero and yet a lady. Thanks for the history lesson.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

teaches: Thanks so much for reading this piece. I just found her story so amazing. She was so unusual for her time and broke all the glass ceilings! LOL It is fun to visit a moment in history and become part of it. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this.


Ruchira profile image

Ruchira 2 years ago from United States

Thanks Suzette for helping me walk along this history of this brave woman! Informative indeed!


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 2 years ago from England

This was great reading suzette, and I am a great admirer of female pirates in history, so this was fascinating! voted up and shared! nell


MG Singh profile image

MG Singh 2 years ago from Singapore

Great post with an interesting write up. Voted up


sgbrown profile image

sgbrown 2 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

I have heard tales of Grace O'Malley and I found this very interesting! Up and awesome! :)


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Ruchira: Isn't her life amazing? I found her biography so interesting and informative to read. Who would have thought there was such an independent and brave woman during the 16th century? So unusual for the times. I am so glad you enjoyed reading this and I appreciate your comments.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Nell, I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. This woman had such an incredible life and I love the story of her meeting Queen Elizabeth I. How daunting yet how poised and brave she was to meet with her. I just found her story so engaging. Thanks for your comments and votes and share. Greatly appreciated.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

MG Singh: So glad you enjoyed reading this and I appreciate your visit and comments.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

sgbrown: Thanks so much for reading this and for your comments. Yes, Grace was such an interesting person and woman. To be so independent in her times was really something. So glad you enjoyed this.


Genna East profile image

Genna East 2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

A swashbuckling female pirate with joie de vivre and great courage. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when she met Elizabeth. They certainly had much in common…not least of which was knowing quite well how a woman could survive in a position of power during a time where women were viewed as little more than attractive chattels. I enjoyed this entertaining and informative hub, Suzette.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Genna; Grace definitely had an amazing life that was probably not that simple or easy to live. She seemed to be constantly fighting to preserve her business and castles. I think it cool that Grace and Elizabeth were equal as women of power, one in England and the other in Ireland. Thanks so much for reading this and I appreciate your insightful comments.


Thelma Alberts profile image

Thelma Alberts 2 years ago from Germany

What a fascinating story! I have read and heard stories about Grace O´Malleys life when living in Ireland. Thanks for sharing the history of this very interesting Irish woman. I enjoyed reading this. Have a nice weekend!


manatita44 profile image

manatita44 2 years ago from london

Heard of her before. Played the songs. Beautiful and full of energy!! Like Grace, I suppose.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

manatita: Thanks so much for reading this. Yes, Grace was an amazing woman for her time. She certainly thought and lived outside the box. She had a thrilling life and experienced it all! Thanks so much for your comments also - most appreciated.


tirelesstraveler profile image

tirelesstraveler 2 years ago from California

I will be seeing my friend from Ireland tonight. I will have to ask her about Grace. I felt like I was reading about the pirates of the Caribbean. Nice work.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

tirelesstraveler: Also, read her biography some day. It is interesting and unique. She was quite a woman for her time or any time for that matter. Thanks so much for visiting and for your comments. Most appreciated.


brownella profile image

brownella 2 years ago from New England

Interesting hub. I didn't know very much about Grace O'Malley and I always love reading about tough historical women. Thanks for sharing!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

brownella: Thanks so much for your visit and comments. She is quite and interesting woman who was far ahead of her time. I found her biography so intense and interesting to read.


CarolynEmerick profile image

CarolynEmerick 2 years ago

Suzette, I love this article! It's a coincidence because I just wrote one about Flora MacDonald who was a Scottish woman in the 1700s who had all kinds of adventures which were quite dangerous, and some were on the high seas. I mentioned that some of her adventures were reminiscent of female pirates, but Flora was no pirate and she did not go out looking for danger, it just seemed to come to her. So this is fresh in my mind and I am delighted to read about another Celtic woman with her own adventures on the high seas!

Upvoted and sharing on FB!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Carolyn: I read your article on Flora MacDonald and loved your article also. I read the biography on Grace O'Malley and found her so interesting and unusual for her time period. Most women were considered chattel in those days, but not Grace! LOL! She was fortunate to grow up in the family she did who had so many land holdings and ships. Grace and Flora are two different types of women in one sense, but strong and with great values in another. I recommend Grace's biography, it is interesting.


CarolynEmerick profile image

CarolynEmerick 2 years ago

Suzette, I can't send you a private message with the Celtic Guide FB page because it is a public fan page. But if you message the page, then I can reply and talk about submitting to the magazine if you are interested. It doesn't pay, but you could have a link to your Hubpages profile to bring more traffic to it. Your stuff is wonderful and you would be more than welcome! Just get in touch with me on the FB page! :-)


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Carolyn: I understand and I will message you when I have an idea for an article. Thanks so much for the invite and I love the publication. I am enjoying your articles so much.

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