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Ireland's Pirate Queen: Grace O'Malley

Updated on February 16, 2015

Grace O'Malley Meeting Elizabeth I

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fearless Captain

Born at sea sometime in 1530, Grainne Ni Mhaille—better known as Grace O’Malley—had the ocean in her blood. She was descended from a long line of pirates going back to 1123, and her father, Owen “Black Oak” O’Malley, was one of the fiercest pirates in all of Ireland.

I’m sure he was proud to find that his daughter was even fiercer.

As a child, Grace was desperate to sail with her father and brother, and she was bitterly angry when her mother Margaret told her that piracy was really more of a boy’s job, and her father told her that her hair was too long anyway—the wind would blow it around and it would get caught in the riggings. Refusing to accept any of this, young Grace dressed herself in boy’s clothes and hacked off her long red hair. Owen O’Malley stared at her in disbelief, then sighed and relented—but not before bestowing the nickname “Grainne Mhoal” or “Bald Grace” upon her.

And if Owen had any doubts about his daughter’s fearlessness they were soon quashed; on one of these sailing expeditions, they were set upon by privateers—pirates working legally for a monarchy—and an alarmed Owen ordered Grace to go below deck. As the story goes, Grace defied him and instead scrambled up the riggings, watching as the privateers pulled up alongside her father’s ship and boarded with drawn swords. A bloody clash ensued, and as Owen grappled with one sailor, another rushed up behind him, ready to run him through. Seeing that her father was about to be killed, Grace sprang down from the riggings, screaming like a banshee as she bowled the stunned privateer over. Quickly dispatching his foe, Owen spun around and was shocked to see his daughter raining blows down on the struggling privateer. About this same time, it is said that a flock of eagles was ravaging Owen’s flocks of sheep and stealing their lambs. In retaliation, Grace scaled the seaside cliffs and attacked the eagles, whose raking talons left several lifelong scars across her forehead.

Soon Grace became as able as sailor and pirate as any in her father’s fleet, but when she was sixteen she married Donal “of the Battles” O’Flaherty and moved to his castle in Connacht. They had three children: Owen, Murrough, and Margaret. But motherhood didn’t stop Grace’s interest in the sea; while she couldn’t sail as a pirate anymore, she used her expertise in ships and trading to monumentally build up the O’Flaherty clan’s fleet.

In 1564, a relative of Donal’s by the flattering name of Murrough “Battleaxes” O’Flaherty defeated the English Earl of Clauricarde in battle and, before the Irish could rejoice at embarrassing the English, Murrough suddenly turned around and submitted to English rule. In gratitude for his humility, the English bestowed upon him the chieftainship of the O’Flaherty clan and the title “The O’Flaherty”—both of which should have rightfully been inherited by Donal. Outraged, Donal and Grace attacked and captured Murrough’s island castle. In retaliation, the Joyces—long time enemies of the O’Flahertys—counterattacked, and in the ensuing battle Donal was killed. Enraged, Grace drove the Joyces out, but when their English reinforcements showed up, Grace and her soldiers ran out of ammunition. Realizing that the castle roof was lined with lead, Grace ordered the roof stripped, the lead melted down and then dumped onto the attacking English troops. The English and the Joyces beat a rapid retreat, leaving the castle to Grace and sullenly dubbing it, “Caislean-an-Circa,” or “The Hen’s Castle.”

Still, it was no victory for Grace; according to Irish law, the chieftain’s widow inherits one third of his property, but, because Donal wasn’t chieftain, Grace didn’t inherit anything. Furthermore, since the English at the time found the practice of women inheriting property abhorrent—and they were pretty angry with her to begin with—and the O’Flaherty clan didn’t want the English coming down on them, so they didn’t give Grace any kind of reward either. Broke, Grace took her teenaged children and two hundred loyal subjects and returned to the Island of Clare.

That’s where her piracy business really took off.

Within a few years, Grace had built up a fleet of twenty ships and was regularly setting sail to raid every ship found between County Cork and Spain. When in Irish waters, Grace and her ships would surround another ship and offer the captain a choice—either pay her for safe passage or be boarded and robbed. Sometimes she did both. Grace and her crew became such a problem for the English that Queen Elizabeth I issued a £500 bounty on her head.

When Grace was in her early thirties, a terrible storm blew up off the Irish coast, the waves wrecking a ship against the shoals. Grace wasted no time in gathering her crew and setting out to salvage the wreck, but when they arrived, there was little left—save one young man found clinging to the debris. Grace rescued the man and took him back to her castle, where she nursed him back to health. His name was Hugh de Lacy, and in the weeks he spent recuperating at the pirate queen’s castle, he and Grace fell madly in love. Sadly, their happiness did not last; while out deer hunting one day, Hugh was ambushed by members of the MacMahon clan of Ballycross and murdered. Wracked with grief and rage, Grace and her soldiers tracked the MacMahons to Cahir, where they had gone on a pilgrimage. There, Grace killed the men she thought were responsible for Hugh’s death, and then violently captured their castle Doona on Blacksod Bay. Her actions that day earned her the title, “The Dark Lady of Doona.”

Eventually, Grace seemed to have healed from her heartache enough to marry Richard-am-Iarainne, also known as “Iron Dick” Burke of Rockfleet Castle (you can draw your own conclusions as to the nickname.) Iron Dick was the nephew of Grace’s first husband, Donal O’Flaherty, and now stood in line to become chieftain of the O’Flaherty clan. Accounts of their marriage describe it was tenuous at best, until one day one year after their marriage, as Iron Dick rode home from battle, Grace stood up on the parapets of Rockfleet Castle and shouted, “Richard Burke, I dismiss you!”, summarily divorcing Iron Dick in accordance to Irish law (the “one-year certain” law gave married couples in Ireland one year to decide if they wanted to remain married, and if they wished to divorce all one needed to say was, “I dismiss you.” It was that simple.) Now Grace owned Rockfleet Castle and, given its strategic positioning on Clew Bay, many scholars have wondered if that was her aim all along.

All the same, there seemed to have been some love in this marriage, as shortly after Grace divorced Iron Dick she gave birth to their son on a ship—like she had been born—and named him Tibbot-na-Long, or “Tibbot of the Ships.” A few nights after Tibbot had been born, Grace was below deck nursing the baby when her ship was attacks by Turkish pirates. In a near panic, her second in command rushed down to tell Grace that they were about to be overrun. Beside herself with rage, Grace roared, “May you be seven times worse this day twelve months, who cannot do without me for one day!” Putting the baby aside, Grace snatched up her weapons and raced out onto the deck, and in short order not only defeated the Turkish pirates but captured their ship to add to her fleet.

By this time the English were clamping down on their hold over Ireland, but Grace, with all of her power and wealth (she allegedly buried nine tons of treasure along the Irish coast) and popularity, with her huge fleet that readily attacked and destroyed Spanish warships, was too much of a threat. The English army attacked Rockfleet Castle, and Grace waited three weeks for the soldiers to exhaust themselves before unleashing her own army, decimating the English. Three years later Grace was attacked and captured, spending eighteen months in a Limerick jail before somehow negotiating for her own release. The English made her promise to give up piracy, and she did—then went right back to it in a matter of weeks.

Strange as it seems, despite the fact that Grace divorced him Iron Dick seems to have remained in the picture the entire time. Why is unclear, but he was seen with Grace as she negotiated terms of service with Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland. Grace and Iron Dick were still together in 1530 when he finally became chieftain, but he died three years later, and Grace moved to Carrikahowley (there isn’t any reason to think that Grace had anything to do with his death.)

If there was one person in the world who truly hated Grace O’Malley, it was Sir Richard Bingham, the governor of Connacht. He and Grace clashed repeatedly over the years, and he couldn’t stand the fact that a woman held so much power and acted so … unfeminine. He called her the “nurse to all rebellions in the province.” Grace hated him because of the horrific way he treated the Irish; among other things permitting them to keep their ancestral lands only if they submitted to unfair English rule. She wasn’t going to submit to a foreign power, not ever.

Well, Bingham just couldn’t tolerate Grace’s defiance. In 1586 he had Grace arrested and thrown in jail. He then dispatched troops to her son Owen’s castle. The soldiers pretended to be sick and hungry and Owen, known for his kind heart, opened the gate to help the men. The soldiers swooped in, hung eighteen of his men, stole all of the food and cattle to leave his subjects starving, then tied Owen up and stabbed him to death. Grace mournfully wrote after learning his fate, “(he was) cruelly murdered … having twelve deadly wounds.”

Grace herself was in great danger, faced with execution by hanging. She was saved when her daughter Margaret’s husband volunteered to be a hostage in Grace’s place, setting the pirate queen free. Upon release, Grace learned that her second son Murrough had betrayed her and sided with the English. In swift response, Grace and her crews sailed to Murrough’s town and burnt it to the ground.

Knowing that she had no way of fighting Bingham without staring a war, Grace quickly wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth outlining the beastly ways Bingham had been abusing the Irish and how he had been mercilessly targeting her family and her people. Elizabeth responded by sending the 18 Articles of Interrogatory, questions for Grace to answer, but before Grace could complete the list her half brother Donal o’ Piper and her sons Murrough and Tibbot were all arrested. That was the final straw, and Grace immediately set sail for England to speak with Elizabeth face-to-face.

On Sept. 6, 1593, Grace walked unannounced into Greenwich Palace to speak with Elizabeth. Elizabeth was startled to hear that Grace was there, but she permitted the pirate queen to enter. The sixty-three year old Grace faced the sixty-year old Elizabeth and refused to bow before her—she didn’t recognize Elizabeth as the rightful queen of Ireland. The court was aghast, but Elizabeth was rather amused and ignored it. As they conversed in Latin (Grace didn’t speak English and Elizabeth didn’t speak Irish), Elizabeth noticed that Grace was sniffling in the cold, and one of her ladies in waiting offered a handkerchief. Grace thanked her, used the handkerchief, then threw it in the fire. Elizabeth was shocked, saying that the handkerchief belonged to the lady. Baffled, Grace said she didn’t understand why the lady would even want it back—it Ireland they burned used handkerchiefs. Grace’s bold response delighted Elizabeth and they quickly became friends. Elizabeth listened to Grace’s plight and agreed to intervene, sending an outraged Bingham a letter stating that he would leave the O’Malleys alone, and “to yield her some maintenance for her living the rest of her old years.” Meaning, Bingham was now going to give Grace a pension!

Grace continued her pirate career for many years, but now acting as a privateer for Queen Elizabeth herself. She lived to the age seventy-three, dying peacefully at Rockfleet castle in 1603.

Grace O’Malley works referenced:

Warrior Women, Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles 2011

Women Warriors, David E. Jones 2000

Women Were Pirates Too, C.T. Anthony 2006

Ireland’s Pirate Queen, Anne Chambers 2003

They Went Whistling, Barbara Holland 2001


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