In honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day, I decided to dedicate today’s post to one of the best. Grace O’Malley was a queen, a pirate and all around bad ass. She went toe to toe with Queen Elizabeth I and won. Not many people did that.
Gráinne, or Grace as it was Anglicized, was born in 1530 on the west coast of Ireland to Owen O’Malley, a wealthy trader, seafarer and chieftain. Legend says that as a teenager she begged her father to let her serve with him aboard his ships. He told her no saying her hair would get caught in the rigging. The next day, she showed up on the dock having taken a knife to her hair ready for work. She proved herself an able sailor rose to the rank of her father’s second in command above her older brothers. The crew called her “Grace the Bald” because of her short hair. Legend said that the chieftain of the O’Malley’s could see storms coming. When Owen took his son out to see if he had this gift, the only one who could see the oncoming storm was Grace. A good skill for her because most of her life was spent between the storms.
Despite her adventures on the sea, she married in 1546 to Donal O’Flaherty, the tanaiste or heir to the O’Flaherty clan. They were based out of Cock’s Castle in Connemara. Between 1547 and 1552, she bore him two sons and a daugher. When Donal was killed in an inner clan dispute, Clan Joyce overtook Cock’s Castle. This would not stand. Grace personally led the siege and retook the castle, now renamed by Clan Joyce as Hen’s Castle. She claimed clan leadership on behalf of her young sons, but returned to her stronghold on Clare Island.
Marriage and motherhood did not end Grace’s adventures on the sea. She commanded men and ships and used them in raids on rival clans and merchants and taxing all who fished their waters. Her wealth and fame as an expert sailor grew. The sea gave her everything- her wealth, her purpose and even lovers. Legend said Grace rescued Hugh de Lacy from one of the ships she attacked and nursed him back to health. The pair fell in love, but it did not end well. Hugh was killed while hunting by the MacMahon clan, and Grace swore revenge. She tracked them to the island of Cahir, where the killers were on pilgrimage and took them out with her bare hands. She then sailed to their castle of Doona and Blacksod Bay and took it. This was not a woman to trifle with.
After the death of Hugh, Grace married again to Richard-In-Iron Bourke. His castle of Rockfleet was less exposed than her castle on Clare Island. Together they had a son, Tiboid-ne-Long (Toby of the Ships), who was born on board one of Grace’s ships as she was returning from a trading mission. Barbary pirates attacked the ship not long after her son was born. The captain approached Grace to tell her the battle was not going their way. With what I can imagine as an epic eye roll, she is reported to have said, “May you be seven times worse this day twelvemonth. Who cannot do without me for one day!” Then she stormed up to a pirate and took a musket out of his hands and said, “Take this from unconsecrated hands!” The pirates capitulated and their ship was added to her fleet.
Another story tells of how she demanded hospitality from the Lord of Howth as was Gaelic custom. The servants locked the gates and told her their Lord was not to be disturbed. After she kidnapped the Lord’s son, they changed their tune. The ransom she demanded was a place laid at the Lord’s table at every meal for anyone needing hospitality. To this day, there is an extra place laid at Howth Castle.
A woman that amassed this much wealth and power could not stay under the radar of the English Crown for long. At this time, the Irish lords and princes were left to tend to themselves under the nominal control of England. However, the Tudors had turned their hungry eyes on Ireland and were beginning a conquest of the Island that put Grace on a collision course with the Crown of England. In 1574, the English laid siege to Rockfleet Castle, but were beaten back in two weeks. However, by 1577 Grace was forced to submit as the head of the O’Malley clan to the English.
Despite this and the admiration of Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Grace continually found herself in hot water with the English. Finally, she did something unexpected and sailed for England to meet with Elizabeth herself.
To have been a fly on the wall at that meeting. These were the two most formidable and powerful women in the British Isles. No one knows exactly what was said, but they may have liked one another. They were similar in their ability to command in the world of men. In any case, they came to an understanding and Grace and her sons were restored to their property, and Grace had the Queen’s permission to “fight in our quarrel with all the world.”
Grace eventually retired to Rockfleet Castle and lived to the “great age of sixty-seven.” Not bad for a Pirate Queen.