Grace O’Malley

    Grace O'Malley

    Grace O’Malley also Gráinne O’Malley and Granuaile (c. 1530 – c. 1603)
    16″ x 20″ oil on canvas

    That sunburnt brow did fearless thoughts reveal;
    And in her girdle was a skeyne of steel;
    Her crimson mantle, a gold brooch did bind
    Her flowing garments reached unto her heel
    Her hair – part fell in tresses unconfined
    and part, a silver bodkin did fasten up behind.

    Grace O’Malley was Queen of Umaill, chieftain of the Ó Máille clan and a pirate in 16th-century Ireland. In Irish folklore she is commonly known by her nickname Granuaile. She is sometimes known as “The Sea Queen of Connaught”.

    Grace O’Malley was born in Ireland around 1530, when Henry VIII was King of England and Lord of Ireland. Under the policies of the English government at the time, the semi-autonomous Irish princes and lords were left mostly to their own devices. However this was to change over the course of her life as the Tudor conquest of Ireland gathered pace.

    Grace’s father was chieftain of the O’Malley clan. The O’Malleys were one of the few seafaring families on the west coast, and they built a row of castles facing the sea to keep an eye on their territory. The O’Malleys taxed all those who fished off their coasts, which included fishermen from as far away as England.

    According to Irish legend, as a young girl Grace wished to go on a trading expedition to Spain with her father, and on being told she could not because her long hair would catch in the ship’s ropes, she cut off most of her hair to embarrass her father into taking her, thus earning her the nickname “Gráinne Mhaol” meaning “Bald Grace”. The name stuck, and her father gave in and Grace went to sea.

    In 1546, when Grace was about 16, she married Donal O’Flaherty. Over the course of their marriage, Grace learned more about seafaring from Donal and his clan. Grace was soon in charge of the O’Flaherty fleet of ships and ruled the waters surrounding their lands. Although it was unusual for a woman to lead men, Grace earned the respect of all who followed her through her shrewdness as well as her knowledge of sailing and bravery at sea.

    Grace had three children by Donal. By the time of Donal’s death in the early 1560s, Grace commanded the loyalty of so many O’Flaherty men that many of them left the area when she did, and followed her to Clare Island in Clew Bay, where she moved her headquarters

    In 1566 Grace remarried Risdeárd Bourke known as “Iron Richard”. Bourke was owner of Rockfleet Castle, which was strategically situated near Newport, with sheltered harbors in which a pirate ship could hide.

    According to tradition they married under Irish law ‘for one year certain’. Legend says that when the year had passed, Grace and her followers locked themselves in Rockfleet Castle and Grace called out a window to Burke, “Richard Burke, I dismiss you.” Those words had the effect of ending the marriage, but since she was in possession of the castle she kept it. Rockfleet remained for centuries in the O’Malley family and is today open to the public.

    Even as a young woman Grace O’Malley was involved in the business of sailing ships and international trade. Because Galway imposed taxes on the ships that traded their goods there, Grace decided to extract a similar tax from ships traveling in waters off their lands. Grace’s ships would stop and board the traders and demand either cash or a portion of the cargo in exchange for safe passage the rest of the way to Galway. Resistance was met with violence and even murder. Once they obtained their toll, Grace’s ships would disappear into one of the many bays in the area.

    English power steadily increased in Ireland and Grace’s power was steadily encroached upon. Finally, in 1593, her sons and half-brother were taken captive by the English governor of Connacht, so Grace sailed to England to petition Elizabeth I for their release.

    Elizabeth was so impressed by Grace, who was three years older, that the two women reached sufficient agreement for Elizabeth to grant Grace’s requests provided that her support of Irish rebellions and piracy against England ended. Their discussion was carried out in Latin, as Grace spoke no English and Elizabeth spoke no Irish.

    Despite the meeting, Grace later returned to her old ways, though nominally directing her raids against the “enemies of England” during the Nine Years War. Grace lived into her 70s and her fame spread throughout Ireland.

    Her life has inspired poets, musicians and filmmakers. A fiercely independent woman of beauty, charm and courage, Grace sailed the seas of high adventure and has become the symbol of the Irish fighting spirit. She must have been amazing!