Daughter, wife, mother, businesswoman, landowner, seafarer, leader, chieftain, rebel, pirate, legend—all these terms would accurately describe the infamous Grace O’Malley.
Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley) was born in 1530. Her father, Owen “Black Oak” O’Malley, was the elected chieftain of the Ó Máille (O’Malley) clan. He was also a seafarer successful in trading cattle, tallow, and salt fish as far south as Portugal and Spain. The O’Malley were one of the few on the western coast to sail beyond Ireland’s shores. As a result, they controlled much of County Mayo and all who fished off their coasts were taxed. Upon her parents’ deaths, she inherited her father’s trading business and her mother’s lands. That with and the land holdings from subsequent marriages, she was a wealthy woman.
Even as a child, Grace was a spitfire. She scorned societal conventions placed on girls and women, favoring adventure over what was suitable for her gender. She wanted badly to go to sea on a trading expedition to Spain with her father. Her parents forbade it. Ah, but she was fiery and independent. She cut off her long red hair to disguise herself as a lad in hopes to trick her father into taking her.
A stunt such as this was surely a precursor to what was to come.
At 16, she married Dónal O’Flaherty, who was heir to the chieftain of the O’Flaherty clan which controlled Connacht. This was a good political match for the clans. Plus, bonus, he owned castles. One of these castles—Bunowen—is where she operated her first shipping and trade business, in part out of necessity as Dónal’s gallivanting brought the clan near to poverty. Over the course of their marriage, she had three children with Dónal—Owen, Murrough, and Margaret. Not only did the family grow, but so did her pursuits. She controlled their fleet and oversaw all the business dealings, legitimate and otherwise. No doubt plying skills she learned from her father. And when she was not allowed to trade in Galway, a key trading port, for sketchy practices, she simply laid in wait off the coast for merchant ships, negotiating fair fees that guaranteed their safe passage. If they refused, she relieved them of their cargo. If they further resisted, well, things got violent and deadly.
Like Grace, Dónal was an ambitious sort. But he preferred warfare. Not surprisingly, that didn’t end well for him. He had taken an island fortress from another clan over some sort of revenge, but in the siege was killed. Grace didn’t take the death of her husband too kindly. She sailed to the island to avenge his death and successfully defended the castle. In another attack on the castle by the English, she not only defended it, but she alerted her fleet, launched an attack, and soundly defeated them. As you might imagine, she had many, many loyal men who followed her anywhere she went.
|Grace O'Malley and Queen Elizabeth|
She married a second time in 1566 to Richard Bourke, purportedly for more holdings, and the couple had one child together. But Grace still wasn’t one to settle down and quickly divorced him, keeping his Rockfleet Castle for herself.
Grace is known for many exploits that have become legendary. One thing for certain, she was not one to be slighted or crossed. She purportedly defeated a Turkish pirate ship, killing the crew, just one day after giving birth to her fourth son. Can you imagine how cranky she might have been to be disturbed while nursing her newborn? Grace had once abducted an earl’s grandson after she was denied hospitality by the family because they were having dinner. She released the boy only after the promise that the castle’s gates were always open and a place set at the table for visitors—a promise still kept to this day. Don’t underestimate a woman in love. She sought deadly revenge on a clan for killing her lover Hugh de Lacy, snatching away the lives of those responsible and seizing their castle. The woman was mighty!
|How far will he go to rise up against her?|
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Her piratical ways both on sea and land eventually caught up to her. English power had increased over Ireland and set to control the chieftains who had been self-governing. She was no fool. Like most chieftains, she submitted her fealty. Ah…appearances. With a troublemaker like Grace, England took notice, especially Governor Sir Richard Bingham who, in 1584 was tasked with overseeing and controlling chieftains and their clans. Bingham made it a personal mark to take Grace down. He stripped her clan of wealth by overtaxing them, ordered the murder of her oldest son, raided her home, took her livestock, imprisoned family members for treason, and impounded her fleet. Ouch. In 1593, Grace intended to restore her clan’s rights and free her family. How? By petitioning Elizabeth I, Queen of England, of course.
Elizabeth must have been intrigued by the intrepid Irish woman with such a colorful reputation for she granted Grace an audience…in private. Perhaps they were a lot alike. Perhaps there was a mutual respect. Whatever the case, it must have been quite a meeting that September day between the two powerhouses. The queen granted all of Grace’s requests, including monetary aid and the release of her impounded fleet. In the queen’s letter to Bingham, she also stated that Grace O’Malley had her permission to act as a privateer on England’s behalf. And so a-pirating Grace did go.
Grace finally retired in 1601. Two years later at the age of 73, she died, the same year as the queen.