Grace O’Malley

Grace O'Malley
Grace O'Malley

Grace O’Malley (1530-1603) (Gráinne Ni Mháille in Irish, and nicknamed Granuaile), was an Irish pirate who is now a legend in Irish culture. A woman of character and great courage, she devoted herself to piracy throughout her life and distinguished herself through numerous battles, on land and at sea…

Biography of Grace O’Malley

Youth marked by a love of the navy

Grace O’Malley was born in Ireland around 1530 in a particularly tense climate due to the conflictual relations between Ireland and England, at the time governed by Henry VIII. Her father, Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Maille, was the head of the clan of a large Connaught family: the O’Malleys. The latter were above all a family of sailors, who extended their power over all the fishermen of the region.

In her youth, Grace O’Malley discovered a true passion for ships and expeditions at sea. Her father, at first reluctant, teaches her everything a sailor needs to know, to the great satisfaction of his daughter… According to legend, Grace O’Malley asked from a young age to follow her father on a trade expedition to Spain. Her father would then have refused, claiming that her long hair could get caught in the ropes of the ship’s sails. In response, Grace O’Malley would have cut her hair until she became bald! This attitude would have earned her the Gaelic nickname Granuaile, which means “bald” or “hairless”. The name has remained with her ever since, and the Irish still refer to her by that name today.

During her youth, Grace O’Malley lived under the tutelage of a nanny, and received a strict education, learning Latin, English, Spanish and Scottish Gaelic.

Grace O’Malley gets married and takes part in power struggles

Grace O’Malley married Donal O’Flaherty in 1546 and had three children: Owen, Margaret and Murrough. Unfortunately, Grace O’Malley lost her husband during a battle, and decided to take over the defence of her family’s patrimony (the O’Flaherty’s and O’Malleys owned many castles and lands). She recruited loyal supporters for her late husband’s cause, moved them to her headquarters, and organized many battles to gain control of Clew Bay.

One of her main enemies was the Joyce clan, from whom her husband had taken Cock’s Castle, a superb fortress built on the shores of Lough Corrib. When the Joyce Clan learned of Donal O’Flaherty’s death, the Joyce Clan set out to reclaim the castle. But Grace O’Malley stopped them, bravely defending her castle, even melting the lead from the castle roof and pouring it burning on the attackers. Her bravery was so impressive, moreover, that the Joyces finally submitted, and her name went round Ireland.

Eventually, Grace O’Malley gained complete control of Clew Bay, and introduced a tax on the inhabitants of the area, as well as on the ships sailing in the surrounding waters. Her ambition, her talent for fighting, coupled with her actions considered as racketeering, were then considered as acts of piracy. Over the years, his ships and troops grew, welcoming bloodthirsty mercenaries and other sympathizers to his cause, imposing his law on land and at sea.

Grace O’Malley is getting remarried to gain more power..

In 1566, Grace O’Malley married Richard Burke. Many theories attest that this marriage was in fact a way for Grace O’Malley to strengthen her power, and to acquire additional land, such as Rockfleet Castle, her new husband’s castle. The marriage took place under the Brehon Law (a law allowing divorce in case of incompatibility observed during the first year of life together).

During their first year of married life, the couple gave birth to a son, Tibbot Burke in 1567.

When the year was over, Grace O’Malley filed for divorce, and seized Rockfleet Castle, much to the anger of Richard Burke. However, on paper, and for the British administration, the couple continued to be married until their death…

Always surrounded by a strong army, Grace O’Malley tried to win the favour of the English by donating 200 men to help them in their fight against Scotland and Ireland. For her part, she attacks many ships to acquire their wealth, besieges fortresses, and recovers her parents’ inheritance of land, horses, and other fortresses.

Grace O’Malley meets Elizabeth I

Grace O’Malley’s activities quickly attracted many enemies, and she saw her two sons and her brother kidnapped by an English notable. Mad with rage, Grace O’Malley finally decided to sail to England to meet Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) to order their release. This meeting is still considered today as a major event, bringing together two women of strong character and limitless power. After a conversation in Latin, Grace O’Malley finally obtained the liberation of her relatives and returned to Ireland to continue her piracy activities.

Now she decided to target the English and other supporters of the Crown of England.

She died at Rockfleet in 1603, however.