Grace O’Malley: the fearless pirate queen of Ireland

Biographer Anne Chambers helps Emma Slattery Williams uncover the true story of Ireland’s pirate queen, Gráinne Ni Mháille (anglicised as Grace O’Malley) – and shares some fascinating facts about her life

'Pirate queen' Grace O'Malley. (Illustration by Sue Gent for BBC History Revealed)

Grace O’Malley had given birth just hours earlier, but as she stood on the deck of her ship, the fearless pirate queen knew there was no time to rest. A band of other pirates had attacked and boarded her vessel, and she had to lead her crew against them and protect her newborn son. O’Malley grabbed her sword and rallied her men for a counterattack. By the time the fighting was over, she had captured the other pirate ship for herself.

A fascinating description was recorded by Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland, who met O’Malley in 1577: “A most famous, feminine sea captain… famous for her stoutness of courage… commanding three galleys and 200 fighting men… This was a most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.”

Gráinne Ni Mháille, anglicised to Grace O’Malley, led her own fleet with hundreds of men, spent nearly a lifetime at sea, and came face-to-face with one of the most powerful monarchs of the age, a woman she regarded as an equal.

Who was Grace O’Malley?

Born in around 1530 in County Mayo, in western Ireland, O’Malley was the only daughter of chieftain Dudara O’Malley of the kingdom of Umhall. Ireland had its own distinct legal system known as Brehon Law, in which chieftains were elected instead of the title being passed down by primogeniture (going to the first-born son). The more forceful chieftains used a system of clientship, where they offered protection to the smaller clans in return for service and fealty. Women in Ireland, while far from being treated as equal to men, could inherit and hold lands in their own right and even divorce their husbands. They could not, however, become chieftains.

O’Malley was the exception to this last rule; a woman, according to Grace O’Malley’s biographer, Anne Chambers, “who broke the mould”

The O’Malleys were a sea-faring family, who travelled across oceans to trade, taxed for fishing in their waters, occasionally plundered, and controlled coastal castles to protect their lands in western Ireland. As a girl, O’Malley grew up at Belclare Castle and Clare Island, receiving a formal education to the extent that she could speak Latin as fluently as her native Irish. Yet she also grew up on the sea and was determined to follow her family’s bearing. When O’Malley was told she could not join her father on a sailing expedition as her long hair would get caught in the ship’s ropes, she cut it short and forced him to take her with him.

At 15, O’Malley was married off to Donal O’Flaherty, the heir of a neighbouring chieftain. With him, she had three children – two sons, Owen and Murrough, and a daughter, Margaret – and learned more of seafaring and piracy. When Donal was murdered by members of a rival clan, in 1560, O’Malley took charge of her late husband’s lands and ships. The Joyces, the clan believed to be responsible for Donal’s death, thought his castle would be open to capture with no one to protect it. What they had not expected was that Donal’s widow would lead his men in defence.

It is her leadership at sea that sets Grace O’Malley apart from every other documented female leader in history

O’Malley returned to her father’s lands, with those of Donal’s men who remained loyal to her, and made Clare Island her stronghold. Starting with three galleys, she embarked on a career of piracy on the high seas.

This is where the legend of the pirate queen was born, explains Chambers: “Enduring danger and hardship by land and especially by sea, O’Malley’s maritime skill gave her role as leader a double edge. It took immense skill and courage to ply the dangerous Atlantic Ocean and to withstand the physical hardships of life at sea. It is her leadership at sea that sets Grace O’Malley apart from every other documented female leader in history.”

A fierce pirate queen

A fearless leader and also a vengeful warrior, O’Malley did not let any attacks against her go unpunished. When Hugh de Lacy – the man she took as a lover after rescuing him from a shipwreck in 1565 – was killed by the MacMahon clan of Doona Castle, O’Malley took violent retribution. When the MacMahons visited a nearby island, O’Malley was lying in wait with her men and killed all of those involved in de Lacy’s death. Her vengeance still not sated, she then defeated the garrison at Doona Castle and claimed it for herself.

By 1566, O’Malley was married again, this time to Richard ‘the Iron’ Bourke. It’s believed that the strategic strength of his castle, Rockfleet, was a motivating factor for the shrewd pirate queen. Bourke, a member of the powerful MacWilliam family, made a perfect political match. The pair entered into a trial marriage – these were common in Ireland and allowed either party to withdraw after a year – and when 12 months had elapsed, O’Malley and her men locked her husband out of Rockfleet and demanded a divorce with the words: “I dismiss you”. Despite that, the pair would reconcile and remain together for almost 20 years.

O’Malley had a son by Bourke, named Tibbott (anglicised to Theobold). He was born in 1567, aboard one of O’Malley’s ships as Barbary pirates were bearing down. Such was her leadership that the captain pleaded with O’Malley to be seen on deck and rally her men just hours after the birth. Wrapping her son in a blanket, and in some pain, she roared out commands and fired at her enemies before returning to Theobold.

In 1580, and with his wife’s help, Bourke became the heir to the chiefdom of MacWilliam. It was around the same time that the English intensified their conquest of Ireland. Elizabeth I’s Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney, divided up County Mayo into baronies and demanded that the chieftains submit to English law and accept the arrival of sheriffs in their lands. MacWilliam agreed – but O’Malley knew what this meant for her husband. Under English law, the heir would now be the eldest male relative instead of Bourke. To win over Sidney, O’Malley offered him the services of her fleet. He was duly impressed and Rockfleet maintained a degree of autonomy from English control.

Making new enemies

O’Malley returned to life on the high seas, but a failed attempt to plunder from the Earl of Desmond in Munster ended in her capture and imprisonment. Desmond, who was under suspicion of being part of a plot against Elizabeth, handed O’Malley to the English to gain favour. She was held in the dungeons of Dublin Castle until early 1579 when she secured her release – the details of how remain a mystery. O’Malley responded by attacking English ships and routing the army sent to besiege her castle.

When the chief of MacWilliam died in 1580, Bourke and O’Malley went into rebellion to exert their right to succeed. They mustered a huge army, including the elite Scottish mercenaries called the Gallowglass, and forced a deal to grant Bourke the title. O’Malley, considered by many to be the real power behind her husband, became Lady Bourke and remained a woman to be feared. One story says she threatened an English tax collector and sent him running even after Bourke had agreed to pay.

But O’Malley’s position would not last long, as her husband died in 1583. Finding herself a widow again, she took what she was owed of her husband’s property and one of his castles in lieu of her dowry, and established herself with her army and ships at Rockfleet. Her ability to lead and command respect was evident in the number of who men followed her.

“When Gaelic law spurned her as a female chieftain, O’Malley ignored the political and social obstacles placed in her path…” says Chambers. “Such was her influence and power that she became an accepted matriarch, not merely to her own followers, but of neighbouring clans, whose own chieftains had either died or abandoned their obligations to protect their followers.”

The English, however, wished to put O’Malley in her place. Sir Richard Bingham, who was made governor of Connaught in 1584, became a lifelong enemy of O’Malley and her family, claiming that she was “nurse to all rebellions in the province for this forty years”. In 1586, O’Malley’s eldest son, Owen, was killed by Bingham’s brother; when a heartbroken O’Malley led a force against Bingham, she was lured into a trap and captured. At the age of 56, she was condemned to death, before her son- in-law, Richard, managed to persuade the English that he was not part of any rebellion and would keep O’Malley in his custody.

A royal appointment

In reality, once freed, both rejoined the rebels. In 1587, O’Malley took advantage of Bingham being sent away to visit his rival, the new Lord Deputy of Dublin, Sir John Perrot, who pardoned her for all her past offences, as well as those of her children. The official line now was that O’Malley would retire to live a quiet life and stop her plundering at sea. This was far from the truth.

In the summer of 1588, Bingham returned to Ireland amid fears that the Spanish Armada would find Irish supporters. Skirmishes between his forces and O’Malley’s continued for several years until he destroyed part of her fleet of galleys in the early 1590s.

Not one to admit defeat, O’Malley bypassed Bingham and appealed directly to his boss. Her first of many letters to Queen Elizabeth I show a mind as Machiavellian and sophisticated as that of Elizabeth and her court.

In the letter, O’Malley sets out her own version of events, which, as she writes, “constrayned her to take up armes”, laying the blame squarely at Bingham.

In retaliation, Bingham captured her son, Theobold, and accused him of treason – a crime punishable by death. To save the life of her son, O’Malley followed her correspondence to the royal court, and – with the assistance of her friend, the influential Earl of Ormond – managed to get an audience with Elizabeth in Greenwich in July 1593.

Yet, staring across the chamber at the queen, she was not intimidated – instead, defiant and determined. Both women were the same age, and both queens in O’Malley’s eyes. Elizabeth wore an exquisite dress, wig and make-up, while O’Malley let her age show. It was clear she was no ordinary woman. As the queen could not speak Irish, they resorted to a language they both knew.

Chambers elaborates: “Tradition holds that Elizabeth and O’Malley conversed in Latin, however, both from her correspondence and the reports of those who came into contact with her, it is obvious that O’Malley both understood and spoke English.”

Kindred spirits

Elizabeth was in awe of this woman – a fellow female leader in a male-dominated world – and took pity on O’Malley. The queen allowed her to return to ‘maintenance by land and sea’ – an authorised form of piracy allowing O’Malley to recover her losses – and called for Theobold’s release. Such was the impression made on Elizabeth that when a new map of Ireland was drawn, O’Malley was named as chieftain of Mayo.

O’Malley continued leading her men at sea until well into her sixties, but a new century brought great change. The battle of Kinsale in 1602 put an end to rebellion and left Ireland to fall into English hands, and the Gaelic way of life O’Malley and her ancestors had lived by crumbled.

In 1603, O’Malley died at Rockfleet, the same year as Elizabeth. O’Malley’s story is not widely known; her legacy has survived through the folktales and songs of Ireland. “Grace O’Malley did not conform to the patriotic, God-fearing and dutiful image of Gaelic womanhood promoted by later generations of Irish historians and was consequently airbrushed,” concludes Chambers.

Emma Slattery Williams is the staff writer on BBC History Revealed magazine. Anne Chambers is the author of Grace O’Malley: The Biography of Ireland’s Pirate Queen 1530–1603 

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