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Grace O'Malley - The Pirate Queen

Grace O’Malley (Granuaile) 
An icon of 16th Century Ireland

The Pale had been established in Ireland in 1488.  English rule was mostly confined to that area.  Elsewhere the country was ruled by Anglo Irish Lords and Gaelic Chieftains who lived in castles.  Some of them got embroiled in English conflicts beyond these shores which had repercussions here; others were busy enough feuding and fighting among themselves.


The ordinary people, as always, struggled on in the hope of better days and survived on oatmeal, milk, butter, watercress and wild herbs.  They valued animals for their skin, wool and milk rather than for their meat.  The only language they knew was Irish (Gaelic), their only law was administrated by the local Chieftain through his breitheamh and their souls were in the hands of friars.  Some Chieftains and their families also spoke Latin which was essential for trading with foreigners.  One of these Chieftains was Owen O’Malley whose comparatively small territory on the shores of Clew Bay, Co Mayo was surrounded to the north and east by MacWilliam Burke of Mayo and to the south by O’Flaherty.


The year was 1530.  Ferdinand Magellan’s Portuguese ship had made history and circumnavigated the world.  Construction of the Basilica of St. Peters had recently begun, Martin Luther was preparing to break with Rome.  In England, Henry VIII was about to be bewitched by the charms of Anne Boleyn.  And on the west coast of Ireland, pounded by the Atlantic gales, was born Grace O’Malley, also known as Granuaile*, destined to become an outstanding woman of courage and adventure.


The environment she grew up in was dominated by fishing and trading.  Survival meant sailing to distant shores to trade for silks, wines and spices in return for wool, linen and hides.  Grace loved the sea and soon learned to navigate . When she married an O’Flaherty, she became a tough fighter and leader and often led raids on other ships.  After the death of her husband she proved to be a stout defender in fights both against other clans and against the English who were now determined to extend their rule across the country.


She returned to her native Clare Island castle and made a name for herself as a seafarer, trader and pirate.  Piracy was rife in those days and foreign ships were considered fair game.  She married Richard Burke and lived with him at his castle at Rockfleet until his death.  She was friendly with the two great Ulster chieftains O’Neill and O’Donnell.  This was viewed with suspicion by the English who greatly feared their growing power and influence.


English rule in the area was in the control of Sir Richard Bingham, governor of Connaught.  He was ruthless and unfair and Grace fell foul of him. Her livestock was confiscated, her son murdered, another thrown in prison.  So she bravely set sail for London to seek an audience with Queen Elizabeth I to plead for her son’s release and the return of her property.  Her boldness was rewarded and her request granted.  She returned to Rockfleet in triumph.


During her final years she heard of the defeat of her old allies in the Battle of Kinsale. It must have saddened her to realise that she was among the last of the Chieftains and that her death marked the end of a significant era in Ireland’s history.

*Grace O’Malley is popularly called Granuaile.  The story goes that she tried to sneak aboard her father’s ship which was about to set off on a voyage, and cut off her hair so as to look like a boy.  This caused great amusement when she was discovered and her father is supposed to have laughingly called her Granuaile (the Irish word maol means 'bald').

Reproduced by kind permission of Greenleaf Publications Ltd.

To learn more about the Irish Pirate Queen, and to see some of her ruined castles from your saddle, take one of our Connemara Castle & Manor,  or  Burren, Aran Islands and Connemara bike tour.  #pedalon