GRACE O’MALLEY (1530-1603) – Balladeer’s Blog takes a Saint Patrick’s Day look at Ireland’s notorious Grace O’Malley aka Grainne O’Malley aka Grania or Granuaile O’Malley. This woman was the head of the O’Malley faction in West Ireland and became legendary through her real and embellished career leading pirate crews against her enemies.
Grace became the O’Malley leader after the death of her father, despite this being unprecedented for a woman under the customs of the time. As Chief of the Name, Grace was the acknowledged power when it came to the O’Malley lands and seafaring ventures.
In 1565, during Clan warfare in Ireland, Grace’s husband Donal was killed in an ambush and his slayers in the Joyce Clan moved against the O’Malleys. The Joyces tried to take the island stronghold that later became called Hen’s Castle in honor of Grace O’Malley.
Though they had not expected any real resistance from a family led by a woman, Grace stunned the Joyces by out-generalling them and forcing them to retreat.
On another occasion, British forces were besieging Hen’s Castle and its tiny island home. When the O’Malleys ran out of ammunition, Grace had the lead roofs of the castle melted down for new shot and shell, then forced the Brits to retreat to the mainland. After that, O’Malley led her pirate ships against the British land forces, causing them to abandon their siege.
The fiery O’Malley leader then made what is now called Granuaile’s Castle on Clare Island the new center of her forces. Continuing to lead her pirate fleet, Grace also extorted money for safe passage from those ships which did not wish to be plundered. In addition, she controlled fishing in the area.
For a time, Grace refrained from remarrying and on Saint Brigid’s Day made a handsome storm-washed castaway named Hugh de Lacy her lover until he was killed by the forces of Clan MacMahon. To avenge the dead man, our Pirate Queen led sea raids against the MacMahon presence on Cahir Island, burned all their boats, then attacked the MacMahon stronghold of Doona Castle in Blacksod Bay. Grace’s violent revenge earned her another nickname – “the Dark Lady of Doona.”
When she wasn’t waging war on other Clans, O’Malley was at sea, leading her swashbucklers against merchant shipping, largely from the Galway Corporation.
Before the year 1566 ended, Grace married Richard-an-Iarainn aka Iron Dick Burke, and through him added Rockfleet Castle in County Mayo to her holdings. The marriage was one of those odd “after a year either party can initiate a divorce just by saying so” setups in Ireland of the time.
Just over a year later, the Pirate Queen, thoroughly entrenched in Rockfleet Castle during Iron Dick’s absence at war, informed him upon his return that she dismissed him and was keeping the castle. Richard, still enthralled with Grace, let her keep the castle as a gift but remained married to her.
Grace’s marriage to Richard had produced a son, Theobald, in 1567, and she delivered him on board her flag ship while at sea. This was her fourth child, after her first marriage had resulted in a daughter named Maeve and two sons named Owen and Murrough.
Around this time (some accounts claim right after she gave birth to Theobald), O’Malley led her crew in a bloody clash with Turkish pirates and defeated them.
Among the Pirate Queen’s further adventures was withstanding an attack on Rockfleet Castle on March 8th of 1574 by British land and sea forces commanded by William Martin. O’Malley’s leadership enabled her men to blunt the initial assault, forcing Martin to settle in for a siege. On March 26th, Grace led her forces against the British in open battle and caused Martin to retreat.
While leading a raid against the Earl of Desmond in 1577, O’Malley was captured and imprisoned, first in Limerick and then at Dublin Castle. Eventually, Grace was released on a promise to refrain from piracy, but she went back on that promise and resumed leading her three pirate ships, with a few hundred men as the crews.
In 1579, Rockfleet Castle again withstood a military assault.
In the 1580s, the Pirate Queen preyed heavily on Spanish galleons, earning a certain begrudging respect from Queen Elizabeth the First and her circle.
As Grace O’Malley grew ever older, she was often preoccupied with political intrigues and feuds with other Irish authorities, especially those cooperating with Great Britain, which had recently reasserted its control of Ireland through military campaigns.
O’Malley’s famous 1593 audience with Queen Elizabeth was held to obtain an assurance of her relative autonomy in her region, helping Grace keep her political enemies at bay for a time. In 1603, this colorful figure passed away in Rockfleet Castle.
Grace O’Malley has been honored in songs, poems, musicals, and plenty of books, both fiction and non-fiction. There is even an Irish pub named after her.
FOR MY LOOK AT THE IRISH WILD GEESE, THE EXPATRIATE SOLDIERS OF IRELAND, CLICK HERE.
FOR MY REVIEW OF A MODERN DAEDALUS, THE IRISH SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL FROM 1887 ABOUT AN IRISHMAN WHO FIGHTS ENGLAND THROUGH HIS INVENTION WHICH LETS HIM FLY, CLICK HERE.
FOR THE SONG GOD SAVE IRELAND CLICK HERE.
20 responses to “GRACE O’MALLEY: THE PIRATE QUEEN OF IRELAND”
What a great story. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of her, especially with my Irish roots.
I wouldn’t have ever heard of her either, except for James Joyce mentioning one of her exploits in his novel Finnegans Wake.
She was a woman and a half all right. Wonderful to see this blog about her. We also found a cocktail named after her in Prague.
Thanks! That is great about that cocktail.
We ordered one too!
I hope it was a terrific drink!
You bet it was. With a capital T. On happy hour too.. .. xxxxx
Alas the hotel we are going to this year is a diff one….. But we will find a Grace cocktail.
You sound determined.
we are going back in May for the 3rd ti,e . It is quite a city xx
I hope you have another great time!
It is a wonderful city. We do….in this cost of living crises especially love the prices there . But it is beautiful and very welcoming
That is good to hear!
A good read! This is another character from history that has been almost completely reinvented.
Thanks! Yes she has!
I love Mayo and that part of Ireland, it just feels your soul with something you can’t find anywhere else. However, you post made me enjoy the history a little bit more. She sounds like my kind of leader. Great read.
It sounds like a beautiful area! And yes, this woman should be as well known as Robin Hood.