Grace O'Malley
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The history of the Irish people can never be complete without a mention of the name Grace O’Malley. She was a 16th-century Irish warrior, captain, pirate, rebel and the lord of the O’Malley dynasty in County Mayo in the province of Connacht, western Ireland. Grace O’Malley’s achievements are even more astonishing given the fact that she was born in an era when women were only seen and not heard. Find out more about the life story of this brave and fearless queen of the sea.

Grace O’Malley Biography

Grace O’Malley was born in 1530 at her family’s Belclare Castle in the Clew Bay area, western Ireland. Her father’ name was Eoghan Dubhdara O’Malley while her mother’s name was Maeve Ní Mháille (anglicized version – Margaret). At the time Grace was born, Ireland was semi-independent from the direct rule of England. While the English governed the east of Ireland, the western part of Ireland was pretty much autonomous and was divided into roughly 40 ‘kingdoms’ ruled by various dynasties.

One of such dynasties was the O’Malley dynasty. Grace’s father was the lord of the O’Malley dynasty. The dynasty not only controlled the Clew Bay area and its shores but also ruled a ‘village’ named Murrisk in County Mayo. The O’Malleys were a legendary seafaring family. They prospered from shipping, ferrying, and trading in countries such as France, Spain, and Portugal. The dynasty was known as ruthless pirates, they plundered ships that passed through their shores to get to the famous trading city of Galway. In addition, the dynasty taxed fishermen who wanted to fish off their coast.

Facts To Know About The Pirates Queen

During her childhood, Grace O’Malley spent time at her family’s Belclare castle as well as Clare Island. Grace was what you could call a feminist. She wasn’t satisfied with just staying at home and cooking, she wanted to work alongside her father and demanded that he take her on his next voyage. History has it that her father did not want her to come along, thinking that she would only constitute a nuisance. He, therefore, made up an excuse that her hair was too long and would get tangled in the ship’s lines or ropes. Undeterred, Grace went off and cut her off her whole hair. When her father came out the next morning, she was already waiting for him and her father had no choice but to take her.

This would prove to be the first of the many voyages she would embark upon with her father. She proved herself a better sailor than most of the others and quickly learned the ropes of the family ‘trade’. Grace proved herself so capable that when her father passed away, she was made the lord of the O’Malley dynasty ahead of her elder brother.

Grace O'Malley
A bronze sculpture of Grace O’Malley at Westport house, built on the ruins of her former castle: Image Source

Her Marriage

Grace O’Malley got married to men that had the necessary ‘political capital’ to help her achieve her ambition. She got married at 15 to Donal O’Flaherty, who was the heir of the O’Flaherty dynasty that ruled the entire province of Connacht. They had three children together namely Owen, Margaret, and Murrough. Donal was killed in 1565 in an attack by a rival clan. Grace was 23 years old at the time. Even though she was grieving, Grace was able to mobilize her men as well as those of her husband and drove out the aggressors who had taken over her husband’s Castle.

Thereafter, Grace went back home to Clare Island. She integrated her husband’s resources into the operations of the O’Malley dynasty and was able to extend her fortunes greatly. She commanded fleets of ships and had as much as 200 men under her control. She also controlled several castles including the O’Malley Castle on Clare Island, Doona Castle (which she seized from the MacMahon clan), and Rockfleet Castle (belonging to her second husband). She continued collecting toll from ships that passed through Clew Bay and on some occasions, outrightly pillaged and looted the ships.

In 1566, Grace O’Malley got married to Richard Burke, whose family were the overlords of the entire County Mayo. They had one child together, Tibbot Burke. Grace briefly divorced Richard after just a year of marriage but they reconciled and remained together until his death.

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Relationship With The English

The English imposed their monarchy on Ireland in 1542 and Grace supported other Irish lords who were in an open revolt against the English. She took every opportunity she had to undermine the English and refused to surrender to the control of Sir Richard Bingham, the Englishman imposed as governor of Connacht province. When her rebellious activities became too much to bear, the English ambushed her Clare Island Castle in 1579 but they were soundly defeated.

Matters got to a head in 1593 when Sir Richard Bingham captured and imprisoned two of Grace’s sons as well as her half-brother, Dónal na Píopa. Grace had no choice but to go and meet Queen Elizabeth in England in order to secure their release. She had an interesting audience with the Queen. Legend has it that she refused to bow before the Queen as she did not recognize her as the ruler of Ireland. Furthermore, Grace carried a dagger under her dress which she claimed she brought for her protection. Grace and the queen discussed in Latin and the queen acceded to most of Grace’s demands. Her family was freed and the governor was briefly removed but later reinstated. This irked Grace who saw it as the betrayal of an agreement. Thus she returned to supporting the Irish rebel lords.

Grace O’Malley died at Rockfleet Castle in 1603 and was laid to rest in the Cistercian Abbey on Clare Island.

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