Grace O’Malley (also called Granuaile) was a famous pirate, seafarer, trader and chieftain in Ireland in the 1500’s. She was born in 1530 in County Mayo, Ireland and was the daughter of sea captain Owen O’Malley. As a young child, Grace always knew she wanted to be a sailor but as a female, she was discouraged repeatedly. Her family had become wealthy mainly through fishing and trade, but in her later life, Grace took up piracy by taking on Turkish and Spanish pirate ships and even the English fleets. She grew her estate to include a fleet of ships as well as several islands and castles on the west coast of Ireland.
In her later years, Grace developed her reputation as a fearless leader through her efforts in battle along side her followers. Legend has it that Grace gave birth to one of her sons while out to sea. The very next day following the birth of the baby, the ship was attacked by Turkish pirates. Though exhausted from giving birth Grace grabbed a gun, went on deck and proceeded to rally her men against the Turks, forcing their retreat.
Grace married two times in her life. Her first husband was Donal O’Flaherty who was the son of the chieftain of the O’Flaherty clan and next in line for the post as chieftain. Grace and Donal married when she was about 16 years old. In those times, it was common for families to arrange marriages so the union between Grace and Donal was probably more political than emotional at first. Later in life, Grace visited Queen Elizabeth to make peace and ask for the release of her brother and son. Events leading up to the meeting between Grace and Queen Elizabeth had a significant impact on the meeting itself and Grace’s behavior afterward.
Over Grace’s lifetime, the English had taken over much of Ireland a piece at a time through a process called “Submit and Regrant.” The English would convince (or force) Clan leaders to submit their lands to the English and in return they were given an English title. Some Chieftains surrendered, many rebelled– Grace among the rebellious. She maintained her independence longer than most of the rest of Ireland, but in her later years, the pressure from English forces began to weigh heavily on her.
At 56 years old, Grace was captured by Sir Richard Bingham, a ruthless Governor appointed by the Queen to rule over the regranted territories. Soon after his appointment, Bingham sent guards to arrest Grace and have her hanged. Grace was apprehended and along with members of her clan, imprisoned and scheduled for execution. Determined to die with dignity, Grace held her head high as she awaited her execution. At the last minute, Grace’s son-in-law offered himself as a hostage in exchange for the promise that Grace would never return to her rebellious ways. Bingham released Grace on this promise but was determined to keep her from power and make her suffer for her insurrection. Over the course of time, Bingham was responsible for taking away her cattle, forcing her into poverty, even plotting the murder of her eldest son, Owen.
During this period of Irish rebellion, the Spanish Armada was waging war against the English along the Irish and Scottish coastlines. It is not known whether Grace assisted the English against the Spanish or if she was merely protecting what little she had left– but around 1588, Grace slaughtered hundreds of Spaniards on the ship of Don Pedro de Mendoza near the castle on Clare island. Even into her late 50’s, Grace was fierce in battle.
In the early 1590’s, Grace was still virtually penniless thanks the constant efforts of Bingham to keep tight controls on her. There was a rather large rebellion brewing and Bingham feared that Grace would run to the aid of the rebels against the English. He wrote in a letter during this time that Grace was, “a notable traitoress and nurse to all rebellions in the province for 40 years.”
Grace had written letters to the Queen demanding justice, but received no response. In 1593, her son Theobald and brother Donal-na-Piopa were arrested and thrown into prison. This was the final straw that prompted Grace to stop writing letters and go to London in person to request their release and ask for the Queen’s help in regaining the lands and wealth that were rightfully hers.
Grace set sail and managed to avoid the English patrol boats that littered the seas between her homeland and London. The meeting took place in Greenwich Castle. The only record of this meeting that has survived are the lyrics to an old song that tell of Grace’s presence in the court of the Queen. Granuaile was known as a fearless leader and fierce fighter. In her 70 years of life, she and her family saw the English rule spreading throughout Ireland, but through her strength and leadership saw that her clan and those around her were mostly unaffected by it. It is said that from the year of her death in 1603 and onward, that no Irish chieftain had been able to preserve the old Gaelic way of life as Granuaile and her family had done in her lifetime.