The story of Gráinne Ni Mháille or Granuaile (Anglicized as Grace O'Malley,
Grany Malley) reads like the most brazen and unlikely sort of adventure fiction,
but there's history as well as myth in the legend of the Irish noblewoman who
led a band of 200 sea-raiders from the coast of Galway in the sixteenth century.
Gráinne Ni Mháille the famed "Pirate Queen of Connacht" (Connaught), who
battled and raided the English, and eventually met with Queen Elizabeth I.
Gráinne was the only daughter of sea captain and clan chieftain Dudara ("Black
Oak") O'Malley, and Margaret O'Malley a noblewoman from another branch of the
clan. Dudara was the elected ruler of coastal territory including the south
shore of Clew Bay, and Clare Island where Gráinne is believed to have been born
and died. The O'Malleys made their living by the sea, but were not allowed to
trade in the nearest port, the English-controlled Galway, so they voyaged to
Scotland, France, and England's arch-enemy Spain.
According to legend, from her earliest childhood Gráinne wanted to go to sea.
Given her family's support of her unorthodox lifestyle later, it seems likely
that she was an accepted tomboy. Supposedly, her nickname "Gráinne Mhaol"or
"Bald Grace" comes from her cutting her hair as a child; the name was later
shortened to Granuaile. There are tales that, when they were attacked by the
English while returning from Spain, Granuaile ignored her father's order to hide
belowdecks, and ended up saving his life by leaping on an attacker's back,
causing a diversion that turned the battle in her family's favor.
Granuaile lived in a violent age, with the English increasingly dominating
Ireland and the local lords constantly fighting each other. Granuaile would gain
many of her titles and power through ancient pagan law and tribal traditions,
which the British system outlawed. The official English policy was "Submit and
Regrant," where the Irish noblemen who surrendered would be given English titles
and could lawfully hold their lands if they submitted to English rule and
English law - such as primogeniture, the oldest son inheriting all the titles
and power instead of the clan electing a new chieftain. In other words, the
Irish were being assimilated.
Granuaile entered this complex political arena - instead of leaving it - when
she got married, at age 15. Her first husband, Donal-an-Coghaidh ("Donal of the
Battles") O'Flaherty was the son and would-be heir of the O'Flaherty clan
chieftain, and the marriage was strictly a political alliance chosen by their
families. Granuaile had two sons from him, Owen and Murrough (more on them
later...). Donal may have murdered his step-nephew to advance his full nephew's
career. He was also extremely irresponsible, and soon the people in his
territories were starving.
Granuaile stepped in to lead the O'Flaherties out of crisis. Though she could
not legally hold office, she made herself their chief for all intents and
purposes, proving much more effective than her husband. Donal eventually got
himself killed fighting the Joyces (a rival clan) at their stronghold called
"Cock's Castle." Granuaile courageously attacked and defeated the Joyces and the
castle was then known as "Hen's Castle." Years later, Granuaile would defend the
castle against a large English force, by melting down the lead roof for
ammunition and routing the retreating English with her fleet.
Granuaile returned to O'Malley territory after Donal's death, and recruited a
crew of about 200 men under her command, earning her authority through her
intelligent leadership and knowledge of the sea. The O'Flaherty's had denied her
inheritance and power, so to earn money—and a lot of it—she used the strategic
base of Clare Island to control all shipping in that part of the coast, either
charging for protection, hiring out navigators, or just out-and-out raiding the
ships. She is said to have personally slaughtered the murderers of her lover, a
Norseman she'd rescued from a shipwreck; the killing added to her nicknames "The
Dark Lady of Doona" (where it took place).
To gain control of all Clew Bay, she married "Iron Dick Burke,"
Richard-an-Iarainn, who held Rockfleet Castle, near Newport. This is where
Granuaile lived most of her life. Oddly enough, Richard was Donal's sister's
son, the same nephew Donal had murdered for! Given her independence, as well as
obvious character issues with these men, Granuaile was fortunate that her
marriage followed the ancient, pagan Brehon legal system, which provided easy
divorce by either party during the first year (in stark contrast to 'modern'
Ireland, where divorce was legalized in 1995!). So, after exactly a year
Granuaile got herself firmly in control of the castle, and divorced Dick. She
filled the castle with her men and locked him out, while she shouted down at him
"you are dismissed!" However, they were apparently in love and remained together
until his death 17 years later, with Granuaile again surpassing her (ex)husband
in fame and power.
She gave birth to Richard's son Tibbott-ne-Long (Toby of the ships) while at
sea, when she was 37 - and the next day, Algerian pirates attacked her ship.
Though exhausted from labor, Granuaile charged up on deck and joined the battle,
which she won handily. This particular exploit illustrates a special problem
facing women adventurers and a butt-kicking job of overcoming it!
Granuaile became so powerful that the English laid seize to Rockfleet Castle
in 1574. After 18 days, Granuaile's defense turned into an attack on the
English, who were forced to retreat. However, two or three years later the
political situation forced her to at least give lip-service loyalty to the
English crown, and she met with Sir Henry Sidney, who described her as "a most
famous feminine sea captain." Sir Henry was the brother of the poet Sir Phillip
Sidney, who apparently spoke and wrote to Granuaile often, but unfortunately
their correspondence has been lost to time.
Granuaile continued to raid, however, and finally the English captured her in
1577. She was imprisoned for a year and a half in Dublin Castle. Lord Justice
Drury called her "a woman that hath impudently passed the part of womanhood and
been a great spoiler and chief commander and director of thieves and murderers
at sea." Granuaile somehow managed to escape - apparently not so much by
daring-do as through shrew political bargaining, arranging her own release! She
led them to believe that she would betray Richard, who was then involved in an
uprising. Instead, she went back to Rockfleet and threatened an English tax
collector with death for having dared show up in her territory!
In 1583, Richard ("Iron Dick") died of natural causes. Far from getting
cheated out of her inheritance again, Granuaile stayed in Rockfleet Castle and
kept all his stuff. Unfortunately, the next year the Governor of Connaught died
and was replaced Sir Richard Bingham, who truly was a dick. This guy seems to
have been, well, a bit stubborn and insensitive...Bingham wanted to completely
break down the entire Gaelic culture and replace it with English ways, by any
means necessary. Eventually, in 1586, Bingham captured Granuaile and her
followers. He tied them up and stole their possessions, and even built the
gallows to hang them on.
Granuaile bravely faced death, but it was not yet her time - her son-in-law
took her place as hostage. Granuaile was left alive, but impoverished. Sadly,
her son Owen O'Flaherty was not so lucky. He was brutally murdered. Bingham's
cruelty initiated numerous rebellions, and Granuaile's ships transported the
rebels and Scottish soldiers who joined their cause. However, even her son
Murrough (Owen's full brother!) sided with Bingham, so Granuaile came with her
navy and burned down his town, stole his cattle and killed a few of his
This leads us to the great meeting of the queens - Granuaile the "Pirate
Queen of Connacht," and Elizabeth I. Granuaile realized she had to go over
Bingham's head if she wanted to save herself and her son. She began writing to
the queen in July of 1593, and her letters reflect her political savvy. Of
course Elizabeth had heard of Granuaile's infamous criminal career, but
Granuaile put the best possible spin on it - that the situation "constrained
your your highness fond subject to take arms and by force to maintain herself
and her people by sea and by land the space of forty years" - ie., a very
diplomatic way of saying 'we had to steal because you were making us starve.'
She also wrote to the queen that, if she was able to maintain some of her power,
she and her army would "during her life to invade with sword and fire all your
Highness's enemies wheresoever they are or shall be without any interruption of
any person or persons whatsoever." That last bit implied, 'and Bingham, that
means you!' and calling him an 'interruption' shows her gift for
Queen Elizabeth wrote back, with a list of 18 questions no less. Granuaile
shrewdly answered them, in ways that downplayed her obvious conflicts with the
English but not her political and military power. But that was not enough for
Granuaile--she had to meet Elizabeth face to face. So she sailed down to
Greenwich and announced herself at court. It is unknown what was said at their
private summit, but it may have been in Latin. However, it did result in
Elizabeth ordering Bingham to release Granuaile's son Tibbott (the one born at
sea). Bingham balked at this, releasing him but making his soldiers stalk
Granuaile everywhere, but he was soon fired two years later.