Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille in Irish Gaelic) was born into a noble family in 1530 in Co. Mayo, Ireland. It is believed her father taught her how to sail and conduct business as a young girl. Words used to describe her include: trader, pirate, chieftain, and the English considered her a traitor. It’s interesting to me that most of what we know about Grace comes from English writings and not Irish sources. If I find out why she was ignored by her own people, I’ll let you know.
At the age of sixteen Grace married her first husband Donal O’Flaherty by whom she had three children, two boys and a girl. It is believed to have been a politically motivated marriage, but they stayed together for nineteen years, until his death.
Sources differ on what happened next, some say she assumed leadership of the his clan on her son’s behalf, and others say the O’Flaherty’s refused to give her what she was due on her husband’s death. Under Brehon law (The Irish had their own system of laws that governed every part of their life.) any property she held when she entered the marriage would have stayed in her possession. She would also have been entitled to half of any profits they made while married.
Whatever the truth, it seems that Grace returned to the O’Malley clan in 1564. This is when she starts her life as an independent woman. With a base of operations on Clare Island, she earned a living using her father’s ships, and a private army of two hundred men. She traded, and demanded taxes from ships in her waters; this is where the piracy comes in. She was known for being an able sailor and commanded her ships in person.
In 1566 she married for the second time to Richard Burke (Also known as Iron Richard Bourke.) This was a trial marriage for one year. A trial marriage was another Irish tradition. A couple would marry for one year at the end of which they could decide whether to stay married or not. Grace moved her men and ships to Rockfleet Castle on Achill Island. It is believed, she then divorced Richard. But they must have been fond of each other because they stayed close until his death in 1583. By Richard, she had one son, Theobald. It is rumoured, she gave birth to him aboard one of her ships.
Now, this was a time when the English were forcing their way across Ireland, compelling the old Gaelic noble families to submit to English rule. At the heart of the matter is the English Crown’s insistence that the Irish adopt the English rule of succession, meaning that a title would automatically go to the eldest son. In the Irish clan system a vote was taken to choose the chief from the nobility of the clan. By ending the Irish vote of succession the English cheated Richard out of his leadership of the Mac William clan. Richard and Grace unite, supporting each other against their common enemy, resisting English rule over their lands. When Richard dies in 1583 she returns to her power base at Rockfleet Castle.
In 1584 Sir Richard Bingham is appointed English Governor. Bingham’s job is to subdue the Irish population. Grace resisted using her fleet to raid coastal towns, and disrupt English trade. She also carried supplies and troops for the rebels. Bingham seems to have really hated Grace, claiming she was "nurse to all rebellions in the province for this forty years." Pretending to want to negotiate a truce, Bingham finally captures her in 1586. He condemns her to death. She is saved when her son-in-law offers himself as a hostage. Grace continues to seek support for her cause, consulting with the O’Neill and the O’Donell clans in Ulster, who in turn, are seeking help from the King of Spain. Bingham reports Grace to Queen Elizabeth I, accusing her of treason.
Bingham continues to provoke Grace, stealing her possessions and ships. Grace writes to the Queen appealing for justice. In 1593 Bingham captures her son and charges him with treason, a charge punishable by death. Grace takes a gamble and journeys to England to meet with Queen Elizabeth at Greenwich.She was now sixty-three years old and showed no signs of slowing down.
Grace promises to fight the Queens’s enemy’s, if her ships and livelihood are returned. Elizabeth in turn has a great deal of compassion for Grace describing her as this aged woman. Perhaps Elizabeth finds in Grace a kindred spirit, because the Queen releases Grace’s son.
Bingham is recalled to England the following year. Grace returns to Ireland and her way of life, dying of what appears to be natural causes in 1603.
Nowadays, Grace O’Malley she is seen as an Irish hero and rebel. She was born into a time of great upheaval. The old Irish way and the Brehon system of laws were being eradicated by the English. Did she see herself as a rebel, a role model for women and Irish resistance? I don’t know, but her actions seem to indicate that she saw herself first and foremost as a mother, and leader. And like all good leaders she did what was necessary to continue her way of life. Whether it be raiding or negotiating with a queen. She was a strong woman and an excellent example to us all. Every May there is a festival, in Clew bay, Co. Mayo, to honour her life. I wish I could be there.
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