Grace O'Malley

Grace’s reputation as a ruthless and admired Queen and sailor lives on even today, with her legendary exploits making her one of Ireland’s most well-respected and memorable figures.

Interesting facts:

Early Life: 

Born into a clan of seafarers Grace’s family were amongst the most adept in West Ireland, controlling most of the Barony of Murrisk in County Mayo. From an early age, Grace’s father regaled his daughter with thrilling stories from his trading expeditions. She quickly became determined to follow in her Father’s footsteps, much to the dismay of her Mother who expected young Grace to stay home and become a lady as per her social standing. Irish legend has it that the young Grace defied convention by shaving off all her hair, dressing in boy’s clothes and presenting her new look to her dismayed Father. The story followed Grace around for life, earning her the nickname ‘Grainnie Mhaol’ or Grace the Bald. Once the shock had worn off, Grace’s Father must have been assuaged by her fiery resolve as she went onto accompany him on international trade expeditions and was involved in all aspects of ship maintenance. On one occasion Grace saved her Father from an attacking English fleet, rallying the troops and repelling the attacking ships. It was a sign of the things to come.

Career: 

At the age of sixteen Grace was married to Donal O’Flaherty, next in line to be chieftain the O’Flaherty clan. The marriage proved a useful alliance as the combined searing might of the two clans meant that they came to dominate most shipping lanes around the area, trading across Western Europe. Conflict with the rival Irish clans was inevitable and Donal eventually met his end in 1566 after seizing a rival clan’s castle. The defeated clan, the Joyces, struck back hard to regain the castle and Donal was killed in the fighting. Donal had always been a man of violent temper but by the time of his death he had already been eclipsed by the actions of his wife. The O’Flaherty men at arms instinctively followed Grace thereafter and she grew her Piracy empire, controlling 5 key Castles in the area.

The final Castle to gain control of was Castle Rockflee, owned by Richard Burke, head of the MacWilliam clan. Grace proposed a year marriage to Richard, arguing that their marriage would be beneficial for both parties, allowing them to resist the impending English invasion together. Grace bore Richard’s son in addition to the three from her previous marriage, thus securing the inheritance of Rockfleet, then promptly displayed her political nous by divorcing Richard and locking him out of his own Castle… but not before defending her new-born son from an impromptu pirate attack. By now, Grace was upping the ante on a weekly basis and the English Governor in Connaught had seen and had enough. That man was the professional soldier Richard Bingham, a man who had cut his teeth as a warmonger under the tutelage of John of Austria during his wars with the Turks. As clever and skilled as Grace was, she was no match for Bingham who eventually captured Grace and a number of her followers in 1586.

Bingham was set on hanging them until one of Grace’s sons, aware of the English legal code, offered himself as a hostage. This meant Grace had to be released in situ, under an oath that she would cease all sea activity and handed over most of her livestock and land. By denying her the twin sources of her wealth, Grace was forced into poverty, with her son still held under pain of death should she return to her old ways. Bingham was not content however and knew he needed greater collateral. In 1593 he ordered the arrest of Grace’s second son and her brother.

Grace and Elizabeth I:

Desperate and outmanoeuvred, Grace appealed directly to the English Queen, Elizabeth I. She did not receive a reply. Ricking imprisonment and execution, Grace sailed to England to appeal in person where Elizabeth did grant her an audience. The two women must have struck up a mutual admiration as the Queen acquiesced to the demands of the Pirate and conceded that she had acted in self-defence. Elizabeth ordered the release of Grace’s family and the release of her lands in return for her loyalty and assistance against England’s enemies. Humiliated, Bingham continued to hold Grace’s lands under various pretences, continuing to seek a decisive military strike. Grace never afforded him the opportunity and the two would continue to be at war until 1603 when Grace died, aged 73.

Grace’s reputation as a ruthless and admired Queen and sailor lives on even today, with her legendary exploits making her one of Ireland’s most well-respected and memorable figures.  

Connections to Places

Ashford Castle

Ashford Castle - Alongside the wild Lough Corrib stands one of the world’s great hotels. Co Mayo, Ireland

Alongside the wild Lough Corrib stands one of the world’s great hotels. Co Mayo, Ireland

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