As part of Wicked Women Week, ANN O’REGAN explains why being Ireland’s most feared and successful pirate was not a job for the faint hearted – or a man.
In the sixteenth century lived a red-headed Celtic warrior and pirate, leading men into battle time and time again, amassing property and riches, married twice with lovers on the side, rebelling against the English crown. A formidable enemy of intimidation and brute force, controlling the coastlines of Ireland and Scotland, murdering all around and oh yes, a woman. You heard me. Let me tell you about Grace O’Malley, the Sea Queen of Connaught.
Grace O’Malley was born into a thriving shipping and trading family in 1530, well that was the official name, but it had another – piracy.
The young Grace’s determination to be a part of her father’s successful enterprise was discouraged, so in an act of defiance she cut off her long red hair and was known as Grace the bald or Granuaile. On one return journey from Spain that Grace had undertaken with her father, they were boarded by enemy pirates and Grace was ordered to hide.
Of course she disobeyed and climbed the rigging instead. On seeing her father being attacked, Grace jumped screaming from the rigging onto the assailant’s back and so began her life as the formidable Sea Queen.
Married at 16 to Donal O’Flaherty as a suitable match due to his wealth and ambition, Grace had three children by him and their stronghold was known as ‘The Cock’s Castle’ in Lough Lorrib. The Joyce clan were determined to take the fort and attacked, killing Donal in the process. What they hadn’t bargained for was a violent, angry widow who wasn’t giving up her home to anyone.
The furious Grace personally commanded her husband’s men and supervised the stripping of lead from the roof, melted it down and made shot to fire at her attackers below. The Joyce clan were so impressed, that they withdrew and renamed the place ‘The Hen’s Castle’, a name still in use today. Her success was short-lived however, as her two sons took the property and wealth from her.
A marriage of convenience
A tougher and wiser woman, Grace took a couple of hundred men and ran her piracy operations from Clare Island. Still not ready for complete independence, Grace sought out a further suitable marriage to increase her assets and standing. She wed Risdeárd an Iarainn Bourke, also known as Iron Richard and lived with him at Rockfleet Castle, a strategically valuable stronghold in County Mayo.
The new Mrs Bourke was no fool however, and their marriage was a one year contract under Brehon Law. When the year was up, she tossed Richard out on his ear and in the divorce Grace took possession of the castle.
This was not a woman to be messed with and she even gave birth to Richard’s son Tibbot on the high seas. In less than a day her ship was attacked by Turkish pirates and after casting the gibbering captain of her vessel aside, brandished a musket and blew every Turk in her sight away. The enemy ship was seized and the remaining crew killed.
Grace was quite the promiscuous woman and one of her lovers was a shipwrecked casualty of one her attacks, a much younger man called Hugh de Lacy. He was murdered by the McMahon clan of Ballycroy during a hunting expedition, an act they would soon regret.
Driven into a frenzied rage over the murder of her lover, Grace personally tracked the killers to the Holy Island of Caher in Mayo. There, everyone who had crossed her died at the grieving woman’s hand and all the boats were burned. This was not enough revenge for the fearless Grace however, so she travelled to Ballycroy and stormed Doona Castle, the family home of the McMahons and took it for herself.
All the while Grace was maintaining her hold over the shores and seas, demanding taxes from fishermen, raiding islands as far as Scotland and operating a protection racket which saw ships being boarded and cash or cargo being handed over in exchange for safe passage. Those who did not comply were savagely beaten or murdered by order of the Pirate Queen.
Blood and tears on the waves
Not satisfied that her henchmen were instilling enough terror on the waters, Grace hired a brutal and vicious gang of mercenaries known as the Gallowglass Warriors. These man were animals, bludgeoning and slashing everything and everyone who got in their way with their weapon of choice, the double headed Sparthe Axe, leaving a trail of blood soaked carnage in their wake.
In the late sixteenth century the Spanish were at war with the English off the Irish coast and Grace was not going to be collateral damage, so she took her men and butchered hundreds of Spanish soldiers on board ships near to her home at Clare Island.
As Grace O’Malley became more powerful and formidable, she upped the ante and began attacking castles and strongholds along the shores of Ireland, to the point where the English crown could no longer turn a blind eye to her criminal activities – particularly when most of the male clan chiefs had already surrendered land and wealth to Queen Elizabeth I.
The Governor of Connaught, Sir Richard Bingham was particularly angered at the Sea Queen of his province and her exploits. He sent men to attack her fortress, where upon she supervised the pouring of hot oil onto her would be captors and they withdrew. They didn’t get too far however, as Grace lit a beacon signalling her ships at sea to destroy the retreating English. Not bad for a female pirate who was now almost sixty years of age!
Outraged, Bingham arranged for the capture of Grace’s son and brother, with a view to holding them to ransom so that she would have to surrender her lands and spoils. What he didn’t bank on, was Grace setting sail for England and an audience with Queen Elizabeth.
Grace O’Malley meets Queen Elizabeth
The meeting between the two strong willed and fiery redheads took place on 6th September 1593, carried out in Latin as neither woman spoke the other’s native tongue. Without any bloodshed and just using her sharp mind and political skills, Grace O’Malley persuaded Queen Elizabeth to not only order Bingham to release her family and restore property, but also to grant permission for her to continue with her rebellious activities.
Grace continued to run her operation, switching sides as suited her needs to increase her holdings and wealth. Finally, after over half a century of violent, bloody piracy and conquest, Granuaile retired to Rockfleet Castle, never defeated, rich beyond measure and with a string of lovers at her disposal. She died in around 1603, in her seventies, notorious and still feared.
Immortalised in poems, plays, books and songs, when it comes to legendary kickass Pirate Queens, there is only one and her name is Grace O’Malley.