Gráinne Mhaol, Ireland’s Pirate Queen

“A woman who overstepped the part of womanhood”

Comment from one of her many detractors.

Few historical characters have made such an imprint on Irish folklore and legend as Gráinne Ní Mháille (Anglicised as Grace O Malley, or simply Granuaile). Luckily outside of the oral tradition, we have a number of historical accounts (almost all from English sources) detailing the life and exploits of this extraordinary woman.

Her family were accomplished seafarers, with her father known to have travelled often between Ireland, Scotland and Spain. This seafaring lifestyle set the O Malley’s apart from most clans. The family motto “Terra Marique Potus” (Powerful by land and sea) illustrates their overall efficacy quite well. Control of the waters of their territory allowed them to levy tolls for safe passage and for fishing rights. In 1579, we see an account from an English admin claiming that each year 50 English ships would have to pay a “great tribute” to the O Malleys in order to fish there. The fertile waters filled with Hake, Herring, Cod, Ling, Turbot, Salmon and shelfish provided an important source of income for the O Malley Clan as well as making nets and building fishing boats. They also supplemented their coffers by means of piracy, a long standing family tradition, and in this regard Gráinne was lightyears ahead of her ancestors.

Born circa 1530, she was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara (Black Oak) Ó Mháille, chieftain of Umhaill, Co Mayo. Although Gaelic tradition barred her from holding the chieftainship, This certainly didn’t stop her being a trailblazer by sea, even though it was a rarity for women to helm a ship (not to mention them generally being considered bad luck on ships). This fact no doubt accounted for her notoriety and made her stand out. Had she been born a son to Eoghan, she may have faded into obscurity as just another seafaring O Malley. And this was a century and a half before the Irish women Anne Bonny and Mary Reid were forging their high seas careers in the Caribbean. Spending time as a child with her father on his trading and fishing voyages helped hone her skills on the sea, which taught her how to travel by star or by compass, how to divine the weather and navigate the treacherous waters. This intimate knowledge of the hard to navigate (and largely uncharted) inlets of her own territory certainly made her a force to be reckoned with.

Her first marriage to to Dónal “an Chogaidh” Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Donal of the Battles) produced two sons (Eoghan and Murchadh) and a Daughter (named Margaret after her mother). Eventually however Gráinne chose to leave Iar-Chonnacht, taking many of Dónal’s clansmen with her to live under her rule in Mayo. It was from here that she would start to really make a name for herself in her supposed 40 year career of piracy. From here they would swoop on merchants, many trying to make their way to Galway, and exact a toll for safe passage. These attacks by the Flahertys and the O Malleys were recorded in correspondence between Galway city and the English council in Dublin. Coming back to Dónal, he was Táinaiste elect for the O Flaherty clan and next in line for the chieftanship. Queen Elizabeth 1 threw a spanner in the works in that regard by promoting an upstart minor O Flaherty chieftain as chieftain of Iar-chonnacht. This was a complete repudiation of the native Brehon law system and a very effective divide and conquer technique*.One of many things that would set English law and Brehon laws on a collision course. Donal however, would be killed not long after this event, falling at the hands of his rivals, the Joyces. (*another common tactic at the time was that any captured children of Gaelic lords should be indoctrinated in English ways, thus transforming them from Gaelic chieftain to Anglicised Lord.

“A Nurse for all rebellion in the province for 40 years”

English military governor, Sir Richard Bingham referring to Gráinne, 1593

One of many legends relating to her tells of a time when Gráinne was on a religious Saint Bridget’s day pilgrimage to a holy well on Clare Island. News reached her of a shipwreck on Achill Island and neither the rough seas nor religious observance were enough to beat the draw of potential salvage. Among the wreckage, she was said to have found one Hugh de Lacy, son of a wealthy merchant from Wexford. The two soon became lovers. This however was to be a short romance as he was tragically killed by the Mac Mahons. she bided her time to get her revenge, till one day while looking from the parapets of her castle, she spied the Mac Mahons on pilgrimage to a nearby Island. She quickly swooped on them, destroying the ships and slaughtering them all. This not being enough, she went to Doona castle, routed it and claimed it for herself.

Another legend involves the heir to howth castle. She arrived at the castle one evening and was refused hospitality, a very serious slight in Irish culture. As she was leaving, she encountered the heir and subsequently kidnapped him. She was said to have been offered a significant amount of gold and silver that she turned down. Her terms: leave a side door to the castle open and always have an extra place at the table (The door is said to be still open to this day). Records do exist that mention that she was given a ring as a pledge.

By 1567, Gráinne now in her late 30’s had married again. This time to Richard an Iarann* Bourke, the owner of the castle most synonymous with Gráinne, Rockfleet Castle. Richard was also heir to the MacWilliamship, the most powerful title in Connaught (*The Iron, said to be either from the fact he wore an ancient suit of armour, or from the iron foundry on his land). They had one child issue from this marriage, Tibbot ne long or Toby of the ships (owing to the fact she was said to have given birth to him on her ship, mid battle). After a year, she was said to have made use of the Brehon Law practice of dismissing a trial marriage. She locked him out of his own castle and dismissed him from atop the parapets. They would however fight alongside each other for a couple of decades after this. Rockfleet Castle remained her main residence till her death in 1603. I should mention here also that both Gráinne and Richard made extensive use of the Gallóglaigh (Gallowglass) warriors from the Scottish Isles. These mercenaries, renowned for their fighting skill and prowess, were typically shipped over between May and October to be hired by Gaelic chieftains. The Ferrying of these soldiers of fortune was one of the many forms of seafaring activities and income of the O Malley’s. The clan most associated with the west of Ireland was the O Donnells. Clan Donnell would eventually settle in the west of Ireland as sub-chieftans of the O Malley’s in Umhaill. While these Gallowglass remained the mercenaries of the land, Gráinne and her sons were mercenaries on the water.

Circa 1577 after a botched raid of the Earl of Desmond, Gráinne was captured and imprisoned. She would spend the next few years incarcerated, first in Askeaton, then on to Limerick prison, Then Dublin castle. Desmond had originally intended to present Gráinne to the queen as a show of loyalty (but only 3 years after this he would be labelled a traitor and start a rebellion). After two years of incarceration she was released. The merchants of Galway didn’t waste any time upon her release, and hired a large sea borne force to attack her at her castle. She found no difficulty in routing this attack.

Not one for the quiet life. She would soon encounter one of her greatest adversaries, Sir Richard Bingham. Bingham would relentlessly harass Gráinne for many years. To the point she would try on numerous occasions to have him removed from his post. Somewhere around 1586 she was captured by Bingham, but her release was organized by her son in law, “the Devils Hook”. This was due to fact he was the only one of her relatives that wasn’t in open rebellion and as such, could be trusted. She wasted no time in gathering her galleys and heading to Scotland to hire more Gallowglass warriors. A storm damaged her galley and she ended up in Ulster. Here she struck up an alliance with Hugh Dubh O’ Donnell and Hugh O Neill (Táiniste of the Uí Neill chieftaincy). These men, who had once been bitter enemies, decided to bury the hatchet to form an alliance after seeing the effect the English had on Connacht and knowing what was likely in store for them also.

Circa 1591 Gráinne would receive news that her son Murrough ne Moar had submitted to Bingham. Gráinne was clearly incensed by this and “burned his town, spoiled his people and their cattle and killed three or four of his men”. A woman such as Gráinne would not let the simple fact of familial associations get in the way of her wrath. One legend tells of a time when her other son, Tibbot ne Long lost his nerve in battle and supposedly ran behind her. Gráinne was said to have shouted at him “An ag iaraidh dul i bhfolach ar mo thóin atá tú, an áit a dthánig as? (Are you trying to hide behind my backside, the place you came from?). There was no special treatment when it came to cowardice with Gráinne.

By 1592, Gráinne, her son and her step son were some of the only people who had not submitted to Bingham His relentless harassing of Gráinne would lead to him impounding her galleys, murdering her son, taking her cattle and ravaging her lands. Gráinne, now in her 60’s was still a force to be reckoned with. These events would lead her to try and petition the Queen in person, and that is exactly what she did in June 1593.

Legend would have you believe she stormed up the Thames in her Galley and waltzed right into court to Queen Elizabeth. She would spend a few months at court waiting to be seen. That being said, given her record of piracy, there aren’t many Gaelic chieftains who would have been bold enough to set foot on English soil, let alone stroll straight into court with a petition. The only other recorded chieftain to do this was Shane O Neill (1562). On being summoned to court, she was said to appear barefoot in Irish costume before Queen Elizabeth. A famous story of this meeting says that when presented with a fine lace trimmed handkerchief, Gráinne blew her nose in it and threw it in the fire. Elizabeth remarked how she was meant to put it in her pocket, to which Gráinne retorted that the Irish had a better standard of cleanliness. She was famously said to have declined the offer of the the title countess, as she was already an equal. As powerful as Elizabeth was, she had led an army or captained her own ship on the seas (despite giving herself the moniker of “the mistress of the seas” and could never compare to Gráinne in any way. Gráinne applied for a license so that during her life she would “invade with fire and sword, all the Queens enemies”. The reasoning behind this was that she could could undermine Bingham and do what she had been doing, but be untouchable by the English

Bingham would continue to be a thorn in Gráinne’s side for a number of years, by putting detachments of soldiers on her ships and pitting her against relations by saying they were rebels (Bingham still managed to undermine her licence by not only keeping tabs on her, but putting her under financial strain by having to support the Queens troops). Gráinne, not one to be undermined, offered to man her ships with 100 soldiers at her own cost from Easter till Michaelmass.

The exact circumstances of her death are unknown but it is believed to have occurred circa 1603 at Rockfleet castle. Whether she outlived Queen Elizabeth, who died the same year, is not known. She is said to be buried in the ruins of the Cistercian abbey on Clare Island. Even though she is absent from the Irish Annals, her legend continued strong within the oral tradition and still remains so to this day. There are few who have not heard Gráinne Mhaol and her fame will not be forgotten for many centuries to come.