Who Was Grace O'Malley?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2019
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Grace O'Malley is the English name of Ireland’s most famous female pirate, Grania Ni Mhaille. A contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I of England, Grace controlled much of the Irish west coast, relying on piracy and trading to make her fortunes. He power and reputation grew to be so large, she eventually met with Elizabeth in England, in one of the most storied meetings of the 16th century.

The daughter of a successful shipping merchant, Grace O'Malley is believed to have been born around 1530. Her father was the influential head of the O’Malley clan, and Grace is believed to have had some formal education. At about 16, Grace’s family entered her into a political marriage with the powerful O’Flaherty clan, which resulted in three children. Grace is believed to have been extremely charismatic and popular, and following her husband’s death, many O’Flaherty clan members chose to leave their ancestral homes and join her at her castle on Clare Island. However, she was cheated out of some of her rightful estates by rivals, a mistake she would not allow to happen a second time.


O'Malley was a natural ruler, and decided to enlarge her holdings by marrying a second time. After the first year of marriage ended, Grace divorced her husband and managed storm and hold onto the strategically important Rockfleet Castle, which had belonged to her husband. Grace O'Malley is believed to have had at least one son from this brief marriage, and may have had others out of wedlock.

The powerful woman’s most profitable method of income was based on a policy similar to that of the English controlled territories. Grace employed dozens of ships to tax any ship found in her territorial waters. The tax collecting ships were given orders to obtain the money by any means, including extreme violence. Because of their superior knowledge of the Irish coast, Grace’s ships could easily escape any vengeful actions.

One famous legend about Grace O'Malley occurred during her marriage to Donal O’Flaherty. Donal is believed to have been quite arrogant, having taken a castle from the Joyce Clan and bragged extensively about it. The sulky Joyces called the fortress Cock’s Castle, but the name was changed after Donal’s death. When the Joyce clan attempted to seize the castle back from Grace, they were severely beaten as they had underestimated her abilities. Afterwards, the castle was locally renamed Hen’s Castle.

During Grace’s rule, English dominance in Ireland became increasingly widespread and the English government was not pleased with O’Malley’s exploits. In 1593, three of Grace’s relatives were taken captive by the British, and Grace took the dangerous chance of going to England to meet with the queen about their release. Famously, the meeting took place in Latin, as Grace O'Malley did not speak English and Elizabeth did not speak Gaelic. Many stories and songs have been written about the long conversation between the two women, one who ruled in name and the other who ruled simply by force. Although no transcripts of the conversation exist, Elizabeth ordered the release of Grace’s relatives and made several other bargains with her.

Despite signing agreements with Elizabeth to cease any pirate activity against the English, Grace O'Malley broke her promises on learning that Elizabeth was not sticking to her some of her bargains. She is believed to have died in 1603, the same year as her British contemporary. Grace O'Malley is a legendary figure in Ireland today, and the subject of many ballads, songs and stories. Her courage and abilities have been translated into characters for books, TV shows, and a rumored feature film.


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