Grace O’Malley

In honor of National Women’s month, each week I’m highlighting a different warrior woman who has inspired my writing.

Meet Grace O’Malley—or if you speak Irish with a Connacht dialect, you may recognize her as: Gráinne Ní Mháille, Gráinne O’Malley, Gráinne Mhaol, or Granuaile. I’m not very good at pronouncing any of those varieties, so I stick with Grace.

Grace was born to the chieftain of the Ó Máille dynasty around 1530 when King Henry VIII ruled England. She had a half-brother who she associated with, but her father granted her legal retainer of the family land, property, and seafaring activities.

The Celts were like the Vikings in their laws about women’s rights.

A stubborn child, at twelve or thirteen, Grace stowed away on her father’s ship because she wanted adventure and he told her no. This sounds very familiar to me . . .

Unlike Ingrid, Grace’s father taught her the ways of sailing, and the other business that went with it. Pirating.

Any vessel that entered Clew Bay, on the Western Irish coast, would pay tribute to the O’Malley’s.

The English stationed their Navy in Galway and started taxing the clans heavily to pay for their expenses. None of the clans liked it and fought back, but the O’Malley’s were especially proficient at harassing the Navy’s efforts. They used smaller, more maneuverable boats to hide among the multitude of inlets of Clew Bay. When a Navy ship entered, they darted out, raided the ship and left. The bigger vessel couldn’t catch them.

Grace was a very liberated woman, but she stepped back for a while when her father forced her into a marriage at sixteen. She had three children before her husband died. Afterward, she jumped right back into the business and took over operations. Over 200 hardened fighting men accepted her leadership without incident.

While searching for a shipwreck, for its bounty, Grace found a nearly drowned man. She took him home, intending to use him for ransom, but ended up falling in love. However, a rival clan tracked him down while he was hunting and murdered him. Grace was steadfast in the annihilation of the MacMahon’s. The attack earned her the nickname ‘Dark Lady of Doona’ when she took over their castle.

In 1567, Grace married again to Richard Bourke. He was also a temperamental sort, and he controlled the north half of Clew Bay. Together they ruled it all. However, after a year, Grace packed up Richard’s things and locked him out of the Rockfleet castle—Richard’s home. There are different stories whether Grace used her right under Celtic laws to divorce Richard, or if it was simply two hot-tempered personalities who lived better separately than together. Because for the rest of Richard’s life, they continued their relationship. Including having a child together.

Another legendary tale explains the situation surrounding the boy’s birth. Apparently, he was born at sea. A day after his birth, Algerian corsairs attacked the ship. Leaving her newborn, Grace went above deck and fought with her men, turning the tide of the battle. 

Grace would continue to battle the English for many years. But when Sir Richard Bingham took over as Lord President of Connacht, Grace’s life would take a turn. For a while, she and her men could battle the ruthless Englishman. He captured her eldest son’s castle, killed all his men, and murdered her son last so he could watch the others. He claimed the man was trying to escape, but they found his body tied up and with multiple stab wounds.

One of the most interesting pieces of Grace’s life is that she lived at the same time as Queen Elizabeth I. In fact, they were the same age. Because of her issues with Bingham, he sent many letters to the queen asking for help against Grace, or explaining what he’d done to stop her. When the two women were in their 60s, Grace sailed to England and they finally met face to face. They conducted the meeting in Latin since neither spoke the other’s language. It dismayed some when Grace did not bow to the queen. In her opinion, they were of equal status and Elizabeth did not rule over her part of Ireland. The best part is that Elizabeth didn’t seem to mind. The two got along well, and it’s said they stayed friends.

Nearly everything we know of Grace comes from the English correspondence. When the Irish wrote their history, they weren’t excited to have such a prominent woman as an example. So they didn’t include her. It wasn’t until the 1800s that John O’Donovan collected information about her. Today, there is a statue of her at Westport House in County Mayo and a casting of the same statue on the grounds (which is the picture above). Also fun to note: In Tampa, Florida, one crew that takes part in the Gasparilla Pirate Festival uses Grace as their inspiration. They’re called Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O’Malley.


Below is another article that goes into some more detail if you want to dig deeper into the fascinating woman, Grace O’Malley.