“There came to me also a most feminine sea captain called Granny Imallye.”
This quote is from Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland. “Granny Imallye” is really Grace (Grainne) O’Malley (Mhaille), also called Granuaile (meaning “bald” for her short hair). The occasion was Grace’s visit to Queen Elizabeth I in 1593. The etching here doesn’t seem to portray Grace in the way I see her, as a wild nonconformist, who was proud of her sexuality, a seasoned sea captain, and fierce in her protection of her family. She seems to me very much like the statue in County Mayo (below).
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
How Grace Got Started as a Pirate
The O’Malley clan had controlled the Atlantic coast of Ireland for centuries, with their large galleys that carried 200 fighting men. They have been called “mercenaries,” “plunderers,” ‘marauders,” and “pirates.” Mostly they fished, plundered other vessels for bounty, and fought battles with their rivals. They also had a string of strategically placed castles up and down the coast. They were called “lions of the great sea,” and their clan motto was terra marique potens, “powerful by land and sea.”
Grace was born around 1530 and she grew up on board ship, probably sailing with her father. She married Donal O’Flahety at 16. expecting to take up the traditional housewife roles. But being submissive to a husband after years out on the open sea was probably not for Grace. She had two sons and a daughter by Donal.
He died, and she had to fight for his lands and possessions because women couldn’t become a clan chief.
An old poem says of Grace:
“No braver seaman took a deck in hurricane or squalls since Grace O’Malley battered down old …castle walls”
The Adventures of Grace O’Malley
She fought like a tigress when her castle was taken after Donal’s death. Determined not to surrender, she had the lead roof of the castle stripped off to make molten lead to pour over the heads of the besiegers.
When her lover Hugh de Lacy was killed by the MacMahon clan, she captured their boats overpowered them, killed many, and took their castle for herself.
She was docked at Howth, near Dublin, and wanted hospitality at Howth Castle according to Gaelic law. But the castle was held by an English lord, who refused her that right. So she kidnapped his grandson and wouldn’t give him back until the Lord promised that the castle would never again be closed and an extra place would always be set at the table for visitors.
Grace gave birth on a ship, in a storm, while the ship was being besieged by rivals! (This might be an exaggeration.) It was said that she put down the baby grabbed a musket, and joined the battle.
She chose her second husband for his political connections, but it didn’t take long before she tired of him. After a one-year trial marriage, she locked him out of his castle (they later reconciled).
She was jailed several times and was on the run from the English governor Richard Bingham after her second husband’s death. The second time she was taken to Dublin Castle, which was reserved for the “most notable” prisoners. While her compatriots in the prison were executed, Grace was released after almost two years of imprisonment. No record can be found about why she was released.
Grace and the clans spent much of their time over the next decade fighting the English, in the person of Richard Bingham, governor of Connaught. He had been sent to break up the clans, and he took particular aim at Grace and her clan. He called her “nurse to all rebellions in the province for 40 years.”
Over and over, Grace would harass his troops and he would take her territory, killing rebels, taking their land, cattle, and goods. He impounded most of her fleet. The time of the clans was coming to a close, and the fight was bloody.
Grace O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth I
In 1593 Grace went to London to talk to Queen Elizabeth to ask for her help. Grace was now in her 60s, but she had some fight left. She was hoping to persuade the English queen to help a poor defenseless woman (Grace!) against the mean old English troops and to receive some provision because she was a widow.
Grace’s son had been locked up by Bingham for treason and he was to hang. Grace told the Queen she would fight the Spanish (Elizabeth saw them as the real enemy) if Elizabeth would help her. From June through September 1593 Grace patiently gave her testimony then waited.
Grace was reported to be barefoot when she saw the Queen, but she did wear her best Irish dress. One chronicle says that during her audience with the Queen she wiped her nose on her handkerchief and threw it in the fire, which scandalized the court. (It was noted that Irish won’t carry dirty things.) She also turned down the offer of becoming a duchess, saying that a title could not be conferred by a Queen on someone of equal status (another Queen!)
Finally, Elizabeth granted her petition and her son was released and Grace was free. She immediately went back to the sea – back to her pirating and plundering.
That must have been a fascinating time. Two powerful women were pitted against each other. Both had charisma and loyal followers. Both were determined to save their countries from outsiders.
The two women were also very different. Elizabeth was pampered and doted on. She had never traveled or led men personally. Grace, of course, had traveled often, was used to the rough life of the sea, and had loyal sailors she could count on.
Bingham was convinced that Grace had gotten the better of the Queen and he fought the decision but finally gave in. In a surprise move, two years later Bingham was sent home in disgrace and imprisoned.
Grace at the End of Her Life
Lifespans were much shorter in the 16th century, and the average age of women at the time was 40. But Grace broke the mold in this way too. She outlived two husbands, was chief of her clan for many years, took up pirating again when she got out of jail, and was still active up to her 70s, dying in 1603.
Grace’s Place in History
In the annals of the time, there is no mention of Grace O’Malley, a “remarkable bias,” according to her biographer Ann Chambers. It’s not surprising. The men who wrote the history of Ireland didn’t know what to make of her, so they ignored her. It wasn’t until much later that she became known through the folk tales of Irish storytellers and balladeers.
Grace’s name is seen in several places in the west of Ireland.
The Granuaile Visitor’s Centre in Louisburg, Co. Mayo, tells her story.
She has been the subject of many movies and books. If you are in Tampa, Florida, in February, you might see some of the Grace O’Malley Krewe in the annual Gasparilla Festival.
My main source was the biography above by Ann Chambers. You can find it in several editions.
I also found information in Rejected Princesses: Tales of history’s boldest heroines, hellions, and heretics by Jason Porath. 2016.
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