The history of women involved in piracy is far more fascinating and interesting than most would give credit for, thanks in no small part to Grace O’Malley. Not content with just being a pirate, O’Malley was a pirate queen, wielding immense power against the enemies of her beloved Ireland. Naturally, this astonishing figure attracted polarizing views in life and in death, so to simplify things, here are 42 facts about Grace O’Malley.
O’Malley’s first name is an Anglicized version of her true name. Properly spelled from its Irish roots, it would actually read "Gráinne". In Irish folklore and literature, she is also known by the name "Granuaile". No doubt her ghost would get revenge if we didn’t point that out to you English readers!
It’s not known when exactly O’Malley was born, but historians have pinpointed her birth year as 1530.
By the time O’Malley was born, her family had been settled in the Connaught area of Ireland for nearly three centuries.
O’Malley’s family lived in County Mayo. When O’Malley was first born, King Henry VIII of England technically ruled over the Irish lords and princes. However, the local rulers were more or less allowed to run their own affairs without much interference from England. As O’Malley grew up, however, this would change drastically.
O’Malley was actually born into pirate royalty. Her father was the chieftain of the clan and was called Owen "Black Oak" O’Malley. The family had a long history with the sea and was also known to make a living off being part-time pirates. So really, O’Malley was only continuing the family tradition.
One legend which survives about O’Malley’s childhood is that she wanted to go with her father on a voyage, but she was refused because she was a little girl. In defiance, she cut her hair, dressed as a boy, and joined the crew before anyone could uncover her disguise.
Due to the fact that she lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, there are no contemporary images of O’Malley which have yet been discovered. As a result, we can assume whatever we like about what she looked like.
In 1546, the teenaged O’Malley was married to Donal O’Flaherty, the heir to the O’Flaherty clan. This meant that O’Flaherty was set to rule West Connaught when he came into his title. Because marriages among the nobility were done more for advance rather than love, this would have been seen as a highly successful marriage for her.
O’Malley achieved a remarkable accomplishment for her day and age after her father passed on. Despite being a woman, O’Malley assumed leadership of her father’s clan. Given who she was, though, we doubt anyone disputed her position for long.
Being born into a high-ranking Irish clan, O’Malley likely received an extensive education, and she could speak fluent Latin besides her native Gaelic. Her travels across the sea also would have contributed to her knowledge of different languages and geography.
The motto of O’Malley’s family was the Latin expression "terra marique putens". Translated into English, this means "valiant by sea or by land". It’s safe to say that O’Malley lived up to that philosophy.
After 19 years of marriage and three children, O’Malley’s husband, Donal O’Flaherty, was hunting around Lough Corrib when he was ambushed and slain. This was likely due to a dispute between the clans over property. Following the loss of O’Flaherty, O’Malley took her family and most of O’Flaherty’s former followers back to her own family’s territory.
Actor Molly Lyons is known for her one-woman show about O’Malley, which she wrote and stars in. Her show has been internationally toured to much success. Though given the subject matter, we can’t be that surprised!
One of O’Malley’s most well-known actions as a pirate queen was imposing taxes on any ships which passed by her territory. This was partly done in revenge for the heavy taxes imposed on her by the English. O’Malley didn’t discriminate though; any kind of ship, crewed by any nationality, was subjected to payments to guarantee safe passage.
In 1986, American-Irish author Morgan Llywelyn wrote a book about O’Malley’s extraordinary life. It was titled Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas. No doubt she would have been proud of that title.
According to the legends, O’Malley gave birth to her third son on board a ship that was besieged by pirates just an hour later! Incredibly, the hot-blooded Irishwoman allegedly stowed her newborn inside her cabin and personally led the counter-attack—again, just an hour after giving birth. Whether this makes the story unbelievable or unbelievably metal is up to you.
O’Malley wasn’t above fighting her fellow Irishmen. O’Malley set herself up as a parallel power to the Irish government, to the point where her home was ransacked in 1579 by Sheriff William Oge Martyn. Despite bringing a sizable force from Galway, Martyn was utterly defeated and put to flight, presumably with O’Malley’s laughter ringing in his ears.
One anecdote about O’Malley involves her berating one of her sons during a battle at Kinturk Castle. When she was convinced that he was hiding from the worst of the fighting, the fiery pirate queen supposedly exclaimed in Gaelic, "Are you trying to hide in my [behind], the place that you came out of?" Frankly, that might be among the worst kinds of reprimand that any son’s ever had from their mother!
O’Malley’s third son, Tibbot, became the first Viscount of Mayo, his mother’s home county. He and his mother would work together for many years, fighting against the English several times. Tibbot would marry and have eight children, entering the Irish House of Commons as a politician.
O’Malley’s only daughter was called Maeve, and according to the histories, she was said to take a lot from her famous mom. Maeve also married one of her mother’s staunchest allies.
Incredibly, while O’Malley was defying the English authorities and openly rebelling against them, she also made a buck out of the English through legitimate business. In 1577, O’Malley infamously loaned troops and ships to English service, even as she continued to raid English ports.
Three different ships used by Commissioners of Irish Lights (AKA Ireland’s authority on its lighthouses) have been named after O’Malley’s moniker "Granuaile". The most recent example of the aforementioned ships was commissioned in 2005.
O’Malley’s second son was named Murrough, and he proved to be the exact opposite of his older brother. While Owen was a good-natured and dutiful son, Murrough was bloodthirsty and misogynistic man. He refused to acknowledge his mother’s authority because she was a woman, and even reportedly beat his sister on several occasions. After this, O'Malley refused to speak to him.
One of the O’Malley’s prominent biographers is the Irish novelist and biographer known as Anne Chambers. Not only is she acclaimed for writing about O’Malley’s life, she is also known for writing a biography about O’Malley’s son, Tibbott.
Many musicians have been inspired to sing about O’Malley’s life story, especially in Ireland. Chief among these musicians are The Indulgers, Dead Can Dance, and Gavin Dunne.
The primary antagonist in O’Malley’s life was Richard Bingham. Originally an officer in the Royal Navy, Bingham was appointed the governor of Connaught in 1584. This was part of an attempt by England to further impose its authority on the Irish. Antagonizing the locals, Bingham would crush any and all rebellions which sprung up from his tyrannical rule. As you can imagine, Bingham and O’Malley would butt heads more than once.
In the 1830s and 1840s, Irish academic John O’Donovan began collecting information on O’Malley based on the local traditions which had been passed down from generation to generation. Whether that information is valid will likely never be known until time machines are invented, but historians will always be grateful to O’Donovan for his part in preserving history.
In the mid-2000s, Morgan Llywelyn’s book about O’Malley was adapted into a sweeping musical titled The Pirate Queen. Starring Tony-nominee Stephanie J. Block as O’Malley, The Pirate Queen premiered in Chicago in 2006 and went to Broadway in 2007. Sadly, the musical mostly received negative reviews and was a financial failure.
Such was O’Malley’s power and influence that Richard Bingham once wrote that she was "nurse to all rebellions in [Connaught] for this forty years".
Irish composer Shaun Davey made a whole album about the pirate queen. Blending Celtic and Classical music together, the 1985 album Granuaile included vocals by singer Rita Connolly and Uilleann pipes by the renowned Irish musician Liam O’Flynn.
Clashes between O’Malley and the English resulted in the loss of her eldest son, Owen. Known for his kind and generous disposition, Owen was tricked out of his castle by Richard Bingham when Bingham took cattle which belonged to Owen. Bingham not only captured Owen, he also slew the young man and took his castle to boot.
The ever-growing conflict between O’Malley and the English reached its apex when Richard Bingham, having already taken the life of one of O’Malley’s sons, succeeded in taking her other sons as prisoners, as well as O’Malley’s half-brother. Rather than surrender, though, O’Malley had another idea. She sent a message directly to Queen Elizabeth of England to arrange a meeting.
Incredibly, despite the fact that two of her sons and her half-brother were being held as hostages by the English, O’Malley famously refused to bow before Queen Elizabeth I when the two women met at Greenwich Palace. O’Malley stated that she would not recognize Elizabeth’s authority over Ireland, and besides, she herself was a queen in her own right. We can only hope that she had a mic to drop in that moment.
If the sources can be trusted, the meeting between O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth was rife with tension. For one thing, O’Malley arrived at the meeting with a knife hidden on her person. When Elizabeth’s guards and courtiers were understandably alarmed at finding the blade during a body search, O’Malley explained that she carried it for her own protection.
The secret knife discovery wasn’t the end of the tension at O’Malley and Elizabeth’s meeting. At one point, O’Malley shocked the English members of the meeting when she brazenly blew her nose into a handkerchief and threw it in the fire. She actually had to tell Elizabeth that in Irish culture, a used handkerchief was immediately thrown away rather than reused.
O’Malley married a second time in 1566 to "Iron" Richard Burke—so named for his territory’s famous ironworks. While O’Malley would have a fourth child, this second marriage barely lasted a year. Allegedly, O’Malley made it clear that things were over between her and Burke when she leaned out of a window and screamed, "Richard Burke, I dismiss you!" Ouch…
During her famous meeting with Queen Elizabeth I of England, O’Malley was hampered by the fact that she spoke no English. Elizabeth, meanwhile, could not speak Irish Gaelic, so both women conversed in Latin.
Aside from the release of her family members, O’Malley made some other demands from Queen Elizabeth in exchange for her withdrawal from conflict and piracy. One was that Richard Bingham return the castle and land that he had stolen from her and her eldest son. Another was that Bingham be removed from his post in Connaught.
Although Elizabeth did recall Bingham as requested, she neither returned the stolen property nor did she even keep Bingham away that long before reassigning him to Connaught. As a result, O’Malley went back to supporting Irish rebels, specifically during the Nine Year’s War from 1594 to 1603.
One of the more romantic anecdotes about O’Malley involved her rescuing a shipwrecked sailor named Hugh de Lacy in the 1560s. After this meet cute, de Lacy and O’Malley would become lovers.
O’Malley’s affair with Hugh de Lacy was sadly short-lived due to O’Malley’s many enemies. In particular, the MacMahon clan wanted to hit O’Malley where it hurt most. In an eerie parallel to the passing of O’Malley’s first husband, de Lacy lost his life while out hunting. Of course, this led to O’Malley reaping bloody revenge against the MacMahons. She seized Donna Castle, owned by the MacMahons, and brutally slaughtered the clan that had orchestrated her lover’s demise.
The circumstances and even the year of O’Malley’s death are unclear and disputed amongst historians. It’s known that she was a very old woman when she passed on(estimated between 72 and 73 years old), and she may have perished the same year that her rival, Queen Elizabeth I, also passed on.
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