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The Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley

The Atlantic Ocean has played a significant role in shaping the physical personality of the coast through the centuries; it has had a massive impact on creating the personality of the people living on the outpost of Europe. They are fearless, doggedly determined, quick thinking and witty - all traits necessary for survival - even today! - Along the Wild Atlantic Way. 

And none more so than the original Wild Atlantic Woman:  a Grace O'Malley or Grainne Mhaol, the pirate queen of Connaught (1530 to 1603). Even by today's standards, one has to admit that it was pretty impressive that this daughter of a clansman commanded an army that ruled the seas from Scotland to Spain in the 16th century. 

Living through one of the most traumatic times in Irish history , Grainne Mhaol was the daughter of the chieftain of the O'Malley Clan who ruled the south shore of Clew Bay with a ring of castles including Clare Island and Cathair-na-Mart, the site on which Westport House, still owned by her descendants the Browne family, now stands. 

The sea was in Grainne Mhaol's blood as the O'Malleys was a long-established seafaring clan. She got the name Grainne Mhaol when as a mere child, she cut off all her hair to disguise herself as a boy in order to board her father’s ship. At the time, it was thought unlucky to have a woman on board a ship.  Even in her childhood, she displayed her determination and creativity. 

At fifteen, Grace O'Malley assumed the more traditional role of wife and mother but she quickly replaced her more reckless husband, the O'Flaherty Chieftain, in his role as Chieftain and avenged his murder. She later made another powerful political alliance when she married for a second time to the chieftain of the neighboring Bourke clan. A wily woman, she entered a trial marriage and subsequently divorced. 

In this marriage, in 1567, to Richard-in-Iron, she gave birth to Tibbot-na-Long, later viscount of Mayo, on the high seas as her ship was being attacked by Barbery Coast Pirates.  It is said that having just given birth, she put her nursing newborn and joined her army to lead them to victory. Any woman who has endured child birth can attest to the sheer strength of mind and character that this must have taken. 

Now, Gaelic law ordinarily prohibited a female chieftain but this did not deter Grace.  She led by example. Her ability and success on the fields of battle and in trade - and yes, maybe a little piracy thrown in for good measure - ensured her acceptance as a leader by land and sea.  She led a private army of 200 men and a fleet of gallery (ships) and was said to have been "the most notorious woman in all the coast of an Ireland" by Sir Henry Sidney in Elizabethan state papers of the time. 

This activity was not long in bringing her to attention of London and Queen Elizabeth I.  With sword in hand, she had lead the local claims in rebellions against individual English military generals who sought to curb her power and seize her lands as part of Queen Elizabeth's colonisation.  

Grace endured all kinds of imprisonment, deprivation, taking of her lands and cattle and even the murder of her own son.   Bearing in mind that it was a time when Irish clans were not inclined to form lasting alliances and so, Grace felt she had no choice to ensure her own family's survival. In 1953, Grace set sail from Clew Bay for Greenwich in London for a visit with Queen Elizabeth I. As you can appreciate, it was it easy to get an audience with the queen no more than it would be today. And particularly with a list of disloyalty, rebellion and piracy as long as her arm! Nonetheless, Grace skillfully negotiated the intricacies of court etiquette and politics and finally met with Queen Elizabeth I. They metas old women and acknowledged each other as queens in their own right.  As both didn't speak either Gaelic or English, they conversed in Latin. Testament to her powers of negotiation, Grace somehow managed to persuade Queen Elizabeth to ignore her litany of wrongs and the recommendations of her own military generals to ensure Graces family's safety and freedom until her death in 1603. 

Her legacy lives on.  Tibbot na Longs great granddaughter, Maude Bourke, married John Browne, from whom the Westport House family descended.  In a continued line of strong women, graces 14th great-granddaughters now operate one of Ireland's most significant heritage and family attractions in Westport a House, site of one of Graces castles.  

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