Mayo’s romantic pirate queen Grace O’Malley

 Burrishoole Abbey

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

None captured those traits more than the original Wild Atlantic Woman:  Grace O'Malley or Grainne Mhaol (sometimes written as Granuaile), the pirate queen of Connaught. 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 (1530-1603) 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. Another was Cathair-na-Mart which stood on the site of Westport House, still owned by her descendants the Browne family.

The sea was in Grainne Mhaol's blood as the O'Malleys were a long-established seafaring clan. She got the name Grainne Mhaol (Bald Grainne) 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.  Even in her childhood, she displayed 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, Donal O'Flaherty, in his role as clan 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 Barbary Coast Pirates.  It is said that having just given birth, she put her nursing newborn aside and joined her army to lead them to victory.

Gaelic law ordinarily prohibited a female chieftain but this did not deter Grace.  Her ability and success on the fields of battle and in trade – and maybe a little piracy thrown in for good measure – ensured her acceptance as a leader on land and sea.  She led a private army of 200 men and a fleet of ships and was described as ‘the most notorious woman in all the coast of an Ireland’ by Sir Henry Sidney in Elizabethan state papers.

All this wasn’t long in bringing her to the attention of Queen Elizabeth I and the London administration.  With sword in hand, she had led the local clans 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 deprivation – imprisonment, the seizure of her lands and cattle and even the murder of her own son.  At the time Irish clans were not inclined to form lasting alliances and when her two sons and her half-brother were captured Grace felt she had no choice but to negotiate her own family's survival.

In 1593, Grace set sail from Clew Bay for Greenwich in London to visit Queen Elizabeth I. It was no easier to get an audience with the Queen of England than it is today, particularly for a woman with a list of sins such as disloyalty, rebellion and piracy. Nonetheless, Grace skillfully negotiated court etiquette and politics and finally met Queen Elizabeth I.

They met as old women and acknowledged each other as queens in their own right and spoke in their only common tongue, Latin. Grace somehow managed to persuade Queen Elizabeth to ignore her litany of wrongs and the recommendations of her own military generals and ensured Grace’s family’s safety and freedom.

Grace O’Malley’s legacy lives on. Tibbot-na-Long’s great granddaughter, Maude Bourke, married John Browne, from whom the family who now live in Westport House descended. 

In a continued line of strong women, Grace’s 14th great-granddaughters now operate one of Ireland's most significant heritage and family attractions in Westport House, site of one of Grace O’Malley’s castles.


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