Written by Loni Stookey
Grace O’Malley as born in 1530 in Ireland to a family of Royal blood. Her father was the chieftan of the O’Malley clan and a very wealthy owner of a large fleet of merchant ships. From the time Grace was a small child, she loved the sea. She was a smart little girl and wanted to be a sailer on her father’s ships. The chieftan and his sons would laugh at her, a girl, wanting to work a ship. One day, after begging to go on a long voyage with her father and brothers, and being refused, she went into the bathroom with a sharp daggar, and cut off her beautiful long blond locks of hair. Grace put boy clothes, went back to her father, told him she could do anything her brothers could do, and demanded to be allowed to sail. Her father and brothers again laughed at the bald little girl, and gave her a nickname that would last 500 years, Ganuielle, which means, “Bald Grace.”
Grace was finally allowed to sail, still a child, legend tells of her father’s ship being attacked. As her father left her in the captain’s quarters, he told her to hide from the pirates, but Granuielle wasn’t one to hide from danger. She climbed the rigging unnoticed and watched the scene unfold. At one point, the pirate captain came up behind her father with his daggar drawn. It is said that young Grace, just 9 years old, jumped screaming, “Father!” from the rigging, unseen, onto the back of the pirate, making him lose his balance as she fell to the floor. Her father turned, drew his sword, and ran the man through as a frightened Grace watched with wonder.
With the death of their captain, the attacking crew felt their cause lost, and fled the ship, and thus began the fearless sailing career of Grace O’Malley.
At 16 years of age, this noble daughter of the famous O’Malley clan was given in Marriage to Donal, son and heir to O’Flaherty clan, who we also wealthy merchant ship owners. Grace left her family to live with her new inlaws, whom she likely had never known. It was a strategic alliance to empower the clans against the always looming British government. The British and Spanish, among others, would often attack the eastern shores of Ireland and the family’s fleet of ships to take posession of the goods traded.
The wise young woman, who had grown up sailing, soon added the experience of the O’Flaherty’s clan to her knowledge of the trading business. It wasn’t long before her in-laws realized the young woman’s value, and she was given charge of the entire fleet of ships.
One dark night at sea, Grace lay in a bed, being jeered by the angry waves of a stormy water. Sweat beaded on her forehead, she was due to give birth in just 3 weeks, but the baby had decided to come early. Alone on the ship with 150 men, she gave birth in a dark room in the belly of a ship, dimly lit by candle. Exhausted, she lay the baby next to her and fell asleep, the waves rocking them both to sleep.
She was awakened with a start. The sudden sound of running boots and her men yelling to pull the riggings and load the cannons, Turkish Pirates were attacking the ship. Shaky and weak from giving birth just a few hours before, she could only listen from below as the Turks boarded her ship. She could hear men dropping to the ground, she hear the cries of pain as they were wounded, and she could feel the coming defeat of her crew. Knowing what it would mean for a woman to be taken by pirates, and seeing her new baby’s face through the cracks of light streaming through the planks above her, she wondered what would become of her child. Grace put her feet on the ground, pulled on a pair of trousers laying at her feet, removed her nightgown and buttoned on a shirt. She painfully leaned over and slid on her boots. She stood up, steadied herself next to an old ale barrel. Walked to the creaky steps, said a prayer and pulled herself up to the deck of the ship.
When she appeared in the light on the deck, her hair was a ratted mess, there was streaks in the dust on her face from the tears of a long, painful labor. She cried out in the protective anger of a warrior mother, drew her sword, and joined her crew in battle. The men had so much respect and love for their brave, young captain, that when they saw her, they remembered what they were protecting. With new energy they fought harder, angrier and with purpose. The Turkish pirates were taken back. She rallied her men into a battle that has been told ever since. The men began to retreat, jumping overboard to the sea, shimmying down ropes to their boats, and soon, Grace O’Malley’s crew gave a victory yell. The drained new mother collapsed. She awoke hours later in her bed, with a dirty old sailor rocking her fussing baby baby quietly in the corner, trying to let her sleep.
After 19 years of marriage, her inept husband lost his temper in a fight and was killed. At 35 years old, she was a widow and mother of three children, two sons and one daughter. It was the practice at that time for a family to give the widow of their son his inheritance, but the O’Flaherty’s would not release what was rightfully hers. For 19 years she had strengthened the family’s business, led their fleet, and bargained their trading contracts, but she suddenly found herself at their mercy, given a fixed sum to live on and raise her children. The mother, realizing she was being cheated of her fortune, left the clan and returned to her father. The O’Malley’s welcomed home their little Granuielle, who had become a legend in the shipping industry. Her brothers who once laughed at and made fun of her, were moved aside, and she was given command of her father’s entire fleet of ships. 200 loyal sailors followed her from the O’ Flaherty’s crew to stay under her command. Grace O’Malley, the daughter of the cheiftain, had become a cheiftan in her own right.
Grace had created a large fortune for her family. She owned 5 castles and several islands in Clew Bay. She had a stronghold on the region, except for one castle in the Northeast, Rockfleet.
THe english were taking over the Irish lands and Grace wanted complete control to defend her estate. Legend says, that she walked up to Rockfleet castle and knocked on the door. Richard Burke was called to the door where the lovely Granuaile was waiting. She proposed to him on the spot, for a one year marriage to strengthen their lands. Irish law said that a marriage could be dissolved at one year with no obligations. At the year mark, when Richard left his castle one day, Granuaile locked the castle doors, upon his return, she said through the door, “I release you.” Because she had control of the castle and had called for the release, by law, the castle was hers. But in that short year, Richard had fallen in love with Grace, he gave her the castles, but the two remained mariied for 17 years, until Richard’s death. They also had a son together.
Slowly, the English had begun taking over the Irish provinces. They would force the clan leaders to surrender their lands giving them an English title in return. Those who opposed the aquisitions were counted as rebels. Grace was one of them.
Her fleet began attacking ships that entered the waters near her land. They demanded payment for passage from merchant vessels. They defended themselves from crews they thought to be a threat, and Grace became known as the Pirate Queen.
At 56 years old, our Grace was taken prisoner by the newly appointed English governor, Sir Richard Bingham. Intimidated by her wealth and influence, he ordered her to be executed. She waited in a dungeon for her death, at the last minute, Grace’s Son-in-law offered himself as a prisoner in exchange with a promise that Grace would not return to her rebellious ways. She was genuinely loved by her family.
Bingham vowed to oppress the Cheiftain. He took her cattle, her lands, her castles, and nearly forced her into poverty, and plotted the murder of her beloved son, Owen.
During this time, they were also being attacked by the Spanish. She briefly joined forces with the English to defend her shores. Grace, now 58, climbed on board the Don Pedro Mendoza and slaughtered hundreds of Spanish sailors, still fierce in battle.
Granuaile, a 60 year old grandmother, caused such fear in Bingham, that he kept strong control on her and watched every move she made. Grace began appealing to the Queen of England, asking her to return the O’Malley lands to her.
In 1593, Grace’s son and brother were arrested and thrown into prison. Grace wrote another letter to the queen demanding his release. Impatient and worried about her son, she didn’t wait for a response. She boarded a ship and sailed to Greenwich Castle to talk to the queen in person.
Somehow she avoided being caught on the seas, and this Irish rebel was not arrested and thrown into prison when she barged into the castle. Her reputation as a fearless leader, though rebellious, proceeded her, so the queen agreed to meet with her. Noble Grace, dressed in a beautiful gown, hair falling around her shoulders entered the queens court. Her royal presence demanded respect.
Neither women spoke the other’s language so they communicated in Latin. Grace was thought to have known several languages. She asked for the return of her lands, She asked for the life of her son and brother, and she asked for the removal of Bingham. In return, she vowed to not incite rebellion or join the rebel bands. (England was still afraid of her power to rally her followers). Then to show that she wasn’t bowing to another country, she sneezed, was given a noble woman’s handkerchief, blew her nose into it, and tossed it into the fire.
She returned to Ireland where her family was released from prison. Bingham never returned all of her land to her. Grace lived to the age of 70. She was the last Chieftan to retained her Gaelic roots for the O’Malley clan as the English took over the country.
Grace O’Malley on earth and in heaven was a woman of Divine Nature. Even when she was laughed at and told she was just a woman, she believed in her Individual Worth, one day all of England fear the influence of her worth. Grace was wise and sought knowledge. She learned all she could about the world around her, her family business. She was widowed twice, had the means to provide for her family, and knew several languages. Choice and Accountability, when her choices put her family in danger, she went before the queen to be accountable for them. She knew the the life she had, was what she would make of it.
Above all, Grace was a mother. She would have given her life for her children. She must have been very loved back, her son-in-law gave his freedom to save her life. Grace risked her life sailing to England to ask the queen for her son and brother’s release. Grace was a pirate and a Chieftan, but most of all, Grace was a mother.