She was born during the reign of Henry VII, in or about 1530, to the O’Malley clan of County Mayo, Ireland. Her father was “The O’Malley” a landholder and sea trader who taxed the ships who fished his waters. Legend has it that when she wanted to go to sea with her father, he told her that he could not take her, because her long hair would become entangled in the ropes and wreck the ship. In order to get her way, the young girl cut off her hair, and forced her father to take her along. Because of this, she earned the Irish nick name Gráinne Mhaol, the bald one, usually anglicized as Granuaile, or Grace O’Malley.
Already knowledgeable in the shipping, taxing, and so-called pirating skills of her father, Granuaile married into another powerful Irish family in about 1546. Donal O'Flaherty was often called “Donal of the Battle” and together they had three quarrelsome children. When her husband died, Granuaile returned to her own family, taking with her many former followers of the O’Flaherty clan.
Granuaile also kept at least one of the family’s castles. Called “The Cock’s Castle” during her husband’s lifetime, it became a stronghold for Granuaile after his death. She held it so successfully against the attacking Joyce clan that they renamed it “The Hen’s Castle” in her honor. She later defended the Hen’s Castle against the English by melting the building’s lead roof and pouring the red-hot metal over her enemies.
The structure is still called The Hen’s Castle today.
She married again in 1566, but this time in the old Irish way, “For a year and a day” to a man called “Iron Richard” Bourke. Legend has it that she only wed him to increase her prestige and land holdings. When the time was up, she shut herself in his castle and shouted out the window, “Richard Bourke, I dismiss thee!” This effectively ended the marriage. But since Granuaile was in the castle, she kept it.
English power was growing in Ireland, and Granuaile raised armies and fleets of fighting ships to hold off the increase in royal power. When the English would not pay her taxes for use of her fishing grounds, she began to stop their ships and claim her taxes by force. She stopped merchant shipping as well, claiming what she called a tax, and what the English called piracy.
And Granuaile was not shy about leading her men or captaining her own ships, even while pregnant. Legend has it that she was in labor with her fourth child when the English attacked her flagship. Her men fought bravely, but were losing the battle when Granuaile came storming up onto the deck, sword in hand, to beat back the enemy. Her newborn child lay on the bunk below, and once she had killed all the attacking English, she went back to nurse the child.
For many, her battle acumen and fierce fighting abilities made her more than a queen. She was called a she-king.
But perhaps her most famous exploit was sailing her pirate ship up the Thames to meet with Queen Elizabeth I. Granuaile had reached a point where she found it necessary to cut a deal with the more powerful monarch, and Elizabeth seems to have been fascinated by her Irish counterpart, to the extent of not forcing the point when Granuaile refused to bow to her. (The Irish woman refused to acknowledge Elizabeth’s claim to be the Queen of Ireland.)
Elizabeth knew no Irish, and Granuaile refused to admit to knowing any English (though with her trading and traveling background she may well have done so.) So the two conversed in Latin.
Glossing over her second husband and a young lover she had taken in the meantime, Granuaile represented herself as a poor widow. She and Elizabeth spoke at length and reached an agreement. Elizabeth would remove the English-appointed governor of Connacht, and Granuaile would stop supporting Irish rebellions. The deal lasted for some time, but Granuaile never recovered the sheep and horses that she claimed the governor had stolen from her. When the same man was put back into the position some months later, she went back to fomenting rebellion.
By this time the she-king was an old woman. Though it is believed that she died at Rockfleet Castle around 1603, the same year as Elizabeth, though this is not certain. She would have been approximately 73 years old.
Granuaile’s legend lives on in song and story. She has inspired a great deal of modern music, from rock songs to chamber music. Plays about her life have been popular, and she is featured in many modern books. Three Irish ships bear her name, and the sail-training ship Asgard II had Granuaile as her figurehead.
In Tampa, FL, Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley is the name of an all-female pirate crew that take part in the legendary Gasparilla Pirate Festival. Founded in 1992, the women of Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley participate in the parades as well many philanthropic activities in the community and throughout the state of Florida. The members do philanthropic work, and members are only accepted through a selective lottery and through legacy from mother to daughter.
Gráinne Mhaol, Granuaile, Grace O’Malley is regarded today as the female spirit of Ireland.
|Modern statue of Granuaile, holding a ship's tiller.|