Who was Grace O’Malley?
What were women like in the sixteenth century? Well, not many were like Grace O’Malley but nevertheless, her life shows that women in those days certainly had spirit.
She was an Irish queen, a chieftain and also a pirate. Yet she was presented to Queen Elizabeth I as the image here shows.
She was born on the west coast of Ireland. Her exact date of birth isn’t known but the year is believed to have been 1530. Her father was a chieftain and for many years, the family had ruled the area.
They had castles and a fleet of ships that were used for trading, fishing, raiding and an element of piracy. When she was just a girl she cut her hair short, dressed as a boy and sailed on the family’s ships. Yet she married when she was only sixteen.
Her husband, Donal O’Flaherty also was a man of some importance as on their marriage, she moved into his castle some thirty miles away from her own family’s. Little is known of her early married life, other than the fact she had three children.
Her husband’s death remains much of a mystery too but it’s often said that he was murdered in a revenge attack. In those days, this sort of thing wasn’t unusual in the warring clans and families. Still a young woman, Grace returned to her family home and took command of her father’s fleet. It wasn’t long before she gained a reputation as a fearless and bold sea captain.
Grace was married again, this time to a man called Richard Burke. True to form, he was also a chieftain and she went to live in yet another marital castle. She made this castle, Rockfleet, into the headquarters of her seafaring operations. And it was the perfect place. Situated on the Clew Bay, it provided her with a secure anchorage for her ships – she had about twenty by this time – and commanding views of the ocean.
The ships relied on both oar- and sail-power. They were also fully equipped for battle.
At that time, Ireland was ruled by Queen Elizabeth I but the governor of each Irish province was ruled by governors who had been appointed by the queen. Mostly, these men were recruited from the ranks of aristocratic soldiers and had a tendency towards stiff and strict regimes. They often fell foul of the local chieftains. They, being hot-blooded Irish, rebelled. So in this atmosphere of chaos, Grace became known for leading raids on other chieftains’ ships and on passing merchant vessels.
By the 1570s the local merchants saw fit to protest about her to the governor of the region and he sent an expedition against her. This fleet sailed into Clew Bay – Grace’s backyard, as it were – and laid siege to her castle stronghold. But Grace was not deterred. She rallied her soldiers and soon had the enemy fleet returning with their tails between their legs.
But not everything went her way all the time. Three years later she was imprisoned for a year and a half when she was captured during a raid. It seemed that her luck was running out. By the time she was about fifty three years old -and showing no signs of slowing down – she was widowed for a second time. But she now became more vulnerable to attack and had a much lowered income because according to the laws of the land at that time, a widow had no claim over her late husband’s lands.
So she attacked first. Her problem was that the governor frowned heavily on these new attacks and declared her a traitor to her country and once again, her fleet was under attack and impounded by the governor’s men.
The resourceful Grace decided to appeal to another strong woman of the day, Queen Elizabeth I. She wrote to the queen and told her that she had no choice – she’d been forced to mount her attacks to defend herself and her territory. Daringly, she asked the queen to give her a free pardon and a small financial allowance. She explained that in exchange she would ‘invade with sword and fire all the enemies of your highness wherever they may be’.
Before she heard anything from the queen, Grace’s son was arrested for inciting a rebellion and Grace felt that this could hardly help her case. So she decided to go to London so that she and her ruler could have a woman-to-woman chat about the situation. Surprisingly, this did the trick. Although there are no details of how Grace managed to persuade Her Majesty, it is well documented that the queen agreed.
Duly her son was released from prison and eventually, when a new governor was appointed, she managed to persuade him to return her impounded fleet to her. She no doubt thought that she had had a good run for her money as now, approaching seventy years old, she handed over the reins of her power to her son.
He kept her promise to the queen and served her loyally. Some twenty years after Grace had died – still at Rockfleet Castle – he was created Viscount Mayo.