Grace O’Malley (c. 1530 – c. 1603; Irish: Gráinne Ní Mháille) was chieftain of the Ó Máille clan in the west of Ireland, following in the footsteps of her father Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille. She was well-educated and regarded by contemporaries as being exceptionally formidable and competent.
Her name was rendered in contemporary English documents in various ways.
O’Malley was born in Ireland around 1530, when Henry VIII was King of England and held the title Lord of Ireland. Under the policies of the English government at the time, the semi-autonomous Irish princes and lords were left mostly to their own devices. However this was to change over the course of O’Malley’s life as the Tudor conquest of Ireland gathered pace.
Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, her father and his family were based in Clew Bay, County Mayo. He was chieftain of the Ó Máille clan and a direct descendant , Maille mac Conall. The Uí Mháille (O’Malleys) were one of the few seafaring families on the west coast, and they built a row of castles facing the sea to protect their territory. They controlled most of what is now the barony of South-West County Mayo and recognised as their nominal overlords the Mac Uilliam Íochtair branch of the Bourkes, were originally Anglo-Norman but by her time completely Gaelicised). They controlled much of what is now County Mayo Her mother, Margaret, was also a Ní Mháille. Although she was the only child of Dubhdara and his wife, O’Malley had a half-brother called Dónal na Píopa, the son of her father.
The Uí Mháille taxed all those who fished off their coasts, which included fishermen from as far away as England. The head of the family was known simply by his surname as Ó Máille (anglicised as The O’Malley). Local folklore had it that as a young girl O’Malley wished to go on a trading expedition to Spain with her father. Upon being told she could not because her long hair would catch in the ship’s ropes, she cut off most of her hair to embarrass her father into taking her. This earned her the nickname “Gráinne Mhaol” ; from maol having cropped hair), usually anglicised as Granuaile. As a child she most likely lived at her family’s residence of Belclare and Clare Island,but she may have been fostered to another family since fosterage was traditional among Irish nobility at the time. She was probably formally educated, since she is believed to have spoken in Latin with Queen Elizabeth I in 1593.
Upon her father’s death she inherited his large shipping and trading business (a trade sometimes referred to as mere piracy). Through income from business, land inherited , and property and holdings from her first husband, Dónal an Chogaidh (Dónal “the warlike”) O’Malley was very wealthy
O’Malley was married in 1546 to Dónal an Chogaidh Ó Flaithbheartaigh, tánaiste or heir to the O’Flaherty title, which would have been a good political match for the daughter of the Ó Máille chieftain. As O’Flaherty tánaiste, Dónal an Chogaidh one day expected to rule Iar Connacht.
She bore three children during her marriage to Dónal an Chogaidh:
- Owen (Eoghan): The eldest child and son, known to be kind and forgiving. When Owen was in his late twenties or early thirties, Richard Bingham tricked him and, as a result, Owen was murdered and Bingham and his troops took over Owen’s castle.
- Margaret (Méadhbh): Sometimes called ‘Maeve’, Margaret was much like her mother. She married and had several children. Ní Mháille and Margaret’s husband, Richard “the Devil’s Hook” (Deamhan an Chorráin) Bourke, were supposedly very close, and more than once Ní Mháille’s son-in-law saved her from death.
- Murrough (Murchadh): Murrough was said to take after his father as he enjoyed warfare. He often beat his sister Margaret, and refused to listen to his mother because of her gender. Many sources report that he betrayed his family and joined forces with Richard Bingham after the murder of Owen. When O’Malley heard of this she swore she would never speak to Murrough again for the rest of her life, though she would often insult him. She returned after his death to Mayo and took up residence at the family castle or tower-house on Clare Island. After Dónal an Chogaidh’s death, O’Malley left Iar-Connacht and returned to O’Mháille territory, taking with her many O’Flaherty followers.
In 1565, Dónal was killed in an ambush while hunting in the hills surrounding Lough Corrib; this was, undoubtedly, part of Dónal’s wider struggle with the Joyces for control of Hen’s castle on the lough. Gráinne returned to her own lands and established her principal residence on Clare Island. She allegedly took a shipwrecked sailor as her lover. The affair only lasted briefly as he was killed by the MacMahons of Ballyvoy. Seeking vengeance, Gráinne attacked the MacMahon castle of Doona in Blacksod May and killed her lover’s murderers on Cahir Island. Her attack on Doona castle earned her the nickname, ‘Dark Lady of Doona’.
By 1566, O’Malley had married a second time, this time to Risdeárd an Iarainn (“Iron Richard”) Bourke. His nickname may derive from his wearing a coat of mail inherited from his Anglo-Norman ancestors or from his control of the ironworks at Burrishoole, the place of his principal castle and residence.
Even as a young woman O’Malley was involved in the business of sailing ships and international trade. She probably learned the business from her father who plied a busy international shipping trade. It is known that she always wanted to join his fleets, but he always refused. Bunowen Castle, where she lived with her first husband, was situated on the most western point in Connacht and was apparently the first base for her shipping and trade activities.
By the time of Dónal an Chogaidh’s death in the early 1560s she commanded the loyalty of so many O’Flaherty men that many of them left the area when she did and followed her to Clare Island in Clew Bay, where she moved her headquarters.
Her first husband had taken a fortress in the Lough Corrib from the Joyce clan. Because of Dónal an Chogaidh’s attitude, the Joyces began calling that particular fortress “Cock’s Castle.” When they heard of his death, they decided to take back the castle, but O’Malley successfully defended it. It was said that her deportment so impressed the Joyces that they renamed the castle Caisleán na Circe, the “Hen’s Castle“. It was also said that she successfully defended it against English attack.
Around the time of her first husband’s death came the initial complaints to the English Council in Dublin from Galway‘s city leaders that O’Flaherty and O’Malley ships were behaving like pirates.
Because Galway imposed taxes on the ships that traded their goods there, the O’Flahertys, led by O’Malley, decided to extract a similar tax from ships travelling in waters off their lands. O’Malley’s ships would stop and board the traders and demand either cash or a portion of the cargo in exchange for safe passage the rest of the way to Galway. Resistance was met with violence and even murder. Once they obtained their toll, the O’Flaherty ships would disappear into one of the many bays in the area.
By the early 1560s, O’Malley had left O’Flaherty territory and returned to her father’s holdings on Clare Island. She recruited fighting men from both Ireland and Scotland, transporting the gallowglass mercenaries between their Scottish homes and Irish employers and plundering Scotland’s outlying islands on her return trips.In an apparent effort to curry favour with the English, O’Malley went to the Lord Deputy of Ireland and offered two hundred fighting men to serve English interests in Ireland and Scotland.
She attacked ships as far away as Waterford on the south central coast of Ireland and fortresses on the shoreline, including Curradh Castle at Renvyle, the O’Loughlin castle in the Burren and the O’Boyle and MacSweeney clans in their holdings in Burtonport, Killybegs and Lough Swilly.
In 1577, she met with Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, who already knew of her since she had met his son, Sir Philip Sidney, in 1576. Although Philip Sidney would have been a very young man at the time, O’Malley evidently made an impression on him since he mentioned her in favourable terms to his father.
O’Malley was wealthy on land as well as by sea. She inherited her father’s fleet of ships and land holdings, as well as the land her mother had owned. Around the time of her meeting with Queen Elizabeth I of England, she owned herds of cattle and horses that numbered at least one thousand, comprising great riches by the standards of the time.
In 1593, when her sons Tibbot Burke and Murrough O’Flaherty , and her half-brother Dónal an Phíopa were taken captive by the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, O’Malley sailed to England to petition for their release. She formally presented her request to Elizabeth I at her court in Greenwich Palace.
Elizabeth I famously sent O’Malley a list of questions, which she answered and returned to Elizabeth. O’Malley met with Elizabeth at Greenwich Palace, wearing a fine gown, the two of them surrounded by guards and the members of Elizabeth’s royal Court. O’Malley refused to bow before Elizabeth because she did not recognise her as the Queen of Ireland. It is also rumoured that O’Malley had a dagger concealed about her person, which guards found upon searching her. Elizabeth’s courtiers were said to be very upset and worried, but O’Malley informed the queen that she carried it for her own safety. Elizabeth accepted this and seemed untroubled. Some also reported that O’Malley sneezed and was given a lace-edged handkerchief from a noblewoman. She apparently blew her nose into the handkerchief and then threw the piece of cloth into a nearby fireplace, much to the shock of the court.
O’Malley informed Elizabeth and her court that, in Ireland, a used handkerchief was considered dirty and was destroyed. Their discussion was carried out in Latin, as O’Malley spoke no English and Elizabeth spoke no Irish.
After much talk, the two women came to an agreement. Included in the stipulations for each party, Elizabeth was to remove Sir Bingham from his position in Ireland and O’Malley was to stop supporting the Irish lords’ rebellions. The meeting seemed to have done some good for Richard Bingham was removed from service. But several of O’Malley’s other demands (including the return of the cattle and land that Bingham had stolen from her) remained unmet, and within a rather short period of time Elizabeth sent Bingham back to Ireland.
Upon Bingham’s return, O’Malley realised that the meeting with Elizabeth had been useless, and went back to supporting Irish insurgents during the Nine Years’ War. She most likely died at Rockfleet Castle around 1603, the same year as Elizabeth, though the year and place of her death are disputed.