Vilified by her English adversaries as ‘a woman who hath imprudently passed the part of womanhood’,
Grace O’Malley (c. 1530 – c. 1603; Irish: Gráinne Ní Mháille) was ignored by contemporary chroniclers in Ireland, yet her memory survived in native folklore.
Nationalists later lionised her as Gráinne Mhaol, a warrior who would come over the sea with Irish soldiers to rout the English.
She finally became an icon both as an example of a strong and independent woman and as a victim of misogynistic laws.
Nevertheless, this subject of verse, music, romantic novels, documentaries still remains shrouded in mystery.
Gráce’s mythical status is a double-edged sword that, while ensuring that her name survived, has obscured the reality of the woman behind the legend. She was an extraordinary woman who lived, loved, fought and survived during a pivotal period of Irish history that saw the collapse of the Gaelic order and the ruination of Ireland’s ruling élite.
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.
O’Malley was born in Ireland around 1530, when Henry VIII was King of England and held the first British title as Lord of Ireland.
Under the policies of the English government , 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.
Ireland in the early decades of the sixteenth century consisted of two distinct cultures. Dublin, its bordering counties and the coastal cities were technically English and regarded their hinterland with fear. It was a frontier society.
The rest of the country was composed of the Gaelic Old English and the Native Irish. Living within autonomous territories, they enjoyed traditional pastimes such as stealing cattle, poaching castles, feuding, intermarrying and vying for domination.
Strict laws governed all formal aspects of these relationships; a complex inter dependency bound the families together in a hierarchical society . Status and pride were of paramount importance. Weaker families aligned themselves to powerful ones, and bonds were cemented by means of tribute, military aid, marriage and fosterage.
Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, Grace’s father, and his family were based in Clew Bay, County Mayo. He was chieftain of the Ó Máille ( plural Uí Mháille ) . They were one of the few seafaring families on the west coast, and built a row of castles facing the sea to protect their territory. The Uí Mháille taxed all those who fished off their coasts, which included fishermen as far away as England. The head of the family was known simply by his surname as Ó Máille (anglicized as 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)
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. 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” ( sometimes referred to as mere piracy). Through income from business, land inherited, and holdings from her first husband, Dónal an Chogaidh (Dónal “the warlike“).
Gráce married Dónal-an-Chogaidh O’Flaherty, tánaiste, or heir presumptive, to the O’Flaherty in 1546 .
The O’Malleys, and the O’Flahertys, were unusual among Gaelic families in that they earned their living from both land and sea. Uí Máille traded raw materials in exchange for luxury goods, ferried Scottish mercenaries, fished, plundered, engaged in opportunistic piracy, and levied a toll on all shipping in Uí Máille waters. The pair were expected to rule Iar Connacht some day and be a perfect political match.
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 for the rest of her life, though she did often insult him.
Her first husband,Dónal an Chogaidh, 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.”
Gaelic law stated that the dowry, although available for use by the husband, had to be returned intact to the wife on dissolution of the marriage. Stringent sureties were required to ensure that this occurred, though wives were sometimes forced to seek legal redress.
Women retained control of any personal property they brought to the marriage and were entitled to acquire additional property independently of their husbands. Such property could include troops, ships and a plethora of other goods.
Gráce’s activities during her marriage to Dónal-an-Chogaidh may indicate that among her personal property were both galleys and men, a theory upheld by her possession of at least three galleys following his death.
Popular tradition relates that, owing to Dónal-an-Chogaidh’s ineptness, Gráce assumed the mantle of chieftainship of the O’Flahertys. Undoubtedly he was a hot-tempered and impetuous man, quick to take offence and to seek retribution. He was, for example, engaged in constant feuding with the Joyces.
In 1564 O’Flaherty sought to extend his territory. This was a situation that the Crown authorities could not ignore, and one which, using the tactic of ‘divide and conquer’, they fully exploited.
A deal was brokered with Murrough-an-dTuadh: in return for his submission he was granted overlordship of Iar Chonnacht, ousting not only the existing chieftain but putting Dónal-na-Chogaidh’s position as tánaiste in jeopardy.
Before Dónal had time to react, he was mortally wounded by the Joyces during a territorial skirmish. Tradition credits Gráce with exacting revenge. She is said to have led—or, according to some sources, repelled—a raid on the disputed Cock’s Castle in Lough Corrib, which, owing to her courage, was henceforth known as Hen’s Castle .
By the early 1560s, O’Malley had left O’Flaherty territory and returned to her father’s holdings on Clare Island because of her husband’s death. Grace commanded the loyalty of so many O’Flaherty men that many of them left the area when she did and followed her when she returned to her own lands to establish her principal residence.
She also recruited fighting men from both Ireland and Scotland, transporting the gallowglass mercenaries between their Scottish homes and Irish employers , 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.
Then 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. 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 etc. Subsequently, attacking the Burren ,O’Boyle and MacSweeney clans in their holdings in Burtonport.
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 or 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 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.
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 favorable 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 Margaret, 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 took matters into her own hands and 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 I wearing a fine gown, they two surrounded by guards and the members of ElizabethI ‘s royal Court.
O’Malley refused to bow before Elizabeth because she did not recognize 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 I 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 I spoke no Irish.
After much talk, the two women came to an agreement. Included in the stipulations for each party, Elizabeth I 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 since 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 I sent Bingham back to Ireland.
Upon Bingham’s return, O’Malley realised that the meeting with Elizabeth I 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 I.