Visible Women

The true story of Grace O’Malley, a fearless Irish pirate who ruled the seas

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we take a look at the life of Grace O’Malley, whose daring feats on the waves in the 16th century made her an Irish naval folk hero.

Famed for her bravery in combat, as well as
her exploits on the high seas, Grace O’Malley
– fearless leader, capable sailor and all-round badass – defied convention to become Ireland’s most famous pirate queen, at a time when most clans, as well as the seas, were ruled by men.

Grace, or Gráinne Ní Mháille, was born around 1530 on Clare Island, County Mayo, into the Clan O’Malley, a grand seafaring family established in shipping and trading (and the odd bit of piracy). As a child, Grace demonstrated the rebellious nature that was to make her famous when she was forbidden to accompany her father on an expedition to Spain – the excuse was that her long hair was impractical for sailing and would get caught in the ropes. Undeterred, feisty Grace immediately chopped all of
it off, gaining the moniker Granuaile (from the Irish Gráinne Mhaol – ‘maol’ meaning cropped hair or bald).

At 16, Grace married Dónal-an-Chogaidh O’Flaherty, and Bunowen Castle in County Galway became their home. After her husband’s death 11 years later, Grace made both sorts of waves, when she took command of his fleet, sailing the seas around the west of Ireland and the Mediterranean, and trading goods between bouts of piracy. The Irish coast was a good spot for raids and Grace took advantage of unprotected passing ships, levying tolls on them and grabbing whatever loot she could. 

Grace O’Malley Tower on Clare Island harbour 

Then Grace moved back to her childhood home of Clare Island, before taking a lover who was subsequently murdered by a rival clan. In revenge, she attacked the family’s seat of Castle Doona, killing her lover’s murderers and gaining a new nickname: The Dark Lady of Doona.

Grace married again, but invoked an ancient law that said a wife could divorce her husband after one year – and retain his property – which, in this case, was a castle. In middle age, she went to war with the English, who sought to conquer her lands – she is said to have led an army of ‘three galleys and two hundred fighting men’ against English generals, who were aghast at being bested by a woman. Grace became mother to four children – one of whom was allegedly born at sea. Shortly afterwards she picked herself up, put her newborn to one side and joined in a fight with a band of Algerian buccaneers.

In 1593, the war with the English intensified, and after her sons were captured, Grace sailed up the Thames to see Queen Elizabeth I, a meeting which was recorded in folk song. Being educated, Grace conversed with the Queen in Latin, but refused to bow. She went away agreeing to become allies in the war with the Spanish, in return for her sons’ release.

After a lifetime of high exploits on the seas, Grace died in 1603 and was buried in the Cistercian Abbey on Clare Island, instantly becoming an Irish folk hero.

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Main illustration: Josie Jammet. Image: Getty Images