Grace O’Malley

1530 – 1603

Avast! Shiver me timbers me hearties, ’tis International Talk Like A Pirate Day!

And to celebrate with all ye lubbers, I thought I’d talk about one of the swaggering, saucy buccaneers whose dread ship did sail up ye Thames and shiver the timbers of Greenwich Olden Days.

Grace O’ Malley was a fine young wench born in County Mayo in the days of Henry VIII. At the time although England controlled Ireland, it mainly had a hands-off policy which left it to individual clans and lords to rule. Grace’s father, Owen “Black Oak” O’ Malley, was the Lord of the clan and a sea-farin’ man – though he didn’t need to be a pirate – he already got to tax the local people and anyone who fished in his waters. Every so often the local chieftains toughed each other up and local turf wars were common. As the years war on, though, English intervention hotted up – Henry VIII was worried (rightly, as it turned out) about the security of his borders and wanted the chieftains on his side. His policy, “Submit and Regrant” was just that – he gave extra land to the chieftains who towed his line.

The O’Malley’s didn’t need Henry – they were powerful enough already.They knew the dangerous waters of the irish Sea – and where all the dastardly pirates hung out. But as Henry moved in closer, the began to cramp the O’Malley style. Black Oak O’Malley went round the long way, and in the process started plundering the odd ship that strayed into his path, and transporting Scottish mercenaries under the cover of his respectable trading business.

Young Grace loved the sea and pestered her da to be allowed to go on a trip to Spain. In what can only be one of those rubbish excuses that parents give to shut up their children, he told her that she couldn’t go because her long hair would get caught in the rigging and it would Really Hurt. It didn’t work in 16th Century Ireland any more than it would today. Grace shaved off her hair. It earned her the nickname she would keep throughout her life, GrĂ¡inne Mhaol, which, roughly translated, means “Bald Grace.” She started wearing boy’s clothes, despite catcalls such as “Avast Behind!” Those doublet-and-hose combos did no-one’s bum any favours…

Her father told her to ignore the scurvy coves – they were just jealous. He started treating her more like a son and taught her to command a ship. He took her on trips with him – and she was just as happy to jump into an affray with pirates as anyone. Who says ladettes are a modern concept?

She was married off to Donal O’ Flaherty an Chogaidh (Donal of the Battle) who was, as the name sounds, a big old bruiser of a bilge rat, always up for a Friday night fight at the local tavern after a few bottles of grog. He drank and gambled away Grace’s inheritance, and got in the way of her going away to sea by ‘giving her’ three children – one just like himself, one a sweet man, and a girl, disappointingly for Grace, who turned out very girly indeed.

Donal managed his estates so badly that the people came to Grace for help. She couldn’t take over as she was a woman, so she decided to turn to the the only thing she knew – piracy. She started a protection racket – promising ships “safe passage” though her waters in exchange for extortionate ‘fees’ – if they refused she merely plundered them anyway. Most gave up the booty pretty damn smart.

Her husband, meanwhile, had not changed. He beat up anyone who came close and eventually declared war on a neighbouring clan. His death is mysterious – but what mattered to Grace was that he was dead. Of course she had to look angry – so she declared war on the clan for the murder and rode into battle herself. Her husband’s family refused her her widow’s pension so she went back to piracy. Arrrgh!

She terrorised the waters around Ireland, though there is one story, just waiting to be made into a Hollywood movie about her taking a handsome Lord captive who had been wounded in battle who she nursed back to health and had an affair with. It was a very silly rival clan who murdered him.

Furious, Grace rode into town, burned their boats, killed the lot of them then took their castle. Unsurprisingly she is known by their descendants as the Dark Lady of Doona. She wasn’t happy with just one castle though, so she seduced and married the gullible owner of another one, then locked him out and divorced him. Bizarrely, he forgave her and became her Life Partner instead, helping her in her piratical adventures from then on.

The day after she’d given birth to another child, she was having a snooze in her cabin when they were attacked by Turkish pirates. Seriously pissed off with her crew, she got out of bed and shot the pirates with a blunderbuss. “I don’t know – I leave you lot in charge for one day and we get invaded by the Turks…”

She grew in power – by now she had twenty ships. She was becoming a serious problem to the English. They tried to attack her at her castle, but she took the roof off and poured molten lead over her assailants. Various other attempts failed in similarly spectacular fashion. The was a serious price on her head. The English started bribing the other clans so she decided to promise to be good. She had no intention of being so. She continued to rob and plunder. She was captured, but managed to get out. Yo ho-ho. She was 54 and it was a pirate’s life for her.

Back in England, Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne by now and terrified of the Irish joining forces with Spain. She started putting the squeeze on Grace. Her sons were captured, and then she was. Her clansmen arranged to pay a ransom. In a tit-for-tat battle, Grace burned a town. The English killed one of her sons. She attacked again. They took her possessions. The Spanish Armada came and went.

Eventually Grace got fed up with dealing with middlemen. She wrote to the Queen, telling her that things had gone far enough. She explained that she had been forced to become a pirate for the past 40 years to feed her people, and made Elizabeth an offer. If the queen would let O’Malley keep her men, arms and ships, she would attack the queen’s enemies. Seemed like a deal to Elizabeth. She was quite impressed and sent her some questions, which Grace answered cleverly.

But letter-writing was for wimps. She sailed around to London and surprised the Queen at Greenwich Castle. She even wore a fine gown for the occasion. Everyone threw their hands up in horror at this burly pirate in a dress and thought she’d get arrested, especially when she refused to bow as she didn’t recognise the queen as her monarch.

Everyone was shocked at this uncouth barbarian swilling grog and swaggering around in big boots. It’s said she sneezed and a lady-in-waiting gave her a fine lace handkerchief. She blew her nose noisily then threw it into the fire – after all, she argued, why would you want to use a hanky again after you’ve covered it in snot? Elizabeth roared with laughter and granted Grace a private audience. It’s a mystery what went on – but Grace secured the release of her youngest son, the dismissal of her nemesis back in Ireland – and the respect of the English queen.

It didn’t last long. Grace O’Malley went back to her scallywag ways, especially after Elizabeth returned the nemesis to Ireland. She never did see the gallows though – she died at home in 1603, the same year as Elizabeth herself.


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