Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen


Sixteen century Irish clan leader Grace O’Malley was the most famous “pirate queen” in the English-speaking world, and in fact the woman for whom the term seems to have been coined.

Ireland in the sixteenth century was a decentralized society, ruled by independent clan chieftains who were continually at war with each other. It was a largely agricultural society, where wealth was measured in terms of cattle. Chieftains gained their wealth and consequently their power through raiding and cattle stealing. Traditional Irish culture and the clan system were threatened by the English who had ruled in Dublin since the the thirteen century and had begun extending their control over the island under Henry VIII.

Born around 1530, Grace, whom we will hereafter refer to Granuaile, the name by which she was known to her countrymen, was the only daughter of Dudhara (“Black Oak”) O’Malley, chieftain of the kingdom of Umhall, the region around Clew Bay on the west side of Ireland, and his wife Margaret. Her mother had lands of her own, which Granuaile would inherit under traditional Gaelic law.(1)

The O’Malleys were a powerful clan, whose motto was terra marique potens, powerful by land and sea. In the sixteenth century, they controlled the waters off the west coast of Ireland, They raided coastal settlements, including the international port of Galway Town,. They issued licenses to English, Spanish and French boats to fish in their waters—and enforced them. They ferried in mercenary soldiers from Scotland, known as gallowglasses, hired by warring Irish chieftains for the fighting season. And according to Irish annals, they traded and raided as far afield as Spain, Scotland and Brittany.

By all accounts, her father raised Granuaile in the family tradition of trading and raiding. When she was about fifteen, he arranged her marriage to a neighboring chieftain, Donal-an-Coghaidah O’Flaherty, thereby sealing a politically advantageous alliance. When he proved to be a feckless/reckless/improvident leader, Granuaile became the de facto ruler of the O’Flaherty clan.

The law of the time did not allow her to become the actual leader of her husband’s clan. After his death, her husband’s cousin was elected to succeed him. Granuaile was not willing to give up power. She took those members of the O’Flaherty clan who were will to follow her and returned to her father’s territory, where she settled on Clare Island. With her father’s ships and an army of 200 men, she began a career as a pirate, which she would later describe to Queen Elizabeth as “maintenance by land and sea”.

When Granuaile decided to marry again, she chose her husband based not on his own charms but on those of the castle he owned. Richard-in-Iron Bourke was deputy to the Mac Williamship, the most powerful position in the region, and owner of Rockfleet Castle , which was a more secure haven for Granuaile’s ships than Clare Island. According to Irish folklore, Granuaile married Richard according to a Gaelic law that allowed two parties to marry for “one year certain”, with either party able to end the marriage at the end of that year without ceremony. At the end of the year, Granuaile and her men held the castle against Richard. Granuaile shouted down at Richard from the ramparts “Richard Bourke, I dismiss you”—keeping the castle and discarding the husband.

With time, the growing (and not unfounded) fear that Spain would use Ireland as a foothold for invading England, led the English to push more aggressively into the remote parts of Ireland, and consequently into regular confrontations with Granuille. In 1584, those confrontations became personal when a new English governor arrived in Connaught. Richard Bingham was charged with bringing the Irish chieftains under English rule. He made it a personal quest to bring down “Grany OMallye” whom he described in a letter to Queen Elizabeth’s secretary as “the woman who overstepped the part of womanhood.He accused her of being “nurse to all rebellions for forty years.” While she may not have been involved in rebellions for forty years, we know that on three occasions she ferried gallowglasses from Scotland to take part in rebellions against Bingham’s cruel rule in Connaught.

At one point, Bingham captured Granuaile. He was so excited by the prospect that, as Granuaile would later tell Elizabeth I of England “he caused a new pair of gallows to be made for her last funeral.” He was denied the pleasure of seeing her hung. At the last minute, the chieftains of Mayo obtained her release by providing hostages in her stead. Thwarted, Bingham confiscated her cattle and horse herds, guaranteeing that she would return to her ships and piracy to earn her living.

The conflict between Granuaile and Bingham reached a new level when Bingham arrested Granuaile’s youngest son, Tibbott-ne-Long, and charged him with conspiring with Ulster chieftains who were plotting to rebel against the English, with a little help from Spain. Treason was a serious charge. One that couldn’t be solved with a group of hostages.

Granuaile decided to go straight to the top. In her first petition to Queen Elizabeth I, Granuaile requested that Tibbett-ne-long be released from prison. She also requested that both Tibbett and his half-brother, Murrough O’Flahert, be allowed to hold their lands under English rather than Irish law—suggesting that Granuaile was well aware that the world of her childhood was disintegrating in the face of English pressure. In return, she offered “to invade with sword and fire all your Highness’s enemies wheresoever they are or shall be without any interruption of any person or persons whatsoever.”

Elizabeth was Granuaile’s equal in shrewdness. In response she sent eighteen “articles of interrogatory to be answered by Granny Ni Maly” (2) Granuaile’s answers tell her own version of her career, cleaned up for royal consumption.

In July, 1593, Granuaile sailed from Clew Bay to Greenwich, determined to follow up her correspondence with a face-to-face meeting with Elizabeth.

The pirate commander and the English queen were both in their early sixties. Both were power players in a traditionally male world. Tradition says that Granuaile refused to bow to Elizabeth because she, too, was a queen. In fact, there is no written record of what the two women said when they met. We don’t even know for sure what language the conversation took place in. (3) What we do know is that following her meeting with the “Pirate Queen,” Elizabeth chose to ignore the evidence and the advice of her own governor and ordered the release of Granuaile’s son .

Bingham released Granuaile’s son, but tried to moderate the effects of what he considered the queen’s rashness by quartering English soldiers in Granuaaile’s castle and ordering others to accompany the Irish leader on every voyage–enough to put a crimp in any pirate’s style.

Questioning Elizabeth’s orders was rashness of another sort. Bingham was recalled in disgrace in 1595. With Bingham off her back, at the age of 66, Granuaile hoisted sail once more, raiding as far afield as Scotland.

The final reference to her appears in the State Papers of Ireland in 1601, when an English warship caught one of her galleys off the coast of Mayo. She is believed to have died at Rockfleet Castle in 1603 and to be buried in the abbey of Clare Island.

(1) Roman law was gradually replacing traditional Gaelic law in Ireland, but in the sixteenth century women still had more rights than their English counterparts, including holding and administering property.
(2) Elizabethan spelling was creative, but even after spelling became more regular the English never did well with the names of the people they conquered.
(3) The smart money is on Latin. But Spanish and French are also possible choices.


  1. Brian Hetherington on February 20, 2019 at 1:59 am

    Fascinating! Is there a biography?

    • Pamela on February 20, 2019 at 2:17 am

      Anne Chambers has written at least one biography, and maybe a couple of variations aimed at different audiences. Barbara Sjoholm also wrote an excellent book titled The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.