Ireland’s Most Famous Pirate Queen: Grace O’Malley
I didn’t know when I went to Clare Island in County Mayo, Ireland, that I would fall in love. It would seem difficult to fall in love on a 4,000-acre Irish island with only 160 residents and at least twice as many sheep, but fall in love I did. And with a woman. Not just any woman, but Ireland’s most famous stateswoman, Grace O’Malley, who lived from 1530-1603 and was known as the Pirate Queen. In Irish she is called Granuaile and beloved by everyone who lives on the Emerald Isle.
I was touring the island with a local guide, Martina Keane, who jokingly pointed out the island’s only “supermarket,” the size of a one-car garage. We hiked up to an old watch tower with the wind so strong I could barely stand up. The view overlooked half the island and the only sentient beings around for miles were stray sheep. Martina told me about a tomb dating back to the Stone Age, but when she said it was now just a pile of rocks, I passed on hiking up to it. There’s only one main road (unpaved) on the island, so narrow that one car has to pull over while the other passes, and so bumpy it’s no wonder most people come here to hike, always surrounded by views of the sea.
We pulled up in front of a castle which had once belonged to Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen. Pirate Queen? Was this mythology? No, Martina explained, Grace O’Malley was a real person. And while there is no proof this was her castle, it is thought to be so, and the cove right beside it is where Grace O’Malley would have docked her fleet.
Her fleet? Grace O’Malley, called in Irish, Granuaile, was the daughter of a Gaelic chieftain and became one of the greatest clan leaders and warriors Ireland has ever known.
In an age of lawlessness and piracy, she was a fierce and beautiful woman who could as easily seduce a man as dispose of him with her sword. At the age of 12, she stowed away on her father’s ship, and when he discovered her, he allowed her to follow her instincts and become a seafarer. She eventually commanded 200 men and a fleet of galleys, even giving the English Navy a run for their money.
At 16, she was married off to a chieftain in a politically arranged marriage. She bore him three children but hated staying home while he went off to sea. When he was killed in a fight, she succeeded him as chieftain and began building up the O’Malley empire by sea.
Her second husband was another chieftain whom she married with a prenup: she would try him for a year and then decide if she wanted to keep him. Granuaile ended up kicking him out and also took his castle. While at sea, she gave birth to his son, and was below deck nursing him when her ship was attacked by North African pirates who were overtaking her men. Grace put down her baby, stormed up to the deck, fired a musket, and soon conquered the enemy.
Martina drove me to the Abbey, where it is thought Grace O’Malley is buried.
Again, Martina explained, there is no actual proof, but Granuaile was living on Clare Island in her later years, and the detailed, ornate plaque near the crypt in the Abbey has the O’Malley motto Terra Marique Potens, Latin for “powerful by land and sea.”
On the walls of the Abbey are hand-painted figures on horseback which seem to have been painted before Grace O’Malley’s time but indicated life on Clare Island.
The Abbey and castle are the only Grainne-related sights on the island, though that is by no means the end of the O’Malley story.
We drove up to the 200-year-old Clare island Lighthouse, one of the great lighthouses of Ireland on the Great Atlantic Way, now a small inn where I was staying for the night. I stood outside and watched the setting sun, thinking about Grace O’Malley, imagining her with her two swords, dispatching warriors twice her size.
The next day, on the way to dropping me back at the ferry, Martina gave me a tour of the upper half of the Island. There was a 7,500-year-old pine forest, more sheep, horses and a few colorful houses, many of which are B&B’s during the busy tourist season.
While there is little to do on the island except walk or hike, I was sorry I had only booked one night. I asked Martina if there was anything more to tell about Grace O’Malley and she said there’s an O’Malley Reunion every year, and in 2023, it will take place on Clare Island and Westport, County Mayo June 24-26.
When my ferry docked back in Clew Bay, I drove to the small town of Louisburgh and bought Anne Chambers’ book, Grace O’Malley: The Biography of Ireland’s Pirate Queen 1530-1603.
According to Chambers (the definitive authority of all-things-Grace O’Malley), Granuaile was 63 years old when she sailed her galley from her Clew Bay castle to Greenwich Palace to negotiate with her enemy, Queen Elizabeth. O’Malley refused to bow to the Queen and kept both her head and freedom. Says Chambers in the book, “Granuaile was an accomplished mariner, fearless leader, shrewd political tactician, independent businesswoman, ruthless plunderer, mercenary, rebel, and a woman who refused to allow any barrier to obstruct her quest. She commanded loyalty because she was braver than the men.”
There’s an O’Malley joke that the only man in the O’Malley family was a woman.
Grace O’Malley is thought to have died at age 73, in 1603, buried in the unmarked tomb I saw in the Abbey.
A few weeks after I returned home, I was still obsessed with Grace O’Malley, so I contacted her brilliant biographer, Anne Chambers. What was it that made Grace O’Malley such an extraordinary human being, I asked. Anne Chambers emailed back: “Grace O’Malley’ s life celebrates the power of true femininity. Despite the ‘male’ orientation of her career by land and by sea, she never felt compelled to have to jettison her sexuality in order to compete and succeed in what was considered a male-dominated environment. On the contrary, she used the qualities and assets, unique to her sex, to overcome the obstacles she encountered. What her story has to say about women competing in a male-only preserve, about breaking boundaries imposed on women by society, about marriage, motherhood, love and family relationships as well as the challenges posed by female ageing, are issues that relate to women everywhere today,”
Anne Chambers also told me she’s written screenplay for a TV series based on the true story of Grace O’Malley, presently in development with LA based Oscar-nominated director, Kirsten Sheridan and associates.
I still couldn’t get Grace O’Malley out of my head, so I contacted the O’Malley Clan Association which has been going strong for 80 years, promoting this Gaelic clan’s rich heritage and history.
The Chieftain for 2023, Martin O’Malley (former Governor of Baltimore from 2007-2016) told me, “We call her the Pirate Queen too, even as we acknowledge that she was labeled a ‘Pirate’ by the British for merely doing what they themselves did in their own waters and harbors, which was to charge merchants a fee for protection and the privilege to trade in goods at her docks. We aim to highlight the importance of genetic heritage, attract the O’Malley diaspora to their ancestral home, and draw further attention to the incredible human being who was Grace O’Malley. There will be some top-notch Irish musicians, games for kids, and a beach bonfire. If you’ve never made an O’Malley Gathering, this would sure be a good one to catch.”
I thought about it. Maybe I’ll just change my name to O’Malley, tag along with the clan this June, and celebrate the fierce, feminine, fearless Granuaile.
(For more information on Clare Island and all of Ireland, visit Tourism Ireland.)