The Most Famous Female Pirate of the Elizabethan Age
Grace O’Malley (circa 1530 – circa 1603) was a sixteenth century Irish heroine. She fought the English in the reign of Elizabeth I on land, and preyed upon their ships at sea. Her English foes vilified her as “a woman who hath imprudently passed the part of womanhood“, and she was mostly ignored by contemporary chroniclers. Yet, her memory lived on in native folklore, and nationalists later lionized her as an icon of the Irish fight for freedom and struggle against foreign domination.
There were two Irelands back in those days, with two distinct cultures. On the one hand, there was Dublin and its surrounding counties, an English enclave ever fearful of the hinterland that comprised the rest of Ireland. That rest of Ireland was the land of the native Irish and the Gaelicized Old English. The English viewed them as uncivilized and wild, given to raid and strife and interminable violence. Grace O’Malley was born and raised in Connaught, in western Ireland, and belonged to that “wild Irish” hinterland, which consisted of numerous autonomous territories.
The rulers and inhabitants of Connaught frequently feuded, raided each other, rustled cattle, captured and lost castles and strongholds, and otherwise vied for advantage and dominance. All were part of a clientele system, in which the weak aligned with the strong, and offered tribute in exchange for protection. The O’Malleys were Irish nobility with clients of their own, who looked to them for protection. They were, in turn, clients of another, even more powerful family. They traded produce and raw materials for luxury good, fished, ferried passengers, levied tolls on ships that passed through their waters, and engaged in opportunistic piracy.
For protection, the O’Malleys built a row of castles along the coast. Grace was born in that environment, married in 1546, and bore three children before her husband was killed in an ambush in 1565. Because of the era’s misogynistic laws, she was unable to inherit her husband’s property. So she settled on Clare Island, and made it her stronghold and base of operations. O’Malley started off with three galleys and a number of smaller boats. She commenced her career in piracy with attacks on ships that plied the region’s waters, and raids against coastal targets.
Grace O’Malley seethed over the laws that deprived her of her husband’s property, as she built up her pirate fleet. In the meantime, she consoled herself with a shipwrecked sailor, who became her lover. When he was killed by a rival family, the MacMahons, history got its first glimpse of O’Malley’s ferocity. To avenge her beau, she attacked Doona castle, where her lover’s murderers were holed up, and killed them. That earned her the nickname: “Dark Lady of Doona“. She remarried in 1566, but still mad at her sailor lover’s murder, she had another go at the MacMahons in Doona Castle. She seized it in a surprise attack, while the garrison was busy with prayers.
Around that time, O’Malley also went after a thief who stole from her, then fled to a church for sanctuary. She surrounded the church and decided to wait him out, as she taunted him that his only choices were starvation of surrender. He chose a third option, dug a tunnel, and escaped. O’Malley became Ireland’s sea mistress, and a pirate queen who controlled the waters around Connaught with an iron fist. She preyed on sea traffic and coastal communities along Ireland’s western coast, as well as on eastern settlements on the Irish Sea.
While she expanded her control and power, Grace O’Malley personally led a raid on a seaside stronghold known as Cocks Castle. She captured it, and to commemorate her courage, it became known thereafter as Hens Castle. Unfortunately for O’Malley, things soon took a turn for the worse. After they defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, the English were able to focus on the consolidation of their grip on Ireland, and the fight against Irish piracy and pirates such as O’Malley. To resist that English expansion, O’Malley allied with Irish lords who had risen in revolt against the English. However, in 1593, the English captured her sons and brother.
So O’Malley sailed to England, to personally petition Queen Elizabeth I for their release. She met the English queen at Greenwich Castle. There, O’Malley reportedly refused to bow, on the grounds that she did not recognize Elizabeth as Queen of Ireland. Elizabeth extracted O’Malley a promise to cease her assistance to Irish rebels. Elizabeth did not live up to her part of the bargain, however, so Grace O’Malley went back to helping the rebels, and reportedly died in one of her castles in 1603.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading