Grace O'Malley

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Grace O'Malley
Grainne Ní Mháille
Grainne Mhaol Ni Mhaille Statue.jpg
Grace O'Malley Statue, Westport House.
Bornc. 1530
Umhaill, Connacht, Ireland
Diedc. 1603
most likely Rockfleet Castle, Ireland
OccupationLand-owner, sea-captain, political activist
ChildrenEoghain Ó Flaithbertaigh, Murchad Ó Flaithbertaigh, Margaret/Maeve Ní Fhlaithbertaigh, Tibbott Burke
  • Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Mháille (father)
  • Margaret/Maeve Ní Mháille (mother)
Piratical career
NicknameGráinne Mhaol, Granuaile
AllegianceÓ Máille
CommandsWhite Seahorse
Battles/warsNine Years War (Ireland)

Grace O'Malley (c. 1530 – c. 1603; also Gráinne O'Malley,[1] Irish: Gráinne Ní Mháille) was lord of the Ó Máille dynasty in the west of Ireland, daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille. Commonly known as Gráinne Mhaol (anglicised as Granuaile) in Irish folklore, she is a well-known historical figure in 16th-century Irish history. Her name was rendered in contemporary English documents in various ways, including Gráinne O'Maly, Graney O'Mally, Granny ni Maille, Grany O'Mally, Grayn Ny Mayle, Grane ne Male, Grainy O'Maly, and Granee O'Maillie. All are versions of her actual name, Gráinne Ní Mháille.[2]

Ní Mháille is not mentioned in the Irish annals, so documentary evidence for her life comes mostly from English sources, especially the eighteen "Articles of Interrogatory", questions put to her in writing on behalf of Elizabeth I.[3] She is also mentioned in the English State Papers and in other documents of the kind.[4] According to her biographer Anne Chambers, O'Malley was "a fearless leader, by land and by sea, a political pragmatist and politician, a ruthless plunderer, a mercenary, a rebel, a shrewd and able negotiator, the protective matriarch of her family and tribe, a genuine inheritor of the Mother Goddess and Warrior Queen attributes of her remote ancestors. Above all else, she emerges as a woman who broke the mould and thereby played a unique role in history."[5]

Upon her father's death she took over active leadership of the lordship by land and sea, despite having a brother, Dónal an Phíopa Ó Mháille. Marriage to Dónal an Chogaidh (Dónal "the warlike") Ó Flaithbheartaigh brought her greater wealth and influence, reportedly owning as much as 1,000 head of cattle and horses. In 1593, when her sons Tiobóid a Búrc (Tibbot Bourke) and Murchadh Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Murrough O'Flaherty), and her half-brother Dónal an Phíopa ("Dónal of the Pipes"), were taken captive by the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, O'Malley sailed to England to petition for their release. She formally presented her request to Queen Elizabeth I at her court in Greenwich Palace.

Early life[edit]

Ní Mháille was born in Ireland around 1530, when Henry VIII was King of England and held the title Lord of Ireland. Under the policies of the English government at the time, the semi-autonomous Irish princes and lords were left mostly to their own devices. However, this was to change over the course of O'Malley's life as the Tudor conquest of Ireland gathered pace.

Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, her father,[6] and his family were based in Clew Bay, County Mayo. He was lord of the Ó Máille dynasty and ruler of Umall, descended from Maille mac Conall. The Uí Mháille (O'Malleys) were one of the seafaring families of Connacht, and they built a row of castles facing the sea to protect their territory. They controlled most of what is now the barony of Murrisk[6] in south-west County Mayo and recognised as their nominal overlords the Mac Uilliam Íochtair branch of the Bourkes, who controlled much of what is now County Mayo. The Bourkes (De Burca) were originally Anglo-Norman but by Ní Mháille's lifetime completely Gaelicised. Her mother, Margaret or Maeve, was also a Ní Mháille. Although she was the only child of Dubhdara and his wife, O'Malley had a half-brother called Dónal na Píopa, the son of her father.[7] Although typically during this period sons would inherit, O'Malley "was considered to be the legal retainer of the family land and seafaring activities".[8]

With shore castles like Carrickkildavnet, the Uí Mháille taxed all those who fished off their coasts, which included fishermen from as far away as England. The head of the family (see Chiefs of the Name) was known simply by his surname as Ó Máille (anglicised as The O'Malley). Local folklore had it that Ní Mháille, as a young girl, wished to go on a trading expedition to Spain with her father. Upon being told she could not because her long hair would catch in the ship's ropes, she cut off most of her hair to embarrass her father into taking her. This earned her the nickname "Gráinne Mhaol" (Irish pronunciation: [ˈɡˠɾˠɑːnʲə wɨːlˠ]; from maol meaning bald or having cropped hair), usually anglicised as Granuaile (/ˌɡrɔːnjəˈwl/).[9] The nickname may also come from "Gráinne Umhaill" ("Gráinne of Umhall", Umhall being a historical district of west Connacht dominated by the Uí Mháille).[10]

As a child she most likely lived at her family's residence of Belclare and Clare Island,[2] but she may have been fostered to another family, for fosterage was traditional among Irish nobility at the time. She was probably formally educated, since she is believed to have spoken in Latin with Queen Elizabeth I in 1593.[11]

Marriage to O'Flaherty[edit]

Clare Island, associated with Gráinne O'Malley

Ní Mháille was married in 1546 to Dónal an Chogaidh Ó Flaithbheartaigh, tánaiste or heir to the Ó Flaithbheartaigh (O'Flaherty) title, which would have been a good political match for the daughter of the Ó Máille chieftain. As Ó Flaithbheartaigh tánaiste, Dónal an Chogaidh had expectations of one day ruling Iar Connacht, the area roughly equivalent to modern Connemara.[12]

She bore three children during her marriage to Dónal an Chogaidh:

  • Eoghan (Owen):[13] The eldest child, known to be kind and forgiving. Sir Richard Bingham tricked him; Owen was murdered as a result, and Bingham and his troops took over his castle.
  • Méadhbh (Maeve):[13] Said to be much like her mother, she married Ricard Deamhan an Chorráin a Búrc, 'the Devil's Hook', with whom she had several children. Ní Mháille and a Búrc were supposedly very close, more than once saving her from death.
  • Murchadh (Murrough):[13] Murrough was said to take after his father, for he enjoyed warfare. He often beat his sister Maeve, and refused to listen to his mother because of her gender. Many sources report that he betrayed his family and joined forces with Sir Richard Bingham after the murder of Owen. When O'Malley heard of this she swore she would never speak to Murrough again for the rest of her life, though she would often insult him. After Dónal an Chogaidh's death, O'Malley left Iar Connacht and returned to Ó Mháille territory, taking with her many O'Flaherty followers.[14]

In 1565, Dónal was killed in an ambush while hunting in the hills surrounding Lough Corrib; this was, undoubtedly, part of Dónal's wider struggle with the Joyces for control of Hen's Castle on the lough. Gráinne returned to her own lands and established her principal residence on Clare Island (now called Granuaile's Castle). She allegedly took a shipwrecked sailor as her lover. The affair only lasted briefly as he was killed by the MacMahons of Ballyvoy. Seeking vengeance, Gráinne attacked the MacMahon castle of Doona in Blacksod Bay and killed her lover's murderers on Cahir Island. Her attack on Doona Castle earned her the nickname 'Dark Lady of Doona'.[15]

Marriage to Burke[edit]

By 1566, Ní Mháille had married a second time, this time to Risdeárd an Iarainn ("Iron Richard") Bourke, his nickname deriving from his ironworks at Burrishoole, the place of his principal castle and residence.[16] The 1st Viscount Mayo was a child of this marriage.

Still not satisfied with her revenge, Ní Mháille then sailed for Ballycroy and attacked the garrison at Doona Castle, overpowering the defenders and taking the castle for herself.[17] Her attack against the MacMahons was not the first time she interrupted someone at their prayers. Legend tells of another lord who stole property from her and fled to a church for sanctuary. She was determined to wait out the thief, maintaining that he could starve or surrender. The thief dug a tunnel and escaped, however, and the hermit who took care of the church broke his vow of silence to scold her for attempting to harm someone who had sought sanctuary. Her reply is not recorded.[18]

More than twenty years after her death, an English Lord Deputy of Ireland recalled her ability as a leader of fighting men, noting the fame she still had among the Irish people.[19][20]

Autonomous status[edit]

In 1576 Grace engaged in the surrender and regrant process with the Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney in respect of her lands. Given that Rockfleet was over a week's march from Dublin, and as she was so often at sea, control by the Crown was in practical terms almost non-existent.

In 1593, in his letter to protesting Ní Mháille's claims against him, Sir Richard Bingham claimed that she was "nurse to all rebellions in the province for this forty years".[21][22] Bingham was Lord President of Connacht, with the task of controlling local lords who had, until then, been mostly autonomous.

Ní Mháille had every reason, and used every opportunity, to limit the power of the Kingdom of Ireland over her part of the country. An expedition from Galway led by Sheriff William Óge Martyn attacked her castle at Clare Island in March 1579. However, they were put to flight and barely escaped.

Meeting with Elizabeth[edit]

The meeting of Grace O'Malley and Queen Elizabeth I (a later illustration from Anthologia Hibernica, vol. 11, 1793)

In the later 16th century, English power steadily increased in Ireland and Ní Mháille's power was steadily encroached upon. Finally in 1593, when her family (her two sons Tibbot Burke and Murrough O'Flaherty, and her half-brother Dónal na Píopa) were taken captive by the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, Ní Mháille sailed to England to petition Queen Elizabeth I for their release. Elizabeth I famously sent Ní Mháille a list of questions, which were answered and returned to Elizabeth. Ní Mháille then met with the Queen at Greenwich Palace, wearing a fine gown, the two of them were surrounded by guards and the members of Elizabeth's royal Court.

Ní Mháille refused to bow before Elizabeth because she didn't recognise her as the "Queen of Ireland." It's also rumoured that she had a dagger concealed about her person, which guards found upon searching her. Elizabeth's courtiers were said to be very upset and worried, but Ní Mháille informed the Queen that she carried it for her own safety. Elizabeth accepted this and seemed untroubled.

Some also reported that Ní Mháille had sneezed and was given a lace-edged handkerchief from a noblewoman. She apparently blew her nose into it and then threw the cloth into a nearby fireplace, much to the shock of the court. Ní Mháille informed everyone that in Ireland, a used handkerchief was considered dirty and was properly destroyed.

Their discussion was carried out in Latin, as Ní Mháille spoke no English and Queen Elizabeth I spoke no Irish.[11] After much talk, the two women came to an agreement. Included in the stipulations for each party were that: Elizabeth was to remove Bingham from his position in Ireland, and Ní Mháille was to stop supporting the Irish lords' rebellions.

The meeting seemed to have done some good, for Richard Bingham was removed from service. However, several of Ní Mháille's other demands (including the return of the cattle and land that Bingham had stolen from her) remained unmet, and within a rather short period of time Queen Elizabeth I sent Bingham back into Ireland. Upon Bingham's return, Ní Mháille realised that the meeting with Elizabeth had been useless, and went back to supporting Irish insurgents during the Nine Years' War.

She most likely died at Rockfleet Castle around 1603. The same year as Elizabeth's death, though the year and place of Ní Mháille's death are disputed. Her family's usual burial place was in Clare Island Abbey.

Biographical sources[edit]

O'Malley's biography has been written by Irish historian and novelist Anne Chambers, who has described O'Malley as:

"a fearless leader, by land and by sea, a political pragmatist and politician, a ruthless plunderer, a mercenary, a rebel, a shrewd and able negotiator, the protective matriarch of her family and tribe, a genuine inheritor of the Mother Goddess and Warrior Queen attributes of her remote ancestors. Above all else, she emerges as a woman who broke the mould and thereby played a unique role in history."[23]

Documentary evidence for Ní Mháille's life comes mostly from English sources, as she is not mentioned in the Irish annals. The O'Malley family "book", a collection of eulogistic bardic poetry and other material of the sort kept by aristocratic Gaelic households of the period, has not survived. There are no contemporary images of her. An important source of information is the eighteen "Articles of Interrogatory", questions put to her in writing on behalf of Elizabeth I.[24] She is also mentioned in the English State Papers and in other documents of the kind, an example being a letter sent by the Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, to his son Phillip in 1577: "There came to mee a most famous femynyne sea captain called Grace Imallye, and offred her service unto me, wheresoever I woulde command her, with three gallyes and two hundred fightinge men ..."[25]

Local traditions concerning her were collected by Irish scholar John O'Donovan in the 1830s and 1840s on behalf of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. In a letter of 1838 he describes her as being "most vividly remembered by tradition and people were living in the last generation who conversed with people who knew her personally".

Charles Cormick of Erris, now 74 years and six weeks old, saw and conversed with Elizabeth O'Donnell of Newtown within the Mullet, who died about 65 years ago who had seen and intimately known a Mr Walsh who remembered Gráinne. Walsh died at the age of 107 and his father was the same age as Gráinne.[26]

A story is recorded of Ní Mháille chiding her son Tíoboíd in the course of an attack on Kinturk Castle, when she thought he was shirking the battle: "An ag iarraidh dul i bhfolach ar mo thóin atá tú, an áit a dtáinig tú as?" ("Are you trying to hide in my arse, the place that you came out of?").[27] She is also recorded as saying, with regard to her followers, "go mb'fhearr léi lán loinge de chlann Chonraoi agus de chlann Mhic an Fhailí ná lán loinge d'ór" (that she would rather have a shipload of Conroys and MacAnallys than a shipload of gold).[27]

Westport House[edit]

Westport House in County Mayo, Ireland, was the seat of the Browne dynasty, Marquesses of Sligo, direct descendants of Gráinne Ní Mháille. The current house was built close to the site of Cahernamart (Cathair na Mart - "fort of the slaughtered cows"), an O'Malley fort. The original house was built by Colonel John Browne, a Jacobite, who was at the Siege of Limerick (1650–51), and his wife Maude Bourke. Maude Bourke was Ní Mháille's great-great granddaughter.

There is a bronze statue of O'Malley by the artist Michael Cooper – the brother-in-law of the 11th Marquess of Sligo – in the grounds of Westport House.[28] Westport House also contains a comprehensive exhibition on the life of O'Malley compiled by author Anne Chambers, a leading authority on Granuaile.

Cultural impact[edit]

O'Malley's life has inspired many musicians, novelists, and playwrights to create works based on her life and adventures and she has been used as a personification of Ireland:[29][30]


  • The Irish revolutionary Patrick Pearse used O'Malley as a symbol of Irish independence in his lyrics to Óró sé do bheatha abhaile.
  • In 1985, the Irish composer and singer Shaun Davey composed a suite of music based on the life and times of O'Malley, Granuaile, published in 1986.
  • The Indulgers' 2000 album In Like Flynn includes a song entitled "Granuaile", which is centred on the legend of O'Malley.[31]
  • Dead Can Dance's 2012 album Anastasis features a song titled "Return of the She-King", which was inspired by O'Malley.[32]
  • The Irish musician Gavin Dunne (Miracle of Sound) released a song entitled "Gráinne Mhaol, Queen Of Pirates" on his album Metal Up.[33]
  • The Canadian folk punk band The Dreadnoughts released a song entitled "Grace O'Malley" on their Victory Square album.[34]


  • The play Bald Grace by Marki Shalloe debuted at Chicago's Stockyards Theatre in 2005, and was featured at Atlanta's Theatre Gael (America's oldest Irish-American theatre) in 2006.[35]
  • The Broadway musical The Pirate Queen depicting O'Malley's life debuted at the Hilton Theater in 2007, with Stephanie J. Block portraying O'Malley[36]
  • American actress Molly Lyons wrote and starred in a one-woman show titled A Most Notorious Woman, detailing the life of O'Malley. It has been produced internationally at theatres and festivals.[37]
  • The play Gráinne, by J.Costello, K. Doyle, L. Errity, and A.L. Mentxaka, of 2015, tells the story of Gráinne O'Malley in six snapshots. It was premiered by Born to Burn productions in Dublin in November 2015, with an all-woman cast playing three female roles and six male roles. The text of the play was published in a limited edition by artisan publishers Gur Cake Editions.[38]





See also[edit]


  1. ^ O'Dowd, Mary (2008). "O'Malley, Gráinne (fl. 1577–1597)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  2. ^ a b Chambers 2003, p. 39
  3. ^ See the supplement to Chambers, 2003.
  4. ^ Lambeth Palace Library, ms. no 601, p. 10, cited in Chambers 2003, p. 85
  5. ^ Granuaile: Grace O'Malley: Grace O'Malley - Ireland's Pirate Queen, by Anne Chambers; Foreword; Gill & Macmillan Ltd, 2006; ISBN 0717151743, 9780717151745
  6. ^ a b Chambers 2003, p. 20
  7. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 21
  8. ^ O'Connell
  9. ^ as used to name the ships ILV Granuaile of the Commissioners of Irish Lights
  10. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 57
  11. ^ a b Chambers 2003, p. 36
  12. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 42
  13. ^ a b c Chambers 2003, p. 44
  14. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 45
  15. ^ "Dictionary of Irish Biography - Cambridge University Press". Retrieved 8 March 2017.
  16. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 63
  17. ^ Chambers 2003, pp. 55–56
  18. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 56
  19. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 53
  20. ^ Calendar of State Papers Relating to Ireland (James I) 1623, no. 997. (London 1860–1912)
  21. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 52
  22. ^ Lambeth Palace Library MS 601, p. 111
  23. ^ Granuaile: Grace O'Malley: Grace O'Malley - Ireland's Pirate Queen, by Anne Chambers; Foreword; Gill & Macmillan Ltd, 2006; ISBN 0717151743, 9780717151745
  24. ^ See the supplement to Chambers, 2003.
  25. ^ Lambeth Palace Library, ms. no 601, p. 10, cited in Chambers 2003, p. 85
  26. ^ Gaisford St Lawrence Papers, cited in Chambers 2003, p. 73
  27. ^ a b Ordnance Survey Letters, Mayo, vol. II, cited in Chambers 2003, spelling modernised.
  28. ^ 'Westport House A Brief History' Westport House 2008
  29. ^ Hardiman, James (1831). Irish Minstrelsy; or Bardic Remains of Ireland, Volume 2. p. 140.

    Her name has been frequently used by our Bards, to designate Ireland. Hence our Countrymen have been often called “Sons of old Grana Weal.”

  30. ^ "Granuaile". Retrieved 31 May 2011.
  31. ^ "The Indulgers Music Page". The Indulgers. Archived from the original on 8 June 2008. Retrieved 18 August 2008.
  32. ^ Reesman. "Interview with Dead Can Dance". The Aquarian. The Aquarian. Retrieved 22 August 2012.
  33. ^ "Gráinne Mhaol, Queen Of Pirates, by Miracle Of Sound". Miracle Of Sound. Retrieved 1 April 2017.
  34. ^ "Victory Square, by The Dreadnoughts". The Dreadnoughts. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  35. ^ "Current Events: The Marki Shalloe Theatre Festival, October 21 – November 5, 2006". Theatre Gael. Retrieved 8 April 2007.
  36. ^ Brantley, Ben (6 April 2007). "The Pirate Queen - Review - Theater". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 22 February 2019.
  37. ^ About the Play
  38. ^ See J. Costello, K. Doyle, L. Errity, and A.L. Mentxaka, 'Grainne: A Play'. Dublin: Gur Cake Editions, 2015.
  39. ^ IMDB link.
  40. ^ "Ships in the Irish Lighthouse Service". Commissioners of Irish Lights. Archived from the original on 3 February 2007. Retrieved 10 February 2007.
  41. ^ Granuaile the latest vessel in the National Seabed Survey
  42. ^ "Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley". Retrieved 31 January 2011.


Further reading[edit]

  • O'Dowd, Mary (2008). "O'Malley, Gráinne (fl. 1577–1597)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Schwind, Mona L. (1978). "Nurse to all rebellions: Grace O'Malley and sixteenth-century Connacht". Éire-Ireland. 13: 40–61.

External links[edit]