Grace O'Malley

Grace O'Malley (c. 1530 – c. 1603), also known as Gráinne O'Malley[1] (Irish: Gráinne Ní Mháille), was the head of the Ó Máille dynasty in the west of Ireland, and the daughter of Eóghan Dubhdara Ó Máille.

Grace O'Malley
Gráinne Ní Mháille
Grainne Mhaol Ni Mhaille Statue.jpg
Grainne Mhaol Ni Mhaille statue
Westport House, in Westport, County Mayo
Bornc. 1530
Umhaill, Connacht, Ireland
Diedc. 1603 (aged 72–73)
most likely Rockfleet Castle, Ireland
OccupationLand-owner, sea-captain, political activist
ChildrenEóghain Ó Flaithbertaigh, Murchad Ó Flaithbertaigh, Meaḋḃ Ní Fhlaithbertaigh, Tibbott Bourke
  • Eóghan Dubhdara Ó Mháille (father)
  • Me Ní Mháille (mother)
Piratical career
NicknameGráinne Mhaol, Granuaile
AllegianceÓ Máille
CommandsWhite Seahorse
Battles/warsNine Years War (Ireland)

In Irish folklore she is commonly known as Gráinne Mhaol (anglicised as Granuaile) and is a well-known historical figure in sixteenth-century Irish history. Her name also was rendered in contemporaneous 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,[2] though never as Grace O'Malley, which is a much later anglicisation.[citation needed] In popular culture she is often referred to as "The Pirate Queen".

O'Malley 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 mentioned in the English State Papers and in other documents of the kind, as well.[4]

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 Máille. Marriage to Dónal an Chogaidh (Donal "of the war") 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 Tibbot Bourke and Murchadh Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Murrough O'Flaherty) and her half-brother Dónal an Phíopa ("Donal 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 lifeEdit

O'Malley 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 clans 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,[5] and his family were based in Clew Bay, County Mayo. He was Chief of the Name of Clan Ó Máille and Lord of Umhaill, and claimed descent from Maille mac Conall. The Uí Mháille were one of the seafaring clans of Connacht, and they had built a row of castles facing the sea to protect their territory. They controlled most of what is now the barony of Murrisk[5] in south-west County Mayo and recognised as their nominal overlords the Mac William Íochtar branch of the Bourkes, who controlled much of what is now County Mayo. The Bourke family (Irish: de Búrca) were originally Anglo-Norman (de Burgh) but by O'Malley's lifetime had become completely Gaelicised. Her mother, Margaret or Maeve, was also a O'Malley. Although she was the only child of Dubhdara and his wife, O'Malley had a paternal half-brother called Dónal na Píopa.[6] Although under Brehon Law only male members of the derbhfine could inherit the mantle of Chief of the Name through Tanistry, O'Malley "was considered to be the legal retainer of the family land and seafaring activities".[7]

With shore castles like Carrickkildavnet, the Clan Uí Mháille taxed all those who fished off their coasts, which included fishermen from as far away as England. The head of the family was known simply by his surname as Ó Máille (anglicised as The O'Malley). Local folklore had it that O'Malley, 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 shame her father into taking her. This earned her the nickname "Gráinne Mhaol" (Irish pronunciation: [ˈɡɾˠaːn̠ʲə ˈwiːlˠ]; from maol, meaning 'bald' or 'having cropped hair'), usually anglicised as Granuaile (/ˌɡrɔːnjuˈl/ GRAWN-yoo-AYL).[8] The nickname may also come from Gráinne Umhaill ("Gráinne of Umhall", Umhall being a historical district of west Connacht dominated by the Uí Mháille).[9]

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, as fosterage was traditional among the Gaelic nobility of Ireland. She was formally educated, since she spoke in Latin with Queen Elizabeth I in 1593.[10]

Marriage to Ó FlaithbheartaighEdit

Clare Island, associated with Grace O'Malley

O'Malley was married in 1546 to Dónal an Chogaidh Ó Flaithbheartaigh, tánaiste or heir to the Chief of the Name of Clan Ó Flaithbheartaigh, which would have been a good political match for the daughter of the Chief of Clan Ó Máille. As Ó Flaithbheartaigh tánaiste, Dónal an Chogaidh had expectations of one day ruling as Lord of Iar Connacht, which was roughly equivalent to modern Connemara.[11]

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

  • Eóghan (Owen):[12] 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):[12] Said to be much like her mother, she married Richard "the Devils Hook" Bourke, 22nd Mac William Íochtar (d.1601) with whom she had several children. O'Malley and Bourke were supposedly very close, more than once he saved her from death.
  • Murchadh (Murrough):[12] 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 sex. 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 Umhaill, taking with her many Clan Ó Flaithbheartaigh warriors.[13]

In 1564, Dónal's ambitions were dashed when his kinsman Murrough na dTuadh Ó Flaithbheartaigh was appointed by Queen Elizabeth as Chief of the Name instead of him. In 1565, Dónal was killed in an ambush while hunting in the hills surrounding Lough Corrib. His assassination was, undoubtedly, part of Dónal's wider struggle against Clan Joyce for control of Hen's Castle upon the lough. When the Joyce's moved to take the Castle, thinking that Gráinne would not resist, she fought back successfully and forced Clan Joyce to retreat. O'Malley then returned to her own lands and established her principal residence upon 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 Clan MacMahon of Ballyvoy. Seeking vengeance, O'Malley attacked Clan MacMahon's stronghold of Doona Castle in Blacksod Bay and slew her lover's murderers upon Caher Island. Her veangence against Clan MacMahon earned Gráinne the nickname the 'Dark Lady of Doona'.[14]

Marriage to BourkeEdit

By 1566, O'Malley had married a second time, this time to Risdeárd an Iarainn ("Iron Richard") Bourke, 18th Mac William Íochtar (d.1583), his nickname deriving from his ironworks at Burrishoole, the place of his principal castle and residence.[15] Tibbot Bourke, 1st Viscount Mayo was a child of this marriage.

Still not satisfied with her revenge, O'Malley then sailed for Ballycroy and attacked the garrison at Doona Castle, overpowering the defenders and taking the castle for herself.[16] 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.[17]

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.[18][19]

Autonomous statusEdit

In 1576, O'Malley engaged in the surrender and regrant process with the Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney in respect of her lands. Because Rockfleet was over a week's march from Dublin, and as she was so often at sea, control by the Crown was very weak.

In 1593, in his letter to protest O'Malley's claims against him, Sir Richard Bingham claimed that she was "nurse to all rebellions in the province for this forty years".[20][21] Bingham was Lord President of Connacht, tasked with controlling local lords who had, until then, been mostly autonomous.

O'Malley 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 ElizabethEdit

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

In the late 16th century, English power steadily grew in Ireland and O'Malley's power was steadily encroached upon. In 1593, when her two sons Tibbot Bourke and Murrough O'Flaherty, and her half-brother Dónal na Píopa were captured by the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, O'Malley sailed to England to petition Queen Elizabeth I for their release. Elizabeth I famously sent O'Malley a list of questions, which were answered and returned to Elizabeth. O'Malley 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.[22]

O'Malley refused to bow before Elizabeth because she didn't recognise her as the "Queen of Ireland".[22] 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 O'Malley informed the Queen that she carried it for her own safety. Elizabeth accepted this and seemed untroubled.

Some also reported that O'Malley 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. O'Malley informed everyone that in Ireland, a used handkerchief was considered dirty and was properly destroyed.

Their discussion was carried out in Latin, as O'Malley spoke no English and Queen Elizabeth I spoke no Irish.[10] After much talk, the women came to an agreement that included that Elizabeth would remove Bingham from his position in Ireland, and O'Malley would stop supporting the Irish lords' rebellions.[22]

Bingham was removed but several of O'Malley's other demands (including the return of the cattle and land that Bingham had stolen from her) remained unmet, and soon Elizabeth sent Bingham back into Ireland. Bingham continued to plague O'Malley and in 1594 troops were quartered on her lands.

As the Nine Years' War escalated, O'Malley sought to retrench her position with the crown. On 18 April 1595 she petitioned Lord Burghley, complaining of the activities of troops and asking to hold her estate for Elizabeth I.[23] She added that 'her sons, cousins, and followers will serve with a hundred men at their own charges at sea upon the coast of Ireland in Her Majesty's wars upon all continue dutiful unto Her Majesty, as true and faithful subjects'.[24] Throughout the war she encouraged and supported her son Tibbot Bourke to fight for the Crown against Tyrone's confederation of Irish lords.

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

Biographical sourcesEdit

In her 2006 biography of O'Malley, Irish historian and novelist Anne Chambers described her 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.[25]

Documentary evidence for O'Malley's life comes mostly from English sources, as she is not mentioned in the Irish annals. The Ó Máille 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.[26] 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 ..."[27]

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 O'Malley. Walsh died at the age of 107 and his father was the same age as O'Malley.[28]

A story is recorded of O'Malley 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?").[29] 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).[29]

Westport HouseEdit

Statue of Gráinne Mhaol in Westport House

Westport House in County Mayo, Ireland, was the seat of the Browne dynasty, Marquesses of Sligo, direct descendants of Grace O'Malley. The current house was built close to the site of Cahernamart (Cathair na Mart - "fort of the beef market"), an Ó Máille 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 O'Malley's great-great granddaughter.

A statue of Grace O'Malley by the artist Michael Cooper – the brother-in-law of the 11th Marquess of Sligo – is on display in Westport House, and a bronze casting of the statue is situated on the grounds near the house.[30] Westport House also contains a comprehensive exhibition on the life of O'Malley compiled by author Anne Chambers, a leading authority on Granuaile.

Cultural impactEdit

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:[31][32]



  • 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.[38]
  • 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[39]
  • 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.[40]
  • The play Gráinne, by J.Costello, K. Doyle, L. Errity, and A.L. Mentxaka, of 2015, tells the story of Grace 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.[41]



  • James Joyce used the legend of Grace O'Malley ("her grace o'malice") and the Earl of Howth in chapter 1 of his 1939 novel Finnegans Wake.
  • Morgan Llywelyn wrote a 1986 historical fiction titled Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas.
  • Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland make extensive reference to her via written correspondence from one of the prominent characters throughout their 2017 novel The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O..
  • Siobhán Parkinson wrote a historical fiction book in 2019 in Irish titled Gráinne - Gaiscíoch Gael (Gráinne - Hero of the Irish). Cois Life. ISBN 978-1-907494-97-0.



See alsoEdit


  1. ^ O'Dowd, Mary (2008). "O'Malley, Gráinne (fl. 1577–1597)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/20753. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  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. ^ a b Chambers 2003, p. 20
  6. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 21
  7. ^ O'Connell
  8. ^ As used to name the ships ILV Granuaile of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.
  9. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 57
  10. ^ a b Chambers 2003, p. 36
  11. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 42
  12. ^ a b c Chambers 2003, p. 44
  13. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 45
  14. ^ "Dictionary of Irish Biography - Cambridge University Press". Retrieved 8 March 2017.
  15. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 63
  16. ^ Chambers 2003, pp. 55–56
  17. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 56
  18. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 53
  19. ^ Calendar of State Papers Relating to Ireland (James I) 1623, no. 997. (London 1860–1912)
  20. ^ Chambers 2003, p. 52
  21. ^ Lambeth Palace Library MS 601, p. 111
  22. ^ a b c "Grace O'Malley, the Fearless 16th-Century Irish Pirate Queen Who Stood Up to the English". Pocket. Retrieved 21 April 2020.
  23. ^ Calendar of State Papers Ireland, 1592-6, p. 321
  24. ^ Petition of Grany Ny Maelly, of Connacht, to Burghley, 17 April 1595, Nat Archives Kew, PRO SP 63/179/f. 7
  25. ^ Granuaile: Grace O'Malley: Grace O'Malley - Ireland's Pirate Queen, by Anne Chambers; Foreword; Gill & Macmillan Ltd, 2006; ISBN 0717151743, 9780717151745
  26. ^ See the supplement to Chambers, 2003.
  27. ^ Lambeth Palace Library, ms. no 601, p. 10, cited in Chambers 2003, p. 85
  28. ^ Gaisford St Lawrence Papers, cited in Chambers 2003, p. 73
  29. ^ a b Ordnance Survey Letters, Mayo, vol. II, cited in Chambers 2003, spelling modernised.
  30. ^ 'Westport House A Brief History' Westport House 2008
  31. ^ Hardiman, James (1831). Irish Minstrelsy; or Bardic Remains of Ireland, Volume 2. J. Robins. 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."

  32. ^ "Granuaile". Retrieved 31 May 2011.
  33. ^ "The Indulgers Music Page". The Indulgers. Archived from the original on 8 June 2008. Retrieved 18 August 2008.
  34. ^ Reesman. "Interview with Dead Can Dance". The Aquarian. The Aquarian. Retrieved 22 August 2012.
  35. ^ "Gráinne Mhaol, Queen Of Pirates, by Miracle Of Sound". Miracle Of Sound. Retrieved 1 April 2017.
  36. ^ "Victory Square, by The Dreadnoughts". The Dreadnoughts. Retrieved 23 October 2019.
  37. ^ "Frantic Amber - Burning Insight - Encyclopaedia Metallum: The Metal Archives". Encyclopaedia Metallum: The Metal Archives. Retrieved 1 May 2021.
  38. ^ "Current Events: The Marki Shalloe Theatre Festival, October 21 – November 5, 2006". Theatre Gael. Retrieved 8 April 2007.
  39. ^ Brantley, Ben (6 April 2007). "The Pirate Queen - Review - Theater". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 22 February 2019.
  40. ^ About the Play
  41. ^ See J. Costello, K. Doyle, L. Errity, and A.L. Mentxaka, 'Grainne: A Play'. Dublin: Gur Cake Editions, 2015.
  42. ^ IMDB link.
  43. ^ "Ships in the Irish Lighthouse Service". Commissioners of Irish Lights. Archived from the original on 3 February 2007. Retrieved 10 February 2007.
  44. ^ Granuaile the latest vessel in the National Seabed Survey
  45. ^ "Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O'Malley". Retrieved 31 January 2011.


Further readingEdit

External linksEdit