Granuaile / Grace O’Malley – Irish heroine

Achill Island, birthplace of Grace O'Malley. Irish Pirate Queen. Photo copyright Chris Vesey

Granuaile is the nickname given to the remarkable, larger than life Irish woman warrior Grainne Ni Mhaile, or Grace O’Malley to give her name in English.

Achill Island, birthplace of Grace O'Malley. Photo copyright Chris Vesey

She was born in or around 1530 and is one of the most colourful characters in Irish history. She goes under various titles including the Irish Pirate Queen, and the Sea Queen of Connacht.

Granuaile / Grace O’Malley
Granuaile meets Queen Elizabeth
Granuaile – symbol of Ireland

Her family were the dominant clan in the Clew Bay area of County Mayo in Ireland. Granuaile was a forceful character and for many years led her clan with more skill and bravery than any of the male chieftains around her. This was previously unheard of in 16th century Ireland.

The origins of ‘Grainne the Bald’

Even as a child Granuaile showed signs of her adventurous spirit. She was the daughter of Owen O’Malley, the leader of the O’Malley clan.

The family had a fleet of ships which patrolled off the west coast of Ireland. Legend has it that at the age of 12, Granuaile begged her father to be allowed to sail on the ships with him. He tried to put her off by saying the sea was no place for a girl and anyway, her hair would be caught in the sails.

Granuaile reportedly responded by cutting off all her hair so she could go to sea. This amused her father and she became known by the nickname of Grainne Mhaol – which roughly translated meant Grainne the Bald. This was shortened and anglicised to Granuaile, the name by which she is still best known today.

How Grace O’Malley got her nickname of Granuaile. Image copyright Ireland Calling

Wife, mother and warrior queen

In 1546, Granuaile married Donal O’Flaherty, the son of the neighbouring chieftain in Conamara.

They had three children. When her husband died, Irish custom meant that Granuaile should have inherited some of his estate but the O’Flaherty family prevented this happening. Instead, she was left dependent on the O’Flaherty’s charity. This did not suit her proud and independent nature.

Granuaile returned to her native O’Malley territory and was already so highly thought of as a leader that several hundred O’Flaherty followers went with her.

Molten lead and scourge of the English

Granuaile quickly established herself as a clever and fearless military leader. She had numerous fortresses along the west coast including one known as Hen’s Castle. It had originally been known as Cock’s Castle but was changed to hen’s after Granuaile successfully defended it against a rival clan.

During one of her many skirmishes the English, she found herself under attack at while at Hen’s Castle. She and her men were outnumbered but withstood the English onslaught.

Then Granuaile ordered that the lead should be taken off the castle roof and melted down. She then had the molten metal poured over the English soldiers as they attacked.

That bought her enough time until reinforcements arrived. The English never attacked the castle again.

A second marriage and a DIY divorce

After the death of her first husband, Granuaile married “Iron Richard Bourke” whose lands were conveniently situated close by in the Newport area.

Cynics say she only married him so she could get her hands on the strategically important Rockfleet Castle. This is a view which is somewhat backed up by the way she divorced Bourke as soon as she could. Under Irish Brehon law at that time, a woman could marry for a minimum of a year and then divorce her husband if she wished.

When the year was up, Granaile gathered her followers in Rockfleet Castle and then called out to her husband outside: “Richard Bourke, I dismiss you.”
She let go of the marriage but she held on to the castle and used it to strengthen her influence on the area. However, the couple did have a son together, and maintained a good relationship.

Grace O'Malley divorced husband and got Rockfleet Castle

Granuaile’s revenge when slighted by a baron

Granuaile was a proud woman who would not be slighted. On one occasion, after visiting Dublin she decided to call in on Baron Howth at his home, Howth Castle.

However, the family refused to let her in and told her they were at dinner. Granuaile retaliated by abducting the Baron’s grandson and holding him hostage.

He was eventually released unharmed after the Baron promised to always keep the castle gates open to unexpected visitors and to always set an extra place at every family meal. The Baron gave her a ring to seal the agreement. Setting an extra meal place became a family tradition which was reportedly maintained until the last century.

The scourge of the English Crown forces

Granuaile inherited her father’s estate and began to control the family’s fleet of ships. She exacted taxes on merchant ships that passed by her area of coastline – thus earning herself the accolade of pirate queen.

That hardly does her justice though as she was a highly intelligent and sophisticated operator. She was also the scourge of the English as they tried to subdue the troublesome Irish. The English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, described her as “the nurse to all the rebellions in the province for these 40 years”.

Some of her lands were taken from her and she was twice imprisoned by the English. On one occasion she was sentenced to death. She always managed to get herself out of trouble, however, and died a natural death, probably at Rockfleet Castle in 1603.

Granuaile / Grace O’Malley

Granuaile – symbol of Ireland

Granuaile meets Queen Elizabeth of England