HP072: Grace O’Malley

HP072: Grace O’Malley

A request from Jillian Waun of Jacksonville, North Carolina.

Sally Driscoll of Great Neck Publishing.
Barbara Sjoholm of The Los Angeles Times


Todays podcast was a request from listener Jillian Waun of Jacksonville, North Carolina. Thank you for the request Jillian. Here is the podcast you requested.

She was the scourge of Spanish and English merchants. “Notorious by land and sea,” her English enemies said. Queen Elizabeth I even put a price — 500 pounds — on her head.

Grace O’Malley, a 16th century pirate, was feared from Ireland’s Galway Bay to Hampton Court in England. A clan chieftain and a sea captain, she once commanded 200 men and a flotilla of galleys and held sway in the west of Ireland in an era when most women led constricted lives.

Little about Grace is written in Irish history, but she is celebrated in legends, ballads and songs, and four centuries after her death there’s a growing interest in her exploits.

This free-spirited pirate queen, nicknamed Granuaile.

Anne Chambers’ biography “Granuaile: Ireland’s Pirate Queen, c. 1530-1603” (Wolfhound, 2003). Chambers’ book sets her life against the troubled 16th century, when English colonization of Ireland became too powerful to resist.

Grace was born in 1530 to Margaret and Dubdhara “Black Oak” O’Malley, the leader of a seafaring clan. Her father recognized that young Grace had an eye for the weather and aptitude for the sailor’s life. There’s a story that she cut off her hair to look more like a boy and better fit in on board. Another says she flung herself down from the mast onto the back of an Algerian pirate about to attack her father. Whether the tales are true, they suggest that Grace’s rebellious, brave character was apparent early on.

Those traits served her well in stormy Ireland were she was born. The country was fragmented into warring fiefdoms, each controlled by a clan. Raiding and cattle stealing were the norm. But, It was the disorder of the 16th century that allowed Grace to mature from a wild girl into an enterprising and canny woman who played both sides, winning a meeting with Queen Elizabeth and a peerage for her son, yet remaining an Irish heroine.

A museum dedicated to a seafaring women. The Granuaile Visitor Centre is about 20 miles from Westport, in Louisburgh. The museum is near Murrisk, which has a ruined abbey, where Grace is said to have been baptized and then married at age 15 to her first husband, Donal O’Flaherty, a violent-tempered man who was killed in a feud with another clan.

Grace’s story is one of a remarkable metamorphosis from a widow with three children and no land or income into the pirate queen.

After Donal’s death, she returned to Clew Bay to trade with southern Europe, and occasionally and apparently with great relish, raid the merchant ships coming from Spain and Portugal to Galway. The museum has some terrific dioramas and models, including one of Grace in doublet and hose, with a sword hanging from her belt. No one knows exactly what she looked like, but clearly she had no trouble finding admirers, even when she was wearing men’s clothing.

Grace O’MALLEY’s pirate headquarters was on Clare Island, outermost and largest of the hundreds of isles of Clew Bay. Grace and her followers lived in the castle, though the Granuaile Visitor Centre suggests there would have been outbuildings all around, including a feasting hall.

Grace was known as a gambler, with cards as well as love and piracy. One story recounts how she saved a young man from a shipwreck and made him her lover. He was murdered by her enemies, and she took revenge, killing those responsible for his death and taking their castle.

Clare Island contains a 15th century church where Grace is reputedly buried.

Fifteen miles north of Westport on the shores of Clew Bay stands another castle that once belonged to Grace, Carrighowley Castle at Rockfleet. The stone tower, several stories tall, is in good condition, and can be visited. Grace married her second husband, Richard Bourke, another clan leader, often called Richard-in-Iron for his habit of wearing a suit of armor.

Grace coveted his castle, Carrighowley, for its location on the innermost shores of Clew Bay, safe from the English.

In the late 1570s, English soldiers captured Granuaile. She was sent to a prison in Limerick for eighteen months, and then held in the dungeon in Dublin Castle. By all accounts she should have perished, but she eventually regained her freedom and returned to Carraigahowley.

Legend has it that a year after their marriage and after the castle was safely in her possession, she met him at the door and said, “Richard Bourke, I dismiss you.” But they remained allies after their divorce, and she bore his son, Tibbot, at sea. The story goes that a day after she’d given birth, her galley was attacked by Algerian pirates, and her men called to her for help.

“May you be seven times worse off this day 12 months who cannot do without me for one day,” she said. Half-dressed, she went on deck, swearing loudly and blasting the Algerians with her musket.

In 1584, Sir Richard Bingham became the English governor, and began to harass Granuaile and her family. Two years later, Bingham’s forces killed Granuaile’s eldest son, Owen. While planning revenge, Granuaile was arrested for treason. Bingham threatened to hang her, but she escaped death by plea-bargaining. Bingham raided her property, and confiscated much of her fleet as well as her valuable herd of cattle.

Discovery Channel was made a five-part series on warrior women, narrated by Lucy Lawless of “Xena” fame. One segment was on Grace O’Malley.

Carrighowley Castle at Rockfleet is set on the shores of Clew Bay, and it’s said that Grace anchored her favorite galley just offshore and threw the hawser (a large heavy rope) through a window in the castle and kept it around the bedpost while she slept. She defended this castle many times as the English encroached deeper into Ireland.

In 1593, after her son Murrough had sided with the English, Granuaile petitioned Queen Elizabeth I for sympathy and support, as she was impoverished and tired of dealing with Bingham’s pursuits.

The Queen replied with a document entitled, “Eighteen Articles of Interrogatory.” This represents the most important written testimony of Granuaile’s life. In answer to the queen’s questions, Granuaile detailed her marriages, children, properties, inheritances, and other personal information.

While Granuaile was waiting to hear from the queen, Tibbot was arrested on charges of treason. Granuaile then rushed to London and in an historic meeting with the queen, obtained all her requests, including the release of Tibbot, the right to a portion of her son’s inheritance that had been denied to her as a woman, and the approval to return to the sea.

While she had convinced the queen that she would only attack incoming ships that threatened Ireland’s security, Bingham wasn’t convinced. He sent men to accompany her on her missions, which prevented her from committing any acts of piracy.

Granuaile lived until her early seventies, and died impoverished at Carraigahowley. She was buried at the Cistercian Abbey on Clare Island. She died at Rockfleet in 1603.

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  1. Colin from Ireland says, “Brilliant, Keep up the good work.”
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