Think all pirates were rough-and-ready men who took to the seas to escape poverty? Think again! Grace O’Malley was none of these things. In fact, she was born into Irish nobility, the daughter of southern Irish chieftain and wealthy sea trader. As befits such a young lady, she received a fine education, learning Latin and, just as importantly, how to run an estate.
However, it was not her books that fascinated young Grace, but the sea. Such was her desire to sail, she famously cut her own hair and dressed as a boy in a failed attempt to get a job on one of her father’s vessels. The exploit may not have got her on a boat to Spain, but it did earn her the nickname ‘Grainne Umhaill’ (or ‘cropped hair’), which would stick for the rest of her life.
In 1546, Grace was married, though for politics instead of love. Her union with Donal, the son of another chieftain was certainly useful, and fruitful, too, producing three children. It was, however, quite short-lived. Donal was killed while out hunting, just one of many victims of the clan warfare that plagued Ireland during the sixteenth century. Grace was to be heartbroken again soon after. Following the death of her husband, she took a sailor for a lover, but he too was killed, this time by members of the MacMahon clan. Grace vowed revenge.
Under her command, her crew attacked a MacMahon clan stronghold, killing the men involved in her lover’s slaying. But even then her thirst for vengeance was not sated. Grace married again, with her union with Iarainn Bourke, or ‘Iron Richard’, giving the two families almost complete control of the seas off southern Ireland. But within a year, the couple were divorced. Showing her tactical awareness, Grace took the Burke stronghold of Rockfleet Castle, giving her a key advantage as she took to the seas to ward off English ships. According to most accounts, Grace was a skilled and fearless leader of men in naval battle, repelling the old enemy as the Tudor monarch tried to exert greater influence over Ireland, and fending off attacks from rival Irish clans.
So powerful did Grace O’Malley become that the English plotted to kidnap her two sons. They succeeded but did not break her. Instead, she boldly went straight to London in person, meeting face-to-face with Queen Elizabeth I. She convinced the monarch to not only let her sons go, but to remove the hated Sir Richard Bingham from Ireland (according to legend, she had a dagger hidden on her person just in case the talks didn’t go so well).
Despite this woman-to-woman agreement, Grace returned home to Ireland and continued to support the campaign for Irish independence, going back on her word to Elizabeth. The last years of her life were dedicated to this cause. Her death at Rockfleet Castle in 1603 removed a huge thorn from the side of the English.