She was born Gráine Ní Mháille in 1530, anglicized now to Grace O’Malley, though Gráine and Grace are nothing like the same name. It is said that Grace cut off all her hair as a girl in order that she might disguise herself and ship out with her father. There are various tales about how this might have happened and how she became known as Gráine Mahol (Bald Gráine) or Granuaile. (There are many different versions of this woman’s name.) Her father was a clan chief of the Malleys or Mháille in what is now County Mayo in northwest Ireland. The O’Malley clan was a seafaring sept who built a string of fortresses along the coast. Their main income came from the tribute they demanded from local fisherman and merchants who passed through their waters and from shipping to the continent. Their overlord was a Bourke, descendant of an Anglo-Norman family that had taken the area in the 12th Century. By this time the Bourkes were completely Irish.
When Grace was sixteen, she was married to Dónal O’Flaherty — Dónal of Battles, as he is called — who stood to inherit much of what is now Connemara. Grace bore him three children, Owen, Margaret, and Murrough. Dónal was a particularly bellicose individual in a very battle-ridden time and place. He was killed in a struggle with the Joyce clan who seized his castle in Lough Corrib. Grace gathered his forces and took the castle back. Some time later, she moved to Clare Island in her own family holdings. Many O’Flahertys went with her.
Around 1566, Grace married a Bourke, Iron Richard as he is called, but some say she did so only to gain his castle at Rockfleet. The story is that she divorced him and kept the castle. On the other hand, the English saw them as married and apparently that is how Grace represented herself to them. The couple had one son, Tibbot. Iron Richard was “a plundering, warlike, unquiet, and rebellious man, who had often forced the gap of danger upon his enemies” according to his 1583 epitaph in the Annals of the Four Masters, and it is a little hard to see him as the weak, hen-pecked husband that legend has him, but real-life characters do not get to write the script of their movies. Grace is not mentioned in the Annals.
Grace developed a shipping trade to Spain and other places on the continent and continued to squeeze the locals in the traditional O’Malley protection racket. The great harbor at Galway was a major shipping destination. Merchants were taxed for anchoring there and Grace saw no reason not to demand a share of this trade as well. This brought her into conflict with those who controlled the Galway traffic and Grace was involved with constant fighting. In the mid-Sixteenth Century Tudor subjugation of Ireland was under way but the northwest was far distant from the Dublin Pale where English power was concentrated. For a time, the O’Malleys of Mayo found other Irish clans to be their chief foes but this soon changed.
Around the time of Dónal’s death, members of the Irish Council in Dublin began complaining to their English overlords about the rampant piracy around Galway Bay. An English force attacked Grace in the castle at Lough Corrib that she had wrested from the Joyce clan and she defeated them. It is said that she stripped the lead from the castle roof and either poured it molten on the heads of the English or, more likely, molded it into bullets to kill them. This was the first clash between Grace O’Malley and the English.
By 1575, Grace and her husband, Iron Richard, could see which way the wind was blowing and began tending toward siding with the English. Richard in fact, could only take over as head of the Bourke clan under the new English rules of succession. By 1577, the couple came to agreement with the English. Soon after, Richard received a grant of nobility.
The Englishman in charge of Ireland at this time was Henry Sidney (father of Sir Philip Sidney), It is surprising to read in many accounts that he was an enlightened governor that wished to pacify Ireland through friendship rather than war since the Irish accounts of his administration recount hangings, slaughter, and treachery as commonplace in his term of office. Sidney met Grace in 1577:
There came to me also a most famous femynyne sea captain, called Granuge I’Mally, and offered her services unto me wheresoever I would command her, with three galleys and two hundred fighting men. She brought with her her husband, for she was as well by sea as by land more than master’s-mate with him. He was of the nether Burkes, and called by nickname Richard in Iron. This was a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.
So Henry Sidney judged Grace the more important of the couple. Philip, a very young man, had met Grace the year before and recommended her to his father. Grace may have smiled for the English but she turned a different face toward her old Irish enemies. Soon after her meeting with Sidney, she attacked the Desmonds, who were allied with the English. This time the English army prevailed and Grace was imprisoned for eighteen months. Justice Drury said of her that she was “a woman who had impudently passed the part of womanhood and been a great spoiler and commander and chief director of thieves and murderers at sea…” But he also noted that Grace was “famous for stoutness of courage and person”. Grace emerged from prison and rejoined her husband in time for his knighting and accession to power. But Richard died only a few years after becoming a noble and things took quite a turn for the pirate queen.
Grace called herself Lady Bourke and assumed control of her late husband’s clan. A new governor, Sir Richard Bingham, came into Ireland. His strategy was to destroy Irish resistance by wasting the country, reducing the clans to starvation, and replacing them with English lords. Such was a policy advocated by many of the English such as Edmund Spenser. Bingham thought Grace the “nurse of all rebellions” and attempted her destruction. He murdered her son Owen and seized his lands; he made an ally of Grace’s son Murrough, which caused Grace to battle him; he executed her step-sons; he drove Grace from her own lands and took or destroyed all her crops and cattle; he kidnapped her son Tibbot and imprisoned him. At one point, Bingham captured Grace herself and proceeded to build the gallows on which he meant to hang her but her son-in-law, husband to her daughter Margaret, offered himself as a hostage and Grace was freed. She fled north and began battling the English; Bingham turned south and destroyed her ships. Now Grace was truly destitute.
Grace O’Malley came up with an ingenious scheme: in 1593 she wrote to Queen Elizabeth I, asking for a meeting, then some while later, slipped away from Ireland and made her way to London, belly of the beast of the day. Elizabeth’s chief advisor William Cecil, Lord Burghley, had been studying Ireland for twenty years (he advocated a policy of English rule over all the territory of Britain and Ireland) and was fascinated to meet the now legendary pirate queen. Meanwhile, Bingham’s indignant missives to Court were ignored or shifted from the Queen’s notice. Burghley gave Grace a questionnaire, asking about her marriages, her employment (Grace said she was but a simple farmer), and so on. This must have been done through a translator since Grace spoke little or no English. Finally, after confiscating her dagger, Grace O’Malley was given an audience with Elizabeth the Great around 1599.
The two met cordially enough and conversed in Latin, the only language they had in common. The childless Elizabeth seemed very interested in Grace’s relations with her sons and particularly the war she had with Murrough. They parted and Elizabeth wrote Bingham to “have pity for the poor aged woman”. Grace was only three years older than the Queen. Soon after returning to Ireland, she took up her old ways and began attacking ships off of Galway Bay. One of the last mentions of Grace O’Malley is a note by an English captain who managed to overcome a vessel “that belongs to Grany O’Malley”. She was 71 at the time. It is thought that Grace O’Malley died in 1603, the same year as Elizabeth I.
Subsequent generations have rediscovered Grace O’Malley and written plays, novels, songs, and poetry about her. Anne Chambers, Irish historian, wrote Grace O’Malley’s sole biography in 1979 (new edition 2009). It was Chambers who discovered Burghley’s questionnaire among the English State Papers and her book is the single essential source on Granuaile, Ireland’s Pirate Queen.