Friday, August 11, 2017

Damn, Girl-Grace O'Malley

Granuaile Ni Maille, or Grace O'Malley as she is known in English, is the undisputed pirate queen. She was a fierce chieftain, a shrewd businesswoman, and she knew the ocean like the back of her hand. She was a formidable woman to cross, and heaven help any who tried. She would do anything to protect her lands and family, and she was so fierce that Elizabeth I, the queen of Grace's enemy, bestowed a pension on her, and showed her the greatest respect.

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Clew Bay
Grace was born in County Mayo in 1530. Her father, Dubhdara, was the chieftain of the O'Malley clan, and controlled the southern part of Clew Bay. Like Grace, Dubhdara earned his living from the sea as well as from the land, something highly unusual for a chieftain.

At the age of 15, Grace married Donal O'Flaherty, the incompetent leader of Connemara. By all accounts their marriage was unhappy though three children came of it. It was during this time that Grace started to flex her muscles as a political leader. Donal was a poor, petty leader who insisted on fighting with the Joyce clan. He was killed by the Joyce's while trying to defend Cork Castle, and that was the start of Grace's true political career. She lead the remaining men of the O'Flaherty clan, and reclaimed Cork Castle from the Joyce's. She fought so fiercely that the castle was renamed 'Hen's Castle', the name it carries to this day.

Grace had a very short temper, and she was 100% dtf--down to fight. She amassed a great amount of wealth by taxing and stealing from the sailors who came through her waters, and clashed frequently with her neighbors, as well as the English officials who were attempting to encroach into Ireland.

One of the more colorful stories of Grace's combative nature is her beef with the Earl of Howth. The Earl had refused hospitality to Grace one night. This was against the Irish traditions, and the Earl's break with tradition so incensed Grace that she kidnapped his heir. In order to get his son back, the Earl had to agree to Grace's demands that the gates of the castle never be closed at dinner time, and that an extra place always be laid for her. The Earl's descendants lay a place for her at dinnertime to this day.

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Hen's Castle
Grace took control of her father's lands after he died, and in 1566 she decided that it was time to remarry. Like any responsible sixteenth century leader, Grace married for political and militaristic power. In her case, it was for a castle.

Richard-in-Iron, chieftain of the Bourkes, was not only in possession of the north end of Clew Bay, but he also had Rockfleet Castle, a pretty nifty fortified tower that looked out over the entire bay, and was almost impossible to sneak up on by water. By marrying him Grace got control of the entire bay, as well as a very strategic castle. However, before marrying, the pair signed a prenup. Richard was given a one year 'trial period'*, at the end of which Grace could put him away or keep him. Either way, however, Grace got the castle. Unsurprisingly, a year later Richard came home to find himself locked out of his own castle. Grace 'dismissed' Richard, effectively divorcing him, but the pair remained close throughout the rest of Richard's life.

This wasn't the only time Grace efectively strong-armed the Bourke's out of their castle. Fast forward a few years to Richard-in-Iron's death, and instead of vacating the premise like the Brehon laws dictated that the widow of a Chieftain should do, Grace and her many, many of whom were Richard's old men, stayed in the castle, and challenged the rest of the Bourke's to fight them for it. Unsurprisingly, Rockfleet remained in Grace's possession.

Marriage and childbearing in no way slowed Grace down. She didn't let small trifles like childbirth stop her from sailing out with her men. On one particularly memorable occasion, she gave birth to a son on one of her ships. The next day, her men were set upon by Algerian pirates. Grace was below decks nursing her son when the pirates attacked. However, when her men started losing, Grace stormed above decks with a gun, cursing the men who made her get up and fight a day after having a child. Grace's arrival turned the tide of battle, and the Algerians were beaten off.

Rockfleet Castle
Grace's greatest enemy was Sir Richard Bingham, the crown appointed governor of the Connaght region. Bingham was a hard man, and he singled Grace and her family out. He dubbed her the "nurse of all rebellions for 40 years", and made it his personal mission to see her and her family wiped out, and her lands come under control of the English crown. He killed her eldest son, Owen, and torched her lands, driving Grace and her people to live in their ships.

Not only did Bingham kill Grace's eldest son, but he also managed to entice her middle son, Murrough to his side. Grace was furious when Murrough and his people defected, so she laid siege to his lands,  and captured his castle, very effectively reminding him who was in charge.

In 1593, Bingham had Grace backed into a corner. He had thoroughly ruined her lands, and he had her youngest son, Tibbott, imprisoned. Never one to be beaten, Grace decided to go over Bingham's head. There was no way she could meet him in combat, so she sent a petition to Queen Elizabeth, complaining that Bingham was treating her unfairly. In June of that year, Grace sailed to Greenwhich, and by September she finally had an audience with the queen.

There were a lot of similarities between England's Queen and Ireland's Pirate Queen. Both were intensely intelligent, fierce women, who were unused to making compromises. They had both succeeded in a man's world, and both were very used to winning. They were both proud and bold. They would either be best friends or worst enemies. Luckily for Grace, they were friends, or at least, friendly.
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The meeting of Grace (left) and Queen Elizabeth
Elizabeth granted Grace's petition. She ordered Bingham to back off, and eventually ended up recalling him to England, where he ended his days in the Tower of London. While she had technically sworn allegiance to the English crown, Grace more or less went back to her pirating ways.

She was an old woman by now, but if childbearing couldn't keep her from the sea, then neither could old age. There are reports of her leading raids in Scotland well into her seventies, and she fought alongside the English at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. With as rough and swashbuckling of a life as she lived, it is very surprising that Grace died of natural causes. She died at age 73 at Rockfleet castle.


*This wasn't so unusual in Irish tradition. In comparison with the rest of the ancient world Celtic women enjoyed many rights, including keeping their own property, and the right to divorce. Additionally, marriages were very fluid, and many ancient Celtic marriages had a one year trial period. Because of their distance from Rome, many of these traditions continued even after St. Patrick 'brought Christianity' to Ireland.

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Sources
"Ireland's Pirate Queen" by Anne Chambers--World of Hibernia, Spring 1999
Warrior Women, Episode 2-Grace O'Malley (documentary)
Meeting Grace O'Malley, Ireland's Pirate Queen
Graihne Mhaol, Pirate Queen of Connacht: Behind the Legend

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