in Grace


She was one of the last true Irish Chieftains. A trader by tradition, a politician by condition and a leader to her people. A legend in her time, she lived through the incredible changes that led to the fall of the old Ireland that she grew up in.

Her name was Grace O’Malley.

Grace, also known as Granuaile and Gráinne Ní Mháille, was born in 1530 into the O’Malley clan, an old family in County Mayo in the West of Ireland. She was the daughter of the Chieftain Eoghan “Dubhdara”Ó Máille – Owen “Black Oak” O’Malley. The O’Malleys were traders with a long-standing tradition of dealing with the Spanish and Portuguese, and Grace became an adept sailor from a young age.

A warrior by heritage and charismatic by nature, Grace was a skillful negotiator and an active, fearless mariner throughout her long life. Her great rebellious heart must never be forgotten.

Strategic in combat and in her choice of marriage partner (she was married twice to Irish Chieftains), she was known for her prowess in battle. As the de facto O’Malley Chieftain, she endured a long and bitter feud with Sir Richard Bingham, a man with an immense hatred of all things Irish who was Governor of Connacht and intent on destroying her. A clever politician, she managed her foes and even had a personal meeting with Queen Elizabeth herself. She died at a respectable age in 1603, along with Elizabeth and the last throes of the old Ireland.

Her first marriage was to Dónal “an Chogaidh“ – Donal “the Battle” – Ó Flaithbheartaigh, when she was just 16 years old. The marriage was a political one: the O’Flaherty’s land lay to the south of the O’Malley’s and Dónal was the Chief. The marriage benefitted both clans as it secured their land and bolstered their political standing.


The O’Flahertys were a wild and ferocious lot and Dónal a wild man – he wasn’t called “Dónal the Battle” for nothing.

However, Grace was a formidable woman herself. Where as Dónal was hot headed and impulsive, Grace was a master strategist. She not only took charge of the clan’s business and trading, she saved her husband’s life multiple times, finishing battles he had started. The combined allegiance of the O’Flaherty and O’Malley clansmen, very sensibly, began to align itself more closely with their Queen than with her husband.

Dónal held a fortified castle in a strategically excellent position – Castlekirk onLough Corrib, nicknamed Cock’s Castle after its occupant. A rival clan seized the castle and Dónal was killed in the ensuing battle. Grace fought back and reclaimed it with such fury and determination that it was renamed Hen’s Castle in her honour – a name it still bears.

Following the battle for Castlekirk and Dónal’s subsequent death, Grace returned to her family home on Clare Island. With her, she brought their three children and a contingent of the O’Flaherty clan, whose respect and loyalty she had earned through her prowess in battle and trading acumen. Before leaving Castlekirk she also managed to install her sons as the rightful heirs to the leadership of the O’Flaherty clan.

After Black Oak O’Malley’s death in 1565 she continued her family’s business, took over her father’s fleet of merchant shipping vessels and became de facto Chieftain. The official title, however, would be forever denied to her.

In the same year, she rescued a man called Hugh de Lacy and took him as her lover. When he was killed by the MacMahon Clan, she took the Castle of Doona from them in revenge, earning herself the moniker the Dark Lady of Doona in the process.

With the English closing in on Ireland, Grace needed to establish herself firmly. She had her eye on Rockfleet Castle, knowing its location would strengthen her position on Clew Bay. In order to get it, she married an heir to the Chieftain of the MacWilliams family, Richard “in Iron” Bourke. In the old Irish Brehon Law, marriage had a one-year trial period. Grace used that year to install herself and her ships at Rockfleet Castle. When the year was up, she shouted down from a window to Richard “I dismiss you”, thus ending the marriage contract but keeping his castle.


A few months later while out at sea, she gave birth to their son, Tibbot neLong –Tibbot of the Boat – who would later become the first Viscount of Mayo. Just a few hours later, she and her crew were attacked by Barbary Pirates and almost defeated.

In desperation, a crew mate ran below deck to get Grace, telling her of their plight. Coming up to the deck from below, she declared “May you be seven times worse this day twelve months from now, he who cannot do without me for one day”. Naturally, she went on to defeat the attackers, screaming “Take this from unconsecrated hands!”as she fired upon their senior officers. Dismayed at the loss of their leaders, the rival pirates fled, leaving their ship to be captured by Grace and added to her fleet.

While Grace was locked away, Richard started a rebellion in 1579. Grace was released in the hope that she would reign him in, but, hardly a surprise, this proved not to be the case. Instead, she plundered English boats for materials to support Richard’s rebellion, ultimately defeating an English garrison at Rockfleet Castle.

Shortly afterwards, the MacWilliam of Mayo submitted to the English Queen Elizabeth. The MacWilliam was the title of the chief of the Irish septs, a position that Richard was heir to. This put Richard, as a successor, and Grace in a very uncomfortable position.

Ever the strategist, Grace pledged her allegiance to Sir Henry Sidney, Elizabeth’s Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and then went to build a relationship of comradery with him. On one occasion she took him sailing around Galway Bay alone and without a guard, to show him that she was trustworthy and not that different from him. She gained the respect of Sir Henry, who even wrote to England about her exploits. His letter is one of the few contemporary accounts of Grace O’Malley.

Grace may have courted the authority of the day, but she was not to be made submit to anyone and it wasn’t long before she was captured for plundering. She was thrown in jail by the Earl of Desmond, who subsequently handed her over to the English.


When The Mac William died, his son was named successor, following English Law. But Grace brought in her army, bolstered by Scottish Gallowglass Fighters, and intimidated the English in to making a deal and naming Richard as The Mac William of Mayo. In the following years Richard died. Grace led several fights and rebellions against the Lord President of Connaught, Richard Bingham, who had killed her eldest son and proclaimed her the “nurse of all rebellion in the province” to Queen Elizabeth I.

He nearly defeated her by destroying her crops and cattle, to which she retaliatedby taking his fleet. He allied himself with her son Murrough in an attempt to undermine her. In response Grace had Murrough‘s village destroyed and ramped up her activity against Bingham.

Bingham adopted ferocious tactics and ultimately dismantled much of Grace’spower. She struck back once more by stealing an English vessel before writing to Queen Elizabethin what could be described as her most famous act. Following her letter, she travelledto England to meet the Queen in person in order to petition the release of her son, to have him acknowledged as The Mac William, to securea pension for herself and to have Bingham removed from his post.

It must have been a shock to the English captains when Grace’s ships docked in the port of Greenwich. This wild and powerful woman in traditional dress would have been unlike anything they had ever seen before. Many wanted her dead, but since she was there by royal invitation, she was sure of herself and knew they wouldn’t dare to harm her without permission.

While Grace was most likely fluent in English, French and Spanish, the negotiations took place in Latin for diplomatic reasons and as a gesture of respect and sensibility. Both queens respected one another, talking in a graceful manner. It may have been that they saw kindred spirits in each other – both formidable women who had risen to power in spite of all odds.

Thanks to her visit Grace managed to release her son and have his title acknowledged. She was assured that Bingham would be recalled to England – a promise that would ultimately be broken.

On her way back home, she visited Howth Castle but was denied entrance as the Lord was dining at the time. Refusing her was a mistake. Grace kidnapped the Lord‘s heir and took him with her to County Mayo, where a release was eventually negotiated. Her only condition: from now on, the doors of How th Castle must never be closed to visitors and the dining table should always be set for an extra person – a tradition that is continued there to this very day.

Grace resumed her practice of trading, pirating and leading her men well into her 60’s. She is said to have died in 1603 at Rockfleet Castle and is buried on Clare Island.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons



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