Grace O’Malley was the chieftain of the O’Malley clan in all but title for most of her life, and was well-respected as a leader independent of her husband. She grew up in a seafaring clan and had navigation in her blood – but who were this wild clan of sailors over which she had under control? 

Terra marique potens – powerful by land and sea – is the clan motto of the kings of Umhall, the Uí Mháilles of County Mayo. 

It’s hard to find sources for history in Irish oral tradition and for the Ui Mháilles it is no different. What we know is that there had been ancestors of the clan living in the county for a long time, the earliest mention being Muirisc, daughter of the 66th High King or Ireland who lived most likely during the 5th century BC.  This we know from one of the Ordnance Survey Letters of John O’Donovan.  His volume two of Mayo, calls Muirisc the namesake of the barony of Murrisk, or Murisicae, and is the only written reference on her life. According to this letter, she was the daughter of Hugony the Great, 66th High King of Ireland. When he divided the country amongst his 25 children, he gave Muirisc part of the land in Umhall Uachtarach, from then on known as the barony of Murrisk at Cruachan Aigil or Croagh Patrick, which became the stronghold of the O’Malleys, the kings of Umhall. 

The first historically accepted king of Umhall was called Flannabhraand who’s death was recorded as 773. According to his lineage, he was one of the descendants of Brian Orbsen, ancestor of the Uí Brióin, royal dynasty of Connaught and son of an old High King of Ireland. This would link the O’Malley clan to Niall of the Nine Hostages who was a legendary High King or Ireland, and his dynasty, the O’Neills, who were widely regarded as the hereditary Kings of Ireland.

This connection comes from Flannabhra’s bloodline but it is strongly disputed whether or not this is a legitimate connection or was added for status. The name O’Malley originates from Flannabhra’s great-grandson Maille mac Conall whose name was adopted as surname around the late 11th century, first by his great-grandson, Dubhdara. This first name would reappear again many years later, through Grace’s father, also known as Dubhdara, ‘Black Oak’ O’Malley.

The O’Malleys had been living as hereditary lords on the west coast of Ireland for quite some time and even though the name is not that old, their heritage as sailors stretches back as far as Muirisc who was called ruler of sailors.  Their territory, the Umhall Uí Mháille, has been anglicised as Owles of O’Malley and was split into two main parts: Murrisk, Clare Island as well as some other islands were part of Umhall Uachtarach, or Upper Owl, while Achill Island and, originally, Burrischoole were called Umhall Iochtarach or Lower Owl.

As with everything, there are several explanations of Umhall and O’Malley.  Umhall can mean “low” and Umaill is also the Gaelic root of O’Malley/Uí Mháilles.  By conclusion, the land and clan share this long connection, became synonymous with one another, to the point of that the derivative of both names are one and the same.

In the 13th century some of the O’Malley territory was granted to the new invading Anglo-Norman de Burgos, which is how the MacWilliams managed to become landowners.

The land of Umhall itself has been described as immensely beautiful. With the wide Atlantic Ocean opening up to the west, the mountains in the north and Croagh Patrick to the south, overlooking Clew Bay with all of its smaller islands and inlets, surrounding forests and bog tracts, it is no wonder that this fertile and rugged place has drawn people here for centuries. The English author William Makepeace Thackeray noted it as “an event in one’s life to have seen that place, so beautiful is it and so unlike all other beauties that I know of”. 

Through rivers and wild forests, the O’Malley clan was effectively cut off in this territory, getting news from the rest of the country through wandering poets.  As a result, they were for the most part not bothered by the English for most of the 16th century. 

The O’Malleys had several castles all over this territory of which only the ones on Achill, Clare Island and Rockfleet still stand, with Rockfleet only coming into possession of the O’Malleys through Grace in the 1580s. 

The main castle, Belclare, once sat at the estuary of the Owenwee river, to the west of Westport. It was most likely here that Grace grew up. Most old Gaelic castles were towers like the one at Rockfleet Castle, standing a few stories tall with small windows. Generally these castles were built in strategic positions, overlooking the lands with sturdy walls, hidden from view or hard to spot from the sea, making them the perfect vantage point to watch naval traffic without being seen. 

Most were about four stories tall, with living quarters upstairs and with lower floors used for storage. The interiors were rough, decorated mostly with antlers and skins. As traders, the O’Malleys most likely had rugs and tapestries from Spain and Portugal or maybe even further which they would have collected on their travels and used to make their castles more comfortable.

Other O’Malley castles were situated near Louisburgh in Murrisk and one in Lough Moher, most likely as a place to seek refuge. Westport House, built in the 18th century by decendants of Grace and on the ruins of another castle owned by the clan still includes the dungeons which can be seen today.  

What we learn from these castles, the places where they stand, their architecture and the accounts of people who visited them during their prime, is that they reflect they militaristic lifestyle these clans led. First and foremost, chieftains were leaders of their armies, protectors of their sub-lords and fought for land. The O’Malley clan were known as mercenaries of the sea because they sold their boats to the highest bidder during clan wars and it is was widely known there were no better sailors than they were.

Few clans have made an impression as seafarers like the lord of Umhall who were known from the islands of Scotland down to the Mediterranean coasts of Spain where they sailed as traders.  For them, the sea was but a roadway, a path to new exciting places. They knew the west coast of Ireland like the back of their hand, looting and plundering English ships before quickly escaping to another nook or port hidden from view. 

Their boats, the Irish galleys, helped them immensely. These galleys were powered by muscle strength and oars, as well as a sail, which made them fast and easy to manoeuvre through the splintered coasts of Ireland and Scotland.  The galleys the O’Malley’s commandeered were still different from theHebridean galley, the birlinn, which had no more than 20 oars and were widely used at the time. From the descriptions of Grace’s galleys, as well as state papers, we know that the galleys of the O’Malley clan were huge. In 1599, state papers record that Tibbot-ne-Long, Grace’s son, had galleys like no one else in Ireland, large enough to carry 300 men. It’s understandable then the mix of awe and fear the O’Malley’s commanded.

While known for looting and plundering, O’Malley’s main income source was through trading and fishing.  As the export arm of Irish society, they did a lot of business with all kinds of people wherever they went, making them expert business people which they used to their advantage. Grace and Tibbot both managed to negotiate themselves into better positions, Grace in securing the MacWilliam chieftain title for her husband, and Tibbot in attaining a title as Viscount despite fighting against the English crown alongside rebels for years. They used these skills in politics and at sea, keeping them at top of their game for a long time. 

As hereditary kings of the region of Clew Bay, the lords of Umhall were traditional, militaristic and proud. As skilful seafarers they were fast, knew their land and territory and could read the waves to weather the storms and ultimately survive.  As traders they were agile negotiators and quick thinkers, showing great political acumen.

The sea doesn’t discriminate between men or women, it just takes and so it is really no great wonder that a clan so used to adapting while still holding steadfast brought forth Grace O’Malley, the legendary Irish Pirate Queen.

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