Grace O’Malley’s life was full of hardships. This was of course normal for a chieftain, but she also lived through a very tumultuous time. Born in the 1530s and living until 1603, her life spans the time of the Tudor Conquest of Ireland, a time period that would end with the annexation of the old Gaelic society in Ireland, where only those willing to conform survived. 

The Tudor conquest of Ireland is also called the reconquest. About 300 years before it, in the 12thcentury, the first wave of Anglo-Norman Lords had started conquering Ireland and settled down. These Lords started adapting to the Gaelic life, renouncing the crown and living as Gaelic lords in Ireland. 

The English authority had been sitting in Dublin ever since that first invasion but at this point was too weak to actually govern more than the immediate surroundings. The result of this was that the rest of Ireland was mostly independent of the English, generally caring more about their own immediate problems and inter-clan relationships.   

By the 16thcentury, most of the governing power had been delegated to the FitzGeralds of Kildare, a Norman Irish dynasty, who ran the costs of the country by themselves, acting as the government. This position was held until a rebellion in 1534, when Silken Thomas FitzGerald, a devoted Catholic, offered Ireland to the Pope and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, in light of the growth of Protestantism in England.

The Rebellion ended with the death of Silken Thomas and Henry the VIII implementing a “surrender and regrant” policy.  This policy would allow Irish chieftains who surrendered freely to the English crown access to their own lands, the English equivalent of their Gaelic title in return along with other rights and privileges. Of course, this also came at a price – they had to pay rent, follow English laws and customs and other duties, including allowing English troops to stay on their land and admittance to the English parliament.  

During the period of ‘Surrender and Regrant’, the lordship of Ireland was converted to the Kingdom of Ireland.  

The strategy of submitting and regranting was very effective in widening the crown’s influence and English administration, but initially it didn’t have much influence over Gaelic life.  Most chieftains conformed to get the English off their backs and simply continued with a new name but largely ignored everything else.

The process of establishing more power without conflict fell away with the death of Henry VIII. With England searching for the right successor, Ireland was no longer at the forefront of priorities. Gaelic Lords who had ‘surrendered’ did not take to being governed by a foreign power or having to stop their old customs. The deputies tried enforcing the English lifestyle but were mostly met with resistance and anger towards efforts at taking away their age-old traditions like the Tánaiste system. In Gaelic clans it wasn’t always the son who succeeded the chieftainship but the most suited. This was determined either by a vote from all sub-clans after the death of the former chieftain or by the chieftain himself – the successor was called the Tánaiste. This was the system under Brehon Law, the old Gaelic laws. But English law demanded that the eldest son would inherit land and titles which led to many disputes between clans and English deputies. 

Conflict also arose in Ireland because the country never really had a central government. The closest to this system was the High King who did not hold much power.  Most chieftains cared about just surviving from one year to the next and dealing with the immediate conflicts with their neighbours. The place for bigger international conflicts was just not there.

The English crown had to find a way to handle these problems and put an end to Gaelic opposition.  They came up with two long term strategies, composition and plantation. 

Plantation was the system of settling loyal English into areas of Ireland as a way of spreading English culture and language.  The composition strategy abolished any kind of private army, occupied the land with English troops and had governors in command, like Nicholas Malby in Connacht. Even though the Lords did not have to pay tax to the crown in return, and were still allowed to collect rents from their sub-lords, many were not happy.  The MacWilliam Burkes for instance fought a long and bloody battle against the governor until the composition in 1585.  Grace O’Malley herself submitted in 1579, although she, like many other chieftains, simply continued along as before. 

In contrast to the mostly peaceful surrender and regrant strategy, the new approach required force. Many people were killed by English troops. Richard Bingham, governor of Connacht, had been a military man and used brutal tactics on the “wild, savage Irish”, including what was dubbed ‘scorched earth strategy’, which simply meant destroying everything, whether it was supplies, livestock and water reservoirs.  Many people were simply starved into submission.

This was all against a backdrop of England’s separation from Roman Catholicism. Ireland was still a Catholic country and had been for hundreds of years. When the Pope declared Queen Elizabeth I a heretic, Catholicism was viewed as a form of rebellion against the English crown. This hit many people hard, for example the Earl of Desmond who was stuck between following the crown to survive and his own Catholic faith.

When Elizabeth I started supporting the Protestants in the Netherlands, Spain became involved as they were fighting against Protestantism. They saw it as their duty to support the Catholic Irish and tried to start a war by sending a fleet of 130 boats to Ireland. But the English stopped them from landing and a storm dispersed them, sinking an unknown number while the rest fled along the coast of Ireland. Nobody really knows if Gaelic chieftains defied English rule and took in the shipwrecked Spanish soldiers as they were trying to help the Irish struggle, or if they killed them.   One story from Mayo suggests that Grace plundered one of these ships, but there isn’t much to support this theory.  

Religious separation, the Gaelic fragmentation and inter-clan-wars all hindered the Irish from building a united front.  Ultimately, the brute force and might of the English forces would see an end to the Gaelic world.

The last war of the Tudor Conquest was the Nine-Year War. Hugh O’Neill, chieftain of the O’Neill’s of Ulster, was one of the strongest chieftains in Ireland by the weight of his name alone. The O’Neill’s – originally Uí Néills– were said to be the hereditary High Kings of Ireland, descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages who was a King of Ireland. Hugh O’Neill, together with Hugh O’Donnell and help from the Spanish, led a  last united front of Gaelic resistance against the English. The war started in 1593 and started strong for the Irish but with the English holding victory at the Siege of Kinsale in 1602, the war came to an end in 1603 with the Treaty of Mellifont. Many of the chieftains fled Ireland afterwards in the Flight of the Earls to seek asylum under the Catholic Church in Italy. 

And so ended the Tudor Conquest of Ireland with a political and military victory for the invading Tudors and the annexation of Gaelic Ireland.


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