You can’t expect me to have a week in Ireland without coming back with some stories that intrigue me and although the tale of Grace O’Malley is not a spooky one, hers is a story that captured my imagination.
5th September 1593 a strange meeting was taking place between– Queen Elizabeth I and Grace O’Malley, the Irish Pirate Queen – both in their twilight years yet still fiery and not to be trifled with. Grace O’Malley had sailed from Ireland to England to plead her cause with the Queen directly.There must have been something about Grace that appealed to the Queen – perhaps because she was a bit of an adventurer at heart herself – but whatever the case she listened to Grace and granted all her requests much to the dismay of the Queen’s counsellors.
Grace O’Malley was born around 1530 to clan chieftain Owen O’Malley. The family was a seafaring one, trading from the west coast of Ireland to Spain, Portugal and Scotland. Legend has it that the young Grace was keen to sail with her father’s fleet but with true sailor’s superstition, it was held unlucky to sail with a woman on board, so her parents tried to keep her at home. In response, Grace is said to have cut off her long red hair, dressed as a boy and stolen on board one of the ships proving she could handle the life of a seafarer. From then on she was a regular member of the crew and became a skilled sailor and navigator.
When she was 16 she married Donal O’Flaherty, a good match strategically and politically. Donal was heir to the chieftain of the O’Flaherty clan and owned the castles of Bunowen and Ballinahinch. He appears to have been an angry and violent man with a quick and wicked temper. Throughout the 16th century Ireland was wrought by inter-tribal branglings, politics and power struggles – Grace’s marriage strengthened both family and tribal ties and protected their interests.
Grace bore three children by O’Flaherty but never settled for the life of a “good” wife. The following years saw her taking over the fleet and managing the business and political dealings of the clan. Her ships were banned from Galway, a major trading port at the time and Grace was forced to take her cargoes directly to Spain, Portugal, Scotland and Ulster. Not one to be coerced she developed what she called “maintenance by land and sea” – an early protection racket. In other words she would have her ships lie in wait off the coast and on the approach of the slower merchant ships, she would bear down on them to offer the captain safe passage with a pilot in return, of course, for a suitable wodge of cash. If her protection was refused then she simply denuded the ship of everything of value. The protests of the merchants of Galway went unheeded.
In 1560 her husband Donal was killed in yet another clan spat and Grace dealt with her husband’s killers … in a very permanent way. Under Irish law she was unable to inherit her husband’s goods and chattels which peeved her majorly, she returned to O’Malley land with her followers and established herself on Clare Island in Clew Bay. It was from there that she could extend her operations – the three P’s –pilots, protection and plunder. She and her followers became wealthy.
Before long before most of Clew Bay was in Grace’s hands. To secure a foothold in the remaining part she married Richard Burke of Rockfleet. The marriage was arranged on a trial basis – each party agreed to give it a go for a year after which either party could divorce (under Irish law at the time). Grace duly gave it a year, moved her fleet and her followers to the castle at Rockfleet and gave Richard his marching orders… although afterwards she did help him several times to get out of sticky situations of his own creation – he seems to have been a bit of a thickie – and to achieve his succession as clan chieftain.
Ireland was a hot brew of rebellion during the latter part of the century and was a cause of anxiety to the English especially as many of the Irish nobles had links with Scotland (also in ferment) and Spain. Clan chieftains swore allegiance to the English throne one day and then joined the rebels the next. The English were systematically trying to Anglocise (is there such a word?) Ireland by changing the laws and outlawing the age-old system that the clans used to elect their chieftains. Gradually though, more of the clan chieftains bowed to the inevitable and submitted to Elizabeth I and the English throne.
During this time Grace moved carefully, picking her way through the turmoil, joining the rebels then swearing loyalty to the English Crown when politic to do so. She survived the threat of the hangman’s noose after being arrested for piracy and insurrection. Why she was freed is a cause of speculation. Some sources suggest that Grace was actually in the pay of Francis Wolsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster and that her knowledge and insight about movements of ships particularly the Spanish fleet were too valuable to England to lose.
When Richard died Grace, remembering that she was robbed (as she saw it) of her inheritance from her first husband, took matters into her own hands and made off with around 1000 head of cattle and her followers to take possession of Rockfleet Castle.
The arrival of Sir Richard Bingham in Ireland as Governor of Connaught started a new chain of troubles for Grace and he became her chief enemy. Here was a man, ruthless, cruel and full of guile who was totally dedicated to wiping out the old Irish laws, customs and way of life. It was he who took Grace prisoner and appropriated all her cattle and lands leaving her destitute.
Her response was to muster new forces and join the rebellion that was now well and truly on the boil throughout the west of Ireland. She attacked Bingham’s army, carried soldiers to join the rebel forces, raided seaports and generally made a serious nuisance of herself. Bingham tried all he could to dislodge her from her power base by using a scorched earth policy – indiscriminate killing, destruction of land, livestock and shipping until Grace finally had enough and wrote to Elizabeth I about the injustices done in her name. In the letter she requested that the Queen give her freedom to attack all the Queen’s enemies. In return the Queen sent a number of questions to Grace regarding her life, politics and activities. Whereupon, perhaps fearing he was being outmanoeuvred by Grace, Bingham arrested Grace’s son and brother and accused them of treason. That was the final straw. Grace upped anchor and sailed to Greenwich to see the Queen in person. Furious, Bingham dashed off a letter denouncing her as a traitor…”the nurse of all rebellions.”
And so Grace, the Pirate Queen met Elizabeth I the English Queen and it appears that the two ladies got on well together. It must have been a strange meeting – the elderly regal Elizabeth and the weather-beaten Irish pirate, yet there were common strands in their lives; both knew power and how to use it; both had spent much of their days fighting for their rights and their lives. The outcome of the meeting was a letter from Elizabeth to Bingham ordering him to release Grace’s son and brother and restore all her property. Furthermore she informed Bingham that Grace had the Queen’s permission to “fight in our quarrel with all the world” without let or hindrance as it were.
With the security of the Queen’s letter behind her Grace resumed business as usual, eventually dying in (it is suggested) 1603…coincidentally the year of the death of Elizabeth.