Friday, 7 February 2014

Page 3 - Gráinne Mhaol/Grace O’Malley


Grainne/Grace was born in 1530, the daughter of the Chieftain of the O’Malley Clan. According to legend upon being told she could not join her father on an expedition to Spain because her long hair would get caught in the ropes, a young Grace cut off her hair thus earning the nickname ‘Gráinne Mhaol’ meaning ‘bald O’Malley’.

Cute, but hardly impressive.

Ok so how’s this. Alongside her first husband, she then expanded the family business, somewhat euphemistically described as ‘coastal maintenance’ aka plundering ships, demanding taxes and not being polite about it. Basically she and the hubby were pirates. When he died in 1560, she took half his men and set up business in a castle they had captured. When the original owners tried to reclaim it, she fought back so expertly that the losers renamed it ‘the Hen’s Castle’ in place of ‘the Cock’s Castle’. She quickly became wealthy and powerful in her own right.

It’s better but….

In 1566 she married Richard-in-Iron Bourke, because he had a more easily defended castle. Once she was all moved in, she divorced him and kept the castle! The following year Grace gave birth to her fourth child on a ship and had to defend them both from an attack by pirates!

Getting warmer.

When her lover, Hugh De Lacy was murdered by members of the Clan MacMahon, she waited until his killers went to Caher Island on pilgrimage, before stealing their boats and exacting revenge. She then captured the Clan’s Castle for good measure.

Yeah, but she has a silly name.

Grace? Oh you mean the nickname! You pronounce it ‘Gron-ya Ma –hol’ and anyway there’s more! After a spell in Limerick jail for plundering and having reunited with Richard-in-Iron, she was thrown into Dublin Castle by the English Governor. Richard rebelled and Grace was freed. The pair would do battle with the encroaching English Army until Richard died and a new Governor of Ireland was installed.

And then what?

So you’re interested now? The Governor, Sir Richard Bingham, swore to destroy Grace and her family. He declared her a traitor and ‘the nurse to all rebellions in Ireland’. Grace rebelled, Bingham killed her son and then lured her into a trap. Grace was rescued and immediately fled to Ulster where she became involved with the Spanish Armada plot, because that’s obviously what you do in these situations!

But that failed, so she gave up?

Hell no! Grace and Bingham declared all-out war on each other. Grace’s second son allied with Bingham, earning his Mother’s eternal wrath. Her third son and others were captured and charged with treason, so Grace decided to directly petition the Queen in London in 1593

A mother accused of treason went to the Queen to plead for a son charged with treason?

It’s an Irish logic I guess? And anyway it worked, despite the fact that Grace refused to curtsy or recognise Elizabeth I as Queen of Ireland.  She got her audience, her son was released, and Elizabeth even gave Grace her blessing to continue with her seafaring exploits! Bingham was recalled to England and Grace promised to stop rebelling. Also the entire conversation had to be conducted in Latin, because Grace spoke no English and the Queen no Irish!


And then she retired?

No. Bingham returned, and feeling betrayed, Grace resumed her participation in Irish rebellions, namely the ‘Nine Years War’. She was recorded leading her men into battle, just off the Scottish coast at the age of 67. She died in 1603, and the legend of Grace O’Malley, Pirate Queen was born.

Did her hair grow back?

I would imagine so.



  1. My name is Grainne. It's often that I see it written online. I had to do a doubletake. Was her name anglicised in the accounts of her, though? I have only ever seen her called Grainne (which is not a nick-name, by the way, how very dare you!).

    1. In all the accounts I read the anglicised version of her family name 'O'Malley' was most often used to refer to her, but 'Grace' and 'Grainne' were used fairly evenly. I opted for the simpler English equivalent of 'Grace' as I thought few would immediately recognise Gaelic. Although I admit that my introduction to her was as 'Grainne'. As for your shared name, I was given to understand it was a nickname given to her derived from the Gaelic word for 'grain', (i.e. She looked like a sheaf of corn, blonde and bald.) and that it then passed into common usage as a first name. But that could easily be a part of the legend too I suppose!