Irish Eclectic

Grace O’Malley: A Woman of Her Time, and of Ireland

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Irish EclecticBy Brian McGowan

This month we begin profiling several “Women of Ireland.” Some are known, some not, but all deserve to be celebrated. 

We begin with Grace O’Malley, often referred to as “The Pirate Queen.” Daughter of an Irish chieftain, she was born in County Mayo about the year 1530. Clan O’Malley was a major seafaring family, and not above piracy when the opportunity arose. They controlled the waters off Mayo, and their ships plied the oceans between Ireland, France and Spain.  

Well educated, Grace was fluent in Latin, a skill that would serve her well in later years when she went toe to toe with a mighty English monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. A spirited girl, she always made her own mark at whatever she attempted. At an early age she convinced her father to allow her to accompany him on a dangerous sea voyage to Spain. To counter his objection that her long hair might get caught in the ship’s rigging, she cropped her locks so short that she earned the nickname Gráinne Mhaol (“Bald Grace”). 

Her father relented, and Grace earned her place aboard his ships, which she would come to master as well, if not better, than any man.

At 16, she married Dónal O’Flaherty, uniting O’Malley fortunes with a powerful neighboring clan. She bore Dónal two sons and a daughter.  She mourned him fiercely when he was slain two decades later by rival clans. When the time for mourning was over, Grace, now the head of her own clan, set about avenging Dónal’s death. She quickly sent the chief offenders to their graves.

A widow with a fleet, lands and wealth, Grace soon married again, this time to Richard Bourke, member of a powerful Connacht clan. Connacht was the western-most, and wildest, of Ireland’s four provinces. Grace did her best to keep it that way, ruling her lands and seas from her castle on Clare Island. She played the political game well, appeasing the English, while she covertly supported the efforts of two major Irish clans, the O’Neills and the O’Donnells, to fend off complete English dominion over Ireland.

In 1593, Sir Richard Bingham, one of Queen Elizabeth’s henchmen, captured two of Grace’s sons and one of her brothers. Bingham considered Grace as little more than a rebel, complicit in the rebellion begun that year by the O’Neills and O’Donnells. To seek their release, Grace demanded an audience with the English sovereign.

In September of that year Grace journeyed to London. There she met with the Queen at Greenwich Palace. Grace, herself dressed in finery befitting a queen, would not bow to the English monarch. Nor would she apologize for the concealed dagger a cursory search of her body revealed. She explained that it was customary in Ireland for women to be so armed.

Grace spoke little English, and Elizabeth had no knowledge of Gaelic. So, the two carried on their conversation in Latin, a feat that greatly impressed the English queen.

In the end, Grace secured freedom for her kin, but at a price. She agreed to withdraw her support, however secret it might have been, from O’Neill and O’Donnell. In return, Elizabeth agreed to several of Grace’s demands. It was an agreement quickly broken by Elizabeth, though it was honored by O’Malley until her death.

She drew her last breath in 1603, age 73, a remarkable lifespan for that time. She was laid to rest in Clare Island Abbey, within the walls of which she had been baptized and married. While her concessions to the English remain a topic of debate to this day, there is no doubt that over the course of her long life she selflessly defended her clan. 

Grace is remembered to this day in Ireland as a tenacious and politically astute woman of her time.  Over the years she has been the subject of numerous literary works, musical suites, plays and poems, including one by Padraic Pearse, leader of the 1916 Easter Rising. This “Pirate Queen” continues to retain a fascinating hold on the Irish spirit.

Longtime Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the Battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at


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