Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
(also known as Grace O’Malley)
By Cindy Vallar
There came to me…a most famous feminine sea captain . . . . This was a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland. – Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland 1576
Pursuit of maritime trading in the Atlantic from Ireland to Spain or Scotland required only the most stalwart and skilled of sailors. The harsh weather, hazardous conditions, and pirate attacks often proved fatal. One Irish clan, in particular, proved adept at mastering those dangers – the O’Malleys. While fishing occupied much of their time, they adapted a common practice amongst warring clans – lifting (stealing) enemy cattle – and became quite successful in the process. Being sailors, the O’Malleys took to the sea to raid their neighbors. Few victims sought reprisal because of the O’Malleys’ seamanship and the remoteness of Clare Island.
Granuaile was born around 1530, the only daughter of Dudara and Margaret O’Malley. Her father was a sea captain and chieftain of the O’Malley clan. From an early age Granuaile welcomed danger and despised cowardice. She possessed an astuteness of politics and tactics, and utilized this to negotiate shrewd deals. She dared the impossible to gain the advantage. She led by example. According to one legend, the English attacked her father’s ship on a return voyage from Spain. Ignoring her father’s order to stay belowdecks, she saved his life by jumping on his attacker’s back. Another oft-told tale tells of the day after her youngest son’s birth at sea. Algerian pirates attacked Granuaile’s ship. When her men began to lose, she dashed on deck and rallied them to defeat the pirates.
At the age of fifteen or sixteen she wed Donal O’Flaherty. They had three children: Owen, Murrough, and Margaret. Her husband proved inept in providing for his people, so Granuaile stepped forward to help them survive. Although the law forbade her from holding the chieftaincy, she in fact became chief. When her husband died and her inheritance was denied her, she returned to her father’s home and sailed aboard his ships. Two hundred men followed her to Clare Island and under her leadership they embarked on a career of piracy, or as Granuaile preferred to say maintenance by land and sea.
Her fleet of swift galleys could sail into shallow waters or endure the rough waters of the Atlantic. At least thirty men manned the oars and when winds were favorable, sail drove the vessels. Often, Granuaile waylaid merchant ships bound for Galway, a port closed to the O’Malleys. Once on board, she negotiated with the captain, levying tolls and providing pilots for safe passage. If her offer was refused, her men pirated the merchant’s cargo.
Few dared to enter the waters of Clew Bay because of the dangerous reefs and currents. The remoteness of the land deterred intruders and pursuers alike. Yet, there was one part of Clare Island not owned by the O’Malleys – Rockfleet Castle, which was hidden from passing ships but allowed those within to see every ship that plied the waters. So, Granuaile married its owner, Richard-in-Iron Bourke. They had one son, Tibbott-ne-long. At the time Brehon law permitted divorce, and while Richard was away, Granuaile locked the castle doors and waited for his return. When he arrived, she declared them divorced.
In 1578, the President of Munster, Lord Justice Drury, described Granuaile as a woman that hath impudently passed the part of womanhood and been a great spoiler, and chief commander and director of thieves and murderers at sea to spoille this province . . . . She had been captured the previous year and imprisoned in Limerick Gaol before being transferred to Dublin Castle, where few prisoners emerged from the dungeons. Granuaile proved an exception, for after 18 months of imprisonment she was freed.
Six years later, the Governor of Connaught died and Sir Richard Bingham arrived to fill the office. His primary goal? Eradicate the Gaelic way of life by force. In 1586, he captured Granuaile and brought her to the gallows, but rather than meet her death, she was exchanged for her son-in-law and 1,000 cattle. Then her eldest son was killed and youngest son imprisoned. Having no other recourse, Granuaile petitioned Queen Elizabeth to pardon her for being forced to protect her own interests because the English governors proved incapable of coping with the situation in Ireland, and to grant her some monies on which to live because her rightful inheritances had been denied her. In exchange, Granuaile vowed to fight the queen’s enemies. Elizabeth dispatched a list of 18 questions in response to the request. Granuaile’s answers were guarded and she highlighted events that the English would find least objectionable while omitting any mention of piracy and rebellion. Not content to allow Elizabeth to base her decision just on those answers, Granuaile sailed to England and met with the queen at Greenwich Castle in September 1593. What transpired during that meeting remains a mystery, but Elizabeth granted Granuaile’s requests over the objections of Bingham. Although he grudgingly complied with his queen’s orders, he was recalled two years later and returned to England in disgrace.
Granuaile lived in turbulent times, yet she succeeded where few women ever dared to go. In so doing, she also survived the hazards and hostilities of the 16th century, commanding men and ships until her death around 1603. Legend says that she died in Rockfleet Castle and was buried in the Cistercian abbey on Clare Island.
Segment 3 of The History Czar's Women Pirates features Grace O'Malley
© 2001 Cindy Vallar
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