How pirate queen Grace O’Malley ruled the high seas, bent the English crown to her will, and rose to the top of a world with little place for women.
While Mary, Queen of Scots succumbed to Queen Elizabeth I — and the executioner’s axe — there was another queen who defied the English monarch for almost 40 years by plundering English ships and fiercely repelling the forces that tried to take her family’s land.
This rebellious plunderer shared many traits with Elizabeth. They were both about the same age, had defied odds and thrived in a man’s world, had the allegiance of their male subjects, and were used to winning.
But while Elizabeth ruled England, the other queen ruled a considerably smaller sea-faring clan. She was the Irish pirate queen, Grace O’Malley.
Grace O’Malley was born around 1530 to Owen O’Malley, the chieftain of a clan that ruled the area around Clew Bay on the west coast of Ireland for more than 300 years. During that time, they built wealth from both piracy and legitimate trade with France and Spain.
When O’Malley’s father died, she became the queen of her clan and she knew how to navigate the local political world of clans and chieftains by forging strategic alliances.
At the time, women were often used as a tool to create alliances through marriage that would make the men involved more powerful. But O’Malley’s story turns this notion on its head. Twice she married, but each time it was her power that increased.
Upon the death of her first husband in 1554, she inherited his fighting ships and castle at the age of just 23. In 1567, she divorced her second husband after one year of marriage, took control of his castle, and somehow still maintained his loyalty as an ally.
At the height of her power, she had hundreds of men and numerous ships at her disposal.
From Rockfleet castle and her keep on Clare Island, Grace would launch her galleys and board any ships that passed through the mouth of Clew Bay and demand levies in return for safe passage to Galway Town in the south.
Stories of her courage and seafaring skill have been passed down through Irish poems and folklore. In one account, a Turkish corsair is said to have attacked her ship a day after she had given birth to her son Theobald. As the Turks boarded, she jumped out of bed and stormed onto the deck armed with two blunderbusses. The bewildered Turks stopped fighting and she yelled, “Take this load from unconsecrated hands!” before firing her weapons and killing their officers. The rest of the Turks were dismayed by the loss of their officers and O’Malley easily captured their ship.
But her most remarkable story began when Elizabeth I came to power in 1558. Elizabeth wanted to increase English control in Ireland and thus came to blows with Grace O’Malley.
The O’Malley clan was one of the few clans that resisted Elizabeth while English ships fell foul of O’Malley’s pirating prowess, as the numerous bays along the Irish coastline made it perfect for launching surprise attacks against the unsuspecting English.
By March 1574, the English had had enough. They sent in ships and an army of men to attack O’Malley’s home base at Rockfleet Castle. But within weeks she had repelled them into a humiliating retreat.
However, Grace O’Malley met her match in Sir Richard Bingham after he was appointed the new governor of the area in 1584. Bingham’s brother killed O’Malley’s oldest son, while Bingham imprisoned her youngest. Then he took control of her stronghold Rockfleet castle and confiscated her lands, cattle, and fleet. He had brought O’Malley to her knees.
Seemingly with no way out, O’Malley did something remarkable. In spring 1593, she swapped seafaring tactics for her skill in diplomacy by seeking an audience with Elizabeth.
Despite Bingham’s protest, Elizabeth met with Grace O’Malley at the Palace of Greenwich in the summer of 1593. Accounts of the meeting vary wildly, with some saying that O’Malley refused to bow, brought a dagger with her, and refused Elizabeth’s offer to give her the title of countess because equals couldn’t confer titles upon each other.
Either way, what seems clear is that O’Malley pleaded her case against Bingham and that Elizabeth ordered the release of O’Malley’s son and the return of her lands in exchange for her help in fighting England’s enemies abroad.
Grace O’Malley thus proved herself a notable rival to Elizabeth in both her military and political abilities and was one of the few rivals to earn the English queen’s respect. Ultimately, she died in 1603, the same year as Elizabeth.
After this look at Grace O’Malley, read up on Ching Shih, the prostitute who became a pirate queen. Then, discover the story of Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, the most successful pirate of all time.