Grace O'Malley

The Pirate Queen

Gráinne Ní Mháille, or Grace O'Malley in English, was one of the strongest, most assertive women to ever emerge from Irish legend. Though history may have been embellished, this woman was actually real, and is regarded as both an important historical figure and legend, which is not at all unusual in Irish culture. O'Malley is best remembered for standing up to England's attempt to dominate all Irish waters. When O'Malley was born in 1530, Ireland had already suffered influence and attack from England. Life at the time of her birth was comparatively well. O'Malley's father had a fair amount of power considering his ethnicity. Owen Dubhdarra O'Malley, chieftain of the clan, was very much the seafarer.

Though he recognized the authority of the Anglo-Normans ruling over him, the O'Malley chieftain taxed English and Irish fishermen alike for fishing off of his coasts. Young Grace, who had already learned her way around a ship from her father, was married to Donal an Chogaidh (Donal of the Battle) O'Flaherty, an O'Flaherty clan heir. They had three children: a son, Owen, who was murdered daughter Margaret, a very traditional lady and war-like Murrough, who betrayed his family by joining forces with Owen's murderer after Owen's death.

Donal was then killed in battle, but O'Malley fought on to reclaim a castle that O'Flaherty had lost. She then settled on Clare Island. Following these events, O'Malley married a Burke and produced a son, acquiring another castle. O'Malley was most legendary as a pirate and has been called an Irish pirate queen. In fact, she did engage in piracy, and she defeated forces sent to Galway Bay to stop her. Also in legend, O'Malley stopped at Howth to seek rest and to greet the inhabitants of the castle there. She was denied entry. Insulted, she kidnapped an earl's son. For his return, she demanded that gates remain open to her and other visitors. Today, Howth Castle's gates still remain open due to this event. Any familiar with true Irish hospitality can see the value in this story here-Grace O'Malley doesn't simply represent a need for a leader in history, she is an example of social and cultural mores which have lasted into contemporary times.

O'Malley's most famous achievement is her confrontation with Queen Elizabeth. With some of her relatives kidnapped by the local Anglo-Norman ruler, O'Malley petitioned the queen for their release. The pair conversed in Latin: O'Malley knew no English, and Elizabeth knew no Irish. Though they came to an understanding, O'Malley famously refused to bow to Elizabeth because she recognized the woman only as England's queen-not that of Ireland. Grace O'Malley met Queen Elizabeth in the queen's environment-court. O'Malley still commanded the conversation and refused to alter her Irish manners or traditions to suit the English court.

O'Malley demanded that Bingham, the man who had been causing trouble for O'Malley and her family, be removed from Ireland. In return, she would cease supporting Irish rebellions against the English. With these terms agreed upon, she returned to Ireland. As with most such agreements in history, however, the English did not honor the agreement. Soon Bingham was back in Ireland. O'Malley quickly responded by supporting rebellions again.

It is said that O'Malley died in 1603, the same year as Elizabeth, offering one of many parallels between the two powerful women. Irish-Americans can take many things from the history and legend surrounding O'Malley. She was an assertive woman who did not change or capitulate in spite of a greater power. O'Malley was successful as a mother, political figure, heiress, and pirate all without compromising one role for another. She attempted to solve issues peacefully, but was not afraid to take up arms when she was betrayed.

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