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Pirate and a Patriot

When we speak of pirates, we think of swashbuckling men, like Jack Sparrow, not women. However, there were a few women pirates. While I am certainly not a fan of violence and plunder on the high seas - or anywhere else - there is one woman who has intrigued me for many years. Her name is Grace O’Malley, and she rocked the west coast of Ireland in the 1500s!

Grace’s story begins somewhere around 1530 in County Mayo on the rugged west coast of Ireland. Grace was born in Belcare Castle near Westport. Now the O’Malley clan was all well known as ocean traders, fishermen, and seafarers in this rough Atlantic area. Grace's father was a chieftain. The coastline was hazardous due to hidden rocks, cliffs, and unpredictable weather. This was a man’s world and there was no room for a woman, let alone a young girl, on any of these ships. Grace, however, proved them wrong. She was determined to become seafaring on one of those ships.

The legend seems to unfold with Grace’s father, Owen, telling his little Gracie that she could not go on a trading expedition with him because her long hair would catch in the ships ropes and cause her injury and pain. He thought this would discourage her. It did not! The sea was in her blood and little Gracie cut off all of her hair, earning the nickname "Bald Gracie". She was that determined. Bear in mind this was the 16th century and women were only to fill the role of domestics and child bearers. Grace O’Malley was having none of it and became very skilled at both navigating the waters of the Atlantic and the politics of the day. Legend says that Grace communed with the whales and dolphins, who helped guide her in severe weather. I'm sure you can understand why she has captivated me, and maybe you're a little intrigued too??

Grace became a beautiful woman as well as a formidable presence in her family's seafaring business, and known throughout the waters around Ireland. She married Donal O’Flaherty, who was also a seafarer with a large fleet of ships. She bore him three children. When he died young, Grace was still only in her early 30s and she assumed full leadership of his fleet. All of his ships were now hers. Then, upon her father’s death, she became the chieftain, inheriting his fleet. (She married once again, to Richard Bourke, bore another child, but divorced him.

Now, without delving into a history lesson, we know that the English were taking steps towards gaining control of Ireland. As the English increased their presence and might in that area of Ireland, both on land and sea, “piracy” was an effective form of resistance. Piracy became a political act that included raiding ships at sea, as well as English settlements along the seacoast. Grace was all in and even led the fight inland to fight English lords encroaching on Irish land.

Soon, Grace O’Malley earned the title “The Pirate Queen.” But it was not without cost. The English captured both her brother, half brothers, and two of her sons. Grace O'Malley secured an audience with the Queen to resolve the matter. Grace's quick audience with the Queen demonstrated how highly the English regarded her, or perhaps feared her.

There were a few problems during the audience, however. Grace didn’t speak English, and the Queen didn’t speak Gaelic. They ended up conversing in Latin. Grace also steadfastly refused to bow to the Queen. One can imagine it was a bit of a tense meeting that clearly was between two powerful leaders. Grace secured the release of family members, as well as several other concessions. In return, she was to cease her support for the Irish revolts against English rule and commit to loyalty to the English Crown.

From this point on things might have proceeded smoothly, but they didn’t. Sir Richard Bingham, Governor of Connacht, (the very one who had captured her family members) failed to abide by many of the concessions, and by all accounts was a rather nasty individual. He began seizing cattle throughout the area and lining his own and family’s pockets from the profits. He seemed to have a particular animosity towards Grace, the Pirate Queen, and it was rumored that he had been a pirate himself in his youth.

While Grace did abide by some concessions, she also maintained support for various Irish causes and uprisings. The situation in Ireland was very complex and continued to be such for many years. Grace O’Malley died in 1603, the same year as Queen Elizabeth. This marked the end of an era in both Irish and English History.

Grace O'Malley has become immortalized in folklore, stories, and songs. She represents female empowerment, resistance against oppression, and Irish tenacity against colonial rule.


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