The Epic Life of Grace O’Malley

Sherry Bonner, Writer

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While many are familiar with the names and stories of pirates like Blackbeard, Captain Kidd and Calico Jack, the world of piracy sports several notable female members. Perhaps the best known of these was Grace O’Malley of County Mayo, Ireland.
Born a chieftain’s daughter in 1530, her career on the sea would last more than 40 years and extend beyond marauding ships.
Her clan boasted a long history of seafaring trades, and Grace was no exception. After her second marriage to Richard Burke, she established strongholds on the summer clan residence of Clare Island and Rockfleet in Clew Bay. From there, she sent galleys out to extort or pillage ships careless enough to enter her territory. She didn’t limit herself to piracy, however. Grace took an interest in local and regional politics and embarked upon peaceful, legitimate trade voyages.
A large part of the reason her story is so well known is due to her interactions with Queen Elizabeth I during the slow takeover of Ireland by the British Empire. Facts about her personal history, business dealings and buccaneering activities are recorded in state papers related to her petition to the English queen for relief from financial duress imposed by Sir Richard Bingham, agent of the Crown.
Grace’s reputation was quite astounding for the time, causing the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney to refer to her as “a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland” in a missive to the queen’s secretary in 1583. Several songs and poems recount tales of her brazen courage, with one claiming that the day after she gave birth to her son while returning from a trading voyage, she fired a blunderbuss at Turkish corsairs attacking her ship. Unlike many pirates of the age, O’Malley died not by hanging, but in her 70’s at Rockfleet Castle in 1603 after a life filled with a multitude of adventures.
This incredible woman set herself apart from the attitudes and expectations of women in her time, forging a reputation as a woman who took an unorthodox route in defense of her clan, her country and her livelihood. So in this month celebrating women’s history, let’s tip our hat to Grace O’Malley, a fiery independent spirit and a queen of the high seas.

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