The epic tale of Mayo’s famous Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille), has been handed down with pride from generation to generation. Four centuries on, this truly swashbuckling story of bravery and strength, seafaring prowess and feminism is still cherished and celebrated among the Westport community.
Grace’s story begins in 1530 when she was born in the West Mayo lordship of Umhall to sea-trading chieftain Eoghan ‘Black oak’ O’Malley, king of the O’Malley clan. Sassy from the start, it was clear this was no ordinary girl. When she was still a child, her father refused to take her on a trading expedition to Spain, saying her flowing red locks would catch in the ship’s rigging. To overcome this obstacle, Gráinne simply cut off her hair—a spirited act that earned her the nickname ‘Gráinne Mhaol’ (from the Irish word ‘maol’, meaning bald or having cropped hair). When Eoghan died, Grace became Queen of Umaill, chieftain of the Ó Máille clan, taking over the trading empire and striking into the lucrative business of piracy.
At the age of fifteen, Grace had married the heir of the Connemara O’Flaherty clan, Donal, with whom she had two sons and a daughter. They lived in Bunowen castle on the Galway coast for ten years. When Donal was killed, she returned to Umhall, where she settled into her castle on Clare Island.
The British were starting to infiltrate Mayo at this time, however, and in 1566 Gráinne Mhaol made the decision to marry Richard-in-Iron Bourke. She moved her fleet and army to his less-exposed castle, Rockfleet, on a sheltered inlet near Newport. The following year she gave birth to their son Tioboid-ne-Long (Toby of the Ships) aboard one of her vessels. In true Gráinne Mhaol style, she went on to defeat a fleet of Turkish pirates later that day.
Other pirates were not her only enemy, however. The British were still making strong incursions, and Grace spent much of her life protecting her native land and its people from their ever-encroaching rule. According to local legend, she slept at night with the rope of a boat tied to her big toe, ever ready for battle.
The might of the English eventually won out, and they took over the county. Grace’s lengthy opposition did not go unpunished: The newly appointed governor of the region, Sir Richard Bingham, seized her fleet and livestock—and her son Tioboid. He clearly had no idea who he was dealing with. At the height of her career, Grace controlled Clew Bay and empire included several castles, including Rockfleet in Newport (pictured above), Doona on Blacksod, Kildavnet on Achill Island, Westport House and the O’Malley Castle on Clare Island.
Uncowed, Grace embarked on her most daring voyage yet. In 1593, she sailed across the Irish sea to England, and up the River Thames to the royal court in London, to plead her case to Queen Elizabeth I. Impressed and moved, Elizabeth ordered Bingham not only to return all he had taken from Grace but also to allow her to continue her career on land and sea. The Tudor Queen and the Pirate Queen, two powerful women in worlds dominated by men, had reached an understanding that was to last both their lifetimes. Gráinne Mhaol died in Rockfleet castle in 1603, the same year as Elizabeth. She is believed to be buried on Clare Island.
For a more in-depth history we highly recommending reading Grace O’Malley: The Biography of Ireland’s Pirate Queen 1530–1603 with a foreword by Mary McAleese written by Anne Chambers.
Westport, Murrisk, Clare Island
From Westport, head to the O’Malley heartland of Murrisk and its picturesque seaside village. Grace’s family lived and worked along this coast, which lies between Westport and Louisburgh, and on Clare Island.
The scenery? It’s as epic as the Pirate Queen’s own story. The Croagh Patrick’s slopes overlook the coastline’s myriad of inlets and the bay’s innumerable islands, where Grace O’Malley once ruled the waves.
For lunch, there’s a good choice of eateries offering local culinary delights, from Clew Bay mussels to Clare Island salmon. You’ll dine like a king – or queen. After lunch, head out past Louisburgh to Roonagh Pier, where you can take the short ferry ride over to Clare Island. We recommend checking seasonal ferry times here before you travel to the pier as ferrys are seasonal and weather dependent. Once on the ferry close your eyes and breath in the pure, salty air as Grace herself would have done as she too rode the waves. When you land, you’ll be greeted by the Pirate Queen’s still-stately Clare Island castle. Standing sentinel on the shore, it was strategically located to levy ‘taxes’ on foreign sea vessels.
Visit the island’s renowned restored Cistercian abbey, founded by Grace’s father, and where the Pirate Queen is said to be buried. The O’Malley coat of arms – bearing the motto ‘Terra Marique Potens’ (‘Powerful on Land and Sea’) – still adorns the abbey’s wall.
Westport, Newport, Achill
Your first stop on Day 2 has to be Gráinne Mhaol’s local fort in Westport House. The stately home of Westport House is built upon the ruins of the ancient castle, and down into the belly of the house, you will find the castle dungeons which can still be seen today. In celebration of the houses heroic ancestor, Westport House has integrated much of this woman into the Estate as possible by theming a Pirate Adventure Park in her honour and commissioning a bronze statue of her by the artist Michael Cooper placed in the grounds. There’s also permanent exhibition dedicated to Grace detailing her life and times which located in the basement area of the house beside the castle dungeons. Tickets for Westport House are valid for two days so you can take your time in exploring everything on offer in this national landmark. Opening times and tickets are available on their website www.westporthouse.ie
From Westport House take the coast road from Westport towards Newport, drinking in the breathtaking scenery along the way, including views across the bay back to Gráinne Mhaol’s stronghold of Clare Island.
Newport boasts plenty of restaurants and cafés for lunch, as well as lots of great pubs – including one named after Grace O’Malley, The Gráinne Uaile. Don’t forget to try the delicious multi-award-winning black pudding, made by local butcher Seán Kelly.
Suitably refreshed, head north out of Newport and stop off at Rockfleet Castle, where Grace lived here with her second husband, Richard-in-Iron Bourke, and where she finally died.
Rockfleet Castle has four floors and is over eighteen metres high. According to local lore, treasure once kept in the castle is buried somewhere in the surrounding fields. Don’t be tempted to go digging though—it is said that whoever unearths it will be met by the Headless Horseman, with dire consequences!
From Rockfleet, get back on the coast road to Mulranny and travel on up to Achill Island and its the jaw-droppingly beautiful Atlantic Drive. On the island’s south-eastern shore, you’ll find another of Grace’s strongholds, Kildavnet Castle.
Twelve metres tall with buttress fortifications at the top, this three-storey castle guarded the waters of Achill Sound, which links Clew Bay to the south with Blacksod Bay to the north.
Finish your trip with a meal overlooking the beautiful bay, contemplating the indomitable spirit of Mayo’s legendary Pirate Queen.
You can explore all of Gráinne Mhaol’s castles from Westport. To find your own castle to bunk down in for the night check out some of our favourite places to stay.