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.