Donal an Chogaidh will you sail with me
Donal an Chogaidh will you sail with me
Donal an Chogaidh will you sail with me
From here to far Coruna
from 'Ripples in the Rockpool' by Shaun Davey

When pressed to name a powerful woman from centuries gone by, many will cite Elizabeth I. On the western fringes of rebellious Ireland there lived another. Grace O'Malley, Grainne Mhaol, Granuaile she had many names. She was an Irish pirate of legend who brooked no opposition and was fearless in battle. It is even said that Elizabeth and Grace met.

Grace O'Malley was born around 1530, daugther to the chieftain of the O'Malley clan. This clan had plied the seas for centuries and were known as Manannain (sea lords). Their galleys traded with Spain and Scotland or would ferry troops in bellicose times. The clan's maritime territories included Clare Island, Inishbofin and Inishturk in the western province of Connacht.

Grace was determined to get into the family business but her parents were firmly of the opinion that the sea was no place for a girl. In an early indication of her stubborn nature, she cut her hair and wore boys clothes. Unbeknownst to her parents, she set sail on a ship to Spain. Upon her return her father, instead of chastising her, laughingly called her Grainne Mhaol (bald Grace). This nickname stuck, though later reduced to Granuaile.

Grace was allowed to accompany her father on his next expedition. The ship was attacked and, instead of going below as ordered, Grace clambered up the rigging. Seeing her father about to be stabbed she wailed like a banshee and jumped the assailant. This has the effect of rallying the O'Malley troops and winning the day.

Grace married into the powerful O'Flaherty family by marrying the heir apparent Donal. He was known as Donal om Chogaidh (Donal of the battles) due to his short fuse. She bore him three sons Owen, Murrough and Margaret. In effect, she soon controlled the O'Flaherty fleet as well as retaining her own. As with all the men in her life, she was the dominant partner.

During this period Henry VIII, the English King, was attempting to subdue the Irish chieftains using a policy of 'Surrender and Re-Grant'. In return for submission to the English throne and customs, the chieftains would get to keep their lands as English lords. Grace resisted this for a long time. The nearest port city of Galway refused access to her fleet. Grace resorted to pirating the merchant ships heading for Galway (unless they paid some protection money).

Her husband was killed in battle but she soon found a lover. He was Hugh de Lacy and was rescued by Granuaile when his ship struck rocks. Unfortunately, he was killed by another rival clan. Granuaile exacted a terrible revenge on the murderers, pillaging their castle and earning another moniker 'The Dark Lady of Doona'.

Grace by now controlled several castles and forts but one particularly big castle caught her eye. She proposed marraige of one year (allowed under Brehon law) to its lord Richard Burke. He accepted and she soon bore him a son, Tibbot. When the year was up, she promptly divorced him but he remained loyal and his castle and territories he effectively ceded to her.

By now Grace's piratical behaviour had rendered her an outlaw in the eyes of the English authorities. She presented herself to Sir Henry Sidney in Galway and pledged allegiance. This did not curtail the transgressions of her fleet. The dictatorial Sir Richard Bingham had her and her sons arrested calling her 'a notable traitoress and nurse to all rebellions in the province for 40 years'. He set her free but kept her sons as hostages to her good behaviour.

Grace decided to go to the top and sailed to London. She demanded to see Queen Elizabeth and astoundingly, this pirate was granted an audience. It is said that she charmed the Queen who ordered the release of her sons and that her territory remain unmolested. In return Grace pledged allegiance and "to invade with sword and fire all your highness' enemies". Elizabeth said they both should 'fight in their quarrels with all the world'.

Grace returned to her castle in the west of Ireland and may have died there peacefully. Another account holds that she died at sea on one of her raids. Her son fought on the English side in the pivotal battle of Kinsale, 1601. Following that defeat, the Gaelic chieftains were forever vanquished. Grainne Mhaol died in 1603 and is said to be buried in her Clare Island.

Sources (includes images)