Gráinne Ní Mháille
~ Pirate Queen of Connaught ~

Her proper name in Irish was Gráinne Ní Mháille (c. 1530 to 1603); Grania Uaile is the popular form and the polite English translation is Grace O'Malley, which was one she undoubtedly never heard or cared to, throughout her lifetime. Gráinne was often referred to, among some other names not so polite, as "The Pirate Queen of Connaught," the "Irish Sea Queen," or "Gráinne Mhoal ("cropped-hair")."

By rock-ribbed Connaught my swift vessels glide,
Like swans they are breasting the full flowing tide.
Warships and Gael all ready to sail,
To sweep the salt sea from Cape Clear to Kinsale.

~ excerpt from Grania - She King of the Irish Seas by: Morgan Llywelyn

Strangely, there can be found no reference to Gráinne in what may be called the National Annals. Neither in the "Annals of Lough Ce," nor in the "Annals of the Four Masters," nor in the "Annals of Clonmacnoise," is there the slightest reference to Gráinne Ní Mháille, most probably because the official chroniclers would not recognize any female chieftan as head of her tribe.

For authentic information about Gráinne, you need to go through the State Papers ~ that is, to the letters written to the Privy Council in Ireland or in England, by the various statesmen of Queen Elizabeth who visited Connaught. Above all others, there is one invaluable document written in July, 1593, containing Gráinne's answers to eighteen questions put to her by the government about herself and her doings, the authenticity of which is unquestioned. This document also provides us with some of the most vital facts in her personal history.

For immemorial ages the O'Malley's had been the lords of the Owles, or Umhalls ~ the country all around Clew Bay, now known as the baronies of Burrishoole and Murrisk. It is said that the O'Malley's derived their descent not from Brian, the great ancestor of the Connaught kings, but from his brother Orbsen; and hence they are set down in the "Book of Rights" as as tributary kings to the provincial kings of Connaught.

In the middle of the thirteenth century they were driven out of a good portion of the northern Owle by the Burkes and the Butlers, but still retained at Gráinne's time, some twenty odd townlands, or eighty quarters in Burrishoole, and held more of it still as tenants to the Earl of Ormond. Gráinne herself, said that the O'Malley baroney of Murrisk included all the ocean Islands from Clare to Inisboffin.

Describing Gráinne in 1593, Bingham said she was ".... the nurse of all rebellions in Connaught for the last forty years!" So it's estimated that Gráinne must have been born in approximately 1530, before Henry VIII had yet changed his relgion ~ or began to change his wives.

It is highly probable that Gráinne Ní Mháille was fostered on Clare Island, which belonged to her family, and it was doubtless here, she acquired her passionate love of the sea, as well as the unmatched skill and courage that made her at both the idol of her clansmen and the greatest captain in the western seas. Rockfleet Castle ~ Carraig-an-Cabhlaigh - also known as Carrickahowley Castle was one of the many stronghold's held firmly in her grasp.

"Terra Marique Potems," ~ "Powerful by Land and Sea" ~ was the motto of her family and Shane O'Dugan said " there never was an O'Malley who was not a sailor, but not a one of them all could excell Gráinne in sailing a galley or ruling a crew."

This wonderful, yet ardous life on the sea, gave her great physical strength and vigor. Sydney, the Lord Deputy, who met her in 1576, described Gráinne when she must have been in middle age, as being "... famous for her stoutness of courage, and person and for sundry other exploits done by her at sea." Whatever formal literary education Gráinne received in her youth, must have been from the Carmalite Friars on Clare Island. Although she was later married to two of the greatest chieftans in the West, it's very likely that Gráinne knew and cared far more about rigging and sailing a galley and warfare than she ever did about drawing-room accomplishments.

It was not unlikely that Gráinne was an heiress, and though she could never, according to "Brehon Law," become the "captain of her nation," especially after marriage, she always seemed to have retained the enthusiastic love and obedience of her clansmen, particularly in the islands.

Of course, times being what they were, Gráinne must get a husband, and so a fitting husband for this proud warrior-Queen of the sea was found in Donall an Chogaidh O'Flaherty, of Bunowan, in the barony of Ballynahinch. Donall was the direct descendant of Hugh Mor and was the acknowledged heir to the leadership of all of the western O'Flaherty's, and assuredly after the death of Doanll Crone ought to be the Chief Lord of all Connemara, although Teige na Buile contested his claims.

Therefore, this alliance united in the closest bonds of friendship and marriage, the two ruling families of Murrisk and Ballynahinch, with nothing but the narrow estuary of Leenane Bay, or rather the Killery, between them. A rather sizable amount of territory by any accounting. More iimportantly than that, it made the united tribes chief rulers of the western seas, so that when Gráinne and her more than 200 men sailed from her island home, with the sea-horse of the O'Malley and the lions of the O'Flaherty floating proudly fore and aft from the mast-heads of her galley's, the young sea-queen must indeed have been extremely proud, for virtually all she saw in every direction was hers.

To get further information on this remarkable woman, Gráinne Ní Mháille, the following books and sites may be of some help, as well as others listed at our Celtic Reading Section.

Grania - She King of the Irish Seas by: Morgan Llywelyn
The Grace O'Malley Page
Rockfleet Castle
Celtic Women by: Peter Ellis
Uppity Women of Medieval Times by: Vicki León

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