Friday, May 19, 2006

Grace O'Malley, The Pirate Queen of Ireland

One of the most famous women in Irish history is Grace O'Malley. She is also known to history as the Pirate Queen of Ireland. She lived from around c. 1530 to c.1603.

Grace was the daughter of the chief of the O'Malley clan. The O'Malleys controlled most of what is now the barony of Murrisk. The O' Malleys were a great seafaring family and taxed all those who fished off their coasts. Their leader bore the ancient Irish title of The O' Malley.

Rosemarie Colombraro wrote of her early life. She noted, "As a young child Grace yearned to join her father on the sea, but her mother resisted, saying the life of a sailor was not for young ladies. When Grace cut off her long hair in protest, her amused family nicknamed her Grainne Mhaol (Grace the Bald). It is believed her father gave in and allowed her to travel with him to Spain."

In 1546, Grace married Donal O'Flaherty. She bore him three children. During this time, she also was active in clan politics and took to pirating. When her husband was killed, she took over his castle after defeating the people who killed him. Later, she married Iron Dick Burke so she could gain control of Castle Rockfleet. She divorced Iron Dick a year later but kept his castle.

Grace O'Malley is also known for meeting Queen Elizabth I. Richard English wrote, "Grace lost none of her fire as she aged, eventually running afoul of Queen Elizabeth’s navy. She was arrested for piracy, but petitioned the Queen for leniency in such flowing and complimentary prose that something stirred in the Queen. She summoned Grace for an audience behind closed doors, at the end of which Grace and all her men were released and given property along the coast of Ireland. Elizabeth also knighted Grace’s son, Tibbott, and he became Sir Theobold Burke in 1603."

When Grace visited the Queen, she refused to bow. Wikipedia notes, "When they met at Grenwich, Grace famously refused to bow before Queen Elizabeth because she was herself a Queen, and not a subject of the Queen of England. Elizabeth apparently took to Grace, who was approximately the same age, and the two women reached sufficient agreement for Elizabeth to grant Grace's requests provided Grace's piracy against Great Britain ended."

Despite her pirating, Grace O'Malley lived to an old age. After her death, she became an Irish folk hero of almost legendary status. An upcoming musical play about her (The Pirate Queen by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and John Dempsey) will debut at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre in fall 2006


Laura James said...

What a neat story. Having just seen the HBO miniseries Elizabeth, it was easy to picture the encounter between the two "rulers." I wish the producers could've found the room to include this remarkable character. Laura James

Zebigleb said...

Very interresting - Thanx !

Joe Follansbee said...


I am a friend of Barbara Sjoholm, the author of this book, and I think she has done a fine job of teasing out the role of women in the pirate world.

I have recently released a maritime history book of my own: Shipbuilders, Sea Captains, and Fishermen: The Story of the Schooner Wawona. This three-masted schooner is in Seattle, and she is the sister to the C.A. Thayer, which just went through a complete restoration in San Francisco. You can learn more about my book at


Joe Follansbee

Anonymous said...

Grace O'Malley was my great great great grandmother. I think you should also know you forgot a very important detail: She was born in County Mayo and when she died was buried with most of her treasures on the coast below their house.

Anonymous said...

Horselover..I am also a descendent of Grace O'Malley....I had been told so many stories about her, and her being a very tall woman...My great grandmother was very tall also..It is so nice to meet a relative here..

Jake Roberts said...

Anyone who is a descendant of Grace O'Malley I'd love to share the research I've discovered and potential relatives in a way.

my email is

I've also watched a documentary about Grace O'Malley on the discovery channel which was fascinating.