Grace O’Malley – The Sea Queen

(public domain)

This was a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland. 1

Grace O’Malley was born into the Uí Mháille, seafaring people on the west coast of Ireland. Their clan motto was terra marique potens (powerful by land and sea). Grace’s mother was Margaret, daughter of Conchobhar Og Mac Conchobhair, mic Maoilseachlain O’Malley, of the sept of Moher and her father was Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille. Grace had a brother named Dónal, but he was probably illegitimate. Grace was born circa 1530 when Ireland was divided into as many as sixty counties with sixty chieftains. In England, King Henry VIII reigned. Despite the Reformation in England, Ireland still adhered to Gaelic Catholicism.

Unfortunately, Grace’s childhood, like so many women before and after her, is undocumented. An education was very limited for women, and the only evidence that Grace received any comes from her petitions to the English court. She was also credited with speaking to Queen Elizabeth I in Latin during their meeting in 1593. Her eventual choice of a career in the seafaring ways of her family was still quite surprising for a woman.

Grace was about 16 years old when she married Dónsl O’Flaherty, the son of Gilledubh O’Flaherty, chieftain of the Billaninhinch sept. It was an excellent match. Grace brought a substantial dowry in the form of cattle, horses, sheep and household goods. They would go on to have three children together, Owen, Murrough and a daughter named Margaret. She was probably not content with being a stay-at-home mother as later records state that she was “in action for over forty years” so this must have started sometime during her marriage. Her first attacks on ships sailing into the port of Galway are recorded during her marriage. She was propelled into a position of leadership, though we don’t even know if she sought it or not. In 1565, Grace’s husband was killed in an ambush. Despite having been the de facto chieftain, her husband’s cousin was elected to succeed him. However, several of the O’Flaherty men wished to continue to serve under her, and she settled on Clare Island. From there, she would launch a career of piracy and plunder.

Grace gathered a force of two hundred fighting men, who came from many clans. We know that she personally led her men into battle both on land and by sea. With the death of her father, most of the O’Malley fleet apparently came under her control. Her fame began to grow as she controlled the passage into Clew Bay and her relations were established along the coast. Even on land, she began to accumulate cattle and horse herds, and it made her a very wealthy woman. Several clans were subjected to her raids and an attack of hers on the castle of O’Loughlin has become legendary. In another case, Grace was reportedly denied entrance to the castle of the Earl of Howth, and in anger, she kidnapped the Earl’s grandson.

By 1567, Grace remarried, probably for strategic reasons. Her new husband was Richard Bourke, chieftain of the sept of Ulick of Burrishoole and Carra. His lands had access to many sheltered harbours. They had one son together, who is said to have been born on board his mother’s ship. Reportedly, the day after his birth, Grace went up on deck to rally her men into battle. On 30 April 1583, Grace was again widowed and “Gathered together all her own followers and with 1000 head of cows and mares departed and became a dweller in Carrikahowley in Boroswole.”2 She was now around 53 years old, had a personal army, a fortified castle and a fleet of ships.  Not much later, her son from her second marriage was captured and kept for more than a year. There he was instructed in English and his transformation to Anglicised Lord had begun.  In 1584, he married Maeve O’Connor, whose family were once the King of Connaught and High Kings of Ireland. For Grace, losing her husband and having her son made a captive was a harsh blow. It was to get even worse, as her eldest son from her first marriage, Owen, was murdered in 1586.

As Grace rebelled in support of her captive son and in revenge of her murdered son, she too was “apprehended and tried with a rope, both she and her followers at that instant were spoiled of their said cattle and of all they ever had besides the same, and brought to Sir Richard who caused a new pair of gallows to be made for her where she thought to end her days.”3 Surprisingly, she was eventually released in return for a hostage, her son-in-law, who immediately joined his relatives upon her release. Grace wasted no time and got back to her fleet. Once at sea, she learned that her lands had been picked clean and that her second son from her first marriage had allied with her arch enemy. The sea was now all she had left. She took revenge on her wayward son and, “landed in Ballinhencie where he dwelleth, burned his towen and spoiled his people of their cattayle and goods and murdered 3 or 4 of his men which offered to make resistance…”4

Clare Island by Brendanconway – Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

As English power increased in Ireland and her two sons were taken captive by the English, Grace sailed to England to petition Queen Elizabeth I for their release. She informed Elizabeth in her petition, “of the continnual discord stirrs and dissention that hertofore long tyme remained among the Irishrye especialy in west Conaght by the sea side everie cheeftaine for his safeguard and maintenance and for the defence of his people, followers and coutrye took armes by strong hand to make head against his neybours which in like manner constrayned your highness fond subject to take armes and by force to maintaine her selfe and her people by sea and land the space of fortye years past….”5 Grace was at the English court from June until September 1593, and she met the Queen in July. The Queen promised to have Grace’s requests investigated and ordered the release of her two sons. Grace was also granted an income from her sons’ estates and began to rebuild her fleet.

However, she must have begun to feel her age, and by the early 1600s, she probably left her struggle with the world in the hands of her sons. There were still some instances where Grace popped up. The exact date of her death is uncertain. She probably died at Carraigahowley Castle around 1603. According to tradition, she was buried in the ruins of a Cisterian Abbey on Clare Island.


  1. Chambers, Anne. Granuaile: Ireland’s pirate queen Grace O’Malley c. 1530–1603 p.XI
  2. Chambers, Anne. Granuaile: Ireland’s pirate queen Grace O’Malley c. 1530–1603 p.89
  3. Chambers, Anne. Granuaile: Ireland’s pirate queen Grace O’Malley c. 1530–1603 p.97
  4. Chambers, Anne. Granuaile: Ireland’s pirate queen Grace O’Malley c. 1530–1603 p.111
  5. Chambers, Anne. Granuaile: Ireland’s pirate queen Grace O’Malley c. 1530–1603 p.121

About Moniek Bloks 2732 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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