Friday Hoyden: Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen

When the latest pirate movie to be shown to our children shows such wretched representation of women (although it did have one quite funny gag about a clearly female-in-disguise crew member being known as “Surprisingly Curvaceous Pirate”. Margot takes the film down here.), it is probably a good time to remind ourselves that women really did go marauding on the ocean throughout seafaring history.

Grace O’Mally was the ultimate Pirate Queen, who ruled the area around Clew Bay, on the coast of county Mayo. Also called Grainne (the more traditional Irish version), Granuaile (a nickname, pronounced Gran-oo-ale), Grainne Mhaol (Bald Grace, allegedly how she was teased when she cut her hair off to help persuade her father to take her to sea with him), Grainne Ui Mhaille (Grace of the Umhalls), and Grania, the Dark Lady of Doona. Born around 1530, she lived into her seventies without ever being deposed from her control of the region.

On the west coast of Ireland in the sixteenth century there would have been very little law other than that enforced by locally-held tribal chieftainships. One of the chiefs was Grace’s father, Eoghan Dubhdara (Black Oak) Ó Máille. Grace not only became her father’s heir (despite the presence of a half-brother who clearly did not share her talent), but consolidated the family’s holdings, and multiplied its wealth. She married twice, strategically, to men who were no match for her leadership skills, but provided key property and clan links. She had three sons and a daughter.

The best part of the story comes late in Grace’s life. In 1593 the man Elizabeth I sent to bring the west of Ireland under control, Sir Richard Bingham, began a campaign to end Grace’s rule. He executed her eldest son, and imprisoned her youngest, and clamped down hard on the traffic of her ships. Instead of fighting him the conventional way, Grace attempted one of history’s most audacious diplomatic sallies. She went to England, and sailed up the Thames to Greenwich seeking an audience with Queen Elizabeth. When she was brought before the queen she did not bow. The etiquette of the time dictated that monarchs did not bow to one another. By facing Elizabeth without bowing, Grace was indicating that she saw herself as a queen as well, that they were two monarchs, equals, entering into a diplomatic exchange. This woman walked right into the home of a person who could have been her most powerful enemy, who could have had her seized, imprisoned and executed on the spot, had she wished. She did not defer to her, she simply behaved as if she expected to be treated fairly. The two women sat by the fire talking, late into the night. They must have had so much to say to each other about their experiences of leadership in a world that did not expect them to succeed as they did. Grace returned to her home, and Queen Elizabeth sent orders to Bingham to leave her in peace. After having his authority undermined so comprehensively Bingham ceased to be an effective presence and died, as they say, a broken man.

There is a fan site, which doubles as the personal site of Grace’s biographer, Ann Chambers, at It includes a much more detailed description of how her meeting with Queen Elizabeth took place (the phrase she uses at the top of this chapter “mna na hEireann” means “women of Ireland”). The Wikipedia page is perfectly decent, but there are multiple biogs to be found around the net; she is quite a popular subject. Lucy Lawless gives a delightful account in her series Warrior Women.

So I am waiting eagerly for the big-budget, epic life story of this extraordinary person to come to the screen, with some suitably lavish redhead in the title role. Look chaps, we don’t even need to make this one up! Where’s our movie, hmm? I promise you, this story has everything. And cutlasses.


Categories: history

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11 replies

  1. Thank you, Orlando. A fascinating story.

  2. this story has everything. And cutlasses.

    I need to see a movie of this.

  3. and i’m proud to have her as an ancestor.
    Lit a candle for her on winter solstice last night

  4. Great post! Another interesting pirate queen that came to mind: Ching Shih.

  5. I had completely forgotten about Grace O’Malley until this post! There’s a really good children’s book about a girl with cystic fibrosis (I think) who is visited by her ghost, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it’s called.

  6. Ooh! Sign me up for the movie as well.

  7. I was about to mention Cheng Shih as well, but Myn beat me to it.

  8. Fantastic history – thank you SO much for writing about her.

  9. Why isn’t there already a bunch of movies, offering their era’s Grace O’Malley? The Katherine Hepburn GO’M? The slightly cheesy Jane Fonda GO’M? The Michelle Pfeiffer GO’M? etc. Not to mention the stage play, a tour de force for two actresses in one room, “Red Queens”? And the Broadway musical based on it?
    (Don’t bother answering, I know.)

  10. @Kirstente – the book is The Ghost of Grania O’Malley by Michael Morpurgo, and from memory the heroine has cerebral palsy, not cystic fibrosis. I remember it as being pretty good.
    And I would definitely pay to see a film about Grace O’Malley.
    There’s a great song about her too which was used as a rebel song during the struggle for Irish independence. Here is Sinead O’Connor singing it.

  11. Thanks for that fantastic link, Tamsin.
    Aqua, oddly enough there was a musical just a few years ago. It was called The Pirate Queen, but sadly the word was that it was a right mess, and worse, that they didn’t stick to her real story at all. An absurd (though all too common) way to play it when history is much cooler than fiction. Plays about her tend to be of the actress-writes-herself-a-decent-role variety. I love your title; maybe I’ll have a go at it myself.

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