The deeds of the legendary sea-pirate, Grainne O’Malley are all the more extraordinary when you consider that she was born at a time when women had had very little power in the outside world. Evidence shows that she was an astute business woman, an exceptional sailor and a courageous fighter.
Born the only legitimate child of Owen ‘Black Oak’ O’Malley about 1530, she earned her nickname Grainne Mhaol (bald) when, after being rebuked by her mother for wanting to sail as it was not a ladylike pursuit, she cut off all her hair to be like a boy. Her father was so amused that he took her to sea.
She was married to Donal O’Flaherty of Iar Connact about 1546 and immediately set about rejuvenating the area by educating the people about fishing and trade. The O’Flahertys were prohibited from trading through Galway City, (at that time a major European Port), and so traded independently with Munster, Ulster, Scotland , Spain and Portugal. Many fights ensued over trading rights and it was in one of these that Grainne’s husband was killed. She herself finished off the fight and later returned to her fathers territory to make a home for herself on Clare Island. Many of her late husbands men were totally dedicated to her and went along.
There was only a small part of Clew Bay that did not belong to the Clan O’Malley namely the land around Rockfleet Castle and Grainne was determined to take it off the Burkes. She married Richard ‘Iron Dick’ Burke under Brehon Law which maintains that after one year the couple may divorce, keeping half of the partners assets, if the marriage is unsatisfactory. Legend has it that one year later Richard returned from a conquest only to find Grainne’s men guarding the castle and with the words’ I dismiss you’ Grainne claimed Rockfleet as her own.
Another story tells of how she gave birth to her son Tibbot-na-Long, on board one of her galleys. The following day Grainne’s fleet was attacked by Turkish pirates. After a long battle, supervised by Grainne, the Turks were overcome and their ships assimilated into Grainne’s fleet.
Ever the pragmatist, she offered her services to the English Governor Sir Henry Sidney to keep her territory and people safe. But when Sidney was replaced by Sir Richard Bingham, a man determined to abolish all Irish customs and powers, she found it much harder to keep the peace. For many years they fought as arch enemies until Bingham imprisoned her half-brother and son, threatening them with execution. In 1593 Grainne went above Bingham’s head and petitioned Queen Elizabeth I directly. Later that year an event took place that has gone down in history as The Meeting of Queens’. Grainuale went to London and entered Queen Elizabeth’s Court barefoot in traditional Irish dress. The two women appeared to respect each other since and agreement was made. Grainne’s brother and son were released and she was allowed to maintain her fleet on the condition that she use them to protect ‘Her Majestie’s waters’.
Grainuale is said to have died of old age in Rockfleet around 1603.