History of Grace O’Malley, Irish Pirate Queen for Kids

Today let’s have some fun and talk about pirates!  Personally, whenever I hear the word “pirate,” I automatically think of Captain Hook from “Peter Pan.”  Captain Hook is a mean-looking man with long black hair, a beard and mustache, an eye patch, and a hook for a hand after being bitten by a crocodile.  But maybe you think of Captain Jack Sparrow from “Pirates of the Caribbean,” with long hair bedecked with braids, beads, and baubles, sporting a pistol and sword by his side.  And while Captain Hook fought Peter Pan, Captain Jack Sparrow fought Barbossa and the British.  

So, what have you noticed so far about these two pirates?  Long hair?  Yes.  Weapons?  Yes.  Fighting spirit?  Definitely.  But there’s one other thing they have in common:  they’re both men!  Have you ever heard of a female pirate?  Well, there really was one and her name was Grace O’Malley.  She was known as the “Irish Pirate Queen!”  She was a very brave lady who was also a chieftain – meaning a great lord who ruled over the people in her area.  She was a daring sailor, leader, and rebel – and even parleyed – or negotiated – with Queen Elizabeth I!  Want to hear more?  Me, too, so let’s get started!

Many years ago, around 1530, a girl named Grace was born in Mayo County, Ireland.  We do not know much about her mother, but her father, Owen O’Malley, was a great lord of his county, an experienced sailor – and some even say a pirate.  But it is hard to say if he was an actual pirate – meaning a sailor stealing things from other ships – or if he was just demanding payment as a land owner for ships to sail, trade, or fish in waters around his land.  For generations, the O’Malley men had been great seafarers, traders, and, yes, maybe pirates – who sailed the Irish coastline – and even as far as Spain and Scotland.

Pirate or not, Grace loved her father, her older stepbrother, and sailing.  She was raised as a boy – or at least more leniently than girls at that time.  She was allowed to join her father on his ships.  She would watch, fascinated, as sailors shouted and raced around, pulling lines and setting sails.  This thrilled Grace and she wanted to sail, too! But even though females were considered equal to men at that time in Ireland, there were still rules about how they should behave and what they should do with their lives – like staying home and raising children.  But Grace was having none of that.  She wanted to learn, sail, and rule!  She was very smart and could speak Gaelic and Latin, and possibly other languages like Spanish and French, too.

One day, when Grace was young, her father prepared to set sail for Spain.  Grace wanted to join him but her father said, no, her hair was too long and would get caught in the lines.  So, what did Grace do?  She cut off all her hair – and the sailors started calling her “Bald Grace!”  But she was allowed to sail and that was the important thing!  In the ensuing years, Grace learned all there was about sailing and became an experienced deckhand.

When Grace was 16, she married another sailor and landowner named Donal O’Flaherty.  She moved into Donal’s castle and they had three children.  Then one day, while Donal was out hunting, he was killed by members of the Joyce clan.  The Joyces then marched to Donal’s castle, thinking it would be easy to take it away from Grace, who was, in their opinion, “just a woman.”  But that was their mistake.  Grace fought back fiercely, protecting her family and land, and forced the Joyces to retreat!  She acted like a mother hen protecting her roost.  People then started calling the castle, “Hen’s Castle” and it is still called that today!

After her husband’s death, Grace returned with her children to her family’s land on Clare Island and worked to rebuild their stone tower house.  Her husband’s followers admired Grace so much that they followed her to her lands.  Grace’s father died and she then took over the family ships and land and became the new chieftain.  She and her loyal men sailed the waters like her father had done before her, boarding ships and demanding payment for safe passage, trade, or fishing around her land.  This is how she acquired the name “The Pirate Queen.”

And there is a legend that during this time, Grace saved a stranded sailor and they became very good friends.  Tragedy struck once more when this sailor was killed by another clan.  Grace was furious!  To avenge her friend, she marched to Doona Castle and killed the men who murdered her friend.  She then acquired another nickname, “The Dark Lady of Doona.”  

Between sailing trips, Grace married Richard Burke, called “Iron Richard” for his ironworks.  He was also a chieftain and had a lot of lands, which allowed Grace to sail more ships out of more ports and continue her adventures.  She birthed a son nicknamed Tobey while on one of her ships.  Legend states that Grace was below decks the day after Tobey’s birth when pirates attacked her ship.  The battle was not going well and it looked like Grace’s crew would lose the fight.  Grace grabbed her musket, climbed the stairs to the deck, and went into battle.  Grace was as brave as any man and rallied her crew, shooting two pirate captains in the battle.  Together they beat off the pirates and Grace’s reputation grew.  

Additionally, Grace divorced Richard within a year and changed the locks on their castle, but he still remained close to her for the rest of his life.

You may be wondering by this point how a fiercely independent female pirate would meet the Queen of England, especially since the Irish hated the English.  The English had taken their lands and property, causing constant battles between them for hundreds of years.  Additionally, the current queen, Queen Elizabeth I, was playing a ruthless game of pitting one Irish clan against the other.  She would give land and gifts to clan chieftains for their support and for fighting other Irish clans.  This made the Irish fight amongst themselves, as well as against the British. 

Grace was quite the powerful woman by this point, ruling the Western shores of Ireland and launching attacks against Queen Elizabeth’s ships with her pirate-honed prowess.  The Queen sent ships and men to attack Grace’s castle, but Grace beat them back.

Around 1577, Grace was captured and put into several cold, Irish prisons for a year.  However, thanks to some important British gentlemen who disliked how the English were treating the Irish, Grace was eventually set free.  She returned to her lands and started a rebellion against the British.  In retaliation, one of her sons was killed and one or two others were taken prisoner.  Her castle, lands, and fleet were confiscated – meaning taken away from her.  Grace was also arrested but later released.  At this point, she was sick and tired of fighting the English and decided to speak to the Queen herself!  No one thought this would ever happen.  You just don’t walk in and say, “I want to speak to the Queen!” – especially if you’re a pirate!

Queen Elizabeth demanded that Grace answer some questions first, called Articles of Interrogatory before she would meet with the Pirate Queen.  Grace must have answered them wisely because the Queen agreed to see her!  According to legend, when Grace arrived at Greenwich Palace, she did not bow to the Queen because she considered herself equal to the Queen!  Grace was searched and found to be wearing a dagger.  You are never supposed to wear a weapon in the presence of the king or queen, but Queen Elizabeth must have admired and trusted Grace because she let her keep her dagger! 

It is said that this meeting lasted a long time and the two women talked in Latin because the Queen did not know Gaelic and Grace did not, or would not, speak English.  Finally, they came to an agreement:  the Queen would release Grace’s family and her property – and Grace would provide 500 men and her ships to help support the English cause in Ireland. 

Some British nobles didn’t trust Grace and didn’t think she would keep her promise once released.  So, they took their time releasing her family.  And in spite of her agreement with the Queen, Grace supplied ships to Irish rebels under the command of Hugh O’Neill.  Although Grace did not fight in the ensuing battles, it is said that she convinced one – and possibly more – of her sons to fight for the British against O’Neill.  This did not make her very popular with the Irish – or future historians.

That is why for hundreds of years, no one knew the story of Grace O’Malley, the Irish Pirate Queen.  She is said to have died in 1603 – the same year as Queen Elizabeth I – of natural causes at one of her three castles.

So, what do you think of Grace O’Malley?  Do you think she was a pirate?  Do you think she was brave to be a rebel woman in such tumultuous times?  Do you think it was right for her to break her word to Queen Elizabeth I? Feel free to click the link in the show notes below and tell me your thoughts.  You might just be mentioned in a future episode.

I think this is an amazing story of a remarkable woman and warrior!  She was roughly the same age as Queen Elizabeth I and equal to her in many ways: in cunning, bravery, intelligence, and power.  They were both headstrong and independent, ruled over a large group of subjects, inspired loyalty, excelled in a man’s world, and loved winning!