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Gráinne Mhaol, Pirate Queen of Connacht

Vilified by her English adversaries as ‘a woman who hath imprudently passed the part of womanhood’, Grace O’Malley was ignored by contemporary chroniclers in Ireland, yet her memory survived in native folklore. Nationalists later lionised her as Gráinne Mhaol, a warrior who would come over the sea with Irish soldiers to rout the English. She finally became an icon of international feminism, both as an example of a strong and independent woman and as a victim of misogynistic laws.

Nevertheless, this subject of verse, music, romantic novels, documentaries and an interpretive centre remains shrouded in mystery. Gráinne Ní Máille’s mythical status is a double-edged sword that, while ensuring that her name survived, has obscured the reality of the woman behind the legend. She was an extraordinary woman who lived, loved, fought and survived during a pivotal period of Irish history that saw the collapse of the Gaelic order and the ruination of Ireland’s ruling élite.

Political and social background

Any attempt to glimpse the woman behind the legend must consider the period in which she lived, the forces arraigned against her, and the society which gave rise to her. Ireland in the early decades of the sixteenth century consisted of two distinct cultures. Dublin, its bordering counties and the coastal cities were technically English and regarded their hinterland with fear. It was a frontier society. The rest of the country was composed of the Gaelicised Old English and the native Irish. Living within autonomous territories, they enjoyed traditional pastimes such as stealing cattle, poaching castles, feuding, intermarrying and vying for domination. A system of clientship existed; weaker families aligned themselves to powerful ones, and bonds were cemented by means of tribute, military aid, marriage and fosterage. The Uí Máilles were clients of MacWilliam Iachtarach, or the Mayo Bourkes, and in turn had clients of their own. Strict laws governed all formal aspects of these relationships; a complex interdependency bound the families together in a hierarchical society in which status and pride were of paramount importance.

Henry VIII was the first English monarch to proclaim himself ‘king of Ireland’, thus signalling a profound change in official Crown policy. Henceforth, English monarchs would no longer be content to hold what they had in Ireland and seek only to halt the Gaelicisation of the Old English. A series of measures were introduced to establish a centralised system of government and to Anglicise the entire population. Policies such as ‘Surrender and Regrant’ proved attractive to many of Ireland’s ruling élite. In 1541 the MacWilliam Uachtarach—of the Galway Bourkes—became the earl of Clanricard. By the following year O’Neill was earl of Tyrone, Fitzgerald was earl of Desmond and O’Brien was earl of Thomand. Neither the MacWilliam Iachtarach nor the Uí Máille availed of the king’s largess.

It was during Elizabeth’s reign that real inroads were made into Gaelic Ireland. Settlement and plantation by English-born adventurers, many of whom acted as Crown officials, was encouraged and English writ began to penetrate to the farthest reaches of the island. Elizabeth’s commitment to the Reformation, coupled with the usurpation by newcomers of the privileges of the old ruling classes, inevitably led to violence and social upheaval.

Gráinne was a member of the Gaelic aristocracy. Born around 1530, she was the only child of Owen Dubhdara Uí Máille, the O’Malley of Umhall Uachtarach, and Margaret Ní Máille. The O’Malleys, and their neighbours in Iar Chonnacht, the O’Flahertys, were unusual among Gaelic families in that they earned their living from both land and sea. Dubhdara Uí Máille traded raw materials in exchange for luxury goods, ferried Scottish mercenaries, fished, plundered, engaged in opportunistic piracy, and levied a toll on all shipping in Uí Máille waters. They existed as an independent clan, paying and receiving tribute.

Marriage to Dónal-an-Chogaidh O’Flaherty

We can only speculate as to Gráinne’s early years; little is known about the education of the Gaelic élite, male or female. Nonetheless, sources do exist that demonstrate that sixteenth-century noblewomen in Ireland were relatively well educated. In 1546 Gráinne married Dónal-an-Chogaidh O’Flaherty, tánaiste, or heir presumptive, to the O’Flaherty. The marriage produced two sons and a daughter. As the daughter of a chieftain, Gráinne would have brought a substantial dowry, or spréidh, to the marriage. Under Gaelic law the dowry, although available for use by the husband, had to be returned intact to the wife on dissolution of the marriage. Stringent sureties were required to ensure that this occurred, though wives were sometimes forced to seek legal redress. Women retained control of any personal property they brought to the marriage and were entitled to acquire additional property independently of their husbands. Such property could include troops, ships and a plethora of other goods. Gráinne’s activities during her marriage to Dónal-an-Chogaidh may indicate that among her personal property were both galleys and men, a theory upheld by her possession of at least three galleys following his death.

Popular tradition relates that, owing to Dónal-an-Chogaidh’s ineptness, Gráinne assumed the mantle of chieftainship of the O’Flahertys. Undoubtedly he was a hot-tempered and impetuous man, quick to take offence and to seek retribution. He was, for example, engaged in constant feuding with the Joyces.

In 1564 Murrough-na-dTuadh O’Flaherty sought to extend his territory. This was a situation that the Crown authorities could not ignore, and one which, using the tactic of ‘divide and conquer’, they fully exploited. A deal was brokered with Murrough-an-dTuadh: in return for his submission he was granted overlordship of Iar Chonnacht, ousting not only the existing chieftain but putting Dónal-na-Chogaidh’s position as tánaiste in jeopardy. Before Dónal had time to react, he was mortally wounded by the Joyces during a territorial skirmish. Tradition credits Gráinne with exacting revenge. She is said to have led—or, according to some sources, repelled—a raid on the disputed Cock’s Castle in Lough Corrib, which, owing to her courage, was henceforth known as Hen’s Castle.

Settled on Clare Island

Under Gaelic law, Gráinne was unable to inherit O’Flaherty land, so she returned to Umhall and settled on Clare Island. This is often portrayed as her being forced out, despite her leadership abilities, owing to misogynistic laws. But under the same laws a woman was entitled to complete control of her own property. In contrast, under English common law any property belonging to a woman automatically became the property of her husband on marriage, and the wife was granted a life interest in a percentage, usually a third, of all property following his death.

Gráinne now began in earnest, with three galleys and a number of smaller boats, to earn her ‘maintenance by land and sea’. The legend of the ‘pirate queen’ of Connacht was born. An unsophisticated and opportunistic form of piracy was endemic in Ireland, comprising short-distance raids along the coast or to the islands, levying tolls on passing shipping and plundering any vessel foolish enough to be unprotected.

In her petition to Elizabeth in 1593, Gráinne justified her activities of this time by explaining that ‘discord . . . and dissention . . . [where] every chieftain . . . took arms by strong hand to make head against his neighbours which in like manner constrained your highness fond subject to take arms and by force to maintain herself and her people’.

The actual scale of her activities is difficult to assess. She is traditionally credited with attacks from Donegal to Waterford. One tale pertains to a refusal of hospitality by the earl of Howth. Gráinne is said to have kidnapped his heir and demanded, as ransom, the promise of the setting of an extra place at each meal at Howth Castle. Later historians ascribe the tale to Richard-na-Iarainn Bourke. However, records at Howth Castle state that the arrangement was made with Gráinne. Little is known about the size or composition of the fleet that she used to ‘maintain’ herself.

Estimates vary from five to twenty vessels at any one time. Most would have been small, fast, manoeuvrable, oar- and sail-driven craft, perfect for hugging the coast but unsuitable for the open sea.

Marriage to Richard-na-Iarainn Bourke

On her marriage to Richard-na-Iarainn Bourke of Burrishoole and Carra in 1567, Gráinne retained possession of her fleet and continued to ply her trade. Her new husband’s territory comprised the north shore of Clew Bay, his main residence being at Carraigahowley. One of the more persistent legends states that Gráinne’s marriage to Richard-na-Iarainn was provisional for one year. However, there exists no evidence for this form of marriage within the Gaelic legal codes. At the end of the year Richard is reputed to have returned to Carraigahowley to find his clothes packed, doors locked and his wife dismissing him from the battlements. Traditionally this has been described as their divorce.

Yet their later life raises another interpretation. Gráinne and Richard-na-Iarainn continued to present themselves as man and wife until his death. She remained based at Carraigahowley rather than returning to Umhall, which would have been a legal requirement under Gaelic law. On his knighthood, she took the title Lady Bourke and accompanied him to official functions. It is possible, given the fiery personalities of both partners, that Richard-na-Iarainn upset Gráinne, and found himself, temporarily, barred from the house.

The birth of the couple’s only child, Tibbot-na-Long, is also the stuff of legend. Apparently he was born on one of Gráinne’s galleys. The following day the ship was attacked by Algerian corsairs: Gráinne is said to have arisen from her bed and turned the tide of battle.

Composition of Connacht

The appointment of Sir Edward Fitton as provincial president in 1569 saw the Crown begin to make serious provision for the subjugation of Connacht. Following the Battle of Shrule in 1570, the MacWilliam agreed to pay the Crown a yearly rent of 200 marks, though he died shortly afterward. Shane MacOliverus Bourke was elected the MacWilliam, with Richard-na-Iarainn as his tánaiste. In 1575 Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney visited the province. During this third term of office, his task was to introduce a new taxation system known as ‘composition’. Having met with little success, he returned in 1576 and summoned the lords to a meeting, during which he met ‘a most feminine sea captain called Granny Imallye and offered her services onto me’. Although he didn’t avail of her ‘three galleys and two hundred fighting men’, he did sail with her to inspect the seaward defences of Galway, a service for which she successfully billed him. Sidney noted her show of strength and concluded that ‘This was a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland’.

Within weeks of her offer to Sidney, Gráinne set off to plunder Desmond; she was captured and held in Limerick Gaol to be used as a bargaining chip. During her captivity Lord Grey de Wilton succeeded Sidney. The MacWilliam was forced to submit to the Crown, and Richard-na-Iarainn’s future as successor was no longer a foregone conclusion. In 1578 Desmond handed Gráinne over to Lord Justice Drury. This ‘demonstration of his loyalty . . . sending unto you Grany O’Mayle’ impressed Elizabeth’s privy council. Gráinne was transferred to Dublin Castle in chains.
She was released in 1579, and by March was ensconced in Carraigahowley, where she was besieged by a Captain Martin, sent with orders to capture her for attacks on Galway shipping. Martin was lucky to evade capture himself, ‘so spirited was the defence made by the extraordinary woman’.

Holy war in Munster

In July 1579 James FitzMaurice Fitzgerald attempted to start a ‘holy war’ in Munster. Sir Nicholas Malby, who had succeeded Fitton as provincial president of Connacht, was sent to quell the rebellion. In November the earl of Desmond was declared a traitor. He appealed to the MacWilliam for aid and was refused. Richard-na-Iarainn, however, used the conflict as an excuse to plunder the territories of O’Kelly and Lord Athenry.

In February 1580 Malby, returning briefly to Connacht, acted swiftly against Richard-na-Iarainn by garrisoning Burrishoole. The succession problem re-erupted when Shane MacOliverus died and his brother claimed both title and land. Richard-na-Iarainn and Gráinne combined forces and took to the field with a force of nearly 2000 men. With rebellion in Munster, Malby and de Wilton had no choice but to acquiesce to the couple’s demands, and on 16 April 1580 Richard-na-Iarainn was ennobled and given full title as the MacWilliam. As part of the deal he agreed to rule by English law, to pay rent to the Crown, and to lodge and feed 200 soldiers for 42 days per annum.

In 1582 Lord and Lady Bourke moved to Lough Mask Castle. In May Richard-na-Iarainn invaded Richard MacOliverus’s land, using Malby’s troops, on the pretext of collecting rent arrears. Ironically, the following year Malby’s agent, Theobald Dillon, whilst attempting to collect outstanding rent, stated indignantly: ‘M’William . . . met me and his wife Grany My Mayle with all their force, and did swer they wolde hav my lyfe for comying soo furr into ther country and specialie his wife wold fight with me’.

In April 1583 Richard-na-Iarainn died of natural causes. Gráinne acted to ensure that she got her ‘third’ and ‘gathered together all her own followers and with 1,000 head of cows and mares departed and became a dweller in Carraigahowley’; no doubt she also took her fleet. Gráinne appears to have decided to have the best of both legal codes: she had possession of both MacWilliam property and her own. At the age of 53, Gráinne Ní Máille was a wealthy and independent woman. Her troubles, however, were only beginning.

Sir Richard Bingham

In 1584 Sir John Perrot was appointed lord deputy, and Sir Richard Bingham was made provincial president of Connacht. Perrot had been ordered to undo the sense of alienation caused by the harsh methods employed by his predecessors. While Perrot wished to follow a conciliatory route, Bingham stated that ‘The Irish were never tamed with words but with swords’. In 1585 Perrot introduced another composition, re-offered Surrender and Regrant, and worked to abolish the clientship tributes. Bingham, preferring confrontational methods, appears to have focused on Gráinne as a source of trouble. He took Tibbot-na-Long hostage and had him incarcerated in Ballymote Castle for a year.

Bingham was charged with imposing the composition in Connacht. In 1585 he held the first session in Mayo. Some of the Bourkes refused to attend and barricaded themselves in Hag’s Castle at Lough Mask, which Bingham promptly attacked and demolished. Later that year, following the death of the MacWilliam, Bingham conferred the title and lands on MacOliverus’s eldest son, over the claim of tánaiste Edmund Bourke of Castlebar. The Bourkes rose in rebellion, joined by among others the Uí Máilles, and secretly by Gráinne’s son-in-law Richard ‘the Devil’s Hook’ Bourke. Bingham ordered his brother John to seize the lands of Gráinne’s son Owen. Gráinne later testified that Owen offered hospitality, and in return had been ‘fast bound . . . [and] cruelly murdered having twelve deadly wounds’. Bingham claimed that Owen ‘being prisoner . . . made his escape and in pursuit was slain’.

Incensed by the killing of her son, Gráinne became an active rebel against Bingham, who dispatched John to capture her and seize her property. Gráinne was released on the pledge of the Devil’s Hook, who immediately openly joined the rebellion. Gráinne fled to Ulster, whether to seek aid or because ‘fear compelled her to fly by sea’ is open to speculation. She was forced to remain in exile for three months as a result of storm damage to her fleet.

By late 1587 the Bourke rebellion had collapsed, and Bingham was sent to Flanders to aid the Dutch against Spain. In his absence, Gráinne sailed for Dublin and appealed to Sir John Perrot, who granted her, and her children, full pardon for past offences. In 1588 Spain launched its Armada against England. Fearing that the Spanish would land in Ireland and unite with rebellious chieftains, the Crown recalled Bingham and replaced Perrot with Sir William Fitzwilliam. Bingham issued orders to seek out and kill any survivors, playing close attention to the Devil’s Hook’s territory.
In 1589 the final Bourke rebellion ignited when Bingham ordered troops ‘to prosecute and followe all and every of the said traytors . . . yt shall be lawful for you . . . to praie, burn and spolie’. Open conflict flared. Gráinne ‘byrned and spoyled the isles of Aran’. Connacht was in turmoil. Elizabeth ordered Fitzwilliam to make peace with the Bourkes, and he, in turn, tried to rein Bingham in. The Bourkes, along with English officials, presented a list of charges against Bingham, who was tried and acquitted in 1590.

On his return to Connacht, Gráinne bore the brunt of Bingham’s rage. While she was at sea he devastated her lands at Carraigahowley. On learning that her son, Murrough-na-Moar, had sided with Bingham, she ‘burned his towen and spoiled his people of their cattayle and goods’. In 1592 Tibbot-na-Long initiated a rising and attacked Bingham. Gráinne again faced Bingham’s vengeance; he plundered her territory, impounded her fleet and stationed ships in Clew Bay, leaving her propertyless with no means of rebuilding. Tibbot-na-Long submitted.

Gráinne and Elizabeth I

Gráinne, having lost everything, appealed directly to Elizabeth. Her initial petition, dated 1593, pleads age and poverty, and pledges ‘to envade with sword and fire all your highness enemyes’. She requested ‘some reasonable maintenance’ and the return of seized property in exchange for total allegiance. While the petition was en route to London, the earl of Tyrone was secretly acting to begin a rebellion against the Crown. Tibbot-na-Long was implicated, imprisoned and charged with treason.

Fearing that Tibbot would be ‘executed before . . . justly tried’, Gráinne gambled on a personal appeal and sailed for London. She is known to have been at court from June to September, during which time she replied to Lord Treasurer Burghley’s eighteen ‘Articles of Interrogatory’. She explained how circumstances compelled her to seek a living from the sea, and how, following Owen’s murder, Richard Bingham had ‘wiled her to remove from her late dwelling in Borisowle and to come and dwell under him’. During her journey she was seized and bound by John Bingham, and all her property confiscated. Released on the Devil’s Hook’s pledge, ‘fear compelled her to fly’ when he rebelled. She insisted that since Perrot’s pardon she had lived a farmer’s life and ‘utterly did she give over her former trade’.

Bingham was outraged. He wrote to the court, stating that he had enough evidence, since her pardon, to justly hang her. Despite Bingham’s protests, Elizabeth agreed to hear Gráinne’s petition and have her claim investigated. The only charge actually laid against her was her chastisement of Murrough-na-Moar; the rest of her activities were dismissed as she ‘hath at times lived out of order’. Elizabeth recommended the release of Tibbot-na-Long and that monies be diverted from taxes on her sons’ estates to provide a pension for Gráinne. Bingham was ordered to ‘protect them to live in peace and enjoy their livelihoods’. Elizabeth remained confident that Gráinne ‘as long as she lives, [will] continue a dutiful subject’.

Bingham proved reluctant to comply with his monarch’s wishes. Realising that his adversary had been granted leave to return to sea without having to provide sureties or hostages for good behaviour, he ordered troops to accompany her and stationed a detachment on her lands, obliging her to feed them. On the brink of poverty, Gráinne again appealed to Elizabeth. In 1595 she sailed for London, where she requested to be allowed to ‘lyve secure of my life’. A commission was appointed to investigate her claims. Bingham, fearing new charges which had been laid against him, fled to England and was imprisoned.

In December 1595 Tyrone’s ally, Red Hugh O’Donnell, installed his own candidate as the MacWilliam, took hostages and repeatedly plundered Mayo. He specifically sent O’Doherty to attack Gráinne. Once again, Gráinne set about rebuilding in the only way she knew. The Bourkes concluded that they had only two choices, to support Elizabeth or O’Donnell. In 1597 Tibbot-na-Long reached an advantageous accommodation with the Crown. Bingham’s successor, Sir Conyers Clifford, recorded a payment of £200 to Tibbot ,‘his mother and [half] brother’ for their services.

The last official record of Gráinne dates to 1601, when the captain of an English warship reported a brief engagement with ‘a galley I met . . . she rowed with thirty oars and had on board . . . 100 good shot . . . This galley comes out of Connacht and belongs to Grace O’Malley’. Gráinne Ní Máille is believed to have died in 1603.

Behind the myths of Grace O’Malley, pirate queen, and Gráinne Mhaol, icon of Ireland, stands Gráinne Ní Máille, a proud and courageous woman, determined to ensure that she and her family received their rights. She earned and lost fortunes, each time rebuilding ‘by land and sea’. Her enemies were those who sought to impoverish her or her children. The ethnic origin of those enemies was immaterial. She used every method at her disposal and had no compunction about bending the truth, as her enemies had none about bending the law. She exploited the ignorance of English officials, and took what she could, when she could. Ultimately, Gráinne Ní Máille was a survivor who maintained the status of her family when the great earls had been forced into exile.


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