How Irish Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley Defied Elizabeth I And Conquered A Man’s World

How pirate queen Grace O’Malley ruled the high seas, bent the English crown to her will, and rose to the top of a world with little place for women.

While Mary, Queen of Scots succumbed to Queen Elizabeth I — and the executioner’s axe — Grace O’Malley was another “queen” who defied the English monarch for almost 40 years by plundering English ships and fiercely repelling the forces that tried to take her family’s land.

This rebellious plunderer shared many traits with Elizabeth. They were both about the same age, had defied odds and thrived in a man’s world, had the allegiance of their subjects, and were used to winning.

But while Elizabeth ruled England, the other queen ruled a considerably smaller sea-faring clan. She was the Irish pirate queen, Grace O’Malley.

Grace O’Malley was born around 1530 to Owen O’Malley, the chieftain of a clan that ruled the area around Clew Bay on the west coast of Ireland for more than 300 years. During that time, they built wealth from both piracy and legitimate trade with France and Spain.

When O’Malley’s father died, she became the queen of her clan and she knew how to navigate the local political world of clans and chieftains by forging strategic alliances.

At the time, women were often used as a tool to create alliances through marriage that would make the men involved more powerful. But O’Malley’s story turns this notion on its head. Twice she married, but each time it was her power that increased.

Upon the death of her first husband in 1554, she inherited his fighting ships and castle at the age of just 23. In 1567, she divorced her second husband after one year of marriage, took control of his castle, and somehow still maintained his loyalty as an ally.

At the height of her power, she had hundreds of men and numerous ships at her disposal.

Rockfleet Castle

Rockfleet Castle in County Mayo, Ireland. – Wikimedia Commons.

From Rockfleet castle and her keep on Clare Island, Grace would launch her galleys and board any ships that passed through the mouth of Clew Bay and demand levies in return for safe passage to Galway Town in the south.

Stories of her courage and seafaring skill have been passed down through Irish poems and folklore. In one account, a Turkish corsair is said to have attacked her ship a day after she had given birth to her son Theobald. As the Turks boarded, she jumped out of bed and stormed onto the deck armed with two blunderbusses.

The bewildered Turks stopped fighting and she yelled, “Take this load from unconsecrated hands!” before firing her weapons and killing their officers. The rest of the Turks were dismayed by the loss of their officers and O’Malley easily captured their ship.

Grace O'Malley Statue

A statue of Grace O’Malley in County Mayo, Ireland. –
Suzanne Mischyshyn/Creative Commons/geograph.

But her most remarkable story began when Elizabeth I came to power in 1558. Elizabeth wanted to increase English control in Ireland and thus came to blows with Grace O’Malley.

The O’Malley clan was one of the few clans that resisted Elizabeth while English ships fell foul of O’Malley’s pirating prowess, as the numerous bays along the Irish coastline made it perfect for launching surprise attacks against the unsuspecting English.

By March 1574, the English had had enough. They sent in ships and an army of men to attack O’Malley’s home base at Rockfleet Castle. But within weeks she had repelled them into a humiliating retreat.

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