What is a leader? Many have speculated on the concept for years, writing books and giving talks on the subject to identify the traits and habits to become one: things like humility, authenticity, and bravery. But what brings all leaders together under one branch? And what is the moment that lets them cross that bridge from follower to leader? When studying leaders, past and present, the pattern that tracks is this: hard times befall someone, and instead of falling down (or falling down and staying down) they use their experiences to ground their principles and plunge forward. And there is perhaps no greater example of an Irish leader that did this more than Grace O’Malley, or Gráinne Ní Mháille, the Pirate Queen. Grace’s life was marked with wins and losses alike; and those experiences would lead her to becoming what we now know today: a leader amongst men. But what were those moments that led her to cross that bridge, or in her case ocean, and end up standing face to face with Queen Elizabeth I? This is the story of when two queens collided; this is the life of Grace O’Malley.
Born in 1530 to a Gaelic chief along the coast in County Mayo, Grace was not born to any normal Irish family. While there were many clans in Ireland—over 60 at that time—the Uí Máille, or O’Malley’s were the only tribe that ruled both by land and by sea. A genetic trait that Grace would inherit in spades. It is known that Grace grew up being taught the ways of seafaring, specifically by her father; and legend holds that when she asked to go out to sea and work as a young child, her mother retorted, ‘she’s a girl not a sailor!’ So little Grace cut her hair off with a knife to disguise herself as a boy and joined her fathers fleet; though this is more folklore, than it is non-fiction.
Being the daughter of a Chief, her role as a woman was to be married as soon as she could to seal an alliance between the Gaelic tribes. At fifteen, she was married to Donal O’Flaherty, the heir to the O’Flaherty clan that ruled all of Connemara as we know it today. Grace and Donal lived in Bunowen Castle on the coast near Ballyconneely, in Co Galway. Together, they bore three children: Owen ((Eóghan), Margaret (Méadhbh) and Murrough (Murchadh). In this earlier chapter of Grace’s life, she could have easily gone on living in the shadow of her husband, but everything changed when Donal died fighting ashore in a tribal dispute, leaving Grace a young widow to raise three children alone. This event would be the catalyst for Grace becoming the woman we know and celebrate today.
When the O’Flaherty’s refused to return her dowry, due to an old Gaelic law, Grace returned home to her father’s lands and set up as an independent leader on Clare Island. Back then, women were not allowed to become chieftains but Grace managed to round up two hundred men from neighboring clans to follow her, and formed her own army with three of her father’s galleys. There were very few people at that time that could weather the dangerous coastline of Ulster all the way up to the Isles of Scotland, and it was this capability that made Grace’s army loyal to her till her dying day.
When the English administration began to push forward into Co Mayo, Grace took Richard-in-Iron Bourke as her second husband because his castle in Rockfleet was less exposed than hers in Clare Island. She left Richard almost immediately after she moved her ships and men into his castle, and set off to sea, pregnant with Richard’s son. This is where the notorious sea captain avails. An hour after giving birth to her son Toby, or Tiobóid, aboard the ship, her galley was boarded by Barbary pirates. It is said that Grace appeared on deck, wrapped in a blanket, and led her crew into battle to capture the pirate vessel. But Grace was no stranger to piracy and plundering herself, and it was this tactic that would lead to her first capture.
While leading a cattle raid on the lands of the Earl of Desmond, Gerald Fitzgerald, she was captured and imprisoned in Askeaton Castle in Co Limerick for six months. The Earl gave Grace to the English Munster Governor to save his own skin, and from there she was put into the dungeons of Dublin Castle, where only the most high up prisoners were kept. Grace managed to get out because her second husband was causing upheaval against British power, and she was sent back to him to calm his rebellion. Little did they know, she would be ‘the nurse’ to it as her later reputation proved.
Grace’s life would see the most defining decades of Ireland’s fight against British power. When she was born, Ireland was almost fully restored to Gaelic ownership following the 12th century Anglo-Norman invasion. By the end, she’d see an entire country under control of the Tudor conquest. What’s important to understand about this moment in history is that it was not Ireland versus Britain, it was all of the Irish clans—individually—against Britain, allegiance was to one’s family and tribe. This is why the British strategy of divide and conquer would prevail. When a clan was forced into rebellion against English power, their lands were confiscated and divided up amongst British military and political personnel. This process would happen in Connaught with the arrival of Sir Richard Bingham, and Grace would face her fiercest battle to keep her tribe, family, and land alive.
Grace led three rebellions against Governor Bingham, and he managed to capture her once. When Gaelic tribes heard Grace was taken, they gathered together and rounded up hostages to effect her release; they needed Grace alive if they had any hope of withstanding the English conquest. But Bingham’s presence in Grace’s life would lead to her darkest days, when the Governor’s brother, Captain John Bingham, killed her eldest son in Connemara. It is said that when Grace found him, she sat and counted the twelve stab wounds that sprawled his body. Her second son, Murrough, would decide to ally with Bingham after this to save himself, but Grace wouldn’t have it. She rounded up her army and stormed her son’s castle to make sure he’d never ally with Bingham again. This was the core of who Grace O’Malley was. Her principles were above all else, even her own selfish feelings. Her feud with the Governor reached its climax in 1592, when he captured her most beloved son Tiobóid, Toby of the Ships, on an account of treason, which as Grace knew, was punishable by death. This would lead to her most tempestuous sea journey to seek counsel with Queen Elizabeth I in an effort to save the life of her son.
Grace set sail in 1593, headed for Greenwich Castle to wait for weeks alongside other petitioners to have a word with the Queen. This journey was not without its dangers: pirates caught sailing on the Thames were hung in cages above the river, left to be picked at by the birds. But before setting off, Grace got insurance. She sought out Thomas Butler—a cousin of the Queen and the 10th Earl of Ormonde—to receive a letter of introduction to the Queen’s secretary Lord Burghley. That letter would be proof of her business with the Queen, and keep her safe as she trailed forward. When she arrived, she stayed in the court and awaited her meeting with the Queen, and even became friends with Lord Burghley; and in the summer of 1593, the two women met face to face.
They’re supposed opposition to one another was a birth rite: born to two different countries, two different powerful families that were only a ship ride away, as Grace would prove multiple times in her life. But in this meeting, they were quite the same. Both queens in their own rite, both representations of power in a world that deemed them unfit to have it so, and both in their later stages of life: Queen Elizabeth I was 60, and Grace O’Malley was 63. In this meeting, it seems the two saw past their inherent differences because of their obvious similarities. They spoke in Latin, as Grace knew no English, and Elizabeth no Irish. Grace, although not speaking in her native tongue, negotiated with ease: the Queen granted all of Grace’s wishes. She ordered Bingham to return Grace her land, and to release her son at once in return of Grace’s promise to stop her piracy against England. But not known by many, is that Grace would return to the Queen once more in 1595 because Bingham was slow to make good on the demands of Queen Elizabeth. After this second meeting, Bingham was recalled and struck from power, and by the end of his life, he was in the tower of London. Both Queens would go back on their promises to one another eventually, to continue their respective fights. Grace O’Malley finished her days working the trades she had all her life: leading attacks up until the age of 67. She would die at Rockfleet Castle, in 1603.
The truth of Grace’s life would be eroded by Irish historians in the Annals of the Four Masters, who felt Grace did not represent what an Irish woman was at that time, except for a footnote on her second husband’s castle. Governor Bingham is the one that coined her, “nurse to all rebellions.” It was this reputation amongst the English, who both feared and revered her, that allowed us to have records, and remembrance of Grace O’Malley’s life. The English state papers hold her history; and it is thanks to the Irish biographer and native, Anne Chambers, that we even know any of this at all.
Although the end of Grace O’Malley’s life would coincide with the Battle of Kinsale, and the fall of Gaelic Ireland. Her life stands today as a symbol, and study of what true leadership is. A woman who did not falter based on feelings; and remained stout when others stood still. And though Grace’s life went through many ups and downs, the one thing that never wavered was the connection she had with the water.
So whether the shores of Clew Bay, or the outskirts of Galway: every time you sail the sea, you ride through Grace’s legacy.
Today, you can visit many of the place’s Grace pirated and plundered near Clew Bay in County Mayo. Her seven foot bronze statue stands tall on the grounds of Westport House, and she is said to be buried in the Cistercian Chapel on Clare Island.