Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Grace O'Malley

Grace O'Malley is the Irish pirate captain from the 16th century who, in her late teens, inherited a family fishing and trading business and ran it with her husband. She and her husband managed a fleet of ships, conducting trade with Scotland, Spain, and Portugal, at which time she became involved in political maneuverings and tribal intrigue among her Irish countrymen to help her clan gain control of large sections of land on the coast. At that time, ports in the English Channel were owned by the English, so her fleet of ships conducted pirate activity, offering merchant ships safe passage through their section of the Channel for a fee and threatening them with attack if they refused.

When the English took away her husband's political position over the Irish territories, Grace and her husband took revenge by taking over the island castle of Caislean-an-Circa, owned by the Joyce clan. The Joyce clan retaliated, and Grace's husband was killed in the attack. Grace, however, drove the Joyce clan out of the settlement with her band of pirates, and it was at that point she took leadership over the fleet and it's 200 fighting men, still under the age of 20. She always fought with her crew and often led the men in battle.

English forces were sent out to take the castle back from Grace and surrounded the settlement, holding it under siege, at which point Grace ran out of ammunition. However, she noticed the roof of the castle was made out of lead and ordered the roof stripped off and melted for ammunition, which enabled them to pound the English into retreat. Before the English forces could advance again, Grace sent scouts to set flares among the English forces to find them at night, at which point her fleet pursued them and continued to fire upon them until the English gave up.

She established herself on Clare Island in Clew Bay and continued to prosper mightily in business. Grace took another lover, but when he too was killed by another clan, she swiftly took revenge on them by tracking them down and killing clan members, then taking over their castle, moving her own people in to take over. Unless she was provoked to take revenge for a loved ones' murder, most times she was subtle and diplomatic in her business and political dealings. She continued to take over castles to unite large areas of land so that all it's territories were owned by members of her clan.

She often aided Irish rebellions against the English and her fleet continued in their pirating. English authorities were annoyed by this and attacked her occasionally, although she always outsmarted them in battle. The English governor of Connaught, Sir Richard Bingham, tried to wipe Grace out of the area by capturing her, tying her up, confiscating her property and cattle, and trying to steal her ships as well. She escaped and decided to write an appeal to Queen Elizabeth of England, claiming in her letter that her warfare was necessary to protect her people from her neighbors, who "constrained your highness’s fond subject to take arms and by force to maintain herself and her people by sea and land." In addition, she asked the Queen for political pardon for her sons and brother, who had been charged with rebellion activities and imprisoned by Bingham, and requested permission from the Queen to continue to roam the sea freely, offering to attack all the Queen's enemies she encountered there and bring them into submission.

Bingham retaliated by writing to the Queen to accuse Grace of being a political traitor. At this, Grace decided to travel off the see the Queen in person.

Grace was the only Irish rebel to risk such an encounter with the English Queen, and the meeting was a success. The Queen was impressed by Grace and ordered Bingham to release all her relatives from prison and to treat them well, saying "we require you to deal with her sons in our name to yield to her some maintenance for her living the rest of her old years,”. The Queen also allowed her to keep fighting on behalf of English interests at sea. Grace was sixty-three at this point.

Bingham gave in, and Grace fought foreign ships for England while also continuing her piracy activities for income on the side. She continued to fight in battles until her late sixties. She died around 1603.

Barbara Holland, 2001. They Went Whistling: Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways, and Renegades


Unknown said...

Is this the woman the show "the Pirate Queen" is about

Blanche Black said...

Yes; there seems to be a revival of interest in Grace O'Malley in print and now theater, despite years of obscurity. When Barbara Holland wrote her book she apparently had to dig deeply for information on O'Malley for lack of acknowledgment of her existence by historians.