In honor of St. Patrick’s Day today I am honoring a famous woman in Irish history, Grace O’Malley, also known as “the pirate queen,” and “Granuaile.” Grace was an amazing woman who supported her countrymen in rebellion against the English, defended her family castle, and stood face to face with Queen Elizabeth herself.
Born in Ireland during the time of King Henry VIII, her father was a chieftain, her family seafaring, and her home deeply rooted in Clew Bay, County Mayo. Her family owned a string of castles protecting the coast, and the fishermen in the region paid a tax for that protection.
Story has it that Granuaile was a nickname her father gave her — it means short or cropped, and that’s exactly what she did to her hair when her father told her she could not accompany him on a trade voyage because her hair would get caught in the rigging.
Apparently she married two or three times, and had several children. When she took to the seas two of her sons, Tibbot and Murrough, were beside her. With their ships tucked into the bays, they awaited merchant ships passing through their waters, then stopped and boarded them to demand a toll in cash or cargo.
In 1593 when her two sons and half brother were taken captive by the governor of Connacht, the pirate queen sailed to England for an audience with Queen Elizabeth to argue for their release. Even so, Grace defiantly refused to bow before the English queen because she did not recognize her as queen of Ireland.
Grace’s story is long and complex, twisting and turning as many Irish stories do. She inspired legends, poems and songs, and I had her in mind as I set the character Elvy on a path toward her territory in my book, Sharavogue. For a good biography on Grace and her adventures, look for Anne Chambers’ book, Granuaile.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!