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Grainne Uaile was a famous pirate and tribal chief in 16th century Ireland. Educated, feared and admired in equal measure. She was a noblewoman who led a band of more than 200 sea raiders along the coasts of Ireland and Britain, fearlessly plundering her enemies ships and holdings as they sought to plunder hers.
Twice widowed, twice imprisoned, she fought valiantly for her rights and for the rights of her people. Condemned for piracy (a moniker only applied to those who plundered outside of Her Majesties fleet) she was eventually pardoned in London by Queen Elizabeth I.
O’Malley (the Anglicized version of her name) and Queen Lizzie met when Grainne sailed from Galway right up the Thames to secure the freedom from prison of her brother and sons. The interview, which took place at Elizabeth’s court at Greenwich Palace in 1593, is said to have been conducted in Latin, as neither woman spoke the others own tongue fluently.
Their rapport must have run deeper than language, however, being that rarest of creatures of the time, a woman who was Out and About, owning her true Power as an equal to men. Both women stood fast in their determination to be themselves in the face of opposition.
The young Grainne is said to have earned the name Grainne Uaile (Mhaol) through cutting her long hair in an act of defiance. Being the only child (apart from her half brother Donal Piopa) of her chieftain father Eoghan Dubhdara O’Maille and her mother Maedbh (also born O’Maille) she identified with leadership. When her father refused the young Grainne’s request to sail with him to Spain on a trading expedition, using her long hair as an excuse, telling her it would get tangled in the ships ropes, she answered by cutting it off. Henceforth she was admired as Grainne Uaille (from maol, bald or short haired.) Not for her the trap of prettiness. Her self image extended far beyond such trite concerns.
O’Malley became a very wealthy woman by land as well as by sea. She inherited her mother’s lands as well as her father’s land and fleet of ships. She thereafter increased her power and wealth through discerning raids along the Irish coastline, at sea, and through launching raids as far as the North of Scotland. It is said her sailing adventures along with formal education led to her speaking several languages, French, Spanish and some English among them.
As a noblewoman, she initially followed the customs of the time, making a political match with Donal an Chogaidh O Flaithbheartaig (Donal of the Battle), heir to the O’Flaherty title. He was expected to one day rule Iar (West) Connacht, or, today’s County Connemara.
During their marriage they had three children. The eldest, Owen, was known as a kind and forgiving young man. Too trusting, he died young, tricked and murdered by Sir Richard Bingham who took over his land and castles. Bingham was an English soldier appointed Governor of Connacht under Elizabeth Ist during an intensive up-scaling of the re-conquest of Ireland.
Their second son Murrough was said to take after his father, loving warfare. It is also said he was sexist, beating his sister Margaret and refusing to take orders from his mother. He has also been accused of betraying his family to the English, joining forces with Bingham after the murder of his brother Owen. Grainne swore never to speak to him again.
Legend has it, she got on very well with her daughters husband whose name, for some reason, remains unknown. He is said to have saved her life on more than one occasion.
After An Chogaidh’s death, Grainne left Iar Connacht and returned to Clare Island, taking many of the O’Flaithbheartaig followers with her. A canny strategist and courageous commander, she inspired loyalty in the men under her.
Her first husband, Donal An Chogaidh had taken a fortress in the Lough Corrib from the Joyce clan. Once they heard of his death, the Joyce’s decided to reclaim the castle which they had named the Cock’s Castle after Donal’s presumably arrogant attitude. O’Malley fought so ferociously and impressively in defence of her property that the Joyce’s, defeated, thereafter named it Caislean Na Circe (The Hen’s Castle, which it is still known by today). The English later tried to take it from her. It is said she melted lead from the roof and poured it down on the attacking soldiers. Summoning help by sending one of her followers to light a beacon on the nearby Hill of Doon, the English were defeated, never to attack the castle again.
Throughout her career she exacted taxes from all ships that sailed into her territories, as the English overlords saw fit to do.
Her second marriage, in 1566 to Risteard an Iarainn Bourke (Iron Bourke) is said to have been motivated by O’Malley’s desire to increase her power and prestige. Bourke had a castle strategically located near Newport, county Mayo as well as lands at Burrishoole which had sheltered harbours in which her ships could hide. Bourke held a high position as chieftain of his sept, which made him eligible for election as Mac William, or, the second most powerful man of the territory.
It is said they married under the Irish Brehon Law that, in some ways, was one of the most progressive towards women in existence at the time (see endnote from Wikipedia.[i]) They married for ‘one year certain’ after which, legend has it, she divorced Risteard and kept the castle repulsing any attempts to regain it. It is interesting to note that the selling of women in marriage was an accepted practice at the time amongst the nobility, but there’s a certain scorn for the rare woman, who chose herself, to marry for reasons of political expediency, not to enhance the power of prestige of a man who felt he had ownership of her under the law, but rather to shore up her own powerful leadership position.
They had one son Tibbot (Theobald), named Tibbot of the Ships, (Tiobaid na Long), born in 1567.
The historic meeting between the two, now legendary Queens, Grainne and Elizabeth had been occasioned as already mentioned, by Grainne’s desire to rescue her sons Murrough and Tibbot and her half brother Donal. Elizabeth is said to have sent Grainne a list of questions preliminary to the meeting and, while the English saw Grainne and Bourke as allies in revolution against them, Grainne said she was a widow in response to Elizabeth’s questions.
Bingham, who had murdered her first-born son, told Elizabeth that Grainne had been “a nurse to all rebellions in the province this forty years.” Grainne had good reason to rebel, the English, who had, in her father’s time left the Irish to their own devices, now stepped up their stranglehold over Irish wealth and territories and Grainne fought back with all her might. She had point blank refused to bow before Elizabeth at their meeting, steadfastly refusing to recognize her as her sovereign, or of Ireland as The Kingdom Of Ireland under British rule. During their meeting, they had struck up some agreements including the removal of Bingham from Ireland. Elizabeth acceded to this request, but had reneged on her promise shortly after returning Bingham to Ireland and refusing to return any of Grainne’s stolen lands and properties. Grainne had thereafter given up on negotiating with the English and had stepped up her revolutionary activities, supporting Irish rebellions during the Nine Years War.
Grainne had apparently shocked The English Court when having sneezed, she blew her nose in a lace handkerchief handed to her by a courtier, then flung it into the fire. She stated that where she came from handkerchiefs, once used, were considered dirty and to be destroyed. An interesting twist of cultural one-up-(wo)manship. In common with Elizabeth, she was accused of promiscuity, though her biographers, I would say, rightly, ascribe this as an accusation made to any woman living on her own terms outside of the constrictions society would impose on her. Many of those same restrictions still plague women today, after all struggles women have fought since that time. Women are still confined, if we allow it, to the Madonna/Whore double bind in which we are to be good girls but also highly sexualised and desirable to boot. The age old damned if I do/damned if I don’t type situation.
The following extract from Wikipedia refers to some of her exploits:
“Many folk stories and legends about O’Malley have survived since her actual days of pirating and trading. There are also traditional songs and poems about her. A widespread legend concerns an incident at Howth, which apparently occurred in 1576. During a trip from Dublin, O’Malley attempted to pay a courtesy visit to Howth Castle, home of Lord Howth. However, she was informed that the family was at dinner and the castle gates were closed against her. In retaliation, she abducted the Earl’s grandson and heir, Christopher St Lawrence, 10th Baron Howth. He was eventually released when a promise was given to keep the gates open to unexpected visitors and to set an extra place at every meal. Lord Howth gave her a ring as pledge on the agreement. The ring remains in the possession of a descendant of O’Malley and, at Howth Castle today, this agreement is still honoured by the Gaisford St. Lawrence family, descendants of the Baron. (Commemorating these events, there is in Howth a street of 1950s local council housing named ‘Grace O’Malley Road’.) The legendary reason for O’Malley seizure of Doona Castle in Ballycroy was that the MacMahons, who owned the castle, killed her lover, Hugh de Lacy, the shipwrecked son of a Wexford merchant she had rescued. When the guilty members of the MacMahon clan landed on the holy island of Caher for a pilgrimage, O’Malley captured their boats. She and her men then captured the MacMahons and killed those responsible for her lover’s death. Still not satisfied with her revenge, O’Malley then sailed for Ballycroy and attacked the garrison at Doona Castle, overpowering the defenders and taking the castle for herself. Her attack against the MacMahons was not the first time she interrupted someone at their prayers. Legend tells of another chieftain who stole property from O’Malley and fled to a church for sanctuary. She was determined to wait out the thief, maintaining that he could starve or surrender. The thief dug a tunnel and escaped, however, and the hermit who took care of the church broke his vow of silence to scold her for attempting to harm someone who had sought sanctuary. Her reply is not included in the legend. More than 20 years after her death, an English lord deputy of Ireland recalled her ability as a leader of fighting men, noting her fame and favour that still existed among the Irish people.“
It is thought the two women died in the same year of 1603.
Unusually, for someone of Grainne Uailes’ status as fighting revolutionary, pirate and leader, she managed to remain alive and kicking until then, eventually dying a natural death in her own bed at Rockfleet Castle, the castle she had reputedly taken from Bourke with the words which signaled their divorce, shouted by her from the tower -“Richard Bourke, I dismiss you!”
For other information on Grainne Uaile see Wikipedia and Ann Chambers books, also books by Joan Druett, Patricia Lynch and Judith Cook. Records of her exploits, wealth and achievements can also be found in English State Papers relating to Ireland of her time.
[ii] [i] Women and marriage Women, like men, were Brehons. Brehon Laws have a reputation among modern scholars as rather progressive in their treatment of women, with some describing the law as providing for equality between the sexes. However, the Laws generally portray a patriarchal and patrilineal society in which the rules of inheritance were based on agnatic descent. It has sometimes been assumed that the patriarchal elements of the law are the result of influence by canon law or continental practice displacing an older, more egalitarian ancient Celtic tradition, but this is based mainly on conjecture and there is little hard evidence to support such claims. Cáin Adomnáin, a Christian Law, promulgated by the Synod of Birr in 697, sought to raise the status of women of that era, although the actual effect is unknown. Regardless, although Irish society under the Brehon Laws was male-dominated, women had greater freedom, independence and rights to property than in other European societies of the time. Men and women held their property separately. The marriage laws were very complex. For example, there were scores of ways of combining households and properties and then dividing the property and its increase when disputes arose. Divorce was provided for on a number of grounds (e.g. impotence or homosexuality on the husband’s part), after which property was divided according to what contribution each spouse had made to the household. A husband was legally permitted to hit his wife to “correct” her, but if the blow left a mark she was entitled to the equivalent of her bride-price in compensation and could, if she wished, divorce him. Property of a household could not be disposed of without the consent of both spouses. However, under church law, women were still largely subject to their fathers or husbands and were not normally permitted to act as witnesses, their testimony being considered “biased and dishonest. [ii] Women and marriage Women, like men, were Brehons. Brehon Laws have a reputation among modern scholars as rather progressive in their treatment of women, with some describing the law as providing for equality between the sexes. However, the Laws generally portray a patriarchal and patrilineal society in which the rules of inheritance were based on agnatic descent. It has sometimes been assumed that the patriarchal elements of the law are the result of influence by canon law or continental practice displacing an older, more egalitarian ancient Celtic tradition, but this is based mainly on conjecture and there is little hard evidence to support such claims. Cáin Adomnáin, a Christian Law, promulgated by the Synod of Birr in 697, sought to raise the status of women of that era, although the actual effect is unknown. Regardless, although Irish society under the Brehon Laws was male-dominated, women had greater freedom, independence and rights to property than in other European societies of the time. Men and women held their property separately. The marriage laws were very complex. For example, there were scores of ways of combining households and properties and then dividing the property and its increase when disputes arose. Divorce was provided for on a number of grounds (e.g. impotence or homosexuality on the husband’s part), after which property was divided according to what contribution each spouse had made to the household. A husband was legally permitted to hit his wife to “correct” her, but if the blow left a mark she was entitled to the equivalent of her
I love to hear of a woman who was fearless in the face of adversity. A pirate? … maybe… but perhaps just a woman stepping out of a role subscribed for her by society, and therefore called a pirate. More power to such “pirates” in our time and always.
Well, it’s said she actually was a pirate, and I agree with you – pirates are needed now more than ever. Thanks for commenting.