On the trail of Ireland’s legendary pirate queen

As Ireland marks 100 years of independence, a tourist route is being dedicated to this 16th-century rebel.

Grace O’Malley’s exploits on the stormy seas off Western Ireland made her an Irish legend.
Photograph by Karl-Heinz Raach, Laif/Redux

Almost five centuries ago, an 11-year-old Irish girl pleaded with her father. Eager to emulate this intrepid, seafaring man, she begged to board his ship and join his next expedition. Her request was denied. The reason he gave: Her long red hair would get caught in the ship’s ropes.

The next time this captain saw his daughter, she was near bald. The brazen girl had shorn her own locks and was on her way to cutting a fresh path for Irish women. These were the first bold steps of a future pirate queen.

Her name was Grace O’Malley. Yet the Gaelic moniker that long bellowed across Ireland’s rough seas was Granuaile (Gron-ya-wail), or “Bald Grace.” The fiercest female in Irish history, she haggled with Queen Elizabeth I, rebelled against the English army, and for decades commanded ships that plundered the oceans near Ireland, even while heavily pregnant.

Now this extraordinary pirate tale is set to reach a wider audience. A Granuaile tourist trail is being developed by Mayo County Council and Failte Ireland, the country’s national tourism body. Anna Connor, the Council’s tourism development officer, says signposts will shepherd visitors through the majestic countryside of Mayo to sites Granuaile made her own.

Covering 2,156 square miles, Mayo is the third largest of the 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland, similar in size to Delaware yet with only one-seventh of its population. Located on Ireland’s west coast, Mayo is renowned for its sacred mountains, serene beaches, salmon-rich rivers, cattle-filled paddocks, and quaint fishing villages. The native Gaelic language is still commonly spoken in traditional communities.

Granuaile is one of Mayo’s heroes, and her story is particularly relevant now as Ireland marks a hundred years of independence from Great Britain, with commemorative events being held throughout 2021. Connor says the Granuaile trail will celebrate a woman who was “one of the last Irish leaders to defend against English rule in Ireland.”

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The trail will include the picturesque town of Westport, where Granuaile was born in 1530; the beaches of Clew Bay, where her ships docked; her castles on the mountainous Clare and Achill Islands; and Clare Island Abbey, where she was buried at 73 years old.

The planned trail is welcomed by Joe McDermott, a Mayo historian and guided-walks consultant who suggested the trail also include Murrisk Abbey. This 15th-century friary was built by the O’Malleys at the base of Croagh Patrick, a 2,500-foot-tall mountain overlooking Clew Bay and long a site of Catholic pilgrimage.

Most of these proposed trail sites have been closed since Christmas due to a strict lockdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, but will re-open this month. When the trail is completed, which Connor says could be more than two years away, tourists will need at least two days to properly explore each site on this driving route.

She ruled the waves

On the trail, visitors will learn not just about Granuaile but also her father, Owen O’Malley. He was the leader of the O’Malley clan, a powerful dynasty which ruled the seas off Mayo for several centuries, according to Irish author Anne Chambers, the foremost expert on Granuaile.

In the 1500s, Ireland was divided into about 40 Gaelic clans, dynasties that claimed ownership of parts of the nation, and often fought over territory and wealth, Chambers explains. Some of these groups accepted the authority of the English, who had taken full control of Ireland in 1541. Other clans, like the O’Malleys, rebelled against this foreign occupation. Governing a clan, then, was not just dangerous but also politically complex.

Yet, when Owen O’Malley died in the 1560s, it was not his eldest son who succeeded him as clan leader. Instead, Granuaile ascended. Wielding the seafaring knowledge and military tactics learned from her father, she controlled two galleys, 20 ships, and more than 200 men in the stormy Atlantic Ocean near Mayo.

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Granuaile didn’t command from afar. She didn’t send her orders from the comfort of lavish castles. Rather she bellowed them, from the sloping deck of a ship, her voice raised above the crash of waves, and eyes trained on her men. Even while pregnant, she stood alongside them. The story goes that, in 1567, Granuaile had just given birth at sea when her ship was set upon by Algerian pirates. She rallied her men and repelled their foes.

Gradually, under Granuaile’s guidance, the O’Malley clan built great wealth via trade, fishing, and piracy, according to Chambers. “Her leadership by sea sets Grace O’Malley apart from every other female leader in history,” Chambers says. “Seafaring was considered, and to a degree still is, a male preserve. It required immense skill and courage to extract a living from the seas along the dangerous Irish coastline.”

The O’Malleys plundered English ships that dared pass near Mayo, and this banditry soon placed Granuaile in English crosshairs. In 1577, she was imprisoned for two years. That time behind bars didn’t extinguish Granuaile’s fire. Chambers says that, after she was released, Granuaile repeatedly led her army in bloody rebellions against English generals who attempted to steal her family’s territory.

When one such rival killed one of her sons, kidnapped another, and destroyed her fleet, Granuaile deployed both aggression and diplomacy. First, she seized an English ship. Next, she made the most unlikely of requests: In 1593, Granuaile asked for an audience with England’s Queen Elizabeth I.

Many pirates had visited London before her. Most had brief and brutal stays, executed at Wapping Dock, their hanged corpses left dangling for days over the Thames River. But Queen Elizabeth was intrigued by Granuaile, so she granted her the rarest of audiences at London’s Greenwich Palace.

When Granuaile confronted the Queen, she was not daunted, Chambers wrote in her book. Instead, she arrived with a bone to pick, a point to prove, and a knife in her dress. She did not see herself as beneath England’s royalty. They were emperors bound by borders, whereas she was a ruler of the open seas, whose wealth and power were earned by daring and doing, not gifted by bloodline. It was they who should be impressed by her.

(For these pirates, their most valuable booty was a sailing atlas.)

Granuaile departed this royal meeting with not a bow but a bounty. She had secured the release of captured relatives and permission to continue her brash seafaring.

In return, Granuaile agreed to end her rebellion against the English. Her final decade on earth, thereafter, was less eventful, and she died of natural causes at Mayo’s Rockfleet Castle. Perched on the shore of Clew Bay, near the pretty town of Newport, this four-story, 16th-century castle remains in fine condition and will be included on the Granuaile tourist trail

Granuaile’s English opponents labeled her a “notable traitress” and a “nursing mother of rebels.” But to many Irish people, she was a legend before she even died. Now, more than 400 years after her death, Irish girls are still being thrilled and emboldened by her tale.

Reviving the legacy

In a country where patriarchy has long loomed, Granuaile was a key example of female self-empowerment, according to Chambers. “Breaching boundaries of gender imbalance, and bias, in a period of immense social and political upheaval and change, Grace O’Malley rewrote the rules to become one of the world’s first recorded feminists,” Chambers says.

It was only after death that chauvinism finally bested Granuaile. Chambers says that, until just 40 years ago, the pirate was largely omitted from mainstream Irish history. This was partly due to the over-emphasis on Ireland’s male protagonists. Another key factor was that Granuaile didn’t fit the mold of the “patriotic, untainted, dutiful picture of Gaelic womanhood promoted by later generations of Irish historians.”

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In fact, Granuaile may still be underappreciated if not for Chambers. Her 1979 biography of O’Malley, Granuaile: Ireland’s Pirate Queen, is widely considered to have revived this story. Granuaile is now part of Ireland’s public-school history curriculum and has been the subject of books, articles, documentaries, and stage plays.

And in years to come, tourists from across the world will be able to follow a Granuaile trail through Mayo. As they admire this county’s phenomenal scenery, they’ll learn an outrageous story: the tale of an audacious girl who defied gender roles, murderous foes, and an invading colonial power to protect her family’s legacy and blaze a trail for Irish women.

Ronan O’Connell’s mother grew up in County Mayo, and two of his favorite people are named after Granuaile: his sister, Grainne, and his cousin Grace. Follow him on Twitter.

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