Friday, March 15, 2013

'Bean Ris': She-Kings Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I

Woodcut print of Grace O'Malley's audience with Queen Elizabeth I at Greenwich Palace. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
Popular legend tells us that when Grace O'Malley, the Irish Pirate Queen of Connaught and Queen Elizabeth of England met at Greenwich Palace in September of 1593, the fate of Anglo-Irish relations at the close of the 16th century could have been determined by the exchange of a mere handkerchief....

You see, supposedly when the great Tudor queen offered Grace one of her personal handkerchiefs, Grace was perplexed by the unsanitary custom of re-using a dirty cloth. To demonstrate the Irish standard of cleanliness, Grace threw the handkerchief in the fire. The few people who where privy to this clandestine meeting between two great women leaders waited with bated breath to see how the Queen of England would react. To everyone's relief, Elizabeth laughed!

While no one knows for certain what passed between these women during their meeting, what we do know of Grace's boldness and Queen Elizabeth's unique sense of humor would suggest that the above story circulated by the balladeers could have very well been true.

But why was "Pirate Queen" Grace O'Malley paying a visit to the ruler of the country that had systematically oppressed the Irish since the middle ages? And what did these two women have in common, if anything? As it turns out, quite a lot. Both Grace O'Malley and Queen Elizabeth I were bean ris, or she-kings, ruling along. Both were regarded as extremely capable female leaders in a largely patriarchal world, and because of this they were feared by their enemies, but inspired fierce devotion from their own people.

Grainne Ni Mhaille was born somewhere around 1530 into the seafaring O'Malley clan, which can be traced back to the early 12th century (Anthony, 43). The O'Malley clan territory spanned from Connemara in County Galway to Westport in County Mayo. The O'Malley's were one of four aristocratic families in the area, the others being the O'Flaherties, the Burke's and the Joyce's (Broderick, 243).

Grainne, who shall henceforth be called in this article by the Anglicized version of her name, Grace, as she is popularly known, was the child of Dubhdarra "Black Oak" O'Malley, and his wife Margaret, who came from another branch of the O'Malley clan (Anthony, 43). Grace was her parent's only daughter, and quite possibly Dubhdarra's only legitimate child; we know she had a half brother who evidence suggests was probably illegitimate. Dubhdarra had a soft-spot for his daughter, who convinced him to take her aboard his ships and teach her sailing, navigation and fishing. By all accounts, Grace was a natural at sea; her predisposition to sailing would soon blossom into a legendary career.

Working on board a ship was grueling work; the salt spraying in Grace's hair matted it quickly, so she made the bold decision to cut her hair short, like a boys, which earned her the nickname of Granuaile, or "Bald Grace".

In 1546, at the age of about 16, Grace was married to Donal O'Flaherty, a man who was more commonly known as "Donal o'the Battles" because of his reputation for violence. The marriage was arranged with the hope that it would bring peace between the pirating clans of O'Malley and O'Flaherty. Grace and Donal were wed in a chapel that was within one of the abbeys belonging to the O'Malley clan, Murrisk. Murrisk is located at the foot of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo; the ruins can still be visited today (Broderick, 243).

Grace, despite being much younger than her husband, was an equal match for him in temperament. Because of Grace's prolonged experience at sea, she was acknowledged as the leader of the O'Flaherty clan fleet by her early twenties. Grace's duties as captain of the fleet meant that she not only led pirate raids and attacks on rival clans, but that she engaged in cultivating foreign trade relationships. Grace established trade routes to Scotland, Portugal and Spain, and often traveled to these places herself (Broderick, 244).

Grace was fast becoming the recognized leader of her clan by marriage; like the working mothers of today, she balanced her career with raising three small children: Owen, Margaret and Murrough.

Sometime in the early 1560's, Grace's husband was killed in an ongoing feud between the O'Flaherty and Joyce clans (Broderick, 244). Grace, we can assume, felt the loss of her husband profoundly, but given the reality of clan warfare, the way in which he died was not unexpected. Grace could very well have felt that there was no more honorable way that he could have died.

Now a widow, Grace took her children to Clare Island and continued running the O'Flaherty fleet from there. She also took on some of the O'Malley clan ships as well. Grace's reputation as a fearless seafarer was growing.

In 1566, Grace arranged her own marriage to Richard Burke, who was called "Richard-in-Irons" because of the maille shirt that he always wore. The Burke's possessed the land North of Clew Bay, a strategic spot for seafarers. Grace knew that with Richard's territory and castles, and with her fleet, her pirating empire would become unstoppable.

A view of the scenic Clew Bay from the remaining tower of Grace's Rockfleet Castle. Picture shared for public use by Keith Salvesen on Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

While Burke was of Norman-Irish descent, (Broderick, 244) Grace was Irish through and through, so for her second marriage it was only natural that she invoke the ancient Brehon law of Ireland, which was over a century and a half old. Brehon law dictated that a woman could fight alongside men in battle, and keep her name, property and title after marriage, among other liberties. It also gave a woman the ability to divorce her husband by simply declaring, "I divorce you"!

After Grace wed Richard, she did not hesitate to set up her new seafaring base in her husband's impressively fortified and strategically placed Rockfleet Castle (also known as Carrickahooley). Grace and Richard would have one child together, a son called Tibbot-na-long, or "Toby of the Ships". Legend says that Tibbot was born below deck while Grace and her crew were engaged in a battle with Turkish Pirates. Of course, this story is highly romanticized and altogether unlikely, though the one "grain of truth" may be that Toby was born at sea, albeit not during a battle.

After a year and a day together, (the traditional time span for the medieval practice of a trial-marriage, usually symbolized by a handfasting in front of witnesses) Grace used Brehon law to divorce Richard in a rather unique way. Hanging out the window of the castle she had become so fond of, Rockfleet, Grace called down to Richard below, saying "Richard, I dismiss you!" Since Grace was in posession of the castle at the time that she initiated her divorce, it became hers under Brehon law (Chambers, 65-66). Rockfleet would remain her home base for the remaining 37 years of her life (Cordingly, 72).

An interior view of the sole remaining tower of Rockfleet Castle. Picture shared for public use by Graham Horn on Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Evidence suggests that perhaps Richard and Grace had previously discussed the boundaries and duration of their strategic marriage before they wed, and that Richard may have been well aware that this would happen. In any case, the two would remain allies in the years ahead, and may have still been romantically involved. We know that Burke is still referred to as Grace's husband in some documents, and that Grace would later call herself Burke's widow to Queen Elizabeth.

In the 1560's, Grace's fleet consisted of about 20 vessels. Several of these were impressive galleys, and they were the only galleys at this time along the Irish coast (Cordingly, 73).

Queen Elizabeth I, like her father before her, had dreams of an expanded and secure Tudor empire. Where Henry VIII had failed in his attempt to reclaim parts of France, he had gained significant ground in Ireland. Still, Elizabeth I was, in many ways, much more successful; the Elizabethan age saw expansion into the New World, and the use of diplomacy before war in foreign policy. However, the rebellions in Tudor-occupied Ireland were always occurring or about to occur, and Queen Elizabeth I became concentrated on the Western coast of Ireland. In addition to quelling rebellions, the Queen of England was eager to acquire Irish resources for the Crown. Queen Elizabeth appointed a succession of Lord Deputy's of Ireland throughout her reign to govern the Irish. However, being Lord Deputy was a difficult and financially stressful job, and even some of the most ambitious courtiers actively tried to avoid the job; one even pleaded with his sovereign in a letter to pick somebody else!

Queen Elizabeth I expected the Irish chieftains to be obliging to the English presence in Ireland. Grace, unwilling to comply, was besieged by Governor Sir Edward Fitton and his men in one of her ex-husbands castles, known as Cock's Castle, which was now in her possession. Resourceful Grace ordered her men to strip off the lead panels that made up the castle roof and melt them down, pouring the hot liquid onto the unsuspecting army below. Grace then escaped, lighting beacons along her route to alert her allies that she was in distress (Broderick, 245). Grace's supporters arrived, and together, they drove the English back from whence they came. In honor of the ferocity that Grace had demonstrated defending not only her castle, but the Irish's right to autonomy, Cock's Castle was re-christened Hen's Castle!

After her close call with the English, Grace retreated to her base in Clew Bay. Looking for vengeance, she gathered her supporters, and together they launched a series of raids on not only English ships, but the ships of the Irish who had allied themselves with the oppressors.

Grace obviously aggravated the English with her defiance, but she had also made enemies out of those Irish whose merchant ships she had plundered. In 1574, several Galway merchants untied with the English, led by Captain William Martin, to attack Grace O'Malley (Cordingly, 73). Grace was besieged once again, this time in Rockfleet. Though the English army was better trained, and with their Irish allies boasted better numbers, Grace seized the initiative, taking her attackers by surprise and eventually driving them back.

By 1576, Queen Elizabeth sent in reinforcements to deal with the Irish situation. Sir Henry Sidney arrived in Connaught, ready to obtain the absolute submission of the local chieftains, including, of course, Grace. Grace was a diplomat as well as a pirate, and she wisely took an audience with Sidney. As a sea captain, she saw which way the wind was blowing, both literally and figuratively, and she must have realized that her longevity was at stake if she didn't do something to placate the English. So, Grace offered Sidney a deal: she would give him 3 of her best galley ships and 200 of her men, if he would promise to ensure that her ex-husband succeeded to the title of The MacWilliam, making him the head of his clan. If this was achieved, Grace and Richard's son, Tibbot, could potentially succeed to the title through his father.

A detail from a portrait of Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland, circa 1573. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Sidney accepted the deal, and wrote to Sir Francis Walsingham, telling him about his first meeting with Grace (Cordingly, 73):

There came to me also a famous feminine sea captain called Grany Imallye, and offered her service unto me, wheresoever I would command her, with three galleys and 200 fighting men, either in Scotland or Ireland...This was a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.

Grace continued to plunder up and down the coast while simultaneously ruling her clan and raising her children; but just a year after her meeting with Sidney, Grace was captured while she was attacking the Earl of Desmond's lands. The previously rebellious earl wanted Queen Elizabeth I to trust him, and the best way that he could prove his loyalty was to apprehend Grace. The proud Pirate Queen was thrown in Limerick Jail first, and then later into the dungeons at Dublin Castle. In total, she languished in a cell for eighteen months (Broderick, 246-247). 

A view of part of Dublin Castle (I've been here!) Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Grace's career not only aggravated the English and those that she had wronged through piracy; it was seen as unnatural in the early modern world. Grace was brought before the Lord Justice Drury, who was also president of Munster. He called the captive Grace, "a woman that hath impudently passed the part of womanhood and been a great spoiler and chief commander and director of thieves and murderers at sea to spoil the province." Despite his disdain for her, he also acknowledged her fame, which he said she had earned through "her stoutness of courage and person, and for sundry exploits done by her at sea."

Luckily for Grace, she was released, and she rushed home to Connaught. She joyfully witnessed her ex-husband Richard Burke succeed to his title of MacWilliam in 1581; Sidney had made good on his promise! In one of the many references that demonstrate Grace and Richard's continued closeness, the President of Connaught, Sir Nicholas Malby, noticed that through Richard's victory, Grace, "[thought] herself to be no small lady". Sadly, Richard's joy was short-lived, as he died just two years later. Grace, of course, mourned his loss on a personal level, but she also must have been concerned that she was now left without her  most powerful ally. Richard's people now accepted Grace as their de facto leader; Grace ruled over her respective clans from Rockfleet Castle. Now about fifty-three years of age, Grace was wise and powerful bean ri, or she-king, just like her contemporary, Queen Elizabeth.

The tower of Rockfleet Castle is all that remains of Grace O'Malley stronghold. Picture shared for public use by Graham Horn on Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
  Just a year after Richard's death, things got worse for Grace, with the appearance of a new Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Richard Bingham. Bingham was not as reasonable as Sir Henry Sidney had been; while his predecessors had enjoyed a working relationship with Grace, Bingham was to make it his sole mission to not only suppress but destroy the woman he called a "nurse to all rebellions in the province for this forty years" (Broderick, 247). With Grace out of the way, Bingham assumed that it would be easier to control the people of Connaught: Grace's people. 

A portrait of Sir Richard Bingham, from 1564. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

In Bingham, Grace finally had a worthy, but dangerous adversary. For the next ten years, Bingham chased Grace and her men up and down the coast line, impounding her ships, and confiscating her property. On one occassion, Grace came very close to death, but she was saved by her son-in-law, whom she enjoyed a close relationship with (Broderick, 248). This harassment was all very frustrating to Grace, but it wasn't anything she couldn't handle.

Why did Bingham take such offense to Grace and her way of life, while other English officials had somewhat tolerated it? Bingham had a reputation for being a little overzealous, a trait which probably predisposed him to obsess over Grace. And additionally, Grace was a problematic individual, being the female leader of an unruly English territory. Grace O'Malley was insubordinate and had continually pushed the limits of Queen Elizabeth's magnanimity for over twenty years. She caused particular trouble in the region Bingham was assigned to, and Bingham could not allow himself to look like a fool.

As if her situation with Bingham wasn't stressful enough, Grace experienced two family tragedies. Firstly, her son Murrough, who various authors and biographers have portrayed as troubled, joined forces with Bingham and fought against his family; Grace would never speak to her son again for his treachery (Chambers, 44). Secondly, in 1586 her eldest child, Owen, was killed by Bingham and his men, in cooperation with the same clan who had killed his father, the Joyces. Grace was devastated and seeking revenge.

Grace's business at sea suffered tremedously under the opression of Bingham, and so did her standard of living. Other clan leaders had had just about enough of Bingham as well; Grace joined The O'Donnell and The O'Neill in Ulster and met with them for three months, planning a rebellion against Bingham and the local English authorities (Broderick, 248).

Ou of desperation, Grace decided to write to the Queen of England herself. She must have thought that oerhaps she would find sympathy from Queen Elizabeth is she heard her story in her own words, rather than through the words of Bingham and others.

Grace swallowed her pride and decided to appeal to Queen Elizabeth I. Grace wrote that Bingham's aggression had forced her, 'to take arms and by force to maintain [herself and her people] by sea and by land', and asked the Queen for some 'reasonable maintenance' for the time that she had left to live, including the confiscated property that she was entitled from both of her husbands (1/3 from each according, to Brehon law). In turn she promised to 'invade with sword and fire all you highness enemies, wheresoever they are or shall be'

Of course, Queen Elizabeth detected irony in Grace's offer, and she responded by sending 'Eighteen Articles of Interrogatory', a questionnaire that asked Grace how much property she currently owned, and how she made her living, among other things. Grace, who interestingly chose to refer to herself as Richard Burke's widow, (perhaps to make her less abrasive to English sensibilities, or perhaps because she really considered herself as such) answered all of these questions, without ever mentioning piracy, of course! While Grace O'Malley awaited her response from Queen Elizabeth, the unthinkable happened: Bingham arrested her youngest son, Tibbot, on charges of inciting rebellion (Cordingly, 74).

Unable to bear the thought of using yet another child to Bingham, Grace took drastic action. She boarded her ship, and set sail for England. After successfully passing hostile English and Spanish ships, Grace boldy sailed right up the Thames estuary into London! Once she was there, she requested an audience with the Queen of England; she would accept no diplomatic substitute. An audience was granted at Greenwich in September of 1593.

The 'River Thames with the docks from Woolwich to the Tower' from A Dictionary Practical, Theoretical, and Historical of Commerce and Commercial Navigation. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
In appearance, these two woman could not have appeared more different. Queen Elizabeth was undoubtedly dressed in structured, jewel-encrusted clothing and heavy, white makeup, with cheeks and lips enhanced with ocher; Grace, in contrast, wore the looser-fitting clothing of the Irish, perhaps accented by a sash and a heavy, Celtic brooch. Despite these differences in appearance, they were both about the same age; though Grace's birth date is listed as being around 1530, we know Elizabeth Tudor was born in 1533, so they were more or less three years apart. 

A woodcut of Queen Elizabeth I, circa 1590. By an unknown artist. Ashmoleon Museum, Oxford. Image public domain.

Yet, despite their differences in attire and custom, Queen Elizabeth and Grace O'Malley must have seem a bit of themselves in one another. Nonetheless, Grace was very much at the mercy of the Elizabeth.

It is surmised that Queen Elizabeth and Grace O'Malley conversed in Latin, a language they were both fluent it, though Grace, through her contact with English officials in Ireland, had at least a basic grasp on the English language. After the discussion, Queen Elizabeth decided to grant the Irish Pirate Queen of Connaught most of what she had asked for.

Grace's imprisoned son and her half brother were to be released (Anthony, 47); Queen Elizabeth wrote to Bingham herself, demanding he unhand Grace's relatives and restore all her confiscated property. Bingham was furious that Grace, having been granted a royal pardon, would now more or less be feturning to her former lifestyle. To make matters worse, Quueen Elizabeth I had given her permission to return to the sea to make her living, and ordered Bingham not to bother her.

Now under the protection of the Queen of England, Grace's career revived. But although Bingham could not attack Grace and her family personally, that did not stop him from trying to thwart her in other ways, and he often captured her men. Grace, though now in her old age, still had a bit of fire left in her, and she burned the town entrusted to Bingham, at Bunowen in County Donegal, to the ground. Furthermore, she stole cattle, (a national Irish pastime, as anyone who studies Irish history and literature knows) and killed several of his men (Broderick, 250). After it was revealed that there was conspiracy against Bingham's life, and perhaps partially due to Grace's most recent attack, Bingham returned to England in 1595. Queen Elizabeth, unpleased by Bingham's repeated failure in his post, had him imprisoned in the Fleet. Grace could now sail the seas unhindered.

From 1597 to 1601 England experienced its most serious Irish rebellion during Queen Elizabeth's reign, led by The O'Donnell and The O'Neill. Though Grace had previously considered joining forces with these two powerful clan leaders, she had withdrawn her support after a personal conflict with The O'Donnell. Therefore, Grace was not involved in the uprising. By 1601, the rebels were suppressed. Also in this year, the English Earl of Essex was executed for staging a rebellion against his queen and benefactor; he had previously failed in his tour in Ireland, cozying up to the Irish chieftains rather that disciplining them.

A detail from a portrait of the Earl of Essex, circa 1590. By Marcus Gheeraerts. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
  Like Queen Elizabeth, Grace remained politically active up until her death; she lived to see the end of her age transition into a new and bittersweet one for Ireland. The Irish clans were replaced by more and more English and Anglo-Irish aristocracy. The son that Grace had worked so hard to free from his English captor, Tibbot, eventually joined the English army. He enjoyed a successful career, even becoming made a baronet. He returned to Ireland after he was created the first Viscount Mayo in 1627. Tibbot's life personified the still controversial integration of two cultures. 

Grace O'Malley and her fellow bean ri Queen Elizabeth I died the very same year, in 1603. Though Grace's exact burial location is uncertain, local tradition credits a thirteenth century abbey, built by the O'Malley's off the coast of Galway, as her final resting place. The epitaph dedicated to her inside the Clare Island Abbey reads, Terra Marique Potens O'Maille, which means, O'Malley: Strong on Land and Sea. 

Clare Island Abbey, reputed to be the burial place of Grace O'Malley. Picture shared for public use by Graham Horn on Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Grace lives on in the song and verse of her countrymen, and she boasts many proud descendants. I have been privileged to meet a few of Grace's descendants, who have attended my historical interpretations, kindly sharing their stories with me.

Portraying Grace O'Malley in a reproduction of the Shinrone bog gown. Picture by L. Jensen.

Interestingly, Grace O'Malley also lives on in the verse of more than a few English admirers (Chambers, 53). The most prominent among these admirers was the celebrated Sir Philip Sidney, whom she had met as a young man. Sidney was the son of the former Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney, and he had previously spoken well of Grace to his father before their first meeting (Chambers, 36).


Anthony, C.T. Women Were Pirates, Too. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2006. 


Broderick, Marian. Wild Irish Women: Extraordinary Lives From History. Dublin: O'Brien Press, 

     2002. Print.

Chambers, Anne. Ireland's Pirate Queen: The True Story of Grace O'Malley. New York: MJF Books, 2003. Print.
Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates. 

     New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006. Print.