Disparaged by her English enemies and largely overlooked by the chroniclers of her time she may have been, yet the famous Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley (Granuaile), latterly mistress of Rockfleet Castle (Carraigahowley Castle), was and has remained a pivotal character in Irish folklore.
Nationalists later glorified Grace O’Malley as a fierce and uncompromising warrior who came over the Irish Sea to trounce the English. Ultimately, Granuaile has become ingrained in mythology as a conflicting figure – a pirate queen and feminist far ahead of her time, a victim of misogyny and the person who put Rockfleet Castle or Carraigahowley Castle firmly on the map.
Although Grace has been the heroine in countless folk songs, poems and novels and the subject of much academic research, it remains a fact that while her name is well known in Ireland and beyond, the real Grace remains elusive, shrouded by her own status as a legend.
What we do know beyond doubt, though, is that she was an astonishing woman who lived through turbulent times and survived unscathed. She witnessed at first hand the downfall of the established Gaelic order and the subsequent crumbling and death of Ireland’s governing elite.
Grace was a woman with many strings to her bow: seafarer, pirate, chieftain and trader. She was born in County Mayo in 1530, the daughter of Owen O’Malley, a famed sea captain. As a child, Grace already felt her destiny was to live a sea-going life. This, however, however, made her the subject of ridicule from her family, who firmly believed the sea was no place for a female.
Distraught after her father excluded her from a sailing excursion, legend tells that Grace cropped her long hair short and garbed herself in boys’ clothes in an effort to demonstrate to her family that she was hardy enough to live the life of a sea-farer. Her brother and father, much amused by her exploits, bestowed upon her the nickname ‘Grainne Mhaol’ (‘Bald Grace’). Refusing to take no for an answer, Grace eventually wore her father down, and he allowed her to accompany him to sea.
As a youngster, Grace became accustomed to sailing with her father on long overseas trading runs. On one occasion as they were sailing home from Spain, they were assailed by an English ship. Grace had been given strict instructions to take refuge below deck in the event of an attack – instructions that she ignored. On the contrary, she climbed the rigging to get a good vantage point, and then threw herself upon the back of a pirate who was about to attack her father, causing a distraction sufficient to ensure that the O’Malleys were ultimately victorious.
As Grace grew, she became an ever more assured sailor, and eventually captained her own fleet. Although her family fortune had been accrued via trading and fishing, she later branched out into piracy, taking on rival Turkish and Spanish pirates as well as fleets of English craft.
Grace’s reputation as an intrepid and bold leader increased as she aged. Legend tells that Grace went into labour while on the high seas. The next day, her ship came under attack by pirates. Although still weak from the birth, Grace quickly armed herself and joined her crew on deck, helping them to successfully repel the marauding pirates.
Grace married the first of her two husbands – Donal O’Flaherty – when she was around sixteen years old. This was probably an arranged marriage, as was customary in those days between important families. The O’Flaherty family were an established seafaring clan, so Grace was in good company. Grace honed her craft with help from Donal during their marriage and was soon controlling the entire O’Flaherty flotilla. Unusual and notable as it was for a woman to command men, Grace, because of her bravery, extensive sailing knowledge and astuteness in all matters of the sea, soon earned the respect of all who worked for her. Donal is said to have had a fearsome temper when riled, and he died in the nineteenth year of their marriage at the hands of a rival crew member.
Under the law of the time, Grace would have been entitled to a share of Donal’s estate once she was widowed. However, for reasons unknown, the O’Flaherty family did not acknowledge this custom, and Grace had to rely on them for support. This, unsurprisingly, displeased her intensely, and it wasn’t long before she decided to leave and make her own way. She utilised the skills she had learnt both from her father and from Donal to make enough money so that she could completely distance herself from the O’Flahertys. She moved back to live with her family, followed by a group of her most loyal supporters. Grace was now recognised in her own right as an influential Chieftain and heir to the not inconsiderable fortunes of the O’Malleys.
In another politically motivated marriage, Grace then got married for a second time to Richard Burke, a key member of the influential west-coast Burke clan. Following the untimely passing of Donal, Grace had grown and extended her territory to include a number of islands and no fewer than five castles in the Clew Bay area, but recognised that she needed to add Rockfleet Castle, located at the north-east end of the bay, to her growing portfolio in order to realise her plan to control the whole region.
Legend tells that Grace turned up at the castle uninvited, introduced herself to Richard and suggested that they marry and remain married for a year. She sold the idea to him by pointing out that such a union would help the two clans to join forces against the English, who were at that time slowly but surely taking over that part of Ireland. The story goes that after they had been married for precisely one year, Grace gave Ricard to option to exit the marriage. He declined to do so, as he had fallen in love with his feisty bride, and their marriage endured until his death many years later.
Grace had four children in total. With Donal she had a girl, Margaret, and two boys, Murrough and Owen. With Richard she had a third son, Theobald (or Tibbet for short).
Grace lived through a period when the English had been gradually claiming more and more Irish territory. In return for handing over (often under duress) their land to the English, Irish clan leaders would receive in return an English title. While some Chieftains capitulated, many others rebelled, including Grace. She clung on to her precious independence for longer than many of her contemporaries, but eventually the relentless pressure from the English forces started to wear her down.
When she was fifty-six, Grace was detained and imprisoned and sentenced to death by Sir Richard Bingham, a merciless Governor. Heroic as ever, Grace refused to be cowed even by the prospect of imminent death, and held her head high as her execution approached. At the very last minute, her life was spared when her son-in-law put himself forward as a hostage in her place, asking only that Grace would vow to end her rebellious actions. Bingham did release Grace, but was unwavering in his plan to make her pay for her formerly mutinous stance. Over the years, Bingham committed many heinous acts against Grace, including pushing her into poverty and plotting to have her eldest son killed.
During this period, the famous Spanish Armada was in the process of battling the English along the coastlines of both Scotland and Ireland. Although her motives are not clear, it is known that around the year 1588 Grace was responsible for the deaths of many hundreds of Spanish crew from the vessel Don Pedro de Mendoza off the coast of Clare Island. Though she was now in her late fifties, it is clear that Grace had lost none of her inimitable spirit.
By the beginning of the 1590s, Grace living in very straitened circumstances as a result of Bingham’s grudge against her. Rumours were reaching him that a large-scale rebellion was on the cards, and Bingham was worried that Grace was planning to assist the insurgents, dubbing her a ‘traitoress’.
Grace had repeatedly petitioned the queen asking for justice, but her letters were ignored. In the year 1593, the capture of her brother and son compelled her travel to London and ask the queen in person for their release. She also planned to ask Elizabeth to help her reclaim her fortune and her land. After a journey fraught with danger, Grace arrived in London and, surprisingly, the queen agreed to meet her. Perhaps even more surprisingly, Elizabeth agreed to return Grace’s inheritance and release her family members. In return, the queen asked only Grace would use her position to help to defend her by both sea and land. While Bingham did eventually free her son and brother, she never did get her fortune back.
One incident from the momentous meeting between Elizabeth and Grace has passed into folklore. The story goes that during the course of their conversation, Grace sneezed. One of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting passed her a beautiful lace handkerchief. Grace accepted it, loudly blew her nose into it and promptly discarded it by throwing it on to the fire. The Queen rebuked her, telling her that she should have put the handkerchief away in her pocket after she had used it. Grace responded feistily, saying that Irish people had very high standards and would never dream of keeping a dirty item on their person. Following this declaration, the court held its collective breath, fearing the wrath of the queen, who had a deserved reputation for having those who displeased her summarily executed. After a loaded silence, and to the relief of all present, the queen roared with laughter.
Grace was famed throughout the land as an intrepid leader and ferocious fighter. In her seventy years on earth, she and her clan witnessed the English gradually taking over their beloved Ireland, but largely because of her intractable determination, those closest to her remained relatively unaffected. It is often said that, following her death in the year 1603, no other chieftain had the wherewithal to defend the ancient Gaelic way of life as she has done so successfully.
Today, Rockfleet Castle (also known as Carraigahowley Castle or in the Gaelic Carraig an Chabhlaigh) is still an impressive local landmark. Located close to Newport in County Mayo, and in an ideal position to keep watch over the bay, it was constructed in the mid-1500s and is still closely associated with the legend of Grace.
This medieval square tower house stands at over 18 metres in height and is built over four floors. The two middle floors are constructed from wood, and the top floor boasts stone flags and a beautiful vaulted ceiling. The second floor is accessed via a ladder and the top floor via a narrow stone spiral stairway.
There are several small chambers set into the substantial walls of the castle. These may have been used as sleeping quarters by guards and other key personnel. The top floor is visually stunning, with a large fireplace and extensive walls that would have been covered in tapestries in Grace’s day.
Grace lived in Rockfleet from 1566 with her second husband Richard, and it was here she moored her impressive fleet. After Richard died, she stayed on at the castle, and she is buried on Clare Island, just across the water.
After the Civil War, Rockfleet Castle (Carraigahowley Castle) was taken on by a descendent of Grace O’Malley, the diplomat Sir Owen O’Malley. He restored the castle to its former glory but did not live there, instead choosing to reside in a Georgian house nearby. More recently, the castle once ruled over by the Pirate Queen Granuaile was bought by an American Diplomat.
The Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley, mistress of Rockfleet Castle (Carraigahowley Castle), was a truly fascinating and enigmatic figure. It could be argued that she bridged the huge gap between the traditional Gaelic lifestyle that she cherished and the hated new order that was forced upon Ireland by the Elizabethans. Her own son was given an English title, Viscount Mayo, which well illustrates the transition to a whole new way of life that took place in Ireland at this time. Though many of the exploits of Granuaile have become veiled in the mists of time, it is certain that the name of this larger-than-life character will live on forever.