Grace O'Malley

O’Malley, Grace, or Grania Uaile, a Connaught princess, who flourished in the 16th century. Her father, Owen O’Malley, was a noted leader of piratical expeditions, and she appears to have followed in his footsteps.

Her larger vessels were generally moored off Clare Island, where her chief stronghold was situated, whilst her smaller craft were kept at Carrigahowly Castle, in Newport Bay.

Rewards were from time to time set upon her head by the Government.

She was first married to Donald O’Flaherty, a chief who owned the extensive fortress of Bunowen; and secondly, to Sir Richard Bourke, chief of the Mayo sept of that name.

Viceroy Sydney writes concerning his visit to Galway in 1576:

“There came to me a most famous feminine sea captain, called Grany I-Mallye, and offered her service unto me wheresoever I would command her, with three galleys and 200 fighting men, either in Ireland or Scotland. She brought with me her husband, for she was, as well by sea as by land, more than master’s mate with him. He was of the nether Bourkes, and now, as I hear, MacWilliam Euter, and called by nickname ‘Richard’ in Irish. This was a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.”

In 1577, while engaged on a piratical expedition to Kerry, she was taken prisoner by the Earl of Desmond.

The Lord-Justice wrote from Leighlin in 1578:

“To that place was brought unto me Grane-ny-Maille, a woman of the province of Connaught, governing a country of the O’Flahertys, famous for her stoutness of courage and person, and for sundry exploits done by her at sea. She was taken by the Earl of Desmond a year and a half ago, and has remayned ever since partly with him, and partly in her Majesty’s gaol in Limerick; and was sent for now by me to come to Dublyn, where she is yet remayning.”

Obtaining her release, she returned home; but her depredations again became so intolerable to the merchants of the west that in March 1579 an expedition was sent from Galway against her castle of Carrigahowly, which, after hostilities lasting over twelve days, proved an ignominious failure.

After the death of her second husband [See BOURKE, RICHARD], “she gathered together all her own followers, and with 1,000 head of cows and wares departed and became a dweller in Borosowle, parcel of the Erie of Ormond’s lands.”

She and her sons were constantly at war with their neighbours. Sir Richard Bingham, Governor of Connaught, writing about the year 1590, says she was “a notable traitress, and has been nurse of all the rebellions in the province for forty years.”

Nevertheless we find her in 1593 embarking in one of her own galleys, and visiting Queen Elizabeth at Westminster, or, as one writer says, “giving Queen Elizabeth an opportunity of being introduced to her.”

She was pardoned by Elizabeth, and, in the words of a memorial afterwards presented to the Queen promised “ever to remayne in all obedience and allegiance, and to the uttermost of her power resist all remnants of rebellious enemyes, and pray continually for your Majesty’s long life and prosperous reign. … Ever thence she dwelleth in Connaught, a farmer’s life, verie poore, bearing cess, and paying her Majesty’s composition rent. Utterly did she give over her former thrade of maintenance by sea and land.”

Yet on her return from England she is said to have carried off the heir of the St. Lawrence family from Howth Castle, because of not having been hospitably entertained there.

Furthermore, in July 1601, a sloop of war cruising off the west of Ireland fell in with a large piratical sailing galley, reputed to belong to Grace O’Malley, and commanded by her son. It was described as powerful for offence or defence, rowed with thirty oars, and defended by 100 musketeers. The vessel was not captured until after a severe struggle.

Grace O’Malley is said to have been buried within the precincts of a religious establishment on Clare Island, which she had endowed.

All we are told of her personal appearance is that she was “a dark lady, tall and commanding.”

Lord Mayo is said to be lineally descended from her.


116. Dublin University Magazine (55). Dublin, 1833–’77.

54. Burke, Sir Bernard: Peerage and Baronetage.

56. Burke, Sir Bernard: Romance of the Aristocracy. 3 vols. London, 1855.

330. United Irishmen, their Lives and Times: Third Series: Robert R. Madden, M.D. 3 vols. Dublin, 1846.