Pirates and Ireland actually go hand-in-hand more than you might expect. The poorly-guarded coasts of Ireland were attractive places to raiders. It all started with the Vikings, the island’s first “pirate” raiders arriving from the east in search of land, treasure and adventure.
In 1631, pirate boats manned by a ragtag crew of Barbary, Turkish and Dutch sailors invaded the coasts of southwest Ireland, stealing somewhere between 100 and 237 villagers in what is now known as the infamous Sack of Baltimore. Brought to the slave markets of the Mediterranean, only 3 of the stolen villagers ever returned to Irish shores (due to ransom funds).
But Ireland’s unique and fascinating history contains an even more interesting pirate. This is of course the infamous and enigmatic 16th-century Irish pirate queen, Granuaile.
Daughter of the owner of a massive shipping and trading company, the 16th century pirate queen Granuaile (or Grainne Ni Mhaile, often anglicised to Grace O’Malley), grew up surrounded by both water and ships in the rural stretches of western Ireland. She was born in about 1530. For reference’s sake, over in England the monarch was that charming fellow, King Henry VIII, in the wake of the Tudor Conquest of Ireland.
Granuaile’s father was lord of the O Maille / O’Malley clan, owning a string of castles and forts on Mayo’s west coast. Breaking all of the stereotypes, and despite having a half-brother, it was Granuaile who would follow in her father’s footsteps.
Through two subsequent marriages to landowners and family members of important clans (the O’Flaherty’s and the Bourkes), Granuaile increased her wealth in land, castles, trade, ships, and livestock. Marriage to O’Flaherty was considered a “good” match for someone of her status, and with him, she had three children, two boys and a girl. While her daughter was much like her mother, the boys were very different: one kind, and the other cruel and calculating, betraying family to kill his brother.
Granuaile’s childhood home and stronghold as an adult was the castle on Clare Island, today known as Granuaile’s Castle. She later remarried “Iron Richard” Bourke, though before this, she had taken a lover who was killed, causing her to seek the revenge that would later set her on her path to piracy.
Granuaile spent much of her time at sea – her control generally extended from her native Clew Bay in Co Mayo down to Galway Bay. The O’Malley clan was fairly unique in that they earned their livelihoods from both land and sea – both trading in raw materials from their land holdings as well as fishing, transporting and shipping goods as well as levying taxes and dabbling in acts of piracy whenever possible. This was not as unusual as it may sound – “opportunistic piracy” as fairly commonplace in Ireland at the time.
While Irish laws were less rigid and misogynistic than the constrictive English law, the cards were nonetheless stacked against Grace O’Malley. English law at the time would have forced her to give her property to her husband upon marriage.
So, Granuaile being who she was, turned to the sea. Starting off with 3 galley ships as well as numerous smaller vessels, she began levying tolls on passing ships, raiding vessels, coastlines and islands, and plundering any boats in distress or left unattended.
As part of the 16th century Tudor conquest, the English Crown tightened its grip on Ireland, attempting to convert clan-style society to a feudal system. This put pressure on Granuaile and her loyal following to bow to the English crown. After her sons and half brother were kidnapped for ransom, the Pirate Queen set up a meeting between herself and Queen Elizabeth I to petition for their release.
Despite carrying a concealed weapon into court, Queen Elizabeth seemed largely unbothered – even harbouring a grudging respect for her. After all, both “queens” were powerful women navigating a man’s world.
Elizabeth agreed to help her by punishing the perpetrator, and Granuaile agreed to support the Crown instead of the Irish rebellions – though neither women ended up keeping their word. Instead, Grace O’Malley embraced piracy; to her, a kind of ‘tax’ on English ships sailing into Galway.
She attacked and plundered ships and coastal areas near and far – all the way to Waterford on Ireland’s southeast coast and east of Ireland to the outlying Scottish isles. Legend has it that she even attacked the MacMahon stronghold, Doona Castle, as revenge for the death of her lover.
The Pirate Queen carried on like this until her death in 1603 but Granuaile’s legendary feats live on, having inspired or featured in countless songs, theatrical productions, books and stories.