Grace O’Malley: 10 fascinating facts about Ireland’s fearless Pirate Queen

Anyone familiar with the fishing village of Howth on the north side of Dublin will know something about the legend of Grace O’Malley. With roads and parks commemorating her, it is a name that frequently appears in the area.

The historical story behind Grace O’Malley is a powerful one. Pirate Queen, a brave crusader and original feminist hero, Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley in Gaelic), sneered in the face of tradition and took to the seas where her fierce nature defied the unforgiving depths of the Atlantic.

Here are 10 interesting facts about the 16th-century swashbuckling Irish woman you might not already know.

10. Grace did not speak English

The O’Malley family were direct descendants of the Umaill Kingdom, now known as County Mayo in the west of Ireland. The men were sea-faring chieftains (tribe leaders), one of which was Eoghan Dubhdara (Black Oak) O’Malley, who later fathered one daughter, Grace.

These fierce pirate clans dominated the sea and viciously taxed anyone who tried to trade on their patch. They spoke only Gaelic and refused to ever speak English, a tradition held to this day in the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland. When Grace O’Malley later met Queen Elizabeth I in 1593 they had to converse in Latin.

9. She cut her own hair in a childhood tantrum

With her wild Celtic father causing havoc on the sea, Grace was desperate to join him and his pirate crew but was told it was not the right place for a girl. She was warned that her long flowing locks would get caught in the ropes so, in an act of pure defiance, she shaved her hair off to look more like a boy.

Perhaps impressed by her determination, her father gave in and took her on board to Spain. From that day she was known as Grainne Mhaol (Grace Bald). It was the first step in a long career of trading and shipping.

8. ‘A leader of fighting men’

Despite being told on more than one occasion that she was by no means suitable for a life on the briny sea, Grace O’Malley defied all odds and became one of the most ruthless pirates of her time. 

In 1623, 20 years after her death, Grace O’Malley was recognised as a “leader of fighting men” by the British Lord Deputy of Ireland. Her fight for equality had finally paid off and to this day she remains a heroic figure on the Emerald Isle.

7. The ultimate working mother

By the age of 23, Grace O’Malley was a widow with three children. But she did not let tragedy hold her back. She took on her late husband’s castle and a fleet of ships before returning to Co. Mayo with a strong crew. 

 She re-married a few years later with the sole purpose of inheriting another castle. She gave birth to her fourth child on board one of her fighting ships but returned to deck wrapped in a blanket to lead her fleet into battle just an hour later. Needless to say, they won!

6. With a razor-sharp tongue

In true ‘Irish Mammy’ style, Grace O’Malley wasn’t one to hold back when the mood took her. She was often heard telling her children off with language that left little to the imagination.

One tale about the legendary Irish woman describes her addressing her fourth son Tíoboíd when she felt he wasn’t pulling his weight during a battle. “An ag iarraidh dul i bhfolach ar mo thóin atá tú, an áit a dtáinig tú as?” she was heard yelling. Translated into English as, “are you trying to hide in my arse, the place that you came out of?” Charming!

5. Grace refused to bow when she met Queen Elizabeth

In 1593 Grace finally met Queen Elizabeth I but despite the expectation for her to display a certain amount of respect for the monarch, the swashbuckling heroine refused to bow. Not only was she not the Queen’s subject, but she was also a Queen herself and therefore firmly believed them equals. 

Their meeting concluded with Queen Elizabeth I agreeing to release Grace O’Malley’s two sons in return for the Pirate Queen to end all attacks on English sea-traders.

4. She carried a weapon to the castle

The feisty Pirate Queen was also reported to have hidden a dagger on her person before arriving to address the Queen of England. It was found by the royal guards and confiscated before the meeting.

3. Grace lived into her 70s

Clew Bay near Rockfleet Castle

Grace O’Malley lived a life full of adventure and danger upon the high seas. She fought battles with men and gave birth to four children. She survived numerous battles and unforgiving storms.

But despite all this, she stood strong in the face of adversity and lived to the ripe old age of around 73. She spent her final days at Rockfleet Castle, Co. Mayo and died of natural causes. Legend has it that her head was later buried at Clare Island, her childhood home off the coast. It has been suggested that her ghostly body sets sail from Rockfleet every night in search of its head.

2. Dinner place still set at Howth castle

Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley, spent much of her life at sea but often docked in the fishing village of Howth, Co. Dublin, to restock supplies for her crew. One such recorded visits say that she approached Howth Castle in search of welcome but was refused entry as the Lord was having his dinner and did not wish to receive guests.

Furious at being so blatantly rejected, Grace O’Malley kidnapped the heir of Howth and refused to release him until it was agreed the castle would always be prepared to receive her for dinner. There is a place set for Grace O’Malley every night at Howth Castle to this day.

1. Her bronze statue stands in Westport House

O’Malley descendants crafted a bronze statue of their Pirate Queen and it stands in Westport House, Co. Mayo. An exhibition of Grace O’Malley’s fascinating life can also be found here.

The quality camping facilities and Pirate Adventure Park makes a trip to Westport House the perfect place for family fun and historical discoveries for all ages.