Pirate, chieftain, gambler, noblewoman, traitor, mercenary, all are terms that have been applied to Granuaile, none without some justification. She was born as the English king Henry VIII implemented his "surrender and re-grant" policy over Ireland and died as Hugh O'Neill and Hugh O'Donnell were defeated and with them the last hopes of an Ireland free from England. That she lived to be over seventy in that turbulent period that ended an era is a tribute to the strength of character and reason she must have possessed.
Granuaile (Grace O'Malley) is thought to have been born in 1530, with one illegitimate step-brother Donal-na-Piopa (of the pipes), to Owen 'Dubhdarra' (Black Oak) O'Malley who by the Brehon system was the elected chieftain of Umhall Uachtarach (Barony of Murrisk). The O'Malleys had been known for their sailing prowess since 1123 and traded regularly with Scotland and Spain in their galleys and three masted caravels.
There is a story told as to how she got one of her nicknames: Grainne Mhaol (i.e. Bald). As a young girl she begged her father to allow her to travel on one of their ships setting sail for Spain. Her mother rebuked her saying that the life of the sea was not for a young lady. She left them and promptly returned with her long hair cut short like a boy. Her family was greatly amused and gave her that nickname. From her later exploits one would assume she did take that ship to Spain.
About 1546 she was married to Donal O'Flaherty. Being tainist to The O'Flaherty (i.e. next in line to be head of the clan and chief of all Iar Connacht) and being in possession of the castles of Bunowen and Ballinahinch he was a good match. He was known as Donal-an-Chogaidh (Donal of the Battles) for his for his truculent disposition. In 1549 he was implicated in the murder of his step-nephew Walter Fada Burke who was a likely obstacle for the son of his sister, Finola O'Flaherty, in attaining The MacWilliamship.
During her marriage Grainne bore three children Owen, Murrough and Margaret. Over the course of time she gradually eclipsed her husband, actively engaging in politics, intrigue, tribal disputes, fishing and trading. The city of Galway, one of the largest trade centres in the British Isles, had closed its gates to the O'Flaherties and so they had to trade themselves with Munster, Ulster, Scotland, Spain and Portugal. To the further annoyance of Galway Corporation she would swoop out in her fast galleys and waylay the slower merchants. She would negotiate with the ship's captain for a suitable price for safe passage or give leave to her men to pillage and plunder.
During the 1560s Murrough na dTuadh O'Flaherty (Murrough of the Battleaxes), a young chief, was making his presence felt. In 1564 the Earl of Clanrickard was forced to fight him just outside Galway and was resoundly defeated. This was too much to be overlooked but the English were short of funds as ever. In return for his submission and promise to 'Observe the Queen's peace' he was pardoned and made the chief of all of Iar-Connacht, in effect making him The O'Flaherty and thus ousting the current one and the tainist, Grainne's husband.
Donal is said to have died in a revenge attack by the Joyces for his capture of the island castle of Caislean-an-Circa. During that fight he earned the name of Donal-an-Cullagh (the Cock) for the great courage he displayed defending it. The Joyce victory was premature though. Grainne herself fought on and defeated them. She earned the name 'the Hen' and the castle was henceforth called Hen's castle.
Another tale is told of her being besieged in Hen's castle by a force from Galway. Conditions had badly deteriorated under the tight siege but Grainne was determined not to surrender. The castle's roof was made of lead and on her orders it was stripped and melted down. The following bombardment drove the English back to the mainland to carry out the siege from there. After dark she sent someone through a secret passage to the mainland and lit a series of beacons she had set up. Her fleet put to sea, overcame the English and lifted the siege.
By Brehon law a widow of a chieftain was entitled to one third her husband's estates but this was seldom actually paid (much like alimony today). With her two sons grown and trying to secure their own place she returned to O'Malley territory with 200 followers, many of whom had been her husband's. She set up on Clare Island in Clew Bay. In this ideal setting she could monitor virtually all the ship traffic going along the coast. Between piracy, charging for safe passage and providing pilots she did very well for herself and her followers.
According to legend Grainne and her forces were on pilgrimage at a holy well on Clare island on St. Brigid's day. News was brought that a ship had foundered near Achill. Her ships set sail into the gale but upon reaching the place it was found the ship had broken up. From the rocks was recovered a young man, nearly dead, said to be called Hugh de Lacy and of Nordic origin. She nursed him back to health and the two fell in love. Sadly he was killed shortly thereafter by the MacMahons of Ballycroy while deer hunting. Grace wasted no time and found them after the killing on a pilgrimage to the island of Cahir. She destroyed their boats and personally slew those responsible for Hugh's death. Still not satisfied she sailed back to their castle of Doona in Blacksod bay, routed its inhabitants and installed her followers there. It is though that her title of 'The Dark Lady of Doona' originates from this.
The only portion of Clew bay not in O'Malley hands was governed by the castle of Rockfleet (Carraig-an-Cabhlaigh). So around 1566 she married Richard-an-Iarainn, Iron Dick Burke. Curiously enough he was the son of her first husband's sister who he had committed murder for. Traditionally she had married Richard for 'one year certain', i.e. either party could terminate the marriage after one year. Marriage under the Brehon system was a contract for the mutual benefit of the participants. Divorce was simple and uncomplicated for both partners and more like a business transaction. It is said that after a year Grainne had thoroughly installed herself in Rockfleet and when Richard returned from one of his war missions she called down from the ramparts 'I dismiss you' and thus divorced him.
She had one son in 1567, called Tibbot-na-Long or Theobald of the Ships. Traditionally he was born on the high seas while Grainne was returning from a trading mission. The day after the birth they were attacked by Turkish pirates. The captain informed her that the battle was going against them. 'May you be seven times worse this day twelve months, who cannot do without me for one day' she said and stormed on deck discharging a blunderbuss at the Turks saying 'Take this from unconsecrated hands!'. They captured the ship, dispatched its crew and added it to their fleet.
Her maritime time activities became so great that on 8 March, 1574 Captain William Martin lead a force of ships and troops and laid siege to Grainne in Rockfleet castle. She rallied her defences and on the 26th turned the siege into an attack. Captain Martain was forced to beat a hasty retreat, and at the age of 44 the victory no doubt could only enhance her reputation.
But times were changing. Many Irish chieftains had submitted to the English throne. In March 1576 The O'Malley (her father had by this time died) was summoned and gave his submission in Galway to Sir Henry Sidney. He kept his promises and in the next year did not join in the rebellion. It was sometime in 1577 that Grainne herself, unasked, presented herself to Sidney and submitted. He wrote:
In Ireland at the time survival was the rule of the day. If to give a promise of good behaviour to the English was what was necessary it is not surprising that that was done. Her husband, according to Brehon law, was next in line for The MacWilliamship but the present one had submitted and agreed to enforce English law, including that of primogeniture. Establishing good relations was all the more important to secure her husband's future.
Sir Philip Sidney had accompanied Sir Henry and apparently was quite taken with Grainne and spoke at length with her. He corresponded at length about her but most had been lost. One story does relate how Sir Henry had asked her to conduct him and his entourage around the bay to view the city's harbour and defences. She did agree, but being a business woman, demanded and was given payment.
Another traditional tale says that when returning from England she stopped to restock in Howth, the main port for Dublin at the time. She went directly to the Lord of Howth seeking hospitality as was the Gaelic custom. The gates of the castle were locked before her and the servants would not let her in as the Lord was at dinner and was not to be disturbed. Furious at this breach of hospitality she came upon the heir of Howth and seized him on the way back to the ship. The Lord of Howth travelled to Connaught to bargain for the return of his son for any ransom. Grainne scorned the offer of ransom and demanded in return that his gates never be closed against anyone asking hospitality and that an extra place always be set at table. This practice is still followed to this day in Howth castle.
Grainne was no stranger to danger and prized courage and valor. Her contempt for cowardice is told in one tale of when she was fighting the Stauntons of Kinturk castle. Apparently in the midst of battle her son Tibbot faltered and drew back to shelter behind his mother. 'An ag iarraidh dul i bhfolach ar mo tho'in' ('Is is trying to hide behind my backside you are -- the place you came from?') she asked. Thus mortified he stood his ground and the Stauntons eventually surrendered. Each family in the region was levied a barrel of meal, a pig and an ox.
In 1577 while raiding the Earl of Desmond she was captured for the first time. She was handed over to the President of Munster, the Lord Justice Drury who wrote
Later she was transferred to the dungeons of Dublin castle, demonstrating her importance as a prisoner. Very few thus incarcerated live long but by whatever means Grainne was set free to return to Connaught with a promise of good behaviour.
On the 24th of November 1580 The MacWilliam died. After a brief scuffle and negotiations Richard-an-Iarainn was installed and was later knighted in 1581. This put Grainne into a new role of power and amongst the other wives at one gathering she was singled out "among them Grany O'Malley is one and thinketh herself to be no small lady".
But on 30th of April, 1583, Richard died, surprisingly of natural causes. Grainne wasted no time and 'gathered together all her own followers and with 1,000 head of cows and mares departed and became a dweller in Carrikahowley in Borosowle'. Having been cheated of her right to one-third her first husband's estate she established her claim simply by taking it.
Sir Nicholas Malby, Governor of Connaught, died on 3rd March 1584. He was replaced by Sir Richard Bingham who was all but dedicated to the eradication of the Gaelic way of life by force. The main conflict was how succession was governed. In the Brehon laws the highest ranks of the clan elected a tainist who would succeed the chieftain upon his death. English law, in theory, was strictly from father to son. In practice the English government parcelled the land out as they saw fit and Bingham saw fit to remove the whole idea of clan and chieftain with English feudalism.
It was in such a post-succession scuffle in 1586 that Bingham managed to capture her and she was apprehended and tied with a rope, both she and her followers at that instant were spoiled of their said cattle and of all that ever they had besides the same, and brought to Sir Richard who caused a new pair of gallows to be made for her last funeral where she thought to end her days
Giving over her son-in-law, 'Devil's Hook' she was allowed to go but Bingham had taken over 1,000 cattle and horses which were her livelihood. She, herself, gives an account of the brutal treatment he enforced upon her son
For the next several years one rebellion followed another. The MacWilliamship was abolished, reinstated in rebellion and abolished again. The O'Malley fleet was instrumental here as a fast transport of troops. She was a sufficient force to move Bingham to describe her as 'a notable traitoress and nurse to all rebellions in the Province for 40 years'.
Even her son, Murrough O'Flaherty sided with Bingham against her at one point. Bingham relates how thus infuriated
Having destroyed her livelihood on land Bingham sought to suppress her ability to live by the sea. It is probably this that moved Grainne into a more political arena. In July 1593 she petitioned the Queen:
In this very opening she justifies her actions and hints of the Queen's inability to keep order in the province. A bold way to start a letter asking for the pardon for her two sons and 'in tender consideration whereof and in regard of her great age, she most humbly beseeches your majesty of your princely bounty and liberality to grant her some reasonable maintenance for the little time she has to live.' Notwithstanding her 'great age' she then asks
Clearly a clever bid to get around the restrictions on her activity imposed by Bingham.
The Queen responded by sending 18 'Articles of Interrogatory', a list of questions to be answered by her. These questions and her answers are preserved in the English State Papers and provide a very clear picture of how Grainne saw herself and the circumstances she was in.
Before there could be any reply from the Queen, Bingham arrested both her son and her brother. During late July, 1593, she herself sailed to London to petition the Queen. This was a very daring move. Few Irish chieftains would risk setting foot on English soil, especially those with as chequered reputations as Granuaile.
There is no record of what her reactions to the English were or of them to her. One can image few places as different as the grey tower of Rockfleet by the north Atlantic and colour and splendour of the Elizabethan court. Chambers describes the differences as
Upon hearing the Grainne had gone to court Bingham had sent a letter denoucing her again as a 'notable traitour'. There is no doubt that Grainne excelled herself in her meeting with Elizabeth. Shortly after the meeting, on the 6th of September 1593 the Queen wrote to Bingham:
A full success on all points. And most notably without the usual sureties or pledges extracted from petitioners.
Bingham first sought to get around these orders through inaction but evidently Grainne threatened and he relates in a letter to Lord Burghley on the 24th of November, 'I have enlarged Grany O'Malley, her son Tibbot and brother Donell na Pipee, upon such slender sureties as they gave us, the woman urging it some importunely swering that she would elles repair presently to England.'
Grainne put to sea again under the guise of continuing the Queen's 'quarrel with all the world'. Her son and brother were released. Bingham, having fought her so hard for many years, did not want to see her return to her old ways. Contrary to the laws of the Composition he forced her to billet an oppressive number of soldiers and ordered Captain Strittas and a company of soldiers to accompany her on all sea voyages.
This and whatever other hardships he subjected her to finally caused her to flee to Munster in late 1594 or early 1595 where she stayed with an old acquaintance Thomas, Earl of Ormond. Having some influence at court he lent his weight to another petition. There is no recorded reply to either that or a later petition. Eventually she returned to Rockfleet.
The O'Neill and The O'Donnell were engaged in active war with the crown during the last half of the decade. Survival was at a premium and raiding was commonplace. The Dean of Limerick reported 'MacNeil of Barra and Grany ny Mallye invaded one another's possessions though far distant'.
Her son Tibbot was the main force amongst her relations and fought on the side of the new English governor of Connaught, Sir Conyers Clifford. They proved themselves well and he that he had 'given him (Tibbot), his mother and brother amongst them in money and other necessaries, 200' for their valuable services by sea.
In late 1598 there was a substantial English defeat and Grainne's own lands were overrun. In 1600 O'Neill and O'Donnell had Connaught and nearly the entire of Munster in their hands and help from Spain seemed imminent. The turning point came in May when Henry Docwra landed on the Foyle with 4000 troops being O'Neill lines. Mountjoy and Carew attacked Ulster and Munster, destroying everything in their path.
There is only one more recorded account of Granuaile, that of an English patrol overcoming one of her galleys on its way to plunder the McSweeneys. It is thought she died in Rockfleet castle about the year 1603 and possible lived just long enough to hear of the defeat of her one time friends O'Neill and O'Donnell at the battle of Kinsale.
She had seen in her life the end of the Gaelic order and Brehon system of laws. In learning to survive in the changing times of Chieftains and Earls she had played many cards. It is told that she was fond of gambling and risk taking. Her life would seem to support this. It is sad to note that the records we have of her are almost exclusively from the English State Papers. She does not appear in the Annals of Ireland whether through being eclipsed by the many other notable events of her time or through a disregard for her sex it is uncertain. But with the legendary precedent of Maeve, Queen of Connaught, one wonders how many other women leaders of Ireland have also been overlooked.
There stands a tower by the Atlantic side
A grey old tower, by storm and sea-waves beat
Perch'd on a cliff, beneath it yawneth wide
A lofty cavern of yore a fit retreat
For pirates galleys; altho', now, you'll meet
Nought but the seal and wild gull; from that cave
A hundred steps do upwards lead your feet
Unto a lonely chamber! -- Bold and brave
Is he who climbs that stair, all slippery from the wave.
I sat there on an evening. In the west,
Amid the waters, sank the setting sun:
While clouds, like parting friends, about him prest,
Clad in their fleecy garbs, of gold and dun;
And silence was around me -- save the hum,
Of the lone and wild bee, or the curlew's cry.
An lo! upon me did a vision come,
Of her who built that tower, in days gone by;
And in that dream, behold! I saw a building high.
A stately hull -- lofty and carved the roof --
Was deck'd with silken banners fair to see.
The hanging velvet, from Genou's woof,
And wrought with Tudor roses curiously;
At its far end did stand a canopy,
Shading a chair of state, on which was seen
A ladye fair, with look of majesty,
Amid a throng, 'yclad in costly sheen --
Nobles and gallant Knights proclaim her England's Queen.
The sage Elizabeth; and by her side
Were group'd her counsellors, with calm, grave air,
Burleigh and Walsingham, with others, tried
In wisdom and in war, and sparkling there,
Like Summer butterflies, were damsels fair,
Beautiful and young: behind a trusty band
Of stalwart yeomanry, with watchful care,
The portal guard, while nigher to it stand
Usher and page, ready to ape with willing hand.
A Tucket sounds, and lo! there enters now
A strange group, in saffron tunics drest:
A female at their head, whose step and brow
Herald her rank, and calm and self possest,
Onward she came, alone through England's best,
With careless look, and bearing free yet high,
Tho' gentle dames their titterings scarce represt,
Noting her garments as she passed them by;
None laughed again who met that stern and flashing eye.
Restless and dark, its sharp and rapid look
Showed a fierce spirit, prone a wrong to feel,
And quicker to revenge it. As a book,
That sun-burnt brow did fearless thoughts reveal;
And in her girdle was a skeyne of steel;
Her crimson mantle, a gold brooch did bind;
Her flowing garments reached unto her heel;
Her hair-part fell in tresses unconfined,
And part, a silver bodkin did fasten up behind.
'Twas not her garb that caught the gazer's eye --
Tho' strange, 'twas rich, and, after its fashion, good --
But the wild grandeur of her mien-erect and high.
Before the English Queen she dauntless stood,
And none her bearing there could scorn as rude;
She seemed as one well used to power -- one that hath
Dominion over men of savage mood,
And dared the tempest in its midnight wrath,
And thro' opposing billows cleft her fearless path.
And courteous greeting Elizabeth them pays,
And bids her welcome to her English land
And humble hall. Each looked with curious gaze
Upon the other's face, and felt they stand
Before a spirit like their own. Her hand
The stranger raised -- and pointing where all pale,
Thro' the high casement, cam the sunlight bland,
Gliding the scene and group with rich avail;
Thus, to the English Sov'reigh, spoke proud "Grana Wale".
Queen of the Saxons! from the distant west
I come; from Achill steep and Island Clare,
Where the wild eagle builds 'mid clouds, his nest,
And Ocean flings its billows in the air.
I come to greet you in your dwelling fair.
Led by your fame -- lone sitting in my cave.
In sea -- beat Doona -- it hath reached me there,
Theme of the minstrel's song; and then I gave
My galley to the wind, and crossed the dark green wave.
"Health to thee, ladye! -- let your answer be
Health to our Irish land; for evil men
Do vex her sorely, and have buklar'd thee
Abettor of their deeds; lyeing train,
That cheat their mistress for the love of gain,
And wrong their trust-aught else I little reck,
Alike to me, the mountain and the glen --
The castle's rampart of the galley's deck;
But thou my country spare -- your foot is on her neck.
Thus brief and bold, outspake that ladye stern,
And all stood silent thro' that crowded hall;
While proudly glared each proud and manly kern
Attendant on their mistress. Then courtly all
Elizabeth replies, and soothing fall
Her words, and pleasing to the Irish ear --
Fair promises -- that she would soon recall
Her evil servants. Were these words sincere?
That promise kept? Let Erin answer with a tear!