Celtic and Irish Art

WordPress Writing 101 Prompt #6: “Meeting” Grace O’Malley, badass Irish pirate lady

Today’s prompt is to write about an interesting person that I have met. I have decided to expand my definition of the word “met” to include not just people I have literally met, but also anyone living or dead whose story I have become aware of and learned about. So, I have chosen someone who lived and died several hundred years ago, but whose story I have recently read in several different places and found fascinating.

Grace O’Malley (c. 1530-c. 1603), also known as Granuaile or Gráinne Ní Mháille in her native language, was a powerful Gaelic Irish chieftain and pirate, often referred to as the Sea Queen of Connacht after the area of Ireland from which she came. Grace hailed from a sea-faring family in County Clare that seems to have been very comfortable straddling the line between legitimate enterprises and piracy, and by all accounts, Grace began learning the family business at a young age. Both her father and her first husband were Gaelic chieftains, and her mother owned a large quantity of inherited family land, so under Gaelic social tradition, Grace stood to inherit a great deal. However, that didn’t stop her from seeking her own independent status and fortune by maintaining and commanding a fleet of ships that she used for piracy and for doing battle with her foes both Irish and English. She most frequently set herself against the forces of the crown (Queen Elizabeth I), as the English were at this time constantly trying to assert control over Ireland and squash the power of the traditional Gaelic social structure that benefitted Grace so greatly. Her exploits have become legendary in the histories of Ireland, piracy, and kick-ass women alike. She is probably most famous for her face-to-face meeting with Queen Elizabeth I, entirely conducted in Latin, in which Grace asserted herself as Elizabeth’s equal and convinced the English Queen to re-think the crusade she and her agents had been conducting against Grace for years.

Grace O’Malley was clearly gutsy, intelligent, and a powerful force to be feared and respected. She was certainly pretty tough and resilient, commanding significant (and presumably mostly male) maritime forces for decades of her life while she was raising three children, constantly attempting to maintain alliances and defeat her numerous enemies, fighting off the ever-present agents of the English crown, and eventually spending time in prison later in her life. Her independence and industriousness are striking; not only did she continue to lead pirating ventures once she became and wife and mother, she used her husband’s resources (and later those of her second husband) along with her own in order to further those aims. Yet reading a list of Grace’s accomplishments and inferring the character traits she must have possessed in order to achieve them still leaves a lot of questions. She is most frequently discussed as being the first female pirate, but it is difficult to know if she was the kind of greedy, cold-hearted pirate popularized by books and Hollywood movies, or if she was more simply an entrepreneurial spirit from a different age in which the boundaries between law and lawlessness were more flexible. Her long-standing feud with the English monarchy can brand her a trouble-making rouge or a heroic revolutionary depending on which side you approach the matter from, but either way, it’s difficult not to admire her pluck in her much-interpreted meeting with Elizabeth I. If I was somehow magically able to “meet” Grace O’Malley in the literal sense of the word, I imagine that I would probably be pretty terrified of her, but as I observed before, it’s difficult to say what she was really like from the little bit of information history has left behind for us. Maybe she was pretty cool and not as scary as one might think. It’s unfortunate that I have no way of finding out.


McCourt, Malachy. Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland. New York: MJF Books, 2004. 104-116.

Graves, Lisa. “Don’t Get Her Dander Up”. History Witch. March 23, 2015.


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