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Grace O'Malley, A Renaissance Woman

Grace O'Malley - "The Sea Queen of Connaught"

Grace O'Malley is the anglicized version of Grainne Ni Mhaille who was born about 1530 in County Mayo, the daughter of the Chieftain of Clan O'Malley. Mayo, being on the sea, on Ireland's western coast, the O'Malleys were seafarers. As a child, so legend has it, Grainne wished to join her father on a trading voyage to Spain. He refused, saying her long hair would become tangled in the ship's ropes. In response she cut off most of her hair, gaining her the life long nick name of Grainne Mhaol, meaning Grainne the Bald. In addition to her early experiences with sea travel and trade, she was probably well educated, since it is recorded that she spoke several languages.

Her first marriage, at age 16, to the heir of the Chief of the O'Flaherty Clan, resulted in three children. When her husband died in battle she returned to her childhood home By 1567 she had remarried another powerful man who controlled more coastal land, which included sheltered ports perfect for a Pirate Queen. She had one more son who is reputed to have been born aboard one of her ships.

During Grace's first marriage, the O'Flahertys, led by Grace, decided that since Galway taxed ships traveling in their waters, they would do the same. She used very pirate-like tactics of boarding ships and demanding payment. Once paid, her ships would sail off and disappear into their safe, secluded harbors. O'Malley's forces also plundered coastline castles and fortresses. This lead to complaints of piracy to the English Governors.

By the 1590's it was alleged the O'Malley had been the source of much unrest and anti-English activity in Connaught for over forty years. As a result, 2 of her sons and her step-brother were taken captive and imprisoned be the English Governor of the Province. This was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when the English were increasing their control of Ireland.

Grace petitioned Queen Elizabeth for their release and met Elizabeth at her Court. Apparently Elizabeth saw something of a kindred spirit in Grace O'Malley, because she did release the prisoners and removed the English Governor, temporarily.

For the rest of her life, Grace O'Malley remained a thorn in the side of English rule in Ireland. She is the subject of countless books, plays, songs and poems in Irish Culture.

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