• Athena Ives

Pirate Queen of Ireland Grace O'Malley


Vilified by her English adversaries as ‘a woman who hath imprudently passed the part of womanhood’, Grace O’Malley was ignored by contemporary chroniclers in Ireland, yet her memory survived in native folklore. Also known as Gráinne Mhaol, Grace was a warrior known for coming over the sea with Irish soldiers to rout the English. She finally became an icon of international feminism, both as an example of a strong and independent woman and as a victim of misogynistic laws.

As a child, she longed to sail the seas with her father. Instead of telling her that women were not meant to be sailers, he told her that her hair would get caught in the lines. Refusing to accept the ignorant laws preventing her from her dreams, Grace cut off her hair and hid on her father's ship. 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. 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.

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. 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.


During her life, she managed to protect the lands of west Ireland as a skillful and ruthless politician, strong fighter and a notorious leader of her pirate fleet. Under her command life of the Irish commoners remained relatively untouched by the rising threat of the English crown. Military and political leaders remembered her exploits vividly even decades after her death. She was an extraordinary woman who lived, loved, fought and survived during a pivotal period of Irish history that saw the collapse of the Gaelic order and the ruination of Ireland’s ruling élite. She stood strong in the face of adversity and lived to the ripe old age of around 73.