Statue of Grainne Ni Mhaille
by Michael Cooper
From the mysterious world of the Celts a number of women were renowned for their power, warrior strength and independence. They led revolts against their enemies, wheeled and dealed to require the best possible outcome for their people, and were even said to have used their “woman’s magic” to curse the lives of those who sought to cause them (or their loved ones) harm. One of these such women was Grainne Ni Mhaille, who is better known to us by the English version of her name - Grace O'Malley, the 16th century Irish pirate queen.
Born around 1530 and based in County Mayo, western Ireland, Grainne inherited her father's "shipping and trading business" (a trade that was actually considered to be piracy) upon his death as well as land from her mother. At the age of 16 she was said to have married her first husband, Donal O'Flattery (with whom she had three children). Upon his death, instead of inheriting a portion of his estate as Irish law would have allowed her to do, she was prevented of doing this due to the invading English so instead, Grainne moved back into the O'Malley clan, where she was recognised as heir and chieftain in her own right, and set out on her own, “trading” on the seas.
Kildownet, Grainne Ni Mhaille's castle
In 1566 she married Richard Burke in what some saw as a political move saw to strengthen her hold on Clew Bay located near Westport and as a way of enabling both clans the ability to withstand the impending invasion by the English. This union resulted with a son, Tibbott (or Theobald), and with Burke dying some 17 years later.
In 1593, were after many years fighting against the English, which resulted in the capture of her brother and son, Tibbott, Grainne herself was captured by Sir Richard Bingham, an uncompromising English governor of County Connaught. Destined for execution, Grainne’s son-in-law offered himself as a hostage in exchange for the promise that Grainne would never return to her rebellious ways. Bingham reluctantly agreed however he was determined to make her suffer for her insurrection.
Grainne meeting with Queen Elizabeth I
Later that year, Grainne found herself backed into a corner by Bingham. Her eldest son was killed by his brother, while Bingham attacked and confiscated her stock and even established an English garrison in Rockfleet (Burke's castle). Grainne wrote directly to Queen Elizabeth I complaining of the circumstances that, as she diplomatically told her: “…constrayned your Highness fond subject to take arms and by force to maintaine her selfe and her people by sea and land the space of forty years past.”
When Bingham imprisoned Tibbott for treason, Grainne (aged in her 60s) was forced to sailed to London, and sought an audience with Queen Elizabeth I who, out of curiosity, met with the Irish pirate queen. Queen Elizabeth I ordered the release of Grainne’s son and her lands restored. Grainne was also given royal assent to continue her career, which she described as “maintenance by land and sea” without hindrance.
Grainne eventually retired to Rockfleet Castle where she was thought to have died in 1603, the same year as Queen Elizabeth I.
Grainne Ni Mhaille is one of the Celtic Queens and Warrior Goddesses that we will be exploring further during a workshop of the same name that will be taking place on Saturday, 23 April 2016 at Muses of Mystery in Melbourne.
More information about this workshop, including booking details, can be found here.