Badass of the Week.

Grace O'Malley

(Image courtesy of Christine Griffin)

Grace O'Malley was a tough-ass 16th century Irish warrior chick who led a horde of broadsword-swinging Vikings, Celts, and Scottish Highlanders in naval operations that would dominate the coast of Ireland for a couple of decades. Known to her contemporaries as "The Pirate Queen of Connaught," this estrogenocidal ginger gunslinger raided shipping vessels, battled English armies, conquered castles from rival Irish clans, and once traveled to London just so she could talk shit to Queen Elizabeth in person.

She pretty much rocks ass.

The future Pirate Queen's life began innocently enough. She was born in Ireland in 1530, a time when the crazy horn-bag King Henry the Eighth was beheading half the female population of England and nobody really gave a crap what the Irish were doing as long as they didn't screw with the English territories in Ulster. Her actual name was Gráinne Ní Mháille, but nowadays we of course Anglicize it to Grace O'Malley because that's much easier to say, it uses fewer accent marked-characters when we type it, and because I think there's some kind of rule about how we have to change pretty much all Irish peoples' crazy unpronounceable names so that they start with either O' or Mc.

Grace came from a wealthy seafaring family that lived on the Western coast of Ireland. Her Dad, the leader of Clan O'Malley, made most of his money sailing around trading shit to Spain, England, France and Portugal, and also by collecting a fee from fishermen who used his waters. As a girl, Grace quickly realized that she didn't want to sit around the house boiling potatoes all day with her boring mom, so it wasn't long before she was begging her father to take her out to sea on his trading expeditions. Dad understandably wasn't all that pumped about taking his teenage daughter out into pirate-infested waters, so he made up some bullshit story and told Gracie she couldn't come because her hair was too long and it would get stuck in the rigging on the ship or whatever. Grace, as you will soon learn, wasn't the sort of chick who flinched when it came to make a decision between pussying out and doing badass shit, however, and the next day Dad went out to the docks and saw that his daughter had cut off all of her hair with a knife and was ready to rock out on the high seas.

He couldn't exactly say no.

The Cock's Castle, so named because the guy who lived there was a cock.
(Also because it looks vaguely phallic.)

Grace quickly proved herself not only as an able seawoman capable of pulling her own weight aboard a merchant vessel, but her ability to work ship, lead men, and spot storms on the horizon before anyone else quickly led to her being promoted to serve as her father's second-in-command (even above some of her older brothers!) on trading expeditions. Known to the crew as "Grace the Bald" because of her short hair, one story claims that when her ship was overtaken and boarded by pirates, she personally saved the lives of one of her crew members by leaping off the rigging in the middle of a melee and dive-bombing a pirate death from above-style. I picture this going down like a luchador busting out a top-rope moonsault to the outside of the ring, but I think that's probably just me.

Once her sea legs were firmly established and she'd made quite a life for herself tearing ass around the high seas for fun and profit and badassery, the 16-year old Grace was married off in 1546 to a guy named Donal of the Battle (or, alternately, as Donal "of the Battle" O'Flaherty). Donal was a tough, easily-irritable Irish hothead who lived in a place awesomely called "The Cock's Castle" and spent most of his time being an asshole to people from neighboring clans. Donal the Cock was eventually killed in battle after he pissed off Clan Joyce for some reason that is never really explicitly defined (except to say that he was asking for it), and they charged Cock Castle and captured it (Grace immediately raised an army, personally stormed the walls at the head of an army, and re-took her dead husband's castle by force – the Joyces renamed it "The Hen's Castle," the name by which it is still known today). Later, she'd marry a guy named "Iron Richard" Burke who had a real affinity for chainmail, foundries, and accomplishing nothing of any importance. Iron Dick was fine, I guess, but she'd basically married him for political reasons and after a year of betrothal she locked him out of his own castle and threw all his shit on the lawn. When Dick came home and was all like "WTF?", she leaned out the window and yelled, "Richard, I dismiss you!" So he left without an argument and she spent the rest of her life cougaring it up with guys she found shipwrecked on the shore (presumably immediately after her pirate army had sunk their ships).

But marriage isn't what defined the Pirate Queen. Upon the deaths of her father and husband, Grace O'Malley inherited big swaths of coastal land and castles, and using her own ingenuity, ruthlessness, and badassery she turned that territory into a criminal empire of piratical stabbing awesomeness that would make the shipping and fishing industries its bitch for the remainder of O'Malley's long, ultra-grizzled life.

The Pirate Kingdom of Grace O'Malley started off innocuously enough, I suppose. Grace's father had implemented a tax on fishing and merchant ships that moved through his waters – a nominal fee akin to how many nobles put tolls on roads through their land. Well Grace took this operation over and immediately cranked that organized racketeering shit up to 12, building a small navy of scurvy Irishmen and sending out her fleet to collect taxes and tolls from an ever-increasing area of the western coast. If people refused to pay the toll or looked like they might possibly refuse to pay the toll, Grace's henchmen would board the ship pirate-style, kick the shit out of everyone on board, take whatever the hell they wanted, and bring the loot back to the Sea Queen for distribution among her servants. Eventually Grace stopped even calling it a tax, and the toll-collecting business became a full-scale piracy operation that would make the modern-day Somali warlords proud.

Like all famous Irish people,
Grace has a bunch of pubs named after her.

Before long, Grace began to augment her already-touch pirate force by recruiting warriors known as the Gallowglass – an elite, tough-as-fuck group of claymore-swinging face-crushers who obliterated everyone in their path in an explosion of blood spray and flying dismembered appendages. The Gallowglass, in a nutshell, are the result of what happened when the Vikings landed in Scotland, set up villages, and intermarried with the Scottish Highlanders. So they're like Viking Highlanders. I can think of little that is more terrifying.

With these guys at the vanguard of her forces (augmented by tough whisky-swilling Irishmen), Grace not only hit shipping and fishing traffic, but soon started pummeling coastal fortresses and capturing large swaths of territory from any Clans unfortunate enough to be positioned in her zone of authority. She also build up merchant trade with England, Ulster, Spain, France and Portugal, accumulating huge quantities of cash from those wealthy countries, but that's marginally less interesting than the Scots-Irish Vikings storming fortresses with cannons and battle axes.

Grace taking a smoke break and thinking about axes.

While ruling an empire of Viking Highlander Pirates is sweet and all, O'Malley was a tough lady herself as well, more than happy to wade into combat herself, and this was definitely not the sort of chick you wanted to cross swords with on the smoke-swept deck of a burning merchantman. One story claims that she gave birth to her third child on the high seas during a trading expedition to the Mediterranean. As she was popping the kid out, word came down that the vessel was under attack by Turkish pirates, so she finished giving birth, grabbed her gun, then immediately ran out to bust caps in pirates and command the defense of her ship. Another time one of her boyfriends was captured and executed by a rival clan, so she waited until the leaders of the Clan landed on an island for vacation, attacked the island, burned their ships, and killed everyone she could find. After wiping out the leadership of the Clan, she then led her soldiers to assault the Clan fortress, capturing it and reappropriating it for her own use. On yet another occasion a local English Earl refused to let Grace in when she stopped by for dinner, so she kidnapped the Earl's son and held him for ransom, only returning him when the Earl decided he'd cook her some bacon and leave an extra place setting out for the rest of his life, just in case she ever decided to show up again (this is a tradition that the family maintains to this day).

As a pretty bitchin' side note, when the Spanish Armada came to attack England in 1588, one of the warships of the Armada got lost in a storm and ended up getting stuck in waters controlled by the Sea Queen of Connaught. Grace O'Malley personally led the attack that captured the war galleon. She was 50 years old at the time.

Grace meeting Queen Elizabeth.

Eventually the English decided they'd heard enough stories of their people getting their asses kicked by the Sea Queen, so they sent an expedition to attack Hen's Castle and put O'Malley in her place once and for all. Grace held off the attack by pouring hot oil from the roof of the castle onto the attackers, and then by melting down captured armor and plunder and molding it into bullets to fight the English. Their asses thoroughly wrecked medieval-style, the English force retreated back to their ships and hauled ass back towards London.

They didn't make it. The moment the attack was called off, Grace lit a signal fire on the roof of her castle, and as the English pulled away they came face-to-face with a fleet of O'Malley's pirate ships.

The English would have their revenge, however. In 1593, the man who had sent the attacking force – the English Governor of Connaught – led a raid that captured Grace's brother and sons, and he held them for ransom in his prison, demanding that Grace surrender herself. Grace responded by traveling to fucking London and requesting an audience with another tough-ass British woman ruler with an affinity for high seas privateering – Queen Elizabeth of England. O'Malley brought a dagger with her into the royal chamber (it was confiscated), accidentally offended a courtier by throwing his handkerchief into a fireplace, and spoke Latin to the Queen because she didn't want to speak English to her. Despite being a Pirate Queen talking to an Actual Queen, Grace refused to bow, stood tall, and demanded the release of her family. Elizabeth, who was a reasonable enough woman when it came to shit like this, agreed to fire the jackass Governor, recall him to England, and release the prisoners of O'Malley agreed to stop destabilizing the countryside and supporting the rebellions of petty Irish nobles. That was cool with Grace, and the deal was done. That's one way to get rid of your enemies.

Grace O'Malley dominated the shipping lanes and accumulated tons of wealth during her lifetime. She was never conquered, never defeated, and died an old woman living in a giant fucking castle on top of piles of gold coins and 25 year-old studs with rock-hard abs. Her son went on to be the Viscount of Mayo, which sounds like a cartoon character for a fast-food restaurant, and nowadays she's memorialized in plenty of Irish folks songs. I guess she's notable because Joyce wrote about her in Finnegan's Wake, but nobody ever knows what the fuck Joyce is ever talking about so it's barely worth mentioning.




The Pirate King



Broderick, Marian. Wild Irish Women. Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

Chambers, Anne. Ireland's Pirate Queen. MJF, 2003.

Chambers, Anne. Ganuaile. Macmillan, 2009.

Cook, Judith. Pirate Queen. Tuckwell, 2004.


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