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Let Me Tell You About Granuaile: Ireland's Pirate Queen

Illustration for article titled Let Me Tell You About Granuaile: Irelands Pirate Queen

On my past couple of articles, many fellow commentators have been discussing, or encouraging me, to write about Granuaile. This is for you!


Gráinne Ní Mháille (in English, Grace O'Malley) was an Irish Pirate Queen, who talked smack to Queen Elizabeth I's face.. Yes. You read that right Gráinne
was the Queen of Umaill in her own right, which is located in modern day Mayo. But let me back up. Let's start at the beginning of Granuaile's life.

Gráinne was born in the West of Ireland in 1530, when Henry VIII was reigning in England. Although Henry VIII was Lord of Ireland in name, under English government at the time, the princes and lords of Ireland still had some semblance of autonomy, and were allowed to own devices, lest they were hostile with the English provinces in Ulster. This slowly began to change, as the Tudor conquest of Ireland took place.

Gráinne's father, Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, was King of Umaill. One of the few seafaring families on the West Coast, Eoghan had a row of castles along the shore to protect his territory. Upon his death, Gráinne inherited Eoghan's lucrative shipping and trading business. This business was said to be by some a piracy trade. Allegedly. Legend goes, that Eoghan wouldn't allow a young Gráinne onto his ships, lest her long hair get caught in the rigging. Gráinne, seeking a solution, promptly chopped her hair off, and began to tag along. Gráinne proved to be so adept on the high seas, that she rose amongst the ranks on Eoghan's ships, becoming his second in command, ranking higher than some of her own brothers. At some point, Gráinne found the time to be formerly educated, due to the fact that she spoke Latin with Queen Elizabeth I-more on that later.

Eventually, Gráinne married Dónal an Chogaidh, who was the Tánaiste (heir to the Chief) of the Ó Flaithbheartaigh title. This was a good political match, which would have allowed Gráinne to rule Iar Connacht, or roughly modern day Connemara. Gráinne bore Dónal three children (two sons, one daughter) and upon his death, returned to her homestead on Clare Island, taking many loyal Ó Flaithbheartaigh followers with her. She married Risdeárd an Iarainn Bourke for a year, (solely to get possesion of Rockfleet Castle, which was in a strategic spot along the coast, near sheltered harbors where a pirate...er...shipping or trading ship could hide). After the year, (and the birth of another son) Gráinne and her followers camped out in the castle, and Gráinne unceremoniously ended her marriage by shouting out the window:
"Richard Burke, I dismiss you."
Richard Burke, having been served, left Gráinne to her own devices. Since Gráinne was in possession of the castle at the time of the divorce, she kept it, and Rockfleet remained in her family for centuries. Rumor of Gráinne's sexual conquests also flourished, including a dalliance with a lad 15 years her junior.

So, about the alleged piracy. After Gráinne's first husband's death, a slew of complaints to the English Council in Dublin began flying in, saying that her ships were behaving like pirates. In actuality, Galway imposed taxes on ships that traded there. Gráinne decided to impose a similar tax on ships traveling in waters off of her lands. Piracy? Or sound business decision? You be the judge. Mháille's would board ships and ask for currency, or a portion of cargo, for safe passage through their waters, and the rest of the way to Galway. Resistance was met with violence and, occasionally, murder. (OK, that sounds a little like pirates) Upon receiving their toll, Mháille ships would vanish into one of the many bays in the area. On top of her ships, Gráinne owned land through both her father, and her mother, along with horses and cattle that numbered at least 1,000. This meant that Gráinne was also very wealthy. Gráinne was also somewhat of an Irish freedom fighter, using every bit of her power to limit the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Ireland in her lands in the West. This includes, but is not limited to, defending Hen's Castle by pouring boiling oil on the English when they attempted to take it from her.

That being said, Gráinne couldn't withstand the encroachment of the English on her lands forever. In 1593, two of her sons, and her half brother were taken captive by the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham. Gráinne decided the best course of action would be to sail to London to have an audience with Queen Elizabeth I in order to petition their release, so that's what she did. Gráinne showed up at court, dressed in finery, and refused to kneel to Elizabeth, because Gráinne did not recognize her as Queen as Ireland. SICK BURN. Gráinne carried a dagger on her, (for her own safety) and was nonplussed and unperturbed upon it's removal. The most famous tale from this visit occurs when Gráinne sneezed, and was offered a lace-edged handkerchief by one of Elizabeth's women. After using said handkerchief, Gráinne threw it into the fireplace, to the horror of the English Court. Gráinne calmly explained that in Ireland, a used handkerchief was deemed unsanitary, and should be disposed of. Gráinne then demanded the release of her relatives. It should be noted that the conversation between Elizabeth and Gráinne was done in Latin, as Gráinne spoke no English, and Elizabeth spoke no Irish. After much conversation, Elizabeth promised that Bingham would get fired, and Gráinne's relatives would be released, and a castle and cattle that Bingham had stolen from her would be returned, as long as Gráinne stopped supporting Ireland's nobles and rebellions. Gráinne agreed, Bingham was sacked, and that's all she wrote.

Except that it wasn't. Some demands that Gráinne made remained unmet, namely the return of the castle and the cattle. In addition, Bingham was sent back to Ireland shortly after being removed from office. Because of this, Gráinne essentially said, "Girl, bye!" to the agreement, and was an ardent supporter of Irish Rebels during the Nine Years War. She supposedly died in 1603, the same year as Elizabeth, at Rockfleet castle, although the location and year of her death are disputed.

In death, Gráinne continues to inspire songwriters, playwrights, and feminists to this day. So when you're by the sea, smelling the salt on the air, and enjoying the breeze, spare a thought for Gráinne. For if you don't, she just might sail up and claim it.

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