Skip to content

The Pirate Queen

The earliest written reference to the O’Malley territory around Murrisk is in the fifth century, when Saint Patrick climbed the mountain then known as Cruachan Aigle, before it was renamed Croagh Patrick. The O’Malleys built Murrisk Abbey for the Augustinian friars in 1457.


Grace O’Malley, otherwise known as Granuaile or Gráinne Mhaol, lived from around 1530 to 1603. She was born into the clan Ó Máille (O’Malley), who were said to be descendants of the eldest son of a former high king of Ireland. The clan were the hereditary lords of a territory which included the baronies of Murrisk* to the south of Clew Bay and Burrishoole to the north, which originally included the island of Achill.

According to Hubert Thomas Knox in ‘The History of County Mayo’, even before Granuaile’s time, Clew Bay was a famous resort for smugglers who did an extensive trade with the continent. Clare Island of old is often described as a ‘pirate’s lair’ and the ‘Mecca of Smugglers’.

The O’Malleys differed from most of the Irish clans in that they were a true seafaring family. According to the ‘Book of Rights’ (Leabhar ne gCeart), the O’Malleys paid the King of Connaught, who resided in Cruachan (now known as Rathcroghan near Tulsk in County Roscommon) handsomely for the right to make a living from the seas around Clew Bay and beyond.

The O’Malleys did not engage in fishing alone. Piracy became a hallmark of the clan, particularly during Granuaile’s time. The sixteenth century saw the old Gaelic world face an onslaught on land from its powerful neighbour. Granuaile built strongholds around the shores of Clew Bay that only skilled local navigators could negotiate by sea, especially as cartographers only began to map the remote and dangerous channels of the west coast after her reign.

Granuaile spend her childhood at the clan residences at Belclare (between Westport and Murrisk) and Clare Island (the tower which still stands today). She was first married at the age of sixteen to Donal O’Flaherty, whose family ruled what is now more or less the boundaries of Connemara in County Galway. During this time, she bore two children, but also began to take an interest in seafaring activities around the Galway City area, where she and her men are said to have exacted tolls or exchange of cargo for safe passage into the busy port before disappearing into the myriad of inlets around the Connemara coast.

Clare Island Lighthouse and Cliffs

It was highly unusual for a woman to command any position of authority in matters of merchanting, much less piracy. In can only be surmised that Granuaile led by example, and was capable of enduring the hardships known to exist on the brutal Atlantic seaboard around the west coast of Ireland.

Around this time, Elizabeth I began her reign as Queen of England. Using a divide and conquer strategy with the Irish lords, she began to disrupt the power base that had long remained undisturbed west of the Shannon River. Granuaile’s husband, whose authority had been diminished, died during this period. However, she successfully defended his island fortress in Lough Corrib against the Joyces, a predominant Galway family.

The O’Flaherty clan would not tolerate a woman as heir to Donal’s title and she looked again to the sea as a means of establishing power. She returned to Clew Bay and the tower castle at Clare Island. From here, she had a commanding view of the entire bay, and no ship could pass without being spotted.

Now in her twenties, Grace used her O’Malley influence to establish a fighting force of two hundred men, including the infamous ‘Gallowglass’ or mercenaries from Scotland. Stories of her exploits spread across the Irish Sea around the time the English queen employed a new strategy of colonisation that was to change the power base in Ireland yet again. Life became a matter of survival against the odds for Granuaile.

Granuaile was in her thirties when she married Richard Bourke. It is believed that her main goal was to acquire Rockfleet (also known as Carrickhowley) Castle and the deeper waters around Burrishoole on the north side of Clew Bay. Here, legend has it that the hawser of her favourite galley was attached to her bedpost at night (which is quite possible when one sees the location of the castle on the shore).

In 1584, Sir Richard Bingham was appointed governor of Connaught province. He believed that the Irish were ‘never tamed with words, but with swords’. His brutal tactics were not unlike those of his predecessors. He captured Granuaile’s sons Tiobóid na Long (Tibbot of the Ships) and Murrough O’Flaherty, and her half-brother, Dónal na Píopa. Granuaile petitioned the queen for their release and was invited to meet her at Greenwich Palace.

Granuaile was a native Irish language speaker. She was not known to have spoken English at all. However, it is also believed that she had been educated in Latin and that language was spoken at her meeting with Queen Elizabeth.

Following the meeting, Bingham was temporarily removed from his post as governor, but many of Granuaile’s other requests were not met, despite her assurances that she would stop supporting the Irish lords’ rebellion. Shortly afterwards, Bingham was restored to his position and Granuaile gave up on the notion that her meeting with the queen had a useful outcome.

Granuaile is believed to have died at Rockfleet Castle in 1603, the same year as Queen Elizabeth. She may have been buried in the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey on Clare Island.

NEXT POST – Gold Mining on Croagh Patrick

    Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.