Marauding and Misbehaving: Gráinne Mhaol, Pirate Queen
They called her the Dark Lady of Doona.
Early in the sixteenth century, a noble, seafaring family in Connacht produced a princess. Flame-haired and headstrong, Gráinne Ní Mháille enjoyed a formal education and all the privileges of her father’s name. Chieftain Eoghan (Owen) Dubhdara Ó Máille made his living partly by farming and partly by pirating. The family controlled Clew Bay, County Mayo in the West of Ireland. The clan fished, ferried, traded, plundered, and taxed anyone who fished off their coasts — on the point of death. It made sense then, that Gráinne was born part princess and part pirate.
Context Is Everything
Gráinne’s birth (c. 1530) came at a time of a sort of culture war between Ireland and England. She grew up during the latter half of Henry VIII’s reign when Ireland still harbored various semi-autonomous Irish princes and lords. Many more or less ruled their respective corners without interference. The country housed “Old English” (descendants of Anglo-Norman conquerors from the 12th century) and the native Gaelic Irish. Over the centuries, some of the Norman lords had assimilated into Irish ways rather than the other way around. They spoke Irish, married local women, and followed Irish laws.
The Gaelic Irish relished their heritage and operated outside of English rule. They spoke their native language and followed Irish traditions, laws, and social customs. Since Ireland was only a lordship, they were not subjects of the Crown. The English monarch was simply dubbed ‘Lord of Ireland’ at their coronation and that was that.
So you had some English people, the Gaelicised Old English, and native Irish folks running around. Guess which culture Gráinne belonged to.
A New Rule
In Gráinne”s aristocratic Gaelic Irish world, families vied for power and dominion, intermarried and created political alliances, and harassed each other by stealing cattle and feuding. Weaker clans aligned themselves with powerful ones for protection, creating a specific hierarchy regulated by strict rules.
When Gráinne was about 12, this carefully constructed culture suffered a mortal blow. Henry VIII proclaimed himself “king of Ireland,” making all Irish subjects of the Crown. As subjects, they had to bend to his majesty’s will AKA swear fealty and give up all sorts of goodies. Henry and his advisors introduced several measures to put Ireland under their thumb. They established a centralized system of government and began a campaign to Anglicise the population.
One policy, “Surrender and Regrant,” proved to be an effective legal mechanism for rolling the Gaelic system into a late-feudal English one. The king extended royal protection to all of Ireland’s elite, but for a price — they must obey the laws set down by the central government. Irish lords would also surrender their lands to the Crown so that they could have them returned nice and proper by Royal Charter.
The lords received fancy new English titles, like the earldom of Tyrone created for the Uí Néill dynasty. This helped secure the loyalty of the Irish upper classes to the Crown. It also set the stage for the Tudors to increasingly infringe on Irish autonomy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Uí Máille clan did not take Henry Tudor up on his generous offer. There was not to be a Viscount Mayo for some time.
For the seafaring Clan O’Malley, it was business as usual. As Gráinne got older her interest in the family business grew. Naturally, she wanted to join her father on his many expeditions, but he cited her long hair as a safety liability. God forbid, it might catch in the rigging. So Gráinne lopped her hair off, earning her the nickname Gráinne Mhaol, or bald Gráinne — or so the story goes.
Politics and Partnerships
Gráinne married at the age of 16. The lucky suitor was Dónal-an-Chogaidh O’Flaherty, heir presumptive to a neighboring Irish Gaelic clan. This may have been a savvy political move, but it was not a love match. Dónal was a hot-headed, useless leader who was constantly feuding. His ineptitude left the door wide open for Gráinne, whose innate leadership skills took front and center, so much so that Dónal’s men would often follow her.
Theirs was a ‘marriage of equals’ in which Gráinne brought her substantial dowry to match Dónal’s contribution. They also had three children, Eoghan (Owen), Méadhbh (Maeve), and Murchadh (Murrough). During this period Gráinne was a busy woman, acting as mother, wife, and pirate, raiding up and down the coast to cut her teeth. In a surprise to no one, Dónal’s feud-happy tendencies ended in murder at the hands of a Joyce. This might have been good news for Gráinne if the Joyces hadn’t come knocking at Cock’s Castle (named so after Dónal. We’re not kidding).
Allegedly Gráinne defended the property with such ferocity that after people referred to it as Hen’s Castle.
(Fun fact — legend states that Hen’s Castle, AKA Castlekirk, was built in a day and a night by a cock and a hen. That’s because the O’Flaherty lords hired a witch. The sorceress tasked a magic hen with looking after it and warned that so long as the hen remained safe, all would be well. And everything was fine and dandy…until the inhabitants ate the hen. After that it was semi-cursed.
If you happened to notice strange lights flitting through the castle, check at midnight to see if a crowd of boats had gathered around it. Are there men in the boats dressed in green with red sashes? Did they row until the crow of the cock and then vanish while the cries of children filled the air? Alas, that means the Sidhe have been stealing young mortal children and leaving changelings in their place. Those Sidhe are always pulling hijinks like that.)
Moving On Up
A widowed Gráinne was now the property of her nearest male relative. But the pirate queen had other ideas, opting to strike out on her own instead of heading back to her father. By this time she had carved out an impressive reputation and earned the support of Dónal’s men in the process. She also had to hand her children over to her late husband’s family, per the custom of the day. So with ships from her dowry and a band of loyal followers, Gráinne continued on her merry plundering way.
As a newly single woman with an unholy amount of freedom, Gráinne sowed her wild oats on the high seas. She engaged in numerous affairs and likely popped out a few more children by different men. One alleged paramour was a shipwrecked sailor, but the affair was cut short when the MacMahon’s of Ballyvoy killed him. Gráinne swiftly got her revenge by attacking the castle of Doona and slaughtering her lover’s murderers. Such was the brutality of the attack that she was dubbed the ‘Dark Lady of Doona’ after that.
Eventually, Gráinne’s father died. As there was no other male relative to keep her in check, she was fully independent. Now a major leading figure of the O’Malley clan, Gráinne was a chieftain in all but name. She earned her keep by way of looting unprotected ships, levying tolls, and various other unsavory means. No one knows for sure just how full her calendar was, but Gráinne is credited with attacks that spanned the country. One of the most notorious affairs, however, happened when she arrived at Howth in 1576.
Tired and famished, Gráinne purportedly popped over to the castle to grab a bite to eat. At the gate, the servants informed her that the lord and his family were at dinner before promptly shutting the door in her face. Ever the problem solver, she scoured the area until she spotted the young heir of Howth playing on the beach. With the child in tow, Gráinne returned to her boat and sailed back to the west of Ireland. As Howth is on the east coast near Dublin, it was no short journey.
The Lord of Howth (or a representative) had to huck across the country for the privilege of hearing Gráinne’s terms. They included a simple demand — that Howth Castle keep its gates open to visitors and set an extra place for her at every meal. Lord Howth agreed and even now his descendants honor that agreement. The Earl sealed the deal by gifting Gráinne a ring, which remains in the possession of an O’Malley to this very day.
New Queen, Who Dis
Around Gráinne’s thirtieth birthday, 25-year-old Elizabeth I ascended to the throne. Like her father, Liz was hellbent on civilizing and controlling Ireland. She was also Protestant, and after her sister’s aggressive Catholic reign, she was even less enthused about the Irish Catholics over the water.
Although Irish-English relations had warmed thanks to Surrender and Regrant, by the time Elizabeth ascended the throne things had turned sour. Rebellions broke out constantly. One particularly nasty English administrator was Sir Humphrey Gilbert, who savagely repressed Irish rebels. Gilbert didn’t discriminate, cutting down men, women, and children. He was especially fond of harassing elderly women and showcasing the heads of his victims to their families. Naturally, this brutality didn’t do much to restore relations between the neighboring countries.
With all this happening, Gráinne still found time to get married a second time to Richard Bourke. The union produced another son for Gráinne, named Tibbot (Theobold). According to legend, not even a day passed after Gráinne gave birth on her galley that Algerian pirates attacked her fleet. In true Gráinne fashion, she rose from her bed, grabbed her blunderbuss, and got to shootin’.
Gráinne kept her fleet and continued her very lucrative pirating career after marrying Richard. About a year in, Richard returned to his main residence Carraigahowley only to find his bags packed and the doors locked. His wife had dismissed him. Some maintain that the two only had a provisional, one-year marriage, while others suspect Richard may have just pissed Gráinne off that day. Regardless, they still presented themselves as man and wife after that and Gráinne even accompanied Richard to official functions, so they seemed to have made up.
From Corsair To Captive
When the English stripped Richard of the family lands he was set to inherit, Gráinne could have either A) started a rebellion or B) negotiated with the Crown. Surprisingly, Gráinne chose plan B. She parlayed with English representative Lord Deputy Henry Sidney in 1576, going so far as to offer him three galleys and two hundred fighting men. He didn’t take her up on the offer, but he did sail with her to inspect her coastal defenses of Galway. Gráinne made sure to bill him for her troubles. Sidney walked away with the impression that “This was a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.”
Upon seeing Gráinne buddying up to the English, other Irish folk were not amused. Another aristocrat, the Earl of Desmond, decided to capture her during one of her infamous raids and imprison her. He tossed her in Dublin castle, where she likely endured less-than-stellar conditions. Despite living under circumstances that have killed many a man, Gráinne came out after two years still kicking. And because Ní Mháille didn’t do anything halfway, she decided to level up her status once she left. She and Richard did a deal with the English, giving her the title of Lady Bourke.
Of course, it didn’t happen that easily. When the Earl of Desmond decided to kick off his second rebellion, Gráinne’s husband wanted in. So the old Earl figured letting his wife out of jail might be a nice thing to do. After watching and waiting, Gráinne saw that Richard and Co. were doing a pretty good job of stretching the English thin. At just the right time, she brought her might to the party. Unhappy with the prospect of Gráinne joining the fight, the English decided the power couple was too big of a threat. They came to terms and voila — Lord and Lady Bourke were born.
And then Richard went and died in 1583.
All the Single Ladies
Fresh out of jail and a newly single Lady, Gráinne kept on plying her trade. And since she was part of the English system, she could mix and match Irish and English customs as she pleased. Under Irish law, Gráinne was able to keep everything she brought to her marriage with Richard Bourke. And under English law, she was entitled to a third of her late husband’s lands. So Gráinne pulled a nice castle out of the deal.
It had been a while since Gráinne had had a good old-fashioned feud, but she didn’t want for long. She eventually got into it with Sir Richard Bingham, an angry English administrator with a chip on his shoulder. Bingham was merciless, executing Gráinne’s family members for petty crimes and burning her lands.
Bingham was well aware of the second Desmond rebellion and Gráinne’s husband’s involvement. He was a tit for tat sort of guy. He’s famously quoted as saying, “The Irish were never tamed with words but with swords.” And he meant it. He killed men, women, and children and burned friaries. Once, he had seventy people hanged in a day.
Bingham set his sights on Gráinne as a source of trouble and leveled all his power against her. As the appointed governor of Connacht, he was in Ireland to levy taxes and generally embroil himself in their politics. The idea was to goad the Irish into rebellion to seize their lands. Bingham ended up fatally stabbing Gráinne’s son Owen 12 times after tricking him, and captured another two of her sons and her half-brother.
Gráinne fought back best she could but was increasingly boxed in by Bingham. So she did what any sane person would do.
The Royal We
She popped over to London to meet the Queen in 1593. As you could imagine, Gráinne made quite a stir at court. She showed up dressed to impress and refused to bow to Elizabeth, who she didn’t recognize as the Queen of Ireland. Upon a search, guards found a concealed dagger, which Gráinne said was for her safety. To Liz’s credit, she seemed untroubled by this.
The two women spoke in Latin, the only language they shared. Gráinne sold herself as a poor, old, set upon lady farmer. (Rebellion? Moi? Never.) An English lady farmer who, under English common law, required support from her sons. And Bingham kept harassing her and stealing all her lands. So could they pardon her family members, please? She promised she had given up pirating for good and was totally loyal.
Elizabeth agreed, but on the condition that Gráinne quit attacking the family members that had supported the English (she had given a little motherly love to her son Murrough, who had aligned with Bingham). Gráinne consented to stop supporting uprisings and beating the tar out of her kid, and Elizabeth promised to pull Bingham out of there.
It Still Isn’t Over
Bingham was thrilled about all this. Just kidding, he was enraged. He had written to Elizabeth saying he’d given plenty of evidence to support hanging Gráinne, but the queen heard her out anyway. The fact that the only trouble Gráinne got in was an admonishment for being mean to her son and had ‘hath at times lived out of order’ really ruffled Bingham’s feathers.
Liz recommended Bingham release Gráinne’s son Tibbot, set up a nice pension for her, and ‘protect them to live in peace and enjoy their livelihoods’. Bingham did not follow these orders. He continued to harass Gráinne, forcing her to petition the queen yet again. She headed back to London in 1595 and Elizabeth took it seriously, appointing a commission to investigate Bingham. Bingham fled to England and was thrown in prison.
Things had almost settled down for Gráinne in her old age. In December of 1595, the colorfully-named Red Hugh O’Donnell plundered Gráinne’s part of the country, took hostages, and sent men to attack her. This is when Gráinne and her son went all in for Elizabeth. Tibbot reached an advantageous deal with the English and became 1st Viscount Mayo. He and Gráinne’s political savvy cemented their family in the new Ireland that was emerging against all odds.
A Pirate’s Life for Gráinne
The last official record for Gráinne is from 1601. It comes from the captain of an English warship and his report on a brief engagement with ‘a galley I met…she rowed with thirty oars and had on board…100 good shot…This galley comes out of Connacht and belongs to Grace O’Malley’.
Gráinne Ní Mháille died in 1603, the same year as Elizabeth. (Or so people say.) She had made it to her seventies despite years of pirating, plundering, prison, and politicking. She’s probably chasing Bingham down with her blunderbuss in the afterlife as we speak.
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