While it is true that female pirates have never been a common occurrence, the treacherous coast of the West of Ireland was once home to Gráinne Mhaol (Anglicised as Granuaile), Grainne Ni Mhaille or Grace O'Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland.
County Mayo, Ireland
Born in 1530, she was the only daughter of Dubhdara (Black Oak) O'Malley and his wife, Margaret. Ireland then was not governed as it is today. It did not have a single government or ruler. Instead, it was divided into roughly 40 independent clans or 'kingdoms', and Dubhdara was the chieftain of Umhall, a small, remote area bordering Clew Bay on the coast of County Mayo.
This clan was different from the other Gaelic clans in one notable way. For hundreds of years, the O'Malleys had been sailing their ships around the coast of Ireland and farther afield to Scotland and northern Spain, trading, fishing and plundering. The Gaelic poets at the time called them 'the lions of the green sea'.
The sea was considered no place for a girl. Still, against everyone's wishes, Granuaile learned about sailing and navigating by stars and compass, how to trade, fish, pilot and plunder.
When she was 15, Granuaile's husband was chosen for her. Donal O'Flaherty, a chieftain of Ballinahinch a territory on the west coast of Galway that is now called Connemara. His nickname, Donal-of-the-Battles was not earned for nothing. He was a reckless and warlike Chieftain. Soon, Granuaile led her husband's followers on attacks on ships sailing into Galway, taking tolls and taxes from ships travelling through the treacherous waters off the coast of Connemara.
Donal was killed during a dispute with the Joyce's, a neighbouring clan, and because Granuaile was a woman, she could not replace him as chieftain, so she returned to Umhall, where she inherited land from her mother and took over her ageing father's fleet.
By 1566, Granuaile married for a second time, this time to Iron Richard. Theirs was considered to be a good match. He was good on land and she in the waters.
News of this woman seafarer and pirate grew. One English official complained, 'This woman has overstepped the part of womanhood'. Her daring is also remembered in the lines of a poem:
No braver seaman took a deck in hurricane or squall
Since Grace O'Malley battered down old Curraith Castle's walls.
Her bravery and success made men from other clans want to join her, and soon she had a private army of over 200 men, but she had her trials. Once during a mission to plunder the rich lands of the Earl of Desmond in Munster, she and her men were captured, and she remained in Desmond's dungeons for almost a year before being handed over to the English as proof of loyalty. From Limerick, she was taken in chains and brought to Dublin Castle. Accused of plunder, piracy and treason, execution seemed to be her fate, but in early 1579 she was released — the reason why remains a mystery.
In the late 16th century, English power steadily grew in Ireland, and Granuaile's power was steadily encroached upon. In 1593, when her two sons, and her half-brother were captured by the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, Grainuaile sailed to England to petition Queen Elizabeth I for their release. Elizabeth I famously sent Granuaile a list of questions, which were answered and returned to Elizabeth. Granuaile then met with the Queen at Greenwich Palace, wearing a fine gown.
Granuaile refused to bow before Elizabeth because she didn't recognise her as the "Queen of Ireland". The discussion was held in Latin because Granuaile did not speak English, and the Queen did not speak Irish, and Bingham was removed as a result.
Queen Elizabeth I
The fierce Pirate Queen most likely died at Rockfleet Castle 1603, the same year as Elizabeth's death, though the year and place of Granuaile's death are disputed. Her family's usual burial place was in Clare Island Abbey.
Statue of Granuaile in Westport House, County Mayo, Ireland