“She had strongholds on her headlands and brave galleys on the sea, and no warlike chief or viking e’er had bolder heart than she…”

Quick Notes

  • Gráinne Ní Mháille or Grace O’Malley was born around 1530 and became a legend in her own time for her ferocity and bravery

  • She was both the actual queen of her Irish clan and a celebrated pirate, trader, and diplomat

  • When the English attempted to tame her, Grace went straight to the top and met with Queen Elizabeth I

Before there was Daenerys Targaryen or Marvel’s Black Widow, there was an Irish pirate Queen named Grace O’Malley. Not only did she beat future female heroes to the punch, but she was actually a real person who was just as impressive as she sounds. Born around 1530, the famous pirate Queen’s real name was Gráinne Ní Mháille (pronounced graw-nya nee waul-ye).

While some of her Irish countrymen called her “Grace of the Gamblers,” due to her notorious love of gambling, Grace O’Malley is the English version that many of us know her by today. Due to the illegality of many of her exploits, she was doubtless also called many other names by her enemies during her own time. But the cool thing about Grace was that she didn’t care. With no interest in what a stereotypical woman was supposed to be, she spent her days drinking, cursing, and raiding with the best of them.

The original independent woman

While you may assume that “pirate queen” refers to her fame among pirates, Grace O’Malley was born into Gaelic royalty. Her father was the chieftain of their clan, which was located on the western coast of Ireland. Even in their own time, the clan was famous for their seafaring ways and made an impressive living through both legit trade and not so legal piracy. So by the time her father died, and she took over as queen, she was well versed in both politics and getting her raid on. Her home base was on Clare Island, and part of the fortress she used still stands to this day.

 Wikimedia Commons

Grace was married two times, the first to a chieftain named Donal O’Flaherty, who really loved to fight. This would prove to be his undoing after he captured a castle from a nearby clan called the Joyces. Apparently, he was such a show-off during the fight that the castle was nicknamed “Cock’s Castle.” The Joyces later decided they wanted their castle back, however, and killed Donal while he was out hunting. But when they made their way back to recapture the castle, they found a really ticked off Grace O’Malley, who defended it so fiercely that they renamed it “Hen’s Castle” in her honor.

A fighter and a diplomat

Grace would go on to marry again, but divorced the guy after only a year in 1567. Amazingly, she may have been one of the first women in history to maintain her ex’s loyalty, even though she got his castle in the split. By this point, she’d managed to amass enough ships, armies, and land to become a real force to be reckoned with. As the whole “pirate queen” name suggests, she was no slouch on the sea either.

One popular story claims that a Turkish corsair had the audacity to attack her ship the day after she’d given birth to one of her sons. To the Turks’ surprise, Grace hopped out of bed and met them on the deck with a gun in each hand. She then famously screamed, “Take this load from unconsecrated hands!” (she wasn’t the churchy type) as she unloaded a few rounds into her attackers. In the end, she ended up capturing their ship instead.

Grace managed to amass enough ships, armies, and land to become a true force to be reckoned with

By 1584, the English had had enough of Grace going all Jack Sparrow on their ships. So they sent down a governor named Sir Richard Bingham, who imprisoned Grace’s youngest son. Bingham even confiscated Grace’s lands, fleet, and castle, and all-around proceeded to make her life a living hell. At that point, Grace did what any reasonable woman would do. She put away her guns and went to have a little chat with Queen Elizabeth I herself in 1593.

Though there are many legends about what exactly transpired between the two women, one thing was sure: Queen Elizabeth was picking up what Grace was putting down. Ultimately, Elizabeth ordered Bingham to release Grace’s son and back off. The two would go down as the most powerful women of their day and are still honored as OG feminists.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

Forget ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and learn about these real famous pirates I History 101

Get the lowdown on pirates who scourged the real-life seas.

Fiercest Women In History I History 101

Meet more amazing women who shook things up throughout history.