Born c. 1530 Umhaill, Co. Mayo
Died c. 1603 Rockfleet Castle Co. Mayo
Grace O’Malley or Gráinne Ní Mháille was born on Clare Island c1530. Her father was the ruler of the Ó Máille dynasty or clan and her family made their living from both land and the sea, their family motto being “Terra Marique Putens” translating to “Valiant by sea and land”.
Many stories have grown up around her and it’s sometimes difficult to navigate between lore and fact when it comes to her. The documentary evidence of her life comes mainly from English sources and more specifically from questions put to her directly on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I.
Regardless of the finer details that may be undocumented, one thing is for certain: she overcame incredible gender inbalances that existed at the time to become ruler of the clan, keeper of a vast swath of land and sea that stretched along the southern shores of Clew Bay, out to Clare Island, across to Achill Island and down to Blacksod in Erris Head.
But Gráinne only saw this territory as the gateway to, at the time, far-flung places. She made regular trading visits to Spain and it is said that she had a working knowledge of Spanish needed to haggle for goods in the Iberian peninsula.
One of the great ‘stories’ that’s attached to Gráinne is that sailed from Clew Bay to London in 1593. It wasn’t a courtesy call on a near neighbor, but a bit of political maneuvering as Gráinne was under constant threat from Sir Richard Bingham English governor of Connaught. Gráinne felt that a direct appeal to Elizabeth I was the only solution.
It’s said, that when she eventually met with Elizabeth, they conversed in Latin, which is seemingly not the case. Gráinne biographer, Anne Chambers, notes that “both from her own correspondence and from the observations of the many English administrators and military men in Ireland who came in contact with her, it is evident that Grace both understood and spoke English”.
While many stories surround Gráinne, her political savvy and leadership are held aloft in one of the places you would not look for it.
Mapmaker Baptista Boazio completed a map of Ireland in 1612. The orientation is west to east, but there, in what’s the south shore of Clew Bay, is engraved the name ‘Grany O’Male’ (a derivative of her name) – the only woman in power represented on the map. Gráinne is said to have died at the age of 73.