grace o'malley the lady pirate talks to queen elizabethIf you believe in girl power, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more exciting icon that Grace O’Malley, or Gráinne Ní Mháille in Irish (she’s somtimes called “La Granuaile”). Born in 1530, she was a shrewd, educated women who successfully managed both shipping and land ownership businesses she inherited — becoming quite wealthy in the process — and gained a reputation as one of the greatest pirates in history.

O’Malley might not be happy to be labelled as a pirate. She’s known as such because after Galway City decided to collect a tax from any ships passing the city, she decided to collect a similar tax from any ships passing by her waterfront property. She had over 200 sailors under her command, and her enforcement methods were unforgiving. Ship masters refusing to pay her tax were often subjected to violence or murder.

Nurse Of Rebellions
O’Malley was a Celtic woman who allegedly spoke no English. But she impressed the English. In 1593 an advisor to Queen Elizabeth who met with O’Malley said simply: “This is a notorious women in all the coasts of Ireland.” Another military commander to Elizabeth said she was revolutionary causing trouble for the English crown in Ireland, calling her a “nurse to all rebellions in the province (Connacht) for this forty years.”

O’Malley had three children and two tempestuous marriages. Depending on which history you read, she may have had several other affairs. She was apparently impatient. In 1576 she tried to stop in unannounced and visit Lord Howth at his castle in Dublin. Being told that the Howth family was at dinner and it was not a good time to visit did not sit well with her. She responded by kidnapping the Earl’s heir. Although the Earl was eventually returned, the Howth’s learned that it was a good idea to accept unexpected visitors, and instituted an “open door” policy at their castle.

Hello Elizabeth
O’Malley’s most legendary moment was her one on one meeting with Queen Elizabeth in 1593. After the pirates two sons were captured by the British and imprisoned, O’Malley set sail to England to try and secure their release.

What followed has to be one of the most legendary audiences in the history of the English crown. Finding the queen in a huge gown and surrounded by a bevy of advisors, O’Malley refused to bow because she did not see Elizabeth as the queen of Ireland. As if that were not enough, O’Malley was found to have a dagger concealed on her person.

The odd weapon here and there did not upset Elizabeth, however. After the two women spoke for some time in Latin — given that O’Malley did not speak English and Elizebeth did not speak Irish — an agreement or sorts was hammered out. But although both parties left the room feeling well, O’Malley decided not long afterwards that talking to Elizabeth had been a waste of time, and went back to supporting revolutionaries against England in the Nine Years War.

Songs, Shows and Poems

O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth both died in 1603. And while Elizabeth has a place in the history books, it seems as though O’Malley has become a much larger figure in popular culture. Many Irish-Americans have been told of her by admiring grandparents, there has been a Broadway show done about her life (albeit not too successful) and musicians, poets and songwriters have written about her amazing live. The pirate queen, apparently, lives on.

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