Grace O’Malley was Queen of Umaill, chieftain of the O Maille clan, a rebel, seafarer, and fearless leader who challenged the turbulent politics of 16th century England and Ireland. While Irish legends have immortalized Grace as a courageous woman who overcame boundaries of gender imbalance and bias to fight for the independence of Ireland and protect it against the English crown; to the English, she was considered a brutal and thieving pirate, who controlled the coastlines through intimidation and plunder.
Grace O’Malley was born in Ireland around 1530 as a daughter of the wealthy nobleman and sea trader Owen O’Malley. Upon his death, she inherited his large shipping and trading business. From her earliest days, she rejected the role of the 16th century woman, instead embracing the life on the sea with the fleet of O’Malley trading ships. The income from this business, as well as land inherited from her mother, enabled her to become rich and somewhat powerful.
Grace’s Seafaring Origins
During a time when Ireland was ruled by dozens of local chieftains, O’Malley— also known in legends as Granuaile —commanded hundreds of men and some 20 ships in raids on rival clans and merchant ships. She also ran afoul of government officials, who made repeated attempts to curb her activity.