According to The Galway Advertiser, on this day in 1594, England used Galway as a launching pad for capturing the Pirate Queen, Gráinne Ní Mháille — and failed miserably. Have you heard of the Pirate Queen? She’s Grace O’Malley in the anglicized legends, and one hard-as-nails chick.
Gráinne (pronounced “grawn-ya” for you Americans) was born to the seafaring clan Ó Máille. They owned a shit-ton of castles on the west coast of Ireland, in County Mayo. (A lot of my friends are from here, so I learned very quickly: it isn’t the colloquial term for mayonnaise, it’s “may-O.”)
Legend says that even as a kid, Gráinne was fierce as hell. Supposedly, when she asked to go with her dad on a trip, he told her that the ship wasn’t for girls – that her long hair would get caught in the rigging. So, logical little Gráinne gave herself a pixie cut long before it was stylish, or even socially acceptable. And so she earned the endearing nickname Gráinne Mhaol, or Granuaile, meaning “bald Grace.”
Similar stories about Gráinne are endless, and her lifestyle was just as fascinating. She married one man, had some kids, found a lover in a shipwrecked man, avenged his death, married another man, stole his castle —
No, seriously. After her first husband’s death, she married Risdeárd an Iarainn Bourke (Richard Bourke) for his land. After a year, Gráinne called out the window: “Richard Bourke, I dismiss you!” (Though probably in Irish.) And that was that. Insta-divorce and a new castle.
Even Gráinne’s first husband’s castle got a name change after his death. It was previously known as “Cock’s Castle” — let’s just say that he wasn’t a nice guy. But after his death, it came to be known as “Hen’s Castle.” Slightly offensive, maybe, but what did she care? She had a castle without the cranky man.
Constant battles, stealing castles, and general clan avenging wasn’t so odd in everyday Irish life at this time, but Gráinne’s “pirate” title came from her fleet of ships, the men that manned them, and the “tax system” she implemented.
Big cities like Galway charged a tax for ships that used their ports for trading and the like. So Gráinne, ever the entrepreneur, started charging a tax for ships that used her waters. Only her methods were a little bloodier than your typical taxation policies of the time (and sometimes a little more murder-y). A little more “pirate-y,” if you will.
She’s also said to have birthed her fourth kid aboard one of her ships, afterward joining a defensive battle and lamenting that the men couldn’t “do without [her] for one day.” No epidural for this one.
Gráinne was also well-known for requesting — and, astonishingly, being granted — an audience with Queen Elizabeth I. Some relatives of Gráinne’s (sons? nephews? I don’t remember) had been captured by this a-hole who was the English governor of Connacht in Ireland, and Gráinne actually secured a deal with the queen to release them.
In return, Gráinne was supposed to behave and stop supporting Irish revolutionary-type efforts. But Gráinne had her fingers crossed behind her back so, like every third grader knows, it didn’t really count.
Gráinne also refused to bow to the queen. She had castles, too, surely that made them equal? Their whole conversation had to be in Latin. Of course the English queen hadn’t learned Irish, the language of the people she was trying to smash. And Gráinne knew several languages, but English wasn’t among them.
As one last, “F*** you,” Gráinne used a noble person’s handkerchief to blow her nose and then disposed of it in the open fire. Even back then, you didn’t borrow other people’s stuff and then burn it.
But who wouldn’t be pissed* at the English and want to drive them away? I know (a little bit of) American history, so I can relate. We all know how sticky those English fingers were. And the poor Irish were right there, next door, open to spoiled English lords for all of history.
Once, when the English came for her, you know what she did? She melted lead from the roof of her castle and poured it on their heads. Or so legend goes. Clever girl.
Now, I’m not saying it’s cool to be skilled at violence and run around ravaging ships that are unfortunate enough to enter what you consider your property, but I am saying that Gráinne Ní Mháille stood up to the Queen of England in a time when England was swallowing Ireland piece by piece.
And for that, she deserves a
*Note: I use “pissed” in the American sense. Not the Irish definition which generally equates to “drunk.” Though it’s entirely possible they were drunk, too.