Who was Grace O'Malley?
Grace O’Malley or Granuaile is a name associated with the west of Ireland and more particularly with the western coastlinearound Clew Bay. Legends and stories of her exploits in the sixteenth century abound, some based on fact exaggerated with the lapse of time, others founded completely in the realm of fantasy.
The name ‘Grace O’Malley’ conjures up for some an image of an amazon- type woman, ruthless and domineering, performing incredible deeds with no particular end in mind; for others the nameis associated with a figure of fiery patriotism, whose sole aim in life was to expel the foreign invader from native soil.
Grace was born around 1530, the only child of an Irish chieftain, Owen 'Black Oak' O'Malley, and his wife Margaret. The O'Malleys' territory lay in Mayo in the west of Ireland, around Clew Bay. They owned several castles in the area where the present towns of Westport and Louisburg are, as well as a castle on Clare Island which they used as their summer residence.
The O'Malleys existed as an independent clan, paying and receiving tribute. They were, however, unusual among Gaelic families in that they earned their living from both land and sea. They traded raw materials in exchange for luxury goods, ferried Scottish mercenaries, fished, plundered, engaged in opportunistic piracy, and levied a toll on all shipping in O'Malley waters.
Like her father, Grace was black-haired, dark-skinned and strong. Twice married, she had two sons and a daughter by Donal O'Flaherty, and one son, Tibbot-na-Long or Theobald of the Ships, her favourite,by 'Iron' Richard Burke.
More than a woman, Grace was a Gaelic chieftain. She commanded a fleet of war and merchant ships, trading with France, Spain, England and Portugal, dominating the watersoff Western Ireland, resisting and then treating with the invading Tudors. By land Grace stormed and defended castles, engaged in the then favourite Irish practice of cattle rustling, gave birth to four children and generally showed she was the equal if not the better of any man.
According to one horrified Tudor official, she‘hath impudently passed the part of womanhood and been a great spoiler and chief commander and director of thieves and murderers at sea’. Suchwas Grace’s power that in 1593 Elizabeth I agreed to meet her in London to considerrequests for money and permission‘to invade with sword and fire’ the queen’s enemies.
The only Gaelic woman ever to appear at court,‘the wild grandeur of her mien erect and high,before the English Queen she dauntless stood ... well used to power [and] dominion over men of savage mood’. Her petition was successful, but Grace died ten years later outwitted and impoverished by Tudor officials who never forgave her earlier ‘betrayals’.
Sources & evidence
Grace O’Malley lived at a critical time in Irish history. However, references to her in the pages of Irish history books have been few. Grace remains strangely absent from the Irish annals of that time:
‘the Irish annalists, whether out of chagrin that a mere woman could figure so remarkably in the affairs of the time or because that era produced too many such remarkable personages or simply because of lack of space, completely excluded Grace from their record.’
Her memory was largely kept alive through her re-invention in song and literature as a nationalist symbol.
However, while much that is remembered of her has gained the status of myth, there remains enough evidence ofGrace as a historical person to merit a re-evaluation of her role. Evidence from the English State papers and manuscripts suggests that she played no small part in Irish affairs at that time.
Her name is recorded for posterity in the Elizabethan State Papers; her exploits are reported in official state dispatches of such notables as Sir Henry Sidney, Sir Nicholas Malby, Sir Richard Bingham, Sir John Perrott, Lord Justice Drury and Queen Elizabeth I of England. Her name finds its way into the Sidney, Salisbury and Carewmanuscripts, the Dictionary of National Biographyand a fascinating and informative narrative of her life and life style occurs in her own replies to the eighteen articles of interrogatory put to her by the English government in 1593.
Such records show that, while the mythical figure of Granuaile in song and story has a certain magic, the real Grace O’Malley is more interesting still. She was ‘an exceptional woman, alive, vital and daring, who lived life to its limits,and who possessed all the requirements necessary for survival in that era. A woman who plied her family trade with all the expertise it required, and who above all else put her own interests and those of the small remote domain overwhich she ruled first, in the never-ending struggle for survival.’
The story of Grace O’Malley is ‘larger than life’, but so also is the turbulent and eventful age to which she belonged. The character of Grace O’Malley must be examined within the context of her time. A century of exploration and discovery, of wars and intrigue, of armadas and invasions; of glorious empires at the pinnacle of their power. She lived in a time in which Ireland saw the final clash and eventual submission of the ancient Irish order, with its hopelessly outmoded medieval structures, to its powerful and persistent English neighbour.
While the population of Europe doubled during the sixteenth century, the Irish population was at best static. It is estimated that by the end of the century the population was just over 750,000. Agriculture was mainly pastoral innature, with cattle, sheep and goats being the major source of wealth. Trade was centred mainly in the port towns where the Old English were strong. Hides, tallow and linen yarn were traded for wine, salt and manufactured goods.
Tudor conquest of Ireland
Sixteenth-century Ireland thus witnessed the decisive conflict between the Gaelic and English civilisations. The Tudor conquest of Ireland in this period is arguably as significant as the Norman incursion four centuries before, precisely because it was so complete. It transformed the political, social and economic life and altered the landscape of Ireland.
The arrival of the Normans did not result in the subjugation of Ireland: the Normans superimposed their controlon the existing society and coexisted with it. The great Gaelic lordships retained their autonomy and the Normans adjusted easily to the local and regional power structures of the country. By 1500 government control over thecountry was feeble and haphazard.
A century later, the situation was transformed. The significance of the Tudor dynasty (1485-1603) is that the Tudors consolidated the position of central government in a manner hitherto unknown, and gradually curtailed and ultimately subdued the power of the local lords.
This revolution in government affected England and Wales as well as Ireland, but in the Irish case the process wasmost painful and was achieved only through a series of conflicts, most notably the Nine Years War (1594-1603),and plantations. The apparatus of government was extended, the bureaucracy developed, common law supplanted local custom and Brehon Law. The extension of Tudor control meant that the days of independent figures like Grace O’Malley were numbered.
Apart from the extension of government control, the Reformation was the other great development of the sixteenth century. The fact that the two came together guaranteed that the new religious ideas would receive a hostile reception in Ireland.
Tudor images of Ireland
The unfavourable Tudor view of Ireland and the Irish was shaped by, and reflected in, John Derrick’sImage of Ireland, a book of ‘stolid verse’ accompanied by twelve vivid woodcuts. Derrick’s woodcuts have become familiar illustrations in Irish history books.
While excluding from its strictures the civil subjects of the Pale,Image of Ireland is heavily laden with anti-Irish, anti-Catholic views. Most notably, the friars are shown exhorting and absolving the rebellions of the Gaelic lords. The woodcut of the MacSweyne’s alfresco feast emphasises the barbarity of the proceedings - the lack of a proper table, the proximity of the slaughtering and cooking, and the less than delicate manners of all concerned.
The Irish responses to the Tudor onslaught are best captured in the changing tone and content of Bardic poetry,as it gradually dawned on the poets that Gaelic Ireland was being eclipsed.
Confidence in the power of both Gaelic chieftains and the bards themselves gave way to foreboding as ‘Englishways' became more prevalent and then to lamentation at the passing of both the old order and the influence of thebards. As an Ulster poet complained in the early seventeenth century:
Where have the Gaels gone?
What is the fate of the mirthful throngs?
I catch no glimpse of them
within sight of the green land of Gaoidheal.
We have in their stead an arrogant, impure crowd,
of foreigners’ blood,
of the race of Monadh -
there are Saxons there, and Scotch.