Informal Feminism

{September 11, 2011}   A Brief History of Grace O’Malley

I have started re-watching Xena: Warrior Princess this week, as all the episodes came on Netflix. It has been a blast down memory lane since I remember watching all the episodes on my Nana and Papa’s living room floor as a kid. The show is phenomenal in terms of recognition of female strength. What it has brought to mind are the strong women who have lived throughout history and made significant impacts in their time. So this week I would like to highlight one of these women and talk about Grace O’Malley.

Grace O’Malley was a pirate in the late sixteenth century, her life ran the same timeline as Queen Elizabeth 1st. Grace was born and lived in Ireland her whole life. She was born to a man who had a strong hold in Irish trade and was a seaman himself. She was constantly trying to get to sea and become a sailor but was discouraged because she was a female. Legend has it that when Grace was a young teenager she wished to accompany her father on one of his ships but was told she could not accompany him because her hair was too long. The legend goes that she cut off all her hair and dressed as a boy to pressure her father to take her with him. This was one of her first encounters with the sea but far from her last. She went on many trading missions with her father and learned the ways of the sailor because of her persistence spirit.

She was married to a man named Donal O’Flaherty at sixteen, to whom she had three children. In this relationship she established herself as a leader among his men by proving herself in battle beside them. She was eventually given charge over the O’Flaherty fleet of ships and used them for various mission of both trade and piracy. It was through these ships she was able to help grow the O’Flaherty wealth. Donal died in battle after nineteen years of marriage to Grace. Grace was left to live off of his family which did not sit well with her. It was not long before she left to return to her family home with a fair amount of the O’Flaherty men at her side. It is through this that we can see what a fair and great leader she was because these men followed her willingly to the next chapter of her life.

Once she returned home she became head of her clan and grew her own fleet of ships and land holdings. She was married once more in her life to a man named Richard Burke; this marriage was more to strengthen her hold on the west coast of Ireland. The story of her a Burke goes that Grace married him for one year so that both parties could fortify against the English because they had strongholds in the same area Clew Bay, which Grace held most of the area. After one year it is said that she moved her men into his castle and said the words “I release you” and kept the castle because she was in it at the time. On record Burke and Grace were married for seventeen years but no one can say if they actually remained married that whole time or just for that first year. The marriage’s original goal was to gain the castle and fortify Clew Bay for her clan.

Grace had one final child. The legend goes with this child she had him at sea and after she had given birth on the ship it was attacked by pirates. Grace supposedly got up from her bed, grabbed a pistol, and went to fight at her men’s side. If this is true then it is proof of her strength as a leader and one who knows her role to fight side by side with her men regardless of circumstance.

In the late 1500’s Grace traveled to meet Queen Elizabeth after the arrest of her brother and son. She came to ask that the English queen released them and was surprised when she received an audience. She struck a deal with the Elizabeth that she would release her family if Grace stopped encouraging Irish rebellion. It was the one and only meeting between two powerful and influential women of the time both leaders in their own right, though it is said their there still exists correspondence between them. Once Grace returned to Ireland however she was subjected to constant harassment by Sir Richard Bingham, one of the English men trying to help conquer Ireland. He saw her as a threat and had her arrested and almost executed at one point. It was then that Grace broke her promise to stop encouraging the Irish rebellion and took part in it again.

Grace O’Malley was known to be sailing until as late as 1601 and there are even tales that her death took place aboard one of her ships in 1603, she died the same year as Queen Elizabeth. In her time Grace proved over and over again that she was one of the best leaders in Ireland at the time. She received loyalty and built a safe home for her clan. She was unafraid to go into battle or sail the seas. She also raised a family alongside becoming a great leader. She is an extraordinary woman because she lived in a time when it was unheard of for a woman to be the head of clan. She also crossed all the lines between woman’s and men’s work of the time.


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