Thursday 16 August 2018

Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley (1530-1603)

Pirate queen Grace O'Malley
Pirate queen Grace O'Malley

At a time when the world is increasingly attuned to strong heroines, Westport House is fortunate to be able to associate so strongly with Grace (or Gráinne) O'Malley, the legendary Pirate Queen of Connacht. O'Malley has become something of a feminist icon, with a range of modern artistic depictions conveying the image of a beautiful flame-haired swashbuckler with a steely expression.

In the 16th Century, while Dublin and the east was ostensibly "English", the west was made up of 40 autonomous "kingdoms" ruled by native Irish clans. During Queen Elizabeth's rule, a decision was made to spread England's influence to these territories and bring Ireland to heel. Clashes ensued between royal forces and powerful families like that of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, chieftain of a Gaelic clan that presided over the southern shore of Clew Bay.

Part of the clan's livelihood was reaped from the seas through piracy, bartering, ferrying mercenaries and extracting tolls from ships. Born in 1530, Gráinne was Eoghan's only child. The story goes her father wouldn't allow her aboard a voyage to Spain, saying her long hair would only become entangled in the ropes. She promptly cut it all off.

Stories abound about the cunning and iron-willed woman chieftain but one stands out. In 1593, O'Malley was granted safe passage to the court of Queen Elizabeth to plea for the life of her captured son. Despite being a chief antagonist of British rule in the west of Ireland, the two met and a mutual respect is said to have developed (O'Malley refused to bow on account of being a queen herself). O'Malley is thought to be the inspiration behind Yara Greyjoy from Game of Thrones, and that character's meeting with Queen Daenerys in Season 6 takes its cues from this real-life meeting of queens.

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