Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 12 July 2020

O'Malley, Gráinne [Grace]free

(fl. 1577–1597)
  • Mary O'Dowd

O'Malley, Gráinne [Grace] (fl. 1577–1597), chieftain's wife and pirate, was the daughter of Owen Dubhdara O'Malley, chief, lord of Umhall Uachtarach or Upper Owle in the barony of Murrisk, co. Mayo, and his wife, Margaret, daughter of Conchobhar Óg Mac Conchobhair O'Malley of Moher, co. Mayo. The Anglicized version of her Gaelic name, Gráinne, became the basis for her name in folklore, Granuaile. The O'Malleys were a seafaring family with a reputation for piracy off the north and west coast of Ireland.

Very little is known of O'Malley's early life. She was probably brought up in the heart of her family's territory in co. Mayo. Her first husband was Dónal O'Flaherty, chief, son of Gilldubh O'Flaherty, and lord of a sept of the O'Flahertys, based in Connemara, co. Galway. They had a son, Owen. By the time of the first recorded references to O'Malley in the late 1570s, Dónal had died and she was married to Richard an Iarainn Burke (d. 1583), chief tánaiste (designated successor) to the MacWilliam Burke, chief of the Burkes of lower Connaught, co. Mayo. They had one son, Theobald (d. 1629). Richard an Iarainn's territory lay in the barony of Burrishoole, adjacent to the O'Malley lands in Murrisk. When Sir Henry Sidney, lord deputy, visited Galway in 1577 he recorded meeting O'Malley, whom he described as 'a most famous femynyne sea captain'. She offered him the service of her three galleys and 200 men. According to Sidney, O'Malley 'brought with her her husband, for she was aswell by sea as by land well more than Mrs Mate with him' (LPL, Carew MS 601, fol. 111). Sidney did not avail himself of O'Malley's overtures of assistance and shortly after their encounter she was arrested by Gerald Fitzgerald, fourteenth earl of Desmond, and spent almost two years in prison in Limerick and Dublin. Her crime was not recorded, but it is likely that her arrest was motivated more by Desmond's desire to demonstrate his loyalty to the government than by any serious threat represented by O'Malley.

In the spring of 1579 O'Malley was released, and later that year Richard an Iarainn raided the Galway region, partly as a means of dividing crown forces which were concentrated on controlling the outbreak of Desmond's rebellion in Munster and partly to bolster his own military standing among the Burkes. Through O'Malley's intercession he submitted to the president of Connaught, Sir Nicholas Malby, in 1580, and at the end of the year he succeeded to the position of MacWilliam Burke with government support. He was knighted in 1581. There were, however, limits to Burke's and O'Malley's co-operation with the crown authorities, and over the next two years she is recorded helping him to resist further interference by government officials in the Burke lordship. Richard an Iarainn died in 1583. On her husband's death, O'Malley, according to her own account, 'gathered together all her own followers and with 1000 head of cows and mares' (TNA: PRO, SP 63/170, no. 63) went to live in Carraighowley Castle, co. Mayo, on part of her late husband's territory, where she continued to 'maintain herself and her people by sea and land' (ibid., no. 64). She may initially have established friendly relations with the new president of Connaught, Sir Richard Bingham, but she and her sons soon fell out with his regime. Owen was killed by the president's brother George Bingham in 1586 and O'Malley was imprisoned and threatened with death. Theobald was maintained in the president's household for some time as a pledge.

O'Malley was implicated in the Burke rebellions of 1586 and 1588 by Sir Richard Bingham, who accused her of drawing Scottish mercenary soldiers into co. Mayo. Her actions suggest, however, that she was primarily concerned to protect the interests of her immediate family and particularly those of Theobald. By 1591 Theobald had emerged as the leading Burke and the strongest contender for the position of MacWilliam but despite submitting to the government he was still regarded with suspicion. Her son's arrest precipitated O'Malley's visit to Elizabeth I in the summer of 1593. A remarkable aspect of O'Malley's petitions was that she acted as spokesperson for the men in her family. She asked the queen for the release of her son and of her brother, who had also been arrested by Bingham. She also requested that her two sons and two other male members of the Burke family be given letters patent for their lands. As a widow under English common law, O'Malley also laid claim to dower from the land of the O'Malleys and of the O'Flahertys. In a much quoted passage she explained that a widow under Gaelic law had no right to her husband's land. The royal visit was a success from O'Malley's point of view. Bingham was ordered by Elizabeth to release Theobald and to grant O'Malley maintenance from her husbands' lands. As a demonstration of loyalty, O'Malley claimed that she had 'procured all her sons, cousins and followers of the O'Malleys', with a number of galleys (some newly built on her return from London) to assist the Elizabethan forces in the Mayo area (TNA: PRO, SP 63/177, no. 36). The Irish administration was, none the less, slow to implement the queen's instructions and in 1595 O'Malley made another visit to London, renewing her requests for herself and her male relatives.

The London administration's endorsement of O'Malley's requests was rooted in the absence of substantial evidence that she had participated in rebellion against the crown despite the strong assertions of Bingham that she, or at least her sons, had done so. Crown support for O'Malley was vindicated during the 1590s when her son and she assisted the government with their galleys. In 1597 Theobald made an agreement with the English administration which granted him the lands of MacWilliam in return for his support for government troops. With the exception of the Bingham era of the late 1580s, the strategy of O'Malley, Richard an Iarainn, and Theobald appears to have been one of negotiated co-operation with the English administration in Ireland. This was successful in the sense that Theobald emerged at the end of the sixteenth century as the greatest landowner in co. Mayo and was created Viscount Mayo in 1627.

The date of O'Malley's death is not recorded, but it was probably in the first decade of the seventeenth century. She is remarkable as being the only woman from sixteenth-century Gaelic Ireland who is recorded as taking a leadership role within her sept. Despite her notoriety among English officials, however, there are no references to her in Gaelic historical sources, a reflection, perhaps, of her relatively minor status within the politics of the north-west of the late sixteenth century. Apart from her two sons, O'Malley had a daughter, Margaret, although it is not known which husband was the father. In later centuries O'Malley's life became the topic of folklore stories which celebrated her piratical and military achievements.


  • A. Chambers, Granuaile: the life and times of Grace O'Malley, c.1530–1603, rev. edn (Dublin, 1998)
  • CSP Ire., 1574–96
  • TNA: PRO, SP 63/170, nos. 63, 64; SP 63/171, nos. 18, 35, 37; SP 63/177, nos. 36, 70
  • LPL, Carew MS 601, fol. 111
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Lambeth Palace London
H. C. Hamilton & others, eds., , 24 vols., PRO (1860–1910)