Hidden historical heroines (#12: Granuaile)


Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille), c. 1530 – c. 1603, was Queen of Umaill, chieftain of the Ó Máille clan and a pirate (yes, a pirate) of Tudor Ireland. She is more commonly known by her nickname Granuaile.


Granuaile was born around 1530, the only legitimate child of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille – cheiftain of the Ó Máille clan, based in Clew Bay, County Mayo. Eoghan (and therefore Granuaile) was a direct descendant of its founder and eponym, Maille mac Conall. Henry VIII was Lord of Ireland in name, but – for Granuaile’s childhood at least – the Irish tribal princes were more or less left to their own devices. The Ó Máilles were a seafaring clan with a row of castles all along the coast at Clew Bay, facing out to the sea. They taxed all those who traveled through or fished in their waters. They were respected tradesmen and sailors, having merchant relationships with countries as far away as Eastern Europe.


It is unsurprising that Granuaile grew up with a strong love for the sea. As a pre-teen, she was desperate to be taken along with her father on his trading expeditions. Although her father was extremely relaxed with his daughter and inclined to allow it, her mother refused, on the grounds that ladies weren’t allowed on ships, as their long hair would blow in the wind and tangle up in the ship’s ropes. Undeterred, Granuaile sheared her hair off, earning herself the nickname “Gráinne Mhaol” (from maol, meaning bald) which was eventually anglicised into Granuaile. Her indulgent father agreed to take her along on all his journeys from then on.


Once, returning from a trip to trade with Spain, the Ó Máille ships were attacked by the English. Granuaile was under strict standing instruction to hide below decks if they were ever attacked, but instead climbed up into the sail rigging, where she watched the battle for control of the ship from above. She noted that an Englishman was coming up to the rear of her father, who was engaged fighting another, and knew that the intent was to cut him down from behind. She scrambled nearer across the rigging and let herself drop down on top of the man, drawing her father’s attention and saving his life. The Ó Máilles went on to defeat the English and return home safely.


Granuaile might have been an unusual girl, with an unusual skill-set and unusual freedoms, but there were some constraints of 16th Century life she couldn’t avoid. In 1546 she was married off to Dónal an Chogaidh Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Donal of the Battle), the tánaiste (or heir expectant) to the Ó Flaithbheartaigh (O’Flaherty) clan, meaning he would one day rule Iar Connacht, the area roughly equivalent to modern Conamara. Although not a love match, it was a fair one; the Ó Flaithbheartaigh clan were also seafarers, and their lands lay adjacent to that of the Ó Máille. The marriage resulted in three children; two sons, Owen and Murrough and a daughter, Maeve (or Margaret).


Dónal was reckless and war-hungry, always seeking fame and glory in battle. He once captured a fortress from the Joyce clan, earning said fortress the nickname “Cock’s Castle” due to his attitude and aggression. When Dónal was struck down and killed in battle, the Joyces immediately moved and reclaimed their fortress. The newly widowed Granuaile took this as an affront and immediately moved to recapture it, doing so with more ease than her late husband had originally. The Joyces were so impressed with her that they renamed the fortress Caisleán na Circe, the “Hen’s Castle,” the name by which it is still known. It remained in Granuaile’s family line until it fell into disuse. Legend has it, that once, when Granuaile was an old lady, she took refuge at Hen’s Castle from the English, who put her under siege there. Granuaile ordered that the lead from the roof be melted down and poured over the heads of the attackers. In the confusion that followed, a runner from the castle made it through the besieging forces and was able to summon help. The English were beaten back and Granuaile and her family freed.


As Dónal had never had the opportunity to be chieftain of their clan, the Ó Flaithbheartaighs did not honour custom and protect and provide for his widow. Granuaile took her children and a sizeable chunk of the Ó Flaithbheartaigh clan – who adored her – and returned to her Ó Máille homeland. With no husband or formal ‘income’, it isn’t hard to see why Granuaile felt piracy was the best way to support herself and her people. As trade ships came through the Ó Máille waters, Granuaile’s ships would stop them and demand either cash or a sizeable portion of the ships cargo for safe passage the rest of the way. As she stopped other Irish ships as well as foreign traders (particular those from the rich trading colony at Galway Bay), this didn’t particularly endear her to her fellow Irishmen. They appealed to Queen Elizabeth, as “Lord of Ireland” to intervene. The more involved and heavy-handed that the English became, the more Granuaile felt inclined to rebel. As well as carrying on her piracy, she began to aid those who were rebelling against Queen Elizabeth’s overlordship, providing men, weapons and transport.


In 1566, Granuaile contracted another marriage, with one Risdeárd an Iarainn Bourke, called “Iron Richard”, an appropriate corruption of his Irish name as he is reputed to have always worn a coat of mail inherited from his Anglo-Norman ancestors. Like her first marriage it was politically astute; Richard had lands bordering her own (including the impressive and well-situated Rockfleet Castle) and was also being ‘persecuted’ by the English governors. The pair married under ancient Brehon Law (an ancient Irish civil code) for “one year certain”. Granuaile spent most of that year on-board a ship, continuing her piratical ways, even giving birth to Richard’s son Tibbot in the captain’s cabin. The next day, her ship was boarded by Turkish pirates and Granuaile hefted herself out of childbed, grabbing her gun and heading straight into the fray. “Take this from unconsecrated hands!” she is said to have shouted as she shot at the invaders.


As the year of marriage came to a close, Granuaile and her followers headed straight to Richard’s Rockfleet Castle and locked themselves in. Richard and his men came to see what was afoot. Granuaile called out of a window, “Richard Burke, I dismiss you,” effectively and legally ending the marriage under Brehon Law. The astute Granuaile however knew that her being in possession of the castle at the point of the ‘divorce’ meant it became legally her own. There were apparently no hard feelings between Richard and Granuaile – he remained loyal to her cause up until his death, and in later life, Granuaile would refer to herself as “Richard’s widow” in correspondence with Queen Elizabeth.


Another interesting story is that of Granuaile at Howth Castle. Apparently, in 1576, Granuaile attempted to pay a courtesy visit to Baron Howth. She was informed that the family was sat down at dinner and she was refused access. Incensed at this poor hospitality, Granuaile abducted Baron Howth’s grandson and heir and would not release him until a solemn promise was given that from that point onwards the Howth family would leave their gates open to visitors and set an extra place at every meal they sat down to. Lord Howth even gave Granuaile a ring as part of this pledge. The ring remains in the possession of Granuaile’s descendants and at Howth Castle today, the agreement is still honoured by the Gaisford St. Lawrence family, descendants of the Baron Howth.


Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth was extending the control over Ireland that her title afforded her. She appointed one Sir Richard Bingham as Governor of the Irish territories, charging him to keep the peace. One of his first actions was to send guards to arrest Granuaile and have her hanged for her lifetime of crime. Contemporary records show that Granuaile, then in her mid-fifties, acted with dignity during what she believed would be the last days of her life. At the very last minute, her son-in-law offered himself as a hostage to the English. Granuaile was freed, on the proviso that if she ever returned to her rebellious ways, her daughter’s husband would pay the forfeit with his life.


Things were at a stalemate for the next few years; Granuaile and her clan certainly did not give up their piracy, but it was never quite enough to be worth raising her wrath by retaliating. However, in 1593, all hell broke loose. Granuaile’s eldest and most beloved son, Owen, was killed by the brother of the aforementioned Richard Bingham, Queen Elizabeth’s Governor in Ireland. Her youngest son with her first husband, Murrough, decided to join forces with the English. Heartbroken that he would do this after the murder of his own brother, Granuaile announced that Murrough was dead to her and never saw him again. Seizing the opportunity to once and for all finish Granuaile – who he called ’nurse to all rebellions in the province for forty years’ – Bingham captured her youngest son, Tibbot Burke and her illegitimate half-brother.


There was nothing for it; Granuaile decided her only hope was to appeal to Elizabeth directly, queen to queen. It is easy to understand how Queen Elizabeth’s interest would have already been piqued; like her, Granuaile was an individual who had exceeded the limitations of womanhood and was showing great bravery in physically traveling to London to meet with her persecutor. Before agreeing to the meeting, Elizabeth sent Granuaile a ‘questionnaire’ of sorts, with eighteen questions, all about her life, her family, her ‘career’ and the finer points of Gaelic Law and the rights of women therein. Granuaile’s argument was that all her piracy and rebellion was as a direct result of being denied her rightful inheritance from her first husband and that her legal right to rule her father’s clan was questioned due to her gender, despite their overlord, Elizabeth herself, also being a woman. She also felt that Bingham had a personal vendetta against her family and needed to be curbed. Even further intrigued, Elizabeth agreed to meet with Granuaile, despite Bingham’s loud protestations.


The unprecedented meeting took place at Greenwich. Granuaile had a dagger on her person, which was immediately removed from her. Granuaile swore that it was for her own protection and that she wished no harm to Elizabeth, and was allowed to proceed. At this point, however, she refused to bow, underlining that she did not recognise Elizabeth as Queen of Ireland. The atmosphere was extremely tense. According to legend, Granuaile had picked up a cold on her sea-crossing, and sneezed. A courtier offered her use of an expensive lace handkerchief to blow her nose with, but after Granuaile had so used the item, she tossed it into the fire. On-lookers were aghast at her rudeness. Elizabeth immediately scolded her for her extreme wastefulness. Granuaile replied that the Irish would not have kept and reused a handkerchief, even such a fine one as that, and so apparently they had higher standards of cleanliness than their English counterparts. The court held its breath, fully expectant that Elizabeth would immediately order that the rude Irish woman be executed. Elizabeth was silent for an uncomfortable moment before, thankfully, exploding into laughter.


Elizabeth proceeded to treat with Granuaile very fairly, expressing her respect for her both as a woman and as a leader of men. Three years older than Elizabeth herself, Granuaile had many freedoms that even Gloriana herself could only covet – the chance to lead her men into battle personally, to travel and explore the world, to take husbands and lovers at will and bear children. Elizabeth ordered that Granuaile’s family members be set free and Granuaile herself be given respect and autonomy in her lands; in return, Granuaile promised to cease her support of the Irish rebels – and also to stop her piracy against English ships (all others were still fair game, apparently!). Richard Bingham was removed from his post as Governor of Ireland.


Finally, Elizabeth offered Granuaile the title of Countess; Granuaile respectfully refused, on the grounds that one queen cannot ennoble another. In 1627 however, Charles I made her son Tibbot Burke Viscount Mayo. Granuiale’s descendants can be traced prominent through the nobility of Ireland and Britain.

The peace between the two queens lasted for a little while, before Bingham was reinstated. Granuaile (probably quite bored at this point) went swiftly back to her old ways.


Granuaile died in her mid-seventies, a fine old age, most likely at Rockfleet Castle, the fortification she had tricked from her second husband all those years ago. More than twenty years after her death, an English lord deputy of Ireland recalled her ability as a leader of fighting men, noting her continued fame and the respect for her that was still widespread among the Irish people.



One thought on “Hidden historical heroines (#12: Granuaile)

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