‘So tell your Royal mistress,’
The dauntless Grace replied,
‘That she and all her men-at-arms
Are scornfully defied.
She may own the fertile valley
Where the Foyle and Liffey flow
But tell her Grace O’Malley
Is unconquered in Mayo.’
James Hardiman: Irish Minstrelsy, vol. II, p. 65
St. Patrick’s day is upon us, and since it’s estimated that 50-80 million people worldwide have Irish ancestry, we wanted to mention it here on our blog. While most people are familiar with St. Patrick peacefully leading the snakes out of Ireland, we here at Revel Nail would like to honor one of Ireland's amazing women and her most famous pirate, Grace O’Malley.
Born in 1530 to a wealthy, noble family with a history of ruling since the middle ages, Grace O’Malley was not known for her conformity. The O’Malley clan built their fortune through trade and naval warfare. Grace’s father Owen tried hard to keep her on land but despite his best efforts, she received most of her formal education at sea. She spoke several languages and had access to all the privileges that came with nobility, but Grace was not interested. She cut off her hair, dressed as a man and snuck onto her father’s ship. It didn’t take long for her father to relent when Grace herself saved him during an attack from pirates. She earned the nickname, Gráinne Mhaol, meaning bald or cropped hair.
When her father eventually passed away, she took over active leadership of the lordship by land and by sea, despite having a brother. This was the beginning of her beef with England. At the time, England was claiming more and more land in Ireland. Queen Elizabeth made Sir Richard Bingham, a soldier and naval commander, Governor of the Irish province of Connacht. Thing is, Connacht was home to the O’Malley family and Grace’s primary stomping ground.
At 17, Grace married Donal, “the warlike” Ó Flaithbheartaigh and expanded her territory even further. She had three kids with Donal, but the eldest was murdered by Governor Bingham, and the youngest betrayed his family to join Bingham’s fleet. Soon Donal was killed in an ambush while hunting. Grace decided that diplomacy was no longer appealing to her.
O’Malley gained influence in the area and became known as an international trader, a large land owner, and a pirate that harassed English holdings and trade. While Governor Bingham referred to O’Malley as the “nurse to all rebellions in the province for this 40 years” Grace doubled down by entering into open rebellion against all things English, offering her men to Ireland anytime it involved protecting Irish or Scottish interests. In 1576, Grace sailed to Howth Castle to visit the English Lord Howth, only to find he wasn’t there when she arrived and the gates locked against her. Grace was not known for her patience with the English. She was insulted and decided Howth needed to be taught a lesson. She kidnapped his grandson and heir, but eventually she returned him under Lord Howth’s promise that the doors to Howth Castle would stay open to unexpected visitors with a place made ready for them at the dinner table; A promise that is still kept by the Howth descendants.
Eventually, Queen Elizabeth I invited Grace to come to England to end the feud. Rumor is, Grace showed up in a fine gown but refused to bow to the queen, convinced she wasn’t the rightful ruler of Ireland. Queen Elizabeth and O’Malley came to an agreement that Governor Bingham would be removed and his stolen lands returned to the Irish, if O’Malley would stop supporting Irish lords who fought for independence from England. When she got back to Ireland, Grace found that Bingham was gone but the castles and lands he had taken remained in English hands. So she continued to fight for Irish independence throughout the bloody Nine Years’ War between 1594 and 1603, the biggest conflict between Ireland and England during the Elizabethan era.
Grace O’Malley managed to retain a reputation of being a formidable pirate, a fierce leader, and a smart politician. She was by most accounts fair, but clearly not a woman to be pushed around. When you’re picking out your St. Patrick’s day mani this year, know that celebrating the Irish means celebrating some pretty strong, bad-ass ladies.