Badass Ladies of History: Bald Grace

“A woman that hath impudently passed the part of womanhood and been… chief commander and director of thieves and murderers at sea.”* Who doesn’t love a pirate queen?

Gráinne Ní Mháille was born in or around 1530 in what’s now Co. Mayo in Ireland. Her family lived mostly on Clare Island and were traders and pirates, subordinate to the Bourke family, who were nominally subordinate to Henry VIII of England. Later events show that she was reasonably well-educated – literate in Latin, and very probably spoke some Scottish Gaelic, French, English, and Spanish, as well as Irish – but not much else is known about her childhood, apart from the story of how she got her nickname.
The story goes that, as a child, she wanted to go with her father on one of his trading expeditions. He refused. When she asked why, he told her that her long hair was too much of a hazard – it might get tangled in the ropes and injure her or the ship (clearly the man had never heard of plaits and was terrible at making up excuses for his children, but I digress). Gráinne considered this and then cut all her hair off. Her father was thus shamed into taking her with him, and she was known then as Gráinne Mhaol: in English, Bald Grace, or Grace with Cropped Hair – often anglicised to Granuaile. (If you think that’s bad, in the English chronicles of the time she’s referred to as variously: Grany O’Maly, Grany Imallye, Granny Nye Male, Grany O’Mayle, Granie ny Maille, Granny ni Maille, Grany O’Mally, Grayn Ny Mayle, Grane ne Male, Grainy O’Maly, and Granee O’Maillie. English spelling wasn’t very good back then. For the record, her full name is pronounced pretty close to Graw-nya Nee Wawl-yeh, and her nickname as Graw-nya Way-el.)

She was married at the age of about 16 to Dónal an Chogaidh Ó Flaithbheartaigh (Donal “The Battle” O’Flaherty), who was the heir to Iar Connacht. She moved to his lands, and they had three children: Eoin, Maeve, and Murrough. She didn’t become a lady of leisure, though; it’s very likely that she kept up the Ó Máille trading/pirating business uninterrupted from Dónal’s base at Bunowen Castle. When Dónal (true to his name) died in battle defending one of his other castles in the early 1560s, Gráinne personally defended it successfully against the rival Joyce family. She also later defended it against the English in 1579, pouring the molten lead roof tiles down on their heads while secretly sending a messenger to light a signal fire for help.

Sometime soon after Dónal’s death, she moved her main base back to Clare Island, taking numerous men with her who’d previously been loyal to the Ó Flaithbheartaighs – whom she used to board trading ships sailing to Galway to demand “taxes” in return for passage to the city. The Galway merchants complained to the English administration in Dublin to no particular profit. She also transported Scottish mercenaries from Scotland to Ireland, raided some Scottish islands on the way, and raided other areas of Ireland as far north as Donegal and as far south as Waterford.

In 1566, she married Risteárd an Iarainn Bourke (Iron Richard). Risteárd owned a particular castle that she liked and was a well-placed member of the powerful Bourke family. They had one son, Tiobáid; according to the stories, she gave birth to him while at sea, and after a few hours’ rest, she got up to defend her ship from raiders.

She divorced Risteárd after a year and kept the castle – allowable as they had married under Brehon law. Rumours abounded about her younger lovers and at least one illegitimate child – and while Gráinne definitely seems like the kind of person who did exactly as she liked and woe betide anyone who tried to stop her, because these were also exactly the kinds of rumours that were spread about almost any woman of some power at this time, it’s difficult to know what truth is in them.

The English, from the 1550s onwards, were trying hard to consolidate their previously-nominal rule over Ireland, and Gráinne clashed with them numerous times.  She was arrested for rebellion in 1577 and held in Limerick and then Dublin, but was released. Her main nemesis was Richard Bingham, who was made Governor of Connacht by Queen Elizabeth I in 1584 and spent a good few decades of his life trying to suppress various Irish rebellions in Connacht – rebellions that Gráinne was either involved in herself or somehow supported. Her eldest son Eoin was killed by Bingham, and when her other two sons and her half-brother Dónal were captured by him in 1593, Gráinne had had enough.

Woodcut image of Gráinne (at left) meeting Elizabeth I
Knife, your majesty? What knife? (image via Wikipedia)

Then in her sixties, she sailed to England to petition Queen Elizabeth for their release. When they met, Gráinne scandalised the English court by trying to smuggle a knife into court, refusing to bow to the Queen, and throwing a borrowed handkerchief into the fire after she blew her nose in it – but she seemed to have amused Elizabeth, and the two women came to an agreement (through Latin, naturally). The main thrust of this was that if Elizabeth recalled Bingham, Gráinne would stop supporting rebellions in Connacht. This was done, her relatives were released – but the other parts of the agreement were never met, despite Gráinne petitioning the Queen again in 1595. Elizabeth soon sent Bingham back to Ireland, and Gráinne went back to fomenting rebellion until her death at the castle she got from Risteárd in the early years of the 17th century.

Gráinne Ní Mháille was a wealthy, privileged, and powerful person to begin with, but she was also supremely badass in her own right.

*Sir William Drury on Gráinne, writing in 1578.

Featured image from here.

2 replies on “Badass Ladies of History: Bald Grace”

Leave a Reply