GrÃ¡inne NÃ MhÃ¡ille 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.
She was married at the age of about 16 to DÃ³nal an Chogaidh Ã“ 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 Ã“ MÃ¡ille trading/pirating business uninterrupted from DÃ³nal’s base at Bunowen Castle. When DÃ³nal (true to his name) died in battle defending one of his other castles in the early 1560s, GrÃ¡inne 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 DÃ³nal’s death, she moved her main base back to Clare Island, taking numerous men with her who’d previously been loyal to the Ã“ 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 RisteÃ¡rd an Iarainn Bourke (Iron Richard). RisteÃ¡rd owned a particular castle that she liked and was a well-placed member of the powerful Bourke family. They had one son, TiobÃ¡id; 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 RisteÃ¡rd 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 GrÃ¡inne 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 GrÃ¡inne 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 GrÃ¡inne 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 DÃ³nal were captured by him in 1593, GrÃ¡inne had had enough.
Then in her sixties, she sailed to England to petition Queen Elizabeth for their release. When they met, GrÃ¡inne 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, GrÃ¡inne would stop supporting rebellions in Connacht. This was done, her relatives were released – but the other parts of the agreement were never met, despite GrÃ¡inne petitioning the Queen again in 1595. Elizabeth soon sent Bingham back to Ireland, and GrÃ¡inne went back to fomenting rebellion until her death at the castle she got from RisteÃ¡rd in the early years of the 17th century.
GrÃ¡inne NÃ MhÃ¡ille was a wealthy, privileged, and powerful person to begin with, but she was also supremely badass in her own right.
*Sir William Drury on GrÃ¡inne, writing in 1578.
Featured image from here.