Grace O’Malley, the ‘pirate queen’ who broke gender roles

Category:  News
Wednesday, March 28th, 2018 at 5:49 PM

Pirate. One simple word that, for most, brings to mind some interesting characters like Black Beard, Captain Kidd or Anne Bonny. It brings to mind the clear, blue waters of the Caribbean and the cutthroat lifestyle of the Golden Age of Piracy.

But what about the shores of Ireland in the mid-1500s? What about Grace O’Malley?

As one of the presentations for the visiting students during High School Day, on Wednesday, March 21, Dr. Jerra Jenrette spoke on O’Malley and the life this so-called “pirate queen” lived.

She began by discussing with the students what exactly a pirate is. And after coaxing some answers from them, she gave her own.

 “Piracy is about engaging other vessels, sometimes in wartime,” Jenrette explained. “Many of the pirates that existed in what’s called the Golden Age of Piracy… were actually privateers.”

She continued, explaining that privateers were men given letters of mark by a government to go and attack that nation’s enemies during wartime, most notably in battles between England and Spain.

She also described how pirates split up their “booty” from the conquests, with the captain getting two shares and each crew member getting one share.

“Something existed on pirate vessels that didn’t exist, at the time, really anywhere else in the world,” Jenrette described. “It’s called democracy.”

Captains were elected by their crews and had to serve the interests of their men well or face being deposed, which would likely end in death.

With an understanding of pirates established, Jenrette moved on to the woman of the hour: Grace O’Malley.

Born the daughter of a clan leader in Clew Bay on the west coast of Ireland, O’Malley grew up with a love of the sea. At the age of 11, she even went as far as to stowaway on one of her father’s ships so that she could sail with him, a highly unusual thing for a girl in the 1500s.

She would give up a life at sea for a time when she married the leader of another clan, Donal O’Flaherty. After having three children together, their marriage came to an end.

“She realizes that her husband was not very courageous,” Jenrette explained. “He was inept, by and large.”

This allowed for O’Malley to essentially push him out of the way and take over leadership of his clan. Fortunately for her, he was slain in battle soon after she did this and the clan was fully hers.

Despite being the new clan leader, she was unable to inherit his land. This led to her relocating to Clare Island in Clew Bay, which would be her staging grounds for her later operations.

To add to this, her father soon died as well, with O’Malley taking control of his fleet. The men, who wouldn’t normally have been willing to follow a woman, followed her because they had known her since she first stowed away, explained Jenrette.

“They respected her. And she was no fainting flower.”

It was after this that O’Malley began to use Clare Island as a base to attack English ships with her fleet. The English at the time were ruled by Queen Elizabeth I and were, and had been, occupying Ireland.

The English eventually became tired of O’Malley’s attacks and sent Sir Richard Bingham to Ireland to capture her and subdue the Irish. He was successful, though he eventually released her once more.

This started a battle between the two in which O’Malley ended up leading an open revolt against him, detailed Jenrette. The revolt was quickly put down and Bingham retaliated against her by plundering her land and capturing her ships, leaving her with nothing.

“In 1593, she petitions for a meeting with Queen Elizabeth,” Jenrette described. “In 1595… [Grace] left Ireland secretly on a ship and sailed to London.”

Jenrette explained no one knows what exactly was said or talked about in the meeting between Elizabeth and O’Malley. Afterwards, Bingham was ordered to return O’Malley’s possessions and to return to England, where he was put on trial.

It is believed that O’Malley died in 1603, the same year as Queen Elizabeth.

Jenrette wrapped up the presentation by showing some videos on O’Malley and by asking one question: “Was Grace O’Malley a pirate?”

There was no record of her attacking other Irish ships unless she was at war with that clan. The records of her are on attacks on English ships.

“Did that make her a pirate?” Jenrette asked. “If you’re English, it did. If you’re Irish, maybe not.”

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