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Grace O'Malley, a bald Irish rebel who stood up to the Queen

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Nov 15, 2018

November is Warrior Women Month, and we’ve been bringing you the stories of ancient women who kicked all sorts of ass. Today we have a new story for you. It’s about Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Ní Mháille in Irish), the powerful Irish lord who actually met Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Grace was the lord of Ó Máille dynasty in Ireland and was also known as Gráinne Mhaol or Granuaile, or “the bald,” after shaving her head to follow her father to sea. (There are dozens of different versions of her name, but we’re using Grace O’Malley since that’s likely the most well-known in the United States.) Grace was born around 1530 CE in Connacht, Ireland, during the reign of Henry VIII. Her father Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille was the head of the clan and ruler of Umall, and her mother was Maeve of the same clan. She was formally educated as a child, and we know that she and Queen Elizabeth conducted their entire conversation in Latin when they met in person. That bald thing? Well, Grace wanted to go to sea with her father, but he wouldn’t let her. According to the legend, she cut her hair so he would be embarrassed and decide to take her along. Apparently, it worked.

In 1546, Grace married Dónal an Chogaidh Ó Flaithbheartaigh, who was the heir in his own clan. They had three children together, but Dónal was killed in an ambush in 1565. Grace took a lover who was also killed by the MacMahons. She got her revenge for that, attacking their castle on Doona and killing them all. She became known as the Dark Lady of Doona, one of her many nicknames. She married again but made another successful attack on Doona the next year. Though her home was attacked many times, Grace took down all comers, gaining a reputation for fierceness in battle.

Years later, her sons and her half-brother were taken captive by the English head of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham. Not content to stand by and let others negotiate for her, Grace sailed off to England to meet with Queen Elizabeth I to get her to secure their release. The Queen gave her a written list of questions, and after sending back the answers, Grace arrived at Greenwich Palace in a gown, refusing to bow to Elizabeth. Well, she didn’t think the English Queen should be recognized as the Queen of Ireland, so why would she? She may or may not have had a dagger on her, but the legend says Elizabeth didn’t worry about it. Her manners weren’t what Elizabeth’s court was used to. There is another legend that says Grace sneezed, and when given a handkerchief by a court lady, she blew her nose in it and threw it in the fire.

Elizabeth must have been impressed, despite Grace’s manners, as she removed Bingham from Ireland, while Grace agreed to stop helping the Irish rebel. Unfortunately, she returned him to Ireland shortly after. Well, Grace was having none of it, and the rebellions began again with her help. She and Elizabeth died the same year. Grace would have been 72 or 73 years old at the time.

Grace O’Malley is known all over the world as a powerful fighter and rebel. She’s found her way into books, songs, plays, and more. James Joyce spoke of Gráinne Ní Mháille ("her grace o’malice") in his novel Finnegans Wake. The Commissioners of Irish Lights have named three ships after Granuaile. She’s the inspiration for a female pirate crew called Ye Loyal Krewe of Grace O’Malley, that appears at a Florida pirate festival. There was even a short-lived Broadway musical based on her life, written by the team behind Les Misérables.

Grace O’Malley, or Granuaile, was a real warrior, a woman of the sea and a rebel who fought for the rights of her country and didn’t hesitate to ask for what she wanted, even from a Queen.

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