Sign up for podcast updates and more!
Grace O’Malley was a fierce, Irish pirate who fought for her people and sailed all the way around Great Britain and up the Thames to meet with Queen Elizabeth I in person. When they met, Grace convinced the Queen to revisit her policies and to turn against the English politician she had sent to conquer Grace’s territories. How did she do it?
Let yourself be transported to the stormy, west coast of Ireland and inside the life of one of the most inspiring pirates of all times.
Welcome to Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, I’m ALISON MOSSHART.
Before we start: this podcast is based on the New York Times best seller inspiring millions of girls to dream bigger, aim higher and fight harder. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls is an illustrated children’s book about the life and adventures of a hundred heroic women from all over the world.
Go to rebel girls dot C-O and use the promo code REBELPODCAST to get 15% off your first purchase. That’s rebel girls dot C-O, promo code REBELPODCAST.
Now, for today’s story…
Once upon a time there was a girl who lived in a stone castle near the sea. She was a pirate and her name was Grace.
Grace was born around 1530. Her family lived in Clew Bay, a beautiful spot on the west coast of Ireland that looked out onto the sea.
The rocky coast surrounding the bay was really dangerous to navigate, but the O’Malleys were a seafaring clan. For centuries the family’s ships had ruled those waters. They fished for herring, cod, and salmon. They traded furs and hides from Ireland with merchants from Scotland to Spain.
And they were pirates.
Whenever they crossed a boat, or whenever they saw a castle on the coast, the O’Malley ships descended on them, and stole all they could before sailing away as fast as they’d come. No one could pass their waters without paying the family a toll.
The O’Malleys were a fearless and fearsome people.
Grace’s father was the chief of their clan. He commanded the largest fleet of ships in Ireland. Grace wanted nothing more than to learn the ways of the sea, as her ancestors had for generations before her.
But at that time in Ireland, girls were not meant to be seafarers. Girls were expected to stay at home, to cook, and raise cattle, and take care of children.
But Grace? She had a slightly different plan.
I’m ALISON MOSSHART. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Grace O’Malley.
<END THEME MUSIC>
A PIRATE KID
Grace loved the sea. She loved its tides, its currents, the way it changed shape as a storm gave way to calm. She wanted to know everything about her father’s ships: how to steer, how to hoist a sail, how to use a compass.
Every night, from the slit windows of her family’s stone castle, she looked out at the moonlit sea and practiced navigating by the stars.
But her father refused to let her join his voyages. He told her she was just a child—and a girl. Grace would not have it. She cut her hair short, dressed in boy’s clothes, and stowed away on his ship to learn the secrets of the sea.
It was incredible! Grace loved everything about the life on a ship: the cannons, the camaraderie, the salty wind on her face, and the thrill that came with the sight of another boat…
“This is the life that I want!” she screamed as she leaned over the rail holding the sails with one hand, the other reaching out as if to touch the sea.
THE FIRST MARRIAGE
But then Grace turned sixteen, and her parents decided it was time for her to marry.
They picked her husband. It was a man named Donal, and he was the chief of the O’Flaherty clan. There was no way of opposing those plans, so Grace got married and had three children with Donal: a daughter named Margaret and two sons, Murrough and Owen.
Grace’s husband was not a wise chief. He quarreled constantly with nearby clans. In revenge, those clans attacked his people, burning their homes and stealing their cows.
Soon enough, the O’Flaherty clan was impoverished and desperate. They needed help, and they asked Grace to do something. And Grace didn’t disappoint.
With her in command, the clan raided passing ships to get the food and supplies they needed. Just as they had hoped, Grace lifted them out of poverty.
These bold raids made Grace famous as a pirate all along the west coast of Ireland. By the time her husband died in one of the many fights he instigated, his clan was so loyal to Grace that many members went with her when she returned to her family in Clew Bay.
A PIRATE MOM
Grace married again. Her new husband’s name was Richard-In-Iron. This time, Grace would not allow herself to be tied to a foolish husband. She ordered a marriage contract that would let her leave him after one year if it turned out she didn’t like Richard-In-Iron very much.
But fortunately, she did.
Marriages and children could not slow Grace down, nor keep her from the sea. She gave birth to her fourth child on board her ship, in the middle of a thrashing storm. The next day, as she was nursing her new son Tiboid, she heard shouting and clattering from the sailors above deck. The ship had been attacked by pirates from North Africa who stalked the trading routes.
Grace could hear how hard her crew was fighting. But the other pirates fought harder. When things got ugly, Grace’s captain ran to the room where Grace and her baby were resting and begged her to help.
She could not believe it.
Furious, she set the baby boy aside, grabbed her sword, and battled the intruders until the North African pirates were forced to retreat.
All the while, Grace was screaming at her sailors for bothering her in the first place!
A FORMIDABLE ENEMY
Grace became one of the most powerful women in Ireland. One English lord who met with her wrote a letter saying, “There came to me a most famous feminine sea captain, called Grany I Mallye… This was the most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland.”
But across the Irish Sea, another notorious woman was making plans that would change everything for Grace.
Elizabeth was the queen of England. She too was the daughter of a king. She too was a fierce and intelligent woman determined to defend her people, and to make her country rich and powerful.
Queen Elizabeth wanted more land to plant crops and earn money for her kingdom. She also wanted to protect her country from Spain, which was building a huge naval force to expand its empire. To do those things, Elizabeth decided, she must take control of Ireland.
So she sent English lords to Ireland and to Grace’s part of the country she sent a man named Richard Bingham.
Bingham became Grace’s bitterest enemy. He was a soldier who loved war—and hated the Irish. The people of Ireland, he said, “would never be tamed by words, but with swords.”
Bingham wanted to show the people of western Ireland that he was now in charge. He ordered people killed. The people rose up in rebellion against his terrible cruelty. And he responded with more violence.
One day, Bingham had Grace’s oldest son Owen captured—and killed.
She was heartbroken. And then… enraged. There was only one word she could think of: war. Grace’s army wasn’t nearly as big as the one controlled by the English governor, so she hired mercenary soldiers from Scotland to fight alongside her followers. She was determined to seek revenge against the man who murdered her son.
But fighting Bingham wasn’t going to be easy.
Soon, the English army captured Grace and two of her nephews in battle. They tied Grace up with rope and dragged her in front of governor Bingham. He had her nephews executed immediately. Grace, he said, would be next.
“We will hang you in public,” he declared, “and teach a lesson to all the rebels and pirates out there.”
Bingham ordered his men to build a special gallows on which to hang Grace. He ordered her to prison to await her death.
But Grace’s family managed to secure her release from jail. And as soon as she was free, Grace sailed to Scotland to hire more soldiers to fight on her side.
Bingham’s armies looted the Irish castles and burned their lands. They killed men, women and children. Grace and her family took to their ships, plundering the lands of English lords in revenge. Grace was determined to destroy Bingham. Anyone who sided with the governor was her enemy—even her own son.
When Grace learned that her son Murrough had agreed to help Bingham in battle, she was furious. She ordered her army to burn Murrough’s castle and steal his cows. It was a warning to her family and all who knew them that she would not be crossed until her mission was done.
FROM QUEEN TO QUEEN
Grace knew Bingham was a formidable foe. To defeat him she needed an ally, someone more powerful than either her or the governor. Grace had used her sword to do many daring things in her life. But it took a pen, or better yet, a quill to do the most daring of all. She plunged the quill into a little bottle of ink and wrote a letter… to Queen Elizabeth.
Grace described the terrible treatment that she and her family endured at Bingham’s hands. She asked the queen to order the governor to leave Grace and her family alone. She sent the letter and awaited Elizabeth’s reply.
As the letter was making its way to England, Bingham captured Grace’s son Tiboid. He threw him in jail and charged him with treason. The crime was punishable by death. “Enough is enough,” thought Grace and she decided to go to speak to the queen herself.
Of all the risky voyages Grace had taken, this by far was the most dangerous. If she could convince the queen to see her side of the story, her son would go free and the hated governor Bingham might even be sent away. But if she couldn’t, her son would be killed—and Grace might be too, after all she was a rebel and an enemy to the Crown!
Grace’s ship sailed down the Irish coast and through the English Channel. Then, she sailed up the river Thames. At last, Grace docked in front of Elizabeth’s palace in Greenwich.
THE MEETING OF HER LIFE
When – finally – the two women met face to face, they could not have appeared more different: Elizabeth in her brilliant gown covered in jewels and embroidery, her face painted white and her hair a brilliant red; Grace with her simple wool cloak, gray hair, and brow weathered from years under the sun. But both were leaders of their people. And both knew that only one of them had had the courage to fight alongside her soldiers in battle.
Speaking in Latin, Grace told the queen of Bingham’s violence and she made her an offer.
“Release my son from prison,” she asked Elizabeth. “Let him go, and let me return to my seafaring ways, and I pledge to you that I will fight your Majesty’s enemies when I meet them on the sea.”
It was a risky plan… but it worked!
Elizabeth wrote a letter to Bingham ordering him to free Grace’s son, and to allow Grace and her family to live in peace for the rest of her life. And when Bingham returned to England some years later, Elizabeth threw him in jail.
Later that year, Elizabeth ordered a new map of Ireland, one updated with all the names of the Irish chiefs who ruled their parts of the country. She told her mapmaker to add a new name to the west coast: the chieftain of Mayo, Grace O’Malley—the queen of the Irish seas.