Grace O'Malley, Queen of the Pirates

Growing up in Phoenix, I often heard my parents talk about an Irish ancestor known as the queen of the pirates. She was Grace O’Malley (“Gráinne Ni Mháille" in Irish), born on Clare Island, where her father was chief of the local clan, in the mid-1500’s. My parents found a book about her, called “The White Seahorse" on a trip to Ireland in the 1970’s.

When Grace O'Malley's father died, she inherited his ship. She began using it in legal trade. But though no one knows just how it happened, she turned to piracy, eventually leading a crew of 200 in robberies of ships all around the west coast of Ireland.

In 1576, she was described as “a notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland" by Lord Deputy Sir Henry Sidney of Galway. Twice, the queen of the pirates was captured and imprisoned by the British. Then, in 1593, she had a personal interview with Queen Elizabeth, where she secured the release of her son and her brother from prison, and received a pardon in exchange for a promise to help guard against Spanish armada ships off the coast of Ireland.

Being related to a pirate didn’t mean we were allowed to act like pirates. As children, we were always told we had to sit up properly at the dinner table because we were “descended from a queen!"

From Mary J., originally of Phoenix and now in London.

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