The woman known as Grania ni Maille in Ireland and Grace O'Malley in England was a firey, tempestuous redhead who did things her way. Today, then, on the anniversary of the birth of another such lady - my own daughter Mairin (Maureen in Gaelic) - I give you the story of Grania the pirate queen. Or the first part, anyway.
It seems like Grania was a willful sort to begin with. Her clansmen, the rough and tumble O'Malleys of County Mayo in Western Ireland, called her Granuile or "Grania the bald" because she insisted on keeping her wild red curls short like a boy's. No doubt it made it easier and safer to work aboard her father's many ships. Owen Dudara O'Maille, known as Black Oak, welcomed his daughter into the world around 1530. He was his clan's high chief and their ancient motto suited him: Terra Marique Potens, powerful by land and sea. Dudara made his family rich with a fleet of fishing vessels that caught herring in particular for salt and sale to France and Spain. On the side there was a toll levied against anyone who fished his ground, including King Philip of Spain, and a little sea raiding now and again.
Grania appears to have grown up on ships and the sea, rarely if ever wearing women's clothing and literally learning the ropes from her father's captains. When she was around 16 years old she was married to Donal-an-Cogahaid O'Flaherty. The man already had a reputation as his nickname suggests; an-Cogahaid means "of the battles", It seems that he spent most of his married life out fighting someone. Grania was left to care for the O'Flaherty family holdings and have little O'Flahertys. Most sources agree there were at least two sons - Owen and Murrough - and a daughter but there were probably more as well.
While Donal was away, Grania added to the family coffers by building up her own fleet of shallow draft galleys and taking up trading. Since the Irish clans were banned by the English Governor from entering the hub of trade in Western Ireland, Galway, Grania did her trading with Europe just as her father had. She also circled Galway Bay and approached incoming and outgoing ships with a show of arms. Here, with the threat of boarding hanging over them, the merchants would "agree" to pay Grania's captains a fee in order to gain safe passage in the sea road. The once poor O'Flahertys grew rich.
Tragedy struck when Donal was killed by the Joyce clan at what was known as Cock Castle. They claimed the castle as their own, but Grania would not see her husband dead and no revenge to speak of. She and her faithful O'Flaherty followers retook the castle and savagely killed every Joyce they found. Henceforth, the castle went by the name Hen Castle.
Grania was an O'Flaherty no more, however. She returned to the O'Malley lands and her O'Flaherty sailors came with her. Grania set up shop on Clare Island in Clew Bay and her trading and predations continued.
She married her O'Flaherty daughter to one of the powerful Gurke clan, a man called the Devil's Hook. Grania soon chose matrimony again, this time an Irish marriage which was set to last only a year and a day. The man was Richard-an-Iarainn ("in iron") Burke. The Burkes were of Norman descent; their name originally being de Burges. Richard had his own trading fleet operating out of Connacht. For a time, things went swimmingly. Grania even gave birth to her favorite son: Tibbot-na-Long or Toby of the Boats.
The story of Toby's birth may be apocryphal but it's told that he was born aboard ship. While Grania was recovering in the great cabin, Barbary corsairs attacked her fleet. Her captain came down to ask for her help and Grania flew into a rage. She went up on deck, cursed her men for worthless and then turned a blunderbuss on the Barbary captain, blowing his brains out while screaming "Take this from an infidel's hand!" The corsairs turned and ran.
Grania had bigger trouble than a few Barbary pirates, though. She had drawn the attention of the English who decided it was time to put down the upstart Irishwoman. Her days as a free queen of the Manannans - or "gods of the western oceans" - were drawing to a close.