Authors: Anne Chambers
When she was fifteen years old, Granuaile's seafaring life came to a sudden end. Her parents decided it was time for her to marry. But she could not choose her own husband.
Her marriage was an important event, not only for her parents, but for the entire O'Malley clan. A marriage between two clans would help to unite them in times of trouble.
Her father searched for a suitable partner for her from among the eligible sons of other chieftains. He chose Donal O'Flaherty, known by his nickname, Donal-an-Chogaidh, Donal-of-the Battles.
At the time of his marriage to Granuaile, Donal was chieftain of Ballinahinch, a territory on the west coast of Galway, near Slyne Head.
He was also the elected tanaiste, and would eventually become senior chieftain of all Iar-Chonnacht, that is present-day Connemara.
The match was thought to be a good one for Granuaile. Donal was a strong chieftain and his future political prospects looked good.
From Granuaile's point of view, the fact that her husband's castle was on the coast and that he also owned some ships helped ease the pain of being parted from her family and from the sea.
On her marriage, her father gave Granuaile a large
or dowry. This consisted of a number of cattle and sheep, as well as household linen, furnishings and utensils for her new home.
Granuaile's dowry was protected by legal safeguards, agreed by her father and her in-laws. This ensured that, in the event of Donal's death, or if they became divorced, she would receive part of her husband's property for her lifetime, equivalent to the amount of her dowry.
Granuaile and Donal lived in Bunowen Castle. It was much like the castles she grew up in at home and it also looked out onto the sea. From the window to the east she could see the towering peaks of the Twelve Bens and knew that beyond them was her home in Umhall.
Granuaile settled into her new home. Over time she and Donal had two sons, Owen and Murrough, and a daughter called Margaret, named after Granuaile's mother.
As the wife of a chieftain Granuaile was expected to manage his castle and servants, and organise food and lodging for his guests and fellow chieftains when they visited.
Everything seemed to indicate a prosperous and happy life for Granuaile.
But Donal had not earned his nickname for nothing. He was a reckless and warlike chieftain. He was constantly feuding with his neighbouring clans. This brought hardship to his own clan, whose lands, crops and herds were often destroyed in revenge attacks by Donal's enemies.
That is why his clansmen began to look to Granuaile to provide for and protect them. She did it in the way she knew best â by sea.
The merchants of Galway had barred the O'Flahertys from entering the city. Over the western gate the citizens of the town had written: âFrom the Ferocious O'Flahertys, Good Lord Deliver Us.'
Granuaile led her husband's followers on attacks on ships sailing into Galway, taking tolls for safe passage.
In her faster galley, Granuaile and her men lay in wait for the heavily-laden merchant ship. If the captain refused to pay, then Granuaile took part of his cargo instead. Then, as quickly as they appeared, Granuaile and her men disappeared, lost in the maze of the coastal inlets and islands off the coast of Connemara. With no accurate map, the captain knew he dare not follow her.
Soon the name of Granuaile became known and feared all along the west coast.
The Mayor and Corporation of Galway complained about her to the English Government in Dublin. But there was little they could do to stop her.
In 1558 England got a new ruler, Henry VIII's daughter, Elizabeth.
Like her father, Elizabeth could not afford to conquer Ireland by force. Instead, she tried to use the feuding between the Irish chieftains to her advantage. Divide and conquer became her policy as she began to replace troublesome chieftains with those who promised to be loyal to her.
Elizabeth's policy soon affected Granuaile and her husband.
When the senior chieftain of Iar-Chonnact died, Granuaile's husband, as his tanaiste, should have succeeded him. But Elizabeth chose another O'Flaherty. He had no right by Gaelic law to become the chieftain but he had promised to rule Iar-Chonnact by English law.
This was a big set-back for Granuaile and her husband. But instead of defending his rights from the English, Donal was fighting with his neighbours the Joyces over the ownership of a castle in Lough Corrib, known as Cock's Castle.
The castle changed hands many times in the dispute. Eventually Donal was killed while defending it from an attack by the Joyces.
The Joyces thought the castle was theirs at last, but they had not thought about Granuaile.
Leading her husband's clansmen, she defended Cock's Castle so bravely that it was at once renamed âHen's Castle' in her honour. That is the name it still has today.
This was not the only time Granuaile was forced to defend Hen's Castle. The Galway merchants sent an army to besiege her there. They thought they had cornered the infamous pirate leader at last.
With food supplies running low, Granuaile had to think of some way of getting the soldiers away from the castle walls. She ordered her men to strip the lead roof, melt it down and pour the hot liquid over the ramparts, on to the soldiers beneath. The soldiers quickly retreated.
But despite her bravery and success as a leader, Granuaile could not become chieftain in her husband's place. Brehon Law did not permit women to be chieftains. Her husband's cousin was elected chieftain instead.
Her sons, now young men, would have to wait their turn to put themselves forward for election as chieftain.
With nothing to hold her in Ballinahinch, Grace returned home to Umhall in 1562. Some of the O'Flaherty clansmen chose to follow her.
As a widow, Granuaile had another reason for returning to Umhall.
If Brehon Law did not allow a woman to be elected chieftain, unlike English law, it did permit women to own land and property. And Granuaile had inherited land in Umhall from her mother.
On her return, since her father was growing old, she also took over control of the O'Malley fleet.
She established her base on Clare Island. The island was perfectly situated at the mouth of Clew Bay. The castle gave her a clear view of the bay, and its concealed position meant it could not be seen by passing ships, which gave Granuaile the advantage of a surprise attack.
From Donegal to Waterford, news of this woman seafarer and pirate grew. The MacSweeneys of Lough Swilly, the islanders of Inishbofin and the Aran Islands, the inhabitants of Renvyle Castle in Connemara, the O'Loughlin chief of the Burren of Clare, all felt the brunt of her raids.
In Dublin and London, stories about her reached the English government who named her âthe most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland'.
What kind of a woman, people whispered, would lead such a dangerous and unfeminine life? Women were supposed to stay at home and look after their husband and family, not go careering on the seas trading and plundering. This woman has âoverstepped the part of womanhood', one English official complained about her.
But Granuaile was no ordinary woman. Above all else she was an O'Malley. Seafaring, including plunder, was in her blood.
Her bravery and success made men from other clans in Connaught want to join her. Soon she had a private army of over 200 men.
Granuaile must have been a very special person for these hardy clansmen from different clans to accept her as their leader. And she was. She had charisma and courage.
Granuaile led her men herself in battle, by land and sea. She endured the same dangers and hardships. Her daring is remembered in the lines of a poem:
No braver seaman took a deck in hurricane or squall
Since Grace O'Malley battered down old Curraith Castle's walls.
Most of all, Granuaile was an expert seafarer. Her men trusted her and this created a special bond between them.
She was proud of the loyalty of her men and once said that she would ârather have a ship full of MacNallys and Conroys than a ship full of gold'.
She could also be ruthless and especially so when avenging a wrong done to her.
During her time on Clare Island, in the teeth of a gale, she bravely rescued a young man called Hugh de Lacy, whose ship had foundered on rocks on Achill Island.
She and Hugh fell deeply in love but their happiness was shortlived. Hugh was soon murdered by a neighbouring clan, the MacMahons, from Doona Castle in Erris.
After mourning Hugh, Granuaile bided her time to avenge his death.
When the MacMahons came on a pilgrimage to the holy island of Caher, near Clare Island, she swooped like an eagle.
She captured their boats and killed those responsible for Hugh's murder. Then she sailed to Doona and took the MacMahon's castle for herself.
Her enemies knew that Granuaile was someone not to be crossed.
It was to avenge a slight made to her that Granuaile's name is remembered in a very special way for over 400 years in a part of Ireland far from Clare Island.
While returning from a trading voyage in 1575, Granuaile was forced to land at Howth near Dublin. Howth was then part of the English-controlled Pale.
While her ship was being repaired and fitted out for the voyage back to Clew Bay, Granuaile came ashore.
With a few of her men she walked up from the harbour towards Howth Castle. This was the residence of the Lord of Howth, Christopher St Lawrence. Granauile decided to pay him a visit.
She knocked loudly on the castle door. A servant demanded to know what she wanted. Granuaile told him she sought the owner's hospitality. The servant returned and rudely told her that the Lord of Howth said he was at his dinner and would not be disturbed.
Granuaile was furious. If St Lawrence had visited her in her castle in Mayo she would have been obliged by the rules of Gaelic hospitality to give him food and shelter. Instead, all she had received at his castle was an insult.
Granuaile and her men approach Howth Castle.
Returning to her ship, she met a young boy walking along the beach. She stopped to talk to him and found out he was the grandson and heir of the Lord of Howth.
She resolved to teach his inhospitable grandfather a lesson he would never forget.
She invited the boy on board her ship and immediately set sail for Clew Bay.
When news was brought to the Lord of Howth that his grandson and heir had been âkidnapped' by a notorious pirate from the west of Ireland, he was frantic with worry.
Taking some gold and silver with him to pay a ransom, he set off on horseback on the long, difficult journey across Ireland.
Meanwhile Granuaile had returned to Clare Island. She took good care that her young captive would come to no harm.
Eventually the Lord of Howth arrived in Umhall. He begged Granuaile to name any ransom she wished for the safe return of his heir.
Scorning his offer of gold and silver, Granuaile's ransom demand took the nobleman by surprise.
She made him promise that the door of Howth Castle would never be closed and that every time he sat down at his table to dine, an extra place would be set at his table for anyone seeking his hospitality.
Surprised and relieved, the Lord of Howth promised to carry out Granuaile's wishes. Before he left with his grandson the nobleman gave her a ring to seal their bargain. The ring was kept in the O'Malley family for many generations.
In Howth today, Granuaile's visit is still remembered. Many roads in the village bear her name.
In the castle, which is owned by the descendants of the same Lord of Howth, her ransom demands are faithfully carried out by the family to this very day.
When the owner of Howth Castle sits down to dinner, he always has an extra place set at his table to honour the promise his ancestor made 400 years ago to Granuaile.