Grace O’Malley: pirate, matriarch, 16th-century feminist

Biographer Anne Chambers writes about her 40-year journey with The Pirate Queen

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Since first published in 1979, the endurance and popularity of this biography reflects the sheer magnetism of its subject. Grace O’Malley (Granuaile) continues to enthral, inspire and capture the imagination of new generations of devotees worldwide as she undoubtedly initially captured mine.

For many centuries Grace O’Malley was a victim of the mainly male orientation of historical record. While she had more than created her own legend during her lifetime she nonetheless never appeared in the pages of my history books at school, which left me wondering if she had even existed. Despite the fact, as I subsequently discovered, that her life is well documented in Elizabethan state correspondence and that her name, unique for a woman, is enshrined in the famous 1599 Boazio map of Ireland, her absence from Irish historical record, which initially motivated my own interest, has since been rectified.

Imprisoned within the swirls and flourishes of these faded, brittle Elizabethan parchment relics, the story of Grace O’Malley sprang to life. When analysed within the historical context of the traumatic epoch in which she lived, as well as being a wife, mother, divorcee, lover, widow, grandmother, great-grandmother, she emerges as a fearless leader, by land and by sea, a shrewd political tactician, a successful independent business woman, a ruthless plunderer, a mercenary, a rebel, the protective matriarch of her family and her tribe and, above all else, a woman who broke the mould and refused to allow the barriers placed in her path, either by society or by nature, to deter her from her quest.

Grace O’Malley’s place and contribution to political, social and maritime history is now acknowledged and celebrated. Her factual story has been documented for radio and television worldwide and she has inspired a new generation of artists, sculptors, fiction writers, poets, musicians and composers. To judge by the messages and requests I receive from students from all over the world, her absence in the past from school history and curricula has also been rectified.

Over the past 40 years my own journey in her company has led me to many places, from the old pirate city of Port Royal in Jamaica, the hallowed halls of Harvard University, from Greenwich to Galway and many places in between and introduced me to many people whose own lives and careers have been inspired and shaped by this extraordinary woman. From the “Krewe of Grace O’Malley”, a women’s self-help group in Florida, the annual international “Wander Woman Pirate Queen Tour” of her territory on the west coast, now in its 11th year, to festivals in her home county of Mayo, her story continues to make an impact in so many ways. The launch of Grace O’Malley Whiskey earlier this year undoubtedly would have met with her approval!

On a personal level she has helped to change and shape my own life, making me forsake a career in banking for the more precarious but fulfilling life of a writer. More recently her story has encouraged me into other literary outlets for stage and screen.

International focus on gender equality, the #MeToo movement and other feminist campaigns make the life of Grace O’Malley, albeit lived over 400 years ago, resonate even more today. She shines as an inspirational beacon to women everywhere and as an example of what can be achieved, even in the most demanding and difficult environments. For Grace O’Malley, it was to survive, against the odds, the political and social chaos and destruction perpetrated against herself, her family and followers during the military conquest of her country, as well as to survive the danger and awesome power of the formidable Atlantic Ocean.

Anne Chambers at the launch in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin of the 40th anniversary editionof Grace O’Malley: The Biography of Ireland’s Pirate Queen, 1530-1603. Photograph: James Forde
Anne Chambers at the launch in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin of the 40th anniversary editionof Grace O’Malley: The Biography of Ireland’s Pirate Queen, 1530-1603. Photograph: James Forde

As ageism in society, particularly attitudes to older women, comes under greater scrutiny today, that she retained her status as a woman of power, influence and experience and remained actively involved, by land and sea, right to the end of her long life, makes Grace O’Malley an original symbol of positive ageing. Through her example comes the realisation for women everywhere that age need not be a terminus – merely another port of call.

My own voyage in the company of this pioneering woman seems destined to continue as her story, a testimony of female ability and endurance, is even more relevant today to counteract the widespread discrimination, inequality and negativity that continues to exist in politics, society, business and religion, preventing women from achieving and developing their potential and thereby depriving society of a reservoir of intuition, talent, knowledge and experience.

As former president Mary McAleese writes in her foreword to the anniversary edition of the biography: “Grace O’Malley’s story … can in the end make us smile, knowing that for women – and for civilisation – the best is yet to come if we follow her star.”
 

Grace O’Malley: The Biography of Ireland’s Pirate Queen, 1530-1603 by Anne Chambers is published by Gill Books, priced €16.99

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