Queen of the Irish Seas
Grainne NiMhaille, Grania the pirate she-king, Grace O’Malley: was she a bad girl or a victim of circumstance?
Very little is known personally of Grainne NiMhaille of sixteenth century Ireland. Only thin references to a visitation with the English queen Elizabeth I verify her reality. But in what is now called County Mayo, in Ireland’s west country, tales abound that have been handed down over four centuries of generations. They chronicle Grainne’s career as a successful privateer, a leader of her clan, and a woman who steadfastly went against the conventions of her times. She commanded both ships at sea and the respect of her seamen, her people, even Elizabeth.
While many of the stories may be purely legend, they are, as most other legends spring from the actions of real people, based on a real woman. Grainne NiMhaille’s father was a sea captain and clan chieftain, and she followed in his footsteps across the decks of his ships, learning to love the sea and all its gifts as well as its heartaches. As her father’s life ebbed to a close, she naturally took his place, leading a fleet of merchant ships, bringing home prosperity for her clan.
But times were changing inevitably for the worse. England was in the process of completing its conquest of Ireland. Based in Dublin, the English governors had colonized and fought their way piece-meal across Ireland. Only the west country lands had been left untouched, but in the latter half of the sixteenth century, their attention was turned there. Farming became useless, as the English confiscated all crops grown, then sold only meager and poor quality surplus back to the Irish at unreasonable costs. Trading by Irish seafarers was outlawed except to the English, and always with the greater advantage to the English. Prosperity disappeared. The Irish mariners took to privateering, preying on merchant ships passing through Irish waters. It had become a matter of survival.
Ruling from a tower overlooking Clew Bay, Grainne became known as the "she-king of the Irish seas," a master of privateering. In the eyes of the English, she was a pirate and was taken prisoner twice. To Grainne, she was locked in a battle of wills with the "she-king" of England, Elizabeth I, a woman she saw as similar to herself in many ways.
In the end, Grainne won Elizabeth’s respect and a measure of peace. Movingly described in Morgan Llywelyn’s book Grania, Grainne contrived an audience with the queen. Wary at first, the two strong women came to an understanding that bridged the vast differences in their cultures. Elizabeth warmed to Grainne’s proud perseverance, coming to realize that her raids were not meant as pure theft, but to feed her hungry people. The queen granted Grainne a certain degree of autonomy for her lifetime.
Grainne NiMhaille probably did not take her position in life just to prove she could captain a fleet of ships. She already knew she could, possessing the knowledge, strength, perseverance, and respect of her people. Given that, she represents a kind of strong woman who freely gave of herself for her people, her land, her culture. The unusualness of her life sparks inspiration even today, for anyone who finds that one thing they are truly good at and are compelled to do, they will find a way to achieve that goal, just as Grainne did.