Since women were historically considered unlucky on a ship, our contributions in maritime archives are too sparse for comfort. Still, regardless of sexist rules, women have made their presence on ships (whether known or unknown). However, few have been so openly lauded as Grace O’Malley, or Gráinne Ní Mháille.
Grace O’Malley was the daughter of an Gaelic chieftain –which might make her a princess, according to Disney– who also happened to be a shipping and trade magnate around the early to mid-1500s. However, “shipping” in the 1500s, looked distinctively less like Fedex, and more like the playground of Jack Sparrow. People who wanted to fish anywhere off the clan’s castle-laden coast had to pay a surcharge. After her father’s death, she took over the family business and became the leader of the Ó Máille clan, whose lands spread over what is now County Mayo.
According to lore, Grace always wanted to sail on her father’s ships, but he wouldn’t let her. One popular retelling has her father refusing because “her hair would get caught in the ropes.” In response, Grace cut off her hair, earning her the nickname Gráinne Mhaol, or bald Grace. From what I’ve read about her, not much is known, except that she pretty much did what she wanted. She was powerful and passionate, and she knew how to command men and influence people. The most famous historical event associated with her is probably her audience with Queen Elizabeth.
When her two sons (from her first marriage) and half-brother were captured by the English governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham, Grace appealed to Queen Elizabeth directly for their release. For context, the English had been steadily encroaching on what had been self-governed Irish chieftains. Bingham, and by extension Elizabeth’s authority flew directly in the face of everything Grace O’Malley’s family stood for. With this in mind, Grace refused to bow to Elizabeth before negotiations and allegedly had a knife under her dress (for her protection) when she went to meet Elizabeth! Speaking to each other in Latin, they were able to charter a release on the agreement that Grace stop supporting Irish rebellions and Bingham would be removed. It’s unclear how long each of these agreements were abided by (Bingham came back), but it must have been a sight to see these two women, both powerful and rich in their own right, chatting across a tea table.
Otherwise, she was a general sea prowess, laying siege to the coasts from Scotland downwards, and adding to the wealth that she had by her father’s business, mother’s lands, and a thing or two from husband/ lovers along the way. As to my favorite legend about her, taken from wikipedia, the story goes as follows:
“During a trip from Dublin, O’Malley attempted to pay a courtesy visit to Howth Castle, home of Lord Howth. However, she was informed that the family was at dinner and the castle gates were closed against her. In retaliation, she abducted the Earl’s grandson and heir, Christopher St Lawrence, 10th Baron Howth. He was eventually released when a promise was given to keep the gates open to unexpected visitors and to set an extra place at every meal. Lord Howth gave her a ring as pledge on the agreement. The ring remains in the possession of a descendant of O’Malley and, at Howth Castle today, this agreement is still honoured by the Gaisford St. Lawrence family, descendants of the Baron.”
She could definitely sail, but more than that, she controlled a good deal of the coastline, levying more “taxes/ fees” on those who used the coast, at risk of murder… Either way, she has been represented as the embodiment of Ireland and called the Sea Queen of Connacht.
Shoutout to these South Korean women, known literally as haenyeo, or “sea women.”
For more on actual women pirates, see Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Keep in mind, we know of them because they were the only two women convicted of piracy, so in actuality they may not have been the best pirates…
For newspaper articles on disguised 19th century British women sailors, these will not fail to amuse!
I do not own the rights to the banner image, which is the bronze statue of Grace O’Malley found at Westport House. Grace O’Malley was reportedly the 14th great-grandmother of the generation of sisters currently running the Westport House Estate.