The life of Grace O’Malley is the stuff of which legends are made. Born in 1530 in County Mayo, Ireland, Grace was the daughter of a sea captain. Early in life, she decided to become a sea captain, too, much to the dismay of her mother. Angry that her parents would not allow her to accompany her father on one of his voyages, she cut off her hair and dressed in boys’ clothing to prove that she was an able sailor. Eventually, her father relented and took aboard his ship.
Legend has it that this was a wise move by Owen O’Malley, for it was Grace who saved his life when the ship was boarded by pirates. Ordered to go below decks, Grace ignored the command and climbed the rigging instead. From her bird’s eye view, she was able to see one of the pirates advancing on her father from behind. Launching herself upon the pirate’s back with a murderous howl, she alerted her father to the danger, and he promptly dispatched the pirate.
Grace married at age 16 but did not let acquiring a husband deter her from the sea. And it was not long before she was commander of her own fleet. While her family had relied on fishing and trade, Grace turned to piracy when the port of Galway refused to trade with her and her husband’s vessels.
After her husband’s death, Grace amassed enough property to become a chieftain in her own right. As England gained control over Ireland, Grace was among those who resisted and rebelled against English rule. She resisted longer than most, but at age 56 she was captured by Sr. Richard Bingham and sentenced to die. Determined to die with dignity, she held her head high, but at the last moment, her son-in-law offered himself as hostage if she would promise not to return to her rebellious ways.
Most historians believed she lived into her 70s and was still active in business well into her 60s.