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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Grace O’Malley

b. circa 1530, County Mayo, Ireland; d. 1603, County Mayo, Ireland

Daughter of a chieftain of the O’Malley clan, Grace assumed command of her family’s seafaring domain, based in County Mayo, and gained notoriety as a swashbuckling pirate. Celebrated in literature through the centuries, her life has attained mythic status and it is difficult to separate lore from fact. She was, indeed, a pirate and, like many Irish leaders of the time, manipulated tensions between the English colonial governors and local Irish clans to her advantage, achieving economic and political dominance over much of the western coastline. Sir Henry Sidney, lord deputy of Ireland, recorded in his diary a meeting with the “famous femynyne sea captain.” In 1584, the English governnor of Connaught, Richard Bingham, launched a campaign to suppress Irish resistance, specifically targeting O’Malley and her fleet. He alleged that O’Malley had recruited Scottish mercenaries for rebellions in 1586 and 1588. To protect her son and brother, who were in prison facing execution, O’Malley audaciously petitioned Elizabeth I directly via letter, and then in a personal audience in 1593. The queen, clearly taken with O’Malley, ordered Bingham to release her family members and, remarkably, to protect the pirate in the pursuit of her livelihood.