Grace O’Malley ~ Ireland’s iconic feminist trailblazer


The endurance and popularity of her 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 first 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, nonetheless, she never appeared in the pages of my school history books which left me to wonder, no doubt like many more, if she had ever existed. Despite the fact, as I subsequently discovered, her life is well documented in the Elizabethan State Papers and other contemporary collections of her time and her name, unique for a woman, enshrined in the famous 1599 Boazio map of Ireland (the only female leader ever so listed) it was her absence from Irish historical record that initially motivated my own interest

Imprisoned within the swirls and flourishes of these now faded, brittle Elizabethan parchment relics, the story of Grace O’Malley springs to life. When analysed within the historical context of the traumatic epoch in which she lived, as well as a daughter, wife, mother, divorcee, lover, widow, grandmother and great-grandmother, she emerges as a fearless leader, by land and by sea, a shrewd political tactician, an intrepid seafarer, successful independent business woman, ruthless plunderer, mercenary, rebel, the protective matriarch of her family and her tribe. Above all else she was 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 in numerous and a diverse range of printed media…most recently, if unlikely in Forbes Magazine! Most importantly she is now part of schools historical curricula. Over the years my own journey in the company of this remarkable woman has lead me to many places around the world to tell her story; from Montreal to the old pirate city of Port Royal in Jamaica, to Harvard university, from Greenwich to Galway and many places in between.

International focus on gender equality, Me-Too movement and other feminist campaigns, makes the life of Grace O’Malley, albeit lived over four hundred years ago, resonate even more today. She shines as an inspirational beacon to woman everywhere of what they can achieve even, like her, in the most demanding and difficult circumstances and 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 in the sixteenth century, as well as to survive the dangers and the awesome power of the formidable Atlantic Ocean.

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

My voyage in the company of this pioneering woman continues as her story, a testimony to 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.

GRACE O’MALLEY – The Biography of Ireland’s Pirate Queen, 1530-1603 by Anne Chambers (Gill Books).

To celebrate International Women's Day 2024 author Anne Chambers remembers inspirational Irishwomen from our past:

Eleanor Countess of Desmond (1545-1638)

The Forgotten Heroine of the Tudor Wars in Ireland

In the quiet ruins of Sligo Abbey, an impressive tomb dated 1609, stands as the only reminder of one of Irish history’s most remarkable, if unsung, heroines.

Born in 1545 at Kiltinan Castle, county Tipperary, daughter of the Baron of Dunboyne, educated, intelligent and courageous Eleanor Butler’s destiny was as a wife, mother and chatelaine. But her marriage in 1565 to Garret FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond, hurled her into a maelstrom of a bitter family feud, international political intrigue, a religious war, the enforced rebellion of her husband and finally social and political melt-down.

With remarkable skill, courage and diplomacy Eleanor tried to mediate with Queen Elizabeth 1 and her administrators in Ireland. Her many letters are pragmatic, astute and knowledgeable, as she tried to keep at bay English avaricious officials and predatory military generals, as well as power-hungry rivals from within her husband’s own family, all of whom hoped to profit from his downfall. Enduring imprisonment in Dublin Castle and in the Tower of London, exile in the slums of London, forced to beg her bread with her young daughters on the streets of Dublin, her only son held hostage in London, to save her husband, her children and herself from annihilation became Eleanor’s obsession.

When her efforts as a mediator with the English were overtaken by international events, Eleanor endured three years on the run with her husband across the wastelands of his former Munster lordship. Enduring a knife-edge existence in desolate mud cabins and in hastily erected shelters in forest and mountain, desperately she tried to keep Garret alive until either the vacillating Queen called off her war dogs or help came from his fickle Spanish allies.

When Desmond was finally run to ground and beheaded in a lonely cave near Tralee in 1583, Eleanor set out to salvage what she could for from the ruins of her husband’s estate. Deserted by family and friends, a political and social outcast, pocketing her pride, pawning everything she possessed, she took her case to the heart of the Machiavellian Tudor Court. Her persistence finally paid dividends when she won both the respect and help of Queen Elizabeth and the love and protection of a new husband.

In 1597 Eleanor married Sir Donough O’Connor Sligo, descended from the O’Connor kings of Connaught, chieftain of the barony of Carbury (now county Sligo). Donough’s territory occupied a strategic position between Ulster and Connaught and was consequently under threat from both sides in the war between the Ulster chieftains and the English Crown. When her husband was captured and imprisoned by Red Hugh O’Donnell, Eleanor protected his lordship in his absence.

After the Battle of Kinsale in the new battle for ownership of the land of Ireland Eleanor and her husband were forced to defend their Sligo lands and property this time from the wave of avaricious English colonists who tried to disposes them. Following her husband’s death in 1609, in a lengthy legal battle fought in the courts of Chancery, both in Dublin and London, Eleanor finally secured her rights to the lands and the castles of Sligo and Collooney.
In 1638, then in her nineties, Eleanor died at Collooney Castle, achieving her ultimate victory… by outliving all of her former adversaries.

Eleanor Countess of Desmond, 1545-1638 by Anne Chambers (Gill Books).

★ Mayo Historical and Archaeological Society ★


Cumann Seandálaíochta agus Staire Mhaigh Eo &  History & Geography Dept. ATU.

★Grace O’Malley - The Woman behind The Pirate Queen. ★

Talk by Author Anne Chambers

Wednesday 15th November 2023, ATU, Castlebar at 7.30pm

Fáilte roimh chách.

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Fearless leader by land and by sea, political pragmatist and tactician, rebel, pirate and matriarch, the ’most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland’ GRACE O’MALLEY challenges and manipulates the turbulent politics of the 16th century

Grace O'Malley: The Biography of Ireland's Pirate Queen, 1530-1603 is the sole published biographical account of Grace O’Malley, sourced from original manuscript material, both in public and in private domain. For the latter, the author, Anne Chambers, had sole and exclusive access. Much of this material was located and decyphered in its original form (i.e.16th century manuscripts) by the author and is exclusive to her book. Furthermore, the presentation, opinions and analyses in the book are exclusive to the author. The author reserves all her rights in this book. No part of her book may be reproduced or utilised in any form or media, written or oral, or by means digital, electronic or mechanical, including photographic, film, video recording, photocopying, or by any information storage and retrieval system. Permission from the author and publisher must first be obtained to reproduce any part of or quotations from the book. Any transgression in this regard will be addressed. For more information, comments or enquiries please contact: Info: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Copyright © 2022.


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