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Engaging History: Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley

History is a subject with a lot to give, as far as school goes. In terms of practical skills, it teaches students to objectively analyse facts and data and to draw logical conclusions based on said facts. But if you try to motivate your students with that, you’ll likely get a series of blank stares. Because, until they develop some inkling of how it impacts their future, students will only put the effort into subjects they find interesting. Fortunately, history is a subject which contains literally everything. So, why not whet your students’ appetite with some engaging history content, like pirates?

The image of a pirate that most people have is of a bearded man, with an accent just full of personality, sailing around the Caribbean. This is why your students may be very interested to learn about all the different real-life pirates who didn’t fit this mould. Such as Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley.

Born in County Mayo in 1530, Grace was the only daughter of the O’Malley clan chief. Grace’s experience on the seas came at an early age, as her family was a seafaring clan who controlled Clew Bay and other surrounding areas. One story claims that a young Grace wanted to accompany her father on a trading expedition to Spain. When her father said that her long hair would catch in the rigging, she supposedly cut it all off.

Grace’s first husband (whom she married at 16) was Dónal O’Flaherty, whom she would have three children with before he was killed in an ambush by Clan Joyce in 1560. His killers would then move in to try taking over his castle, believing that it would be easy pickings without him around to defend it. They had not, however, accounted for Grace, who rallied her husband’s forces and soundly beat them back. Following this, Grace returned to County Mayo, set up a base on Clare Island and began a long and storied career in piracy. Too long to give a detailed account here, but let’s cover some of the highlights.

In 1565, she reportedly rescued a sailor from a shipwreck (named Hugh de Lacy) and took him as a lover. After he was killed by the MacMahon clan of Doona castle, Grace would lie in wait with her forces nearby. When they left the castle to travel to a nearby island, she slaughtered them before taking over Doona Castle; earning her the nickname ‘The Dark Lady of Doona’. In 1566, she would marry again, this time to Richard Bourke, who was a member of the powerful MacWilliam family. After a brief hiccup where she locked him out of his own castle and told him ‘I dismiss you’, the two reconciled and maintained a happy relationship.

When the English began increasing their control over Ireland, Grace would cause them no end of problems with her piracy. This was in no small part due to them insisting that the local chiefs submit to English law, under which, Richard would no longer be eligible to be the heir of the MacWilliam family. She did offer Sir Henry Sidney (England’s deputy of Ireland) use of her fleet in exchange for a certain degree of autonomy. However, this didn’t stop her from continuing to commit acts of piracy, even after a period of capture and imprisonment. When the MacWilliam leader died in 1580, she would go into open rebellion against the English for Richard’s right to become the new leader. Three years later, Richard passed away, and it’s a mark of how respected she was that all of them would remain loyal to Grace.

Her battles against the English would not come without cost; her eldest son would be killed, and she was captured again and almost executed before her son-in-law was able to get her released into his custody. When Sir Richard Bingham captured her son and accused him of treason, Grace went with her most daring tactic yet and demanded to see his manager. With the help of the Earl of Ormond, Grace managed to secure an audience with Elizabeth I. Demonstrating her education, she conversed with the English monarch in Latin (as Elizabeth didn’t speak Irish). She succeeded in getting her son released, as well as securing permission to continue her ‘activities’ at sea.

Grace would pass away in 1603, aged 73.

Who says history isn’t interesting?

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The author

Joseph Morgan is a Content Executive for Twinkl; an educational resources company. Before joining Twinkl, he worked in the care sector as a support worker for St Cuthbert’s Care.

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