Contrary to popular belief, not all pirates hobbled on peg-legs with talking parrots perched on their shoulders, patches covering their eyes, and broad West Country accents sharpening their vowels. One of the most important, fascinating, and relatively forgotten pirates was actually a woman, known to history as the so-called "Pirate Queen."
There have been other lady pirates in history, but perhaps none as significant as Gráinne Ní Mháille, better known by the Anglicized version of her Irish name, Grace O'Malley. She was born in western Ireland around 1530. Though brought up in a life of relative privilege and wealth, she also faced limitations on her ambitions. The Ireland of her birth was one of eroding independence, as England sought to exert more and more influence over the island to its west. Though all pirates are political to some extent, O'Malley was especially so: the politics of Ireland and Tudor England became tangled up in her business. Today she is even remembered as a rebel and symbol of Irish resistance and independence in the face of English colonization.
By the time of her death in around 1603, she had become one of the most significant and powerful women in all of Ireland. This female pirate was chieftain of her clan, captain of her ships, and badass extraordinaire. She wasn't just history's most important woman pirate; she was also a mother, wife, lover, political actor, business manager, and folk hero at various points in her long and colorful life.
She Broke Up With Her Second Husband By Shouting Through An Open WindowPhoto: Washington Allston / via Wikimedia Commons
Her marriage to Richard Burke was short-lived: it only lasted about a year, long enough to produce a son and earn O'Malley prime real estate. After the year was up, O'Malley more or less dropped her husband like a hot cake. According to legend, she unceremoniously announced her divorce to Burke by yelling out of an open window, "Richard Burke, I dismiss you!"
She May Have Once Attacked A Castle To Avenge Her Murdered LoverPhoto: John Adam Houston/T. Brown / via Wikimedia Commons
In the 1560s, between her marriages, legend has it that O'Malley rescued a survivor from a shipwreck. Though some claim he was Hugh de Lacy, the man's actually identity remains unknown. O'Malley and the man soon became lovers.
O'Malley's business had alienated and enraged a number of rival Irish clans, including the MacMahons, who saw in O'Malley's new lover an opportunity: MacMahon agents tracked down the man while he was hunting and murdered him.
O'Malley was furious. After tracking down and killing the culprits, she sieged the MacMahons' Donna Castle, ultimately claiming the castle for herself.
The English Kidnapped And Murdered Her SonPhoto: William Dyce / via Wikimedia Commons
Sir Richard Bingham, the English governor of western Ireland, had become the bane of O'Malley's existence. He explicitly targeted O'Malley and considered her to be someone who was fueling rebellion in Ireland.
But tensions came to a head when Bingham's brother John managed to lure O'Malley's son Owen out of his castle and steal his cattle. In the confusion, John Bingham tied up Owen and later murdered him.
She Worked With The English, But Only StrategicallyPhoto: Johann Homann / via Wikimedia Commons
By the 16th century, England had had an interest in Ireland for centuries, and those policies only increased under the Tudor administration. O'Malley resented English interference and sought independence from these political constraints. She often butted heads with the English governor in western Ireland, Sir Richard Bingham, as he employed brutal tactics to crush resistance to English rule.
At the same time, O'Malley was willing to play their game. In 1577, for example, she loaned men and ships to the English.