Remembering Grace O’Malley
INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY 8 MARCH 2023
Biographer ANNE CHAMBERS on her journey with this iconic 16th century feminist, trailblazer from the West of Ireland.
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.
To take on the life story of Grace O’Malley in one’s early twenties, as I had the temerity to do, looking back on it now, was a daunting task, attempting to understand, analyse and empathise with such an iconic, experienced, pioneering woman who had filled so many diverse roles in her long life. With the passage of time, however, and the knowledge and experience that life endows, gives me hope that in the latest edition of the biography that I may finally have ‘got Grace’!
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 she nonetheless never appeared in the pages of my school history books which left me to wonder, no doubt like many others, 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 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 faded, brittle Elizabethan parchment relics, the story of Grace O’Malley sprang to life. When analysed within the historical context of the traumatic epoch in which she lived, as well as being a 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 she has inspired a new generation of artists, sculptors, fiction writers, poets, musicians and composers. To judge by the messages and requests I receive from students from all over the world she is now also part of schools curricula.
Over the last forty years my own journey in her company has lead me to many places around the world to tell her story; from the old pirate city of Port Royal in Jamaica to the hallowed halls of Harvard university, from Greenwich to Galway and many places in between. She has introduced me to many people whose own lives and careers have been inspired and shaped by this extraordinary woman. From the ‘Krewe of Grace O’Malley’ a women’s self-help group in Florida, the annual international ‘Wander Woman Pirate Queen Tour’ of her territory on the West Coast, festivals in her home county of Mayo, the annual O’Malley Clan Rally, to recently featuring on Forbes Magazine, her story continues to make an impact and in so many ways.
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 as an example of what can be achieved, even in the most demanding and difficult 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 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 – merely another port of call.
My own voyage in the company of this pioneering woman seems destined to continue 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.
As former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, writes in her forward to the biography:
‘Grace O’Malley’s story…can in the end make us smile, knowing that for women – and for civilisation – the best is yet to come if we follow her star.’
GRACE O’MALLEY – The Biography of Ireland’s Pirate Queen, 1530-1603 by Anne Chambers (Gill Books).