Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Grace O'Malley: The Pirate Queen

An Unhappy Marriage

In keeping with the custom of the times, Owen O'Malley arranged a politically motivated marriage between his only daughter and the son of a neighboring clan's chieftain. Grace was 15 or 16 years old when she married Donal O'Flaherty and their union served to strengthen the alliance between the O'Malley and O'Flaherty clans.  It was not a happy marriage for Grace. Donal was an irresponsible and reckless man who with a violent temper and warlike ways, earning him the nickname "Donal of the Battles."

Anne Chambers mentions that Donal had a sister, Finola, who was married to David Burke. David was earmarked to become chief of the Burkes of Mayo, the elected leader of what was known as the McWilliamship. The McWilliamship was a 300-year old alliance between the Burke, O'Malley, and O'Flaherty clans.

David and Finola had a son named Richard (also known as 'Iron Dick'). David also had another son, Walter, from a previous union. Walter was next in line as successor to the McWilliamship title, but Finola wanted her son, Richard, to inherit the title instead of her stepson, Walter. Chambers notes that Donal murdered Walter inside one of the O'Flaherty castles.

Grace and Donal had two sons and a daughter, Owen, Murrough and Margaret. Grace became disgusted as she watched her unpleasant husband waste and gamble away huge portions of his inheritance. Trade restrictions imposed by English rule had already severely impacted the clan's ability to survive and Donal's inability to properly manage the clan estate was accelerating its decline. To shore up his finances, he levied excessive tributes on his fellow clansmen. Facing inevitable starvation, the clansmen had no choice left but to turn to Grace for help.

Grace O'Malley realized the law made it firmly clear that no woman could attain the title, or role of clan chieftain. Still, she decided to take the reins from her husband to try to lead their people from destitution. The resourceful and strong-willed Irishwoman turned to what she knew and did best...the sea and trading.