She was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara O'Mháille, chieftain of the O'Mháille clan. The O'Mháilles controlled most of what is now the barony of Murrisk in South-West County Mayo and recognized as their nominal overlords the Gaelicized Anglo-Norman Burke or de Burgo family who controlled much of what is now that county. Her mother, Margaret, was also an Ní Mháille. Although she was the only child of Dubhdara and his wife, Gráinne Ní Mháille had a half-brother, called Dónal na Piopa (Donal of the Pipes), who was the son of her father.
Unusual among the Irish nobility of the time, the O'Mháilles were a seafaring family and taxed all those who fished off their coasts, which included fishermen from as far away as England. Their leader bore the ancient Irish title of The O'Malley.
According to Irish legend, as a young girl Ní Mháille wished to go on a trading expedition to Spain with her father, and on being told she could not because her long hair would catch in the ship's ropes,she cut off most of her hair to embarrass her father into taking her, thus earning her the nickname "Gráinne Mhaol" (Irish maol meaning "bald" or having cropped hair); the name stuck.
As a child she most likely lived at her family's residence of Belclare and Clare Island, but she may have been fostered to another family since fosterage was traditional among Irish nobility at the time.
Ní Mháille was probably formally educated, since she is believed to have spoken in Latin with Queen Elizabeth I at their historic meeting in 1593. Because of her extensive travels and trade, she may have spoken some English, Spanish, Scottish Gaelic, and French as well.
Ní Mháille was married in 1546 at the young age of 16 to Dónal an-Chogaidh (Donal of the Battle) O'Flaherty, tánaiste or heir to the O'Flaherty title, which would have been a good political match for the daughter of the O'Mháille chieftain. As O'Flaherty tánaiste, Dónal an-Chogaidh one day expected to rule Iar Connacht, the area roughly equivalent to modern Conamara.
She bore three children during her marriage to Dónal an-Chogaidh O'Flaherty:
Later the warlike Donal was killed in battle, and Ní Mháille recaptured a castle from the Joyces that had been his (now Hen's Castle in Lough Corrib). She afterwards returned to Mayo and took up residence at the family castle or tower-house on Clare Island.
After Donal's death, Gráinne left Iar-Connacht and returned to O'Mháille territory, taking with her many O'Flaherty followers who were loyal to her.
Traditionally it is said that the Burke marriage was motivated by Ní Mháille's desire to enlarge her holdings and her prestige. Burke was owner of Rockfleet Castle, also called Carraigahowley Castle, which was strategically situated near Newport, as well as other lands like Burrishoole, with sheltered harbors in which a pirate ship could hide. Burke held a high position as chieftain of a senior branch of his sept. Because of his sept leadership he would eventually be eligible for election as MacWilliam, the second most powerful office in Connacht.
According to tradition they married under Brehon law 'for one year certain', and it is said that when the year was up Gráinne divorced Burke and kept the castle. Legend says that when the one year had passed, Ní Mháille and her followers locked themselves in Rockfleet Castle and Gráinne called out a window to Burke, "Richard Burke, I dismiss you." Those words had the effect of ending the marriage, but since she was in possession of the castle she kept it. Rockfleet remained for centuries in the O'Mháille family and is today open to the public.
Despite the divorce story, Ní Mháille and Burke appear as mentioned as husband and wife in English documents of the period, so appeared to remain married, at least allied, as far as the English were concerned. In her answers to the interrogatories from Queen Elizabeth I, Ní Mháille said she was Richard Burke's widow. They had one son, Tibbot Burke, nicknamed Tiobóid na Long (Tibbot of the Ships), who was born about 1567. Tibbot was later given the title of Viscount Mayo. Burke had at least four other children, Edmund, Walter, John, and Catherine.
The Chambers biography relates that the legendary reason for Ní Mháille's seizure of Doona Castle in Ballycroy was because the MacMahons, who owned the castle, killed her lover, Hugh de Lacy, the shipwrecked son of a Wexford merchant Ní Mháille had rescued.
Dónal an-Chogaidh O'Flaherty had taken a fortress in the Lough Corrib from the Joyce clan. Because of Donal's attitude, the Joyces bagan calling that particular fortress "Cock's Castle." When they heard of his death, they decided to take back the castle. Grainne defended it against them successfully, and apparently the Joyces were so impressed with her abilities in battle that they renamed it Caislean an-Circa, the "Hen's Castle," the name by which it is still known. The English later attacked her at the Hen's Castle, but despite being outnumbered O'Malley withstood the siege. According to legend, she took lead from the roof of the fortress and melted it, then poured it onto the heads of the attacking soldiers. She summoned help by sending a man to light a beacon on the nearby Hill of Doon. Some time before she had ordered the signal beacons set up for just such a purpose. Help arrived and the English were beaten back, never to attack the fortress again.
Around the time of her first husband's death came the initial complaints to the English Council in Dublin from Galway's city leaders that O'Flaherty and Ní Mháille ships were behaving like pirates. Because Galway imposed taxes on the ships that traded their goods there, the O'Flahertys, led by Ní Mháille, decided to extract a similar tax from ships traveling in waters off their lands. Ní Mháille's ships would stop and board the traders and demand either cash or a portion of the cargo in exchange for safe passage the rest of the way to Galway. Resistance was met with violence and even murder. Once they obtained their toll, the O'Flaherty ships would disappear into one of the many bays in the area.
By the early 1560s, Ní Mháille had left O'Flaherty territory and returned to her father's holdings on Clare Island. She recruited fighting men from both Ireland and Scotland, transporting the gallowglass mercenaries between their Scottish homes and Irish employers and plundering Scotland's outlying islands on her return trips. In an apparent effort to curry favor with the English, which were engaged in a re-conquest of Ireland at the time, Ní Mháille went to the Lord Deputy of Ireland and offered two hundred fighting men to serve English interests in Ireland and Scotland.
Ní Mháille's attacked other ships at least as far away as Waterford on the south central coast of Ireland, as well as closer to her home port in northwestern Ireland. She did not limit her attacks to other ships. She attacked fortresses on the shoreline, including Curradh Castle at Renvyle and the O'Loughlin castle in the Burren. She also attacked the O'Boyle and MacSweeney clans in their holdings in Burtonport, Killybegs and Lough Swilly.
In 1577, she met with Sir Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, who already knew of her since she had met his son, Sir Philip Sidney, in 1576. Although Philip Sidney would have been a very young man at the time, Ní Mháille evidently made an impression on him since he mentioned her in favorable terms to his father.
Ní Mháille was wealthy on land as well as by sea. She inherited her father's fleet of ships and land holdings, as well as the land her mother had owned. Around the time of her meeting with Queen Elizabeth I of England, she owned herds of cattle and horses that numbered at least one thousand, which would have meant she was wealthy.
A widespread legend concerns an incident at Howth, which apparently occurred in 1576. During a trip from Dublin, Ní Mháille attempted to pay a courtesy visit to Howth Castle, home of the 8th Baron Howth. However, she was informed that the family was at dinner and the castle gates were closed against her. In retaliation, she abducted the Earl's son and heir, the 10th Baron. He was eventually released when a promise was given to keep the gates open to unexpected visitors, and to set an extra place at every meal. Lord Howth gave Ní Mháille a ring as pledge on the agreement. The ring remains in the possession of a descendant of Gráinne Ní Mháille, and at Howth Castle today, this agreement is still honoured by the Gaisford St. Lawrence family, descendants of the Baron.
The legendary reason for Ní Mháille's seizure of Doona Castle in Ballycroy was because the MacMahons, who owned the castle, killed her lover, Hugh de Lacy, the shipwrecked son of a Wexford merchant Ní Mháille had rescued. When the guilty members of the MacMahon clan landed on the holy island of Caher for a pilgrimage, Ní Mháille captured their boats. She and her men then captured the MacMahons and killed those responsible for her lover's death. Still not satisfied with her revenge, Ní Mháille then sailed for Ballycroy and attacked the garrison at Doona Castle, overpowering the defenders and taking the castle for herself.
Her attack against the MacMahons was not the first time she interrupted someone at their prayers. Legend tells of another chieftain who stole property from Ní Mháille and fled to a church for sanctuary. Ní Mháille was determined to wait out the thief, maintaining that he could starve or surrender. The thief dug a tunnel and escaped, however, and the hermit who took care of the church broke his vow of silence to scold her for attempting to harm someone who had sought sanctuary. Gráinne's reply is not included in the legend.
Ní Mháille engaged in revolutionary activity against the English crown. Her castle at Clare Island was attacked by an expedition from Galway intended to get rid of her. However, they were put to flight and barely escaped. Later Ní Mháille was captured, but released some time afterward.
Elizabeth I famously sent Ní Mháille a list of questions, which she answered and returned to Elizabeth. Ní Mháille then came to England (as previously stated) to petition the release of her sons and half-brother. She met with Elizabeth at Greenwich Palace, wearing a fine gown, the two of them surrounded by guards and the members of Elizabeth's royal Court. Ní Mháille refused to bow before Elizabeth because she did not recognize her as the Queen of Ireland, and wished to show Elizabeth this. It is also rumored that Ní Mháille had a dagger concealed about her person, which guards found upon searching her. Elizabeth's courtiers were said to be very upset and worried, but Ní Mháille informed the queen that she carried it for her own safety--Elizabeth accepted this and, though the dagger was removed from Ní Mháille's possession, did not seem to worry. Some also reported that Ní Mháille sneezed and was given a lace-edged handkerchief from a noblewoman. She apparently blew her nose into the handkerchief and then threw the piece of cloth into a nearby fireplace, much to the shock of the court. Ní Mháille amusedly informed Elizabeth and her court that, in Ireland, a used handkerchief was considered dirty and was destroyed.
Ní Mháille and Elizabeth, after much talk, agreed to a list of demands. For example, Elizabeth was to remove Richard Bingham from his position in Ireland, and Gráinne was to stop supporting the Irish Lords' rebellions. Ní Mháille sailed back to Ireland, and the meeting seemed to have done some good, for Richard Bingham was removed from service. However, several of Ní Mháille's other demands (i.e. the return of the cattle and land that Bingham had stolen from her, for instance) remained unmet, and within a rather short period of time, Elizabeth sent Bingham back to Ireland. Upon Bingham's return, Ní Mháille realized that the meeting with Elizabeth had been useless, and went back to supporting Irish rebellions.
More than 20 years after her death, an English lord deputy of Ireland recalled her ability as a leader of fighting men, noting her fame and favor that still existed among the Irish people.
Perhaps the best known is the concert piece "Granuaile" (1985) by Irish composer Shaun Davey
The latest artistic project is the musical play The Pirate Queen by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Richard Maltby, Jr. and John Dempsey, which originally debuted at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre in October 2006, with American stage actor Stephanie J. Block as Grania (Gráinne). The Pirate Queen is based on Morgan Llywelyn's 1986 novel about O'Malley's life, Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas. Morgan Llewellyn's book, in turn, takes from Anne Chambers' biography, who was credited as consultant. The musical moved to Broadway in March 2007, but closed in June due to lack of interest on the part of theatre-goers and less-than-stellar reviews.
James Joyce used the legend of Gráinne Ní Mháille ("her grace o'malice") and the Earl of Howth in chapter 1 of Finnegans Wake, but added the kidnapping of another fictional son, Hilary, to match his Shem and Shaun theme. Christopher/Tristopher is turned into a Luderman (happy Lutheran) and Hilary into a Tristian (sad Christian).
The play Bald Grace by Marki Shalloe debuted at Chicago's Stockyards Theatre in 2005 and was featured at Atlanta's Theatre Gael (American's oldest Irish-American theatre) in 2006. A musical drama written in 1989, Grannia, story and lyrics by Thomas A. Power and music by Larry Allen, also tells the story of Ní Mháille from childhood to her meeting with Elizabeth I. It won the 1990 Moss Hart Award.
Romance author Bertrice Small portrays Ní Mháille in several of her books, particularly in Skye O'Malley, where she is a kinswoman to the main character, who is based largely on her. There is also a more recent book (2004) by Alan Gold titled The Pirate Queen: The Story of Grace O'Malley, an Irish Pirate that tells of her life from 14 till her meeting with Elizabeth I. The Wild Irish: A Novel of Elizabeth I & the Pirate O'Malley, by Robin Maxwell, tells Ní Mháille's story from birth up until a few years before her death. The Wild Irish focuses mainly on Ní Mháille's life, but is highly fictional — the main part of the story is Ní Mháille telling her life story to Elizabeth I on the night of their meeting. A children's book titled The Pirate Queen was also written about Ní Mháille.
Irish author O.R. Melling portrays Ní Mháille in her novel The Summer King (part two of the Chronicles of Faerie) as a ghost who haunts Achill Island, and later as her live self when heroes Laurel and Ian go back in time to win her as an ally.
In 2005, theater camp Stagedoor Manor premiered a play, The Heart Rising, focusing around a family of Irish immigrants to America. The show included Gráinne as a common thread throughout the many generations of the family.
In June 2006 the Knock School of Irish Dancing did a dance drama based on Ní Mháille's story. The production was called Grainne O'Malley, The Pirate Queen and was performed by the entire Knock School at the Winspear Center in downtown Edmonton, Alberta (Canada).
In 2005 the Commissioners for Irish Lights named their new vessel Graunaile.
In 1986, famed Irish composer and music producer Shaun Davey released a concept album entitled Granuaile that was thematically based on Ní Mháille's life. The album featured a 22-piece chamber orchestra and his wife, Rita Connolly, on all lead vocals. The duo have performed the work live periodically over the years. The Indulgers' 2000 album "In Like Flynn" includes a song entitled Granuaile centered on the legend of Ní Mháille.
The traditional song "Oró Sé do Bheatha 'Bhaile" is an entire song that praises her, and among many lines, says, "'Sé do bheatha, a bhean ba léanmhar" ("Welcome O' woman who was so afflicted").
As of 2008, a feature film based on Gráinne Ní Mháille's story is in development. It will be penned by Anne Chambers, author of the biography Granuaile: Ireland’s Pirate Queen, and Sarah Lawson, who will also produce the film under her company, Lawson Productions. Its predicted release is 2009, and is backed by the Irish Film Board. Sources