How would you classify Grace O’Malley?

UPDATE: Okay, you’ve convinced me. Here, on Facebook, by email—everyone thinks Grace should be a queen. So we’re switching her over.


I was just about to publish our new costume design for Grace O’Malley (above), when I realized I wasn’t sure what category to put her in. Although I refer to her in the text as a queen by her own lights, my instinct is to list her in the Notable Women category. That’s where she is for now. But was she a queen?

Obviously Grace wasn’t the enthroned queen of a state, like Victoria or Hatshepsut or Wu Zetian. She was a clan chieftain and local strongwoman, with castles along the coast in County Mayo and ships patrolling the waters. References to her as the “Queen of Clew Bay” or “Queen of the Umaill” rely on the traditional Irish usage of the word “king” for all manner of rulers, including local petty chiefs. It’s not at all the kind of kingship or queenship that we associate with state-level formal power.

But looking over the women who are already in our Queens category, it’s a mixed bunch. Despite being referred to as queens in the historical record, in reality many of them were just local and tribal chiefs. Boudicca was the queen of the Iceni, a tribe in southeast Britain. Tomyris was the queen of the Massagetae, a nomadic confederation in Central Asia. Lady Six Monkey probably ruled over a single city. The mysterious and semi-legendary Tin Hinan may not have ruled over anything at all.

What do you think? Should we leave Grace O’Malley in the Notable Women category or move her to Queens? If you were looking for a Grace O’Malley costume, where would you expect to find it?



7 Comments → “How would you classify Grace O’Malley?”

  1. Jodi


    I like the idea of putting her in the queen category. Since women were so often precluded from being state-level, formal rulers anyway, I say we redefine the word “queen”. If she was considered to be a queen by her people, and she was a political leader of her clan, I think that makes her a queen :)

  2. WitchArachne


    I’d call a clan chief a queen. A small “state” is still a state.

  3. Kate


    Queen. All the way.

  4. Suzanne Scoggins


    Hmmm. I’m seeing a groundswell of support for Queen Gráinne. (How would you say that in Irish I wonder? Banríon is apparently the word for queen, but I’ve no idea how a title would be rendered. Irish is inflected in fearsome and mysterious ways that baffle a mere English speaker like myself.)

    Perhaps tomorrow we will have a recategorization. Hmmm.

  5. Ellen Ozarka


    I’d say Queen as well, for the same reasons as Jodi and WitchArachne above, but also because she considered herself one. I’m currently in the middle of “Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland” he says “One of my favorite Granuaile stories is her encounter at Howth Castle. Granuaile and her fleet had sailed around the island and had stopped in Howth to restock provisions. She considered herself–and acted as if she were–a cheiftain of the Gaelic order, and she expected the privileges of such a position.” (122) (The rest of the story, which I will abbreviate here for space reasons, is that when she was not accorded the proper hospitality she kidnapped the grandson of St. Lawrence (apparently the lord of the castle) with the only ransom being that they should never turn away a guest again.)

    Later in the book McCourt tells of her meeting with Queen Elizabeth I, who was trying to take over Ireland at the time. “… [She] did consider herself both a chieftain and an equal to Elizabeth…. [It] is told that Granuaile refused a title offered to her by Elizabeth on the grounds that an equal cannot offer a title to an equal.” It should be noted that McCourt is passing on folk tales derived from oral history, but I don’t think that detracts from it, and I also think an Irish person might expect to find Grace O’Malley in the Queens section.

    I love Take Back Halloween, by the way (long time reader, first time commenter). Keep up the good work!

  6. Ellen Ozarka


    By the way, forgot to give a page number for the second story. If anyone’s interested it’s page 130. Old citation habits die hard, I guess :~)

  7. Suzanne Scoggins


    These are all great points, everybody. I appreciate the feedback.

    Ellen, I do wonder how much of that queenly stuff is apocryphal, at least in terms of Grace’s meeting with Elizabeth. There is absolutely no hint of it in her answers to the Articles of Interrogatory. I suspect she was playing a different game in London. Back home in Ireland, though, I don’t doubt that she stretched herself to her full height whenever possible.

    We have some readers in Ireland, but they haven’t weighed in on this. Actually, it was a comment from another Irish person downplaying the O’Malleys (“queen? a bunch of thieving pirate parasites!” was the gist of it) that made me question how to categorize Grace.

    But everybody is voting for Queen, so I’m switching the category.