Grace O’Malley, also known as Gráinne Mhaol and The Sea Queen of Connacht, is a legendary figure in Irish folklore and one of the most renowned female pirates to have made her mark on history. She was born around 1530, during which time Henry VIII ruled England and was proclaimed to be the Lord of Ireland even though the various clans of Ireland were more or less left to their own devices. Her father Eoghan was chieftain of the Ó Máille (O’Malley) clan, one of the few Irish clans that took to the sea from their lands on the country’s western coast. It was on that coast that, according to legend, O’Malley persuaded her father to take her along during a trading expedition and earned the nickname Gráinne Mhaol in the process. That is where the story of this book begins, with Grace O’Malley at 14 years old.
The story of Grace O’Malley is a fascinating tale and readers will be able to get a bit more excitement from Alan Gold’s rendition of it by going in with a knowledge of what Europe was like in the 1500’s, particularly in Ireland and England. In a nutshell, this was a time when Ireland was supposedly under English control but due to the constant threat of war from France, Spain, Scotland, and other neighbors, England did not really have resources to spare in order to fully manage the Irish territory. The strain on England’s resources was not helped by O’Malley’s success at robbing the English treasury of several small fortunes.
While this book is an exciting swashbuckling tale of a woman who did things few other women of her time accomplished, the story does not focus on O’Malley as the sole female character. Portions of the book also depict Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen and the first queen to ever stand over England without a king in front of her. All of this eventually leads into O’Malley’s eventual meeting with the Queen, which was a section of this historical fiction novel that seemed to lay more heavily in fiction than history.
The ending of the book is one of the problems readers may draw issue with. Granted, there are very few records pertaining to the life of Grace O’Malley compared to many other people of note throughout history. However, the way the book ends between O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth felt very…romantic. More so than what you would expect from a real-world situation at that point in time. Parts of the meeting do match some of what is known to be true, but this section of the book feels more embellished than the rest of the story.
One other item of note is not something that was in the book but rather something that was omitted. Of Grace O’Malley’s various exploits one of the most legendary was her abduction of Lord Howth’s grandson when she kidnapped the young noble after being offended by Lord Howth. Despite being one of the most famous folk tales surrounding O’Malley this story did not make its way into Alan Gold’s work and its absence was something of a missed opportunity.
Despite the few loose ends surrounding this story, such as those mentioned above and the fact that it ends with O’Malley’s meeting with Elizabeth and does not detail her later exploits, this book was a very good read. Historical fiction is normally very fickle because authors can try to tamper with things a bit too much but so little is known about Grace O’Malley that this is not too much of an issue with her story. Overall, this book is recommended to anyone who wants to read about one of the few women who managed to make her mark in a time when the world was primarily ruled by men.