Book Review: Pirate Queen: The Legend of Grace O’Malley by Tony Lee & Sam Hart (2019)

Tuesday, June 11th, 2019

A Portrait of an Ambivalent Freedom Fighter

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

Born to a fierce chieftan in western Ireland named Eoghan “Black Oak” O’Malley, Grace O’Malley went on to become a legend and folk hero in her own right. The Pirate Queen, as she would later be called, grew up in the 1530s and 40s, at a time when England, under King Henry VIII (and later Queen Elizabeth I), began its Tudor conquest of Ireland. She eschewed traditional women’s pursuits – marriage, motherhood, needlework – in favor of swordplay and sailing. Nevertheless, at sixteen she married Donal O’Flaherty and bore him three children, thus uniting the families politically.

It was only after Donal’s murder at the hands of a rival family – an ambush masterminded by the British – that Grace took up arms. Her success, especially at sea, chipped away at Britain’s power. In retribution – and also several failed attempts to assassinate Grace – British forces murdered a number of people close to her: her father; a shipwrecked sailor she took as a lover; her second husband, “Iron Richard” Burke; and her oldest son, Owen. Rather than cow Grace, this only fueled her quest for revenge. Despite years of battle, piracy, espionage, and hostage-taking, Grace likely lived to the ripe old age of 73, dying of natural causes (the exact year and location of her death is a matter of dispute).

Pirate Queen: The Legend of Grace O’Malley is a portrait of a reluctant freedom fighter: a mother who’s desperate to protect her children; a wife and daughter who wants revenge against her family’s tormentors; an Irish noblewoman who wishes nothing but peace for her country. I find it rather curious that the book’s synopsis describes Grace thusly – “Grace spent her life wishing to join the fight to keep Henry VIII’s armies from invading her homeland of Ireland — only to be told again and again that the battlefield is no place for a woman.” – when, in fact, she spends much of the narrative trying to avoid fighting. Certainly, Grace doesn’t want to be conscripted into women’s work, but neither does she revel in the bloodshed that seems to follow her on both land and sea. Or at least Tony Lee’s Grace doesn’t want this: my knowledge on the topic isn’t broad enough to have an opinion either way.

After reading Pirate Queen, I feel slightly more informed than I was going in, but overall the details are a little more bare-bones than I was hoping for. In particular, I would have like a deeper dive on Grace’s motivations; the story seems to say one thing, while the synopsis says another. The art is serviceable, though not really my style.

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