I’m standing in the shadow of an angular castle, on a quiet lane outside of Newport, County Mayo, Ireland. Rockfleet is one of several associated with the legendary pirate queen of Ireland, Grace O’Malley— Gráinne Ní Mháille in Irish—commonly called Granuaile.
Born circa 1530, the only daughter of the powerful O’Malley chieftain, Grace learned seafaring ways at a young age from her parents: merchanting, fishing, and plundering. She pirated, fought, and repeatedly rebelled throughout her life, both against her enemies and against what history tells us a woman was supposed to be.
Taking a trip to Grace’s ancestral lands is invigorating and inspiring. Recently, I explored her haunts with my family. I recommend taking at least five days to see the below sites; however, it’s possible to see many of these places in two days.
Grace married Donal O’Flaherty, the son of another chieftain and merchant, with whom she had three children. After Donal was killed in a battle, Grace avenged his death and took up command of his men, launching her own seafaring career.
Within a few short years, she held an army of over 200 men and a fleet of several ships, including those of her father. She married again, to Richard Bourke, and gave birth to her third son on board a ship. When they were attacked by Barbery pirates, Grace set her newborn babe aside and led her crew to defeat the attackers.
She divorced her husband, Richard, but only after moving in and taking control of his lands and ships. Gráinne’s legacy is rich with stories like these.
“Her factual story far outshone the folklore and fiction written about her,” Anne Chambers, author of Grace O’Malley: The Biography of Ireland’s Pirate Queen 1530-1603, and the world’s foremost authority on Grace O’Malley, told me.
Though I always try to travel by train in Ireland, a car is key to getting to these sites, using Westport as the central location. You can:
Rent a car from the Dublin airport and drive directly from there.
Take the train from Dublin to Castlebar, a town just shy of Westport, and rent a car.
Take the train to Galway and rent a car. The drive’s a little over an hour to Westport, but you can also divert the scenic route to the breathtaking Connemara Peninsula and visit two of the O’Malley sites in Co. Galway along the way.
I chose Westport as my base for seeing these sights. Nearly every spot on this itinerary is within a short drive of the charming, hilly town of Westport. You’ll find it teeming with pubs, restaurants, live music, and lodging at a wide range of price points.
Westport is part of the original O’Malley territories, and you’ll find references to Grace O’Malley around every corner.
Stop by The Bookshop on Bridge Street and pick up a copy of Anne Chamber’s book, Grace O’Malley to have on hand during your adventures. There’s also a wonderful young reader’s edition,The Pirate Queen of Ireland: Adventures of Grace O’Malley and an array of books specific to the history of the area.
Be sure to visit Westport House, a historic home and sprawling gardens built by descendants of Grace O’Malley, on the site of what was once an O’Malley tower house. Say hello to the bronze statue of Grace outside.
Inside the house, you’ll find her marble likeness. Children will love the Pirate Adventure Park, where kids can ride water slides, pedal boats, play Frisbee golf, and more. Note that camping and the adventure park are closed in winter (December to March), but the historic home and estate are open year-round.
We stayed at the cheerful, clean Wyatt Hotel, a centrally-located, 3-star accommodation with dining options and a bar right on site. Guests can access the pool at nearby Westport Leisure Center. For a slightly more upscale experience, the Westport Plaza Hotel has a pool on-site and features a well-reviewed spa.
What order you do things in is up to you, but the weather may dictate what day you visit Clare Island. Because most of what you will do there is outside, try to choose the least rainy day possible.
Louisburgh, about 25 minutes southwest of Westport, is home to The Granuaile & Famine Centre. Opened by Mary Robinson in 1991, Anne Chambers wrote and designed much of the material the Centre has about the life and times of Grace O’Malley.
Here you can see a film (starring Anne Chambers!) and learn about Granuaile’s life in chronological order. There are also interactive exhibits and kid’s-eye viewing of her escapades.
Upstairs, you’ll find the small but haunting exhibit about the 19th century great famine. The museum is volunteer-run and has limited hours, especially during off-season.
We were unable to make it during posted hours, but our gracious hostess, Mary, opened the museum for us to have a look around, so it’s worth contacting the museum ahead of time.
Louisburgh has several delightful restaurants. We popped into the Seven Wanders Cafe for some of the best breakfast sandwiches we’d had all trip, along with delicious cappuccinos, perfect for filling bellies before hopping on a ferry to Clare Island.
Hidden gem: If you fancy getting immersed in the very waters Grace once sailed, check out the newly opened Big Style Atlantic Lodge, which offers reasonably priced Kids Watersports Camps for kids at one-day and five-day prices.
You can stay at the lodge and enjoy hiking, sauna, yoga, and surf lessons while the kids are in camp. Even if you’re staying elsewhere, check out their scenic spa (sauna, plunge pool, hot tub) or yoga sessions. It’s only 30km from Westport.
There are several pristine beaches nestled along Clew Bay. The stunning Carrowmore Beach is nearby Louisburgh and offers a great view of the bay that the O’Malley clan so fiercely protected for generations.
No Gráinne itinerary is complete without taking the ferry to Clare Island, an O’Malley stronghold where Grace lived much of her life and where her descendants live to this day. On the island, you will find Granuaile's Castle, where she lived after Donal’s death, as well as an abbey, originally built in the 12th century, where it’s said Grace O’Malley is entombed.
Clare Island is a hiker’s paradise, and you can do the circumference of the island in a single day. If visiting during the busier season, bike rentals are available. The castle looms over the harbour and is impossible to miss. After exploring the ruins (visitors are not allowed inside), head on to the abbey.
Remember that while the abbey, the surrounding graveyard, and adjacent church are open to visitors, they are sacred places and should be treated with care and respect. Inside the abbey, look for the O’Malley crest on the wall. This is said to be Gráinne’s final resting place.
The abbey features remarkably intact roof paintings depicting dragons, stags, men, birds, and more. Stop by O’Malley’s Food Store and Post Office, a general store on the way to the abbey.
The owner, Pádraig O’Malley—yes, he’s a descendant of Grace—is the keeper of the key to the abbey. When we visited, the abbey was undergoing restoration, but we were able to enter under the promise not to touch a thing.
If you visit Clare Island between December and April, there are very few amenities. We were there in March, and there were no pubs or restaurants open. Bring extra layers and a picnic lunch.
Pádraig’s store will likely be open and makes a great spot to get a cup of tea and some good craic before heading out for more exploring. During the summer, there are four eateries to choose from.
If you have the time, it’s rewarding to stay at least one night overnight on Clare Island. You can safely leave your car at the pier. There are several accommodation options, including self-catering cottages. Pádraig’s store will have all the dinner-making supplies you need.
Heading north from Westport on N59 about 20 minutes’ drive is Carraig-an-Chabhlaigh or Rockfleet Castle, also known as Carrickahowley Castle.
Granuaile lived her later years and died at Rockfleet. Legend has it that Grace tied the mooring rope of her ship through a hole in the south wall and then tied it to her bed.
If anyone tried to abscond with her ship in the night, the rope would pull her against the wall, waking her. Although you currently can’t go inside, it’s worth visiting just to take in the view Grace once loved.
Note that at the time of this writing, Rockfleet was undergoing restoration and was covered in scaffolding, but is worth a visit, nonetheless.
You will pass through the central part of Newport on your way to the castle. Newport is a beautiful sanctuary along Clew Bay and a welcome change in summer to bustling Westport.
The ancestral home of Grace Kelly, the picturesque town features the Seven Arches Bridge across the rolling Black Oak River, which flows through the town. There are accommodations in Newport as well as places to eat, shop, and stroll. Newport is on the way to Achill Island.
Grace’s family fished and protected the waters of Clew Bay for centuries. In addition to having castles on Clare Island and on the inner edges of the bay at Newport and Westport, they also built Kildavnet Tower.
Known locally as Grace O'Malley's Towerhouse, it’s another of the castles that Grace lived in during her lifetime. One look and you’ll see how strategic the castle’s location was, protecting the passage between Clew and Blacksod Bays.
Located on Achill Island, it’s connected to the mainland by a bridge. Achill Island has been in the news more recently as the BAFTA-winning film, The Banshees of Inisherin, was largely filmed here. Kildavnet is about 45 minutes north (and west) of Westport.
Achill truly encompasses the essence of the Wild Atlantic Way. Not only can you see the footprint of Grace O’Malley here, you can take in the landscape that she loved so much, and that she fiercely protected to the day she died.
There are several excellent beaches, hiking, and a breathtaking landscape around every corner. Take a winding road all the way out to Keem Beach, and you’ll find a white sand beach that rivals any beach in the Caribbean (albeit with colder water).
In County Galway on the western reaches of the Connemara Peninsula, you’ll find the ruins of Bunowen Castle, where Grace lived during her marriage to Donal O'Flaherty, her first husband.
Please note that the ruins are on private property and can only be viewed at a distance from the road. Though you can’t spend time in Bunowen, about 30 minutes east of the Bunowen Castle ruins you’ll find Ballynahinch Castle.
Now a hotel, it’s built on traditional O’Flaherty clan lands, and though it is not the original castle, Ballynahinch is built on the site of one of the O’Flaherty castles where Grace and Donal spent time.
Head inland an hour to the beautiful lake, Lough Lorrib. Located about 45 minutes north of Galway, Castlekirk, also called Hen’s Castle, on a little island on the lake.
Another castle that belonged to the O’Flaherty clan, it was called Cock’s Castle for Donal’s fierce nature. His enemies seized the castle upon his death, but Grace fought back.
She led Donal’s men on a raid to successfully overtake the castle, earning it the new name of Hen’s Castle. She lived there for several years after Donal’s death until returning to Clare Island.
On the other side of the country just north of Dublin in the village of Howth, you’ll find Howth Castle. Grace once sought respite here on her way back from a journey, but Lord Howth closed the gates and would not allow her in.
The story goes that Grace was so outraged at his rudeness, she abducted Lord Howth’s heir and took him back to Clew Bay as revenge. She returned the grandson only when Lord Howth swore he would never again close his gates at dinner time, and to always set a place at his table for a guest, a tradition that continues to this day.
There’s even a Grace O’Malley Road in her honour. If you’re in Dublin, you can also pay a visit to Dublin Castle where Grace was held imprisoned in the dungeons for a year from 1578-79. A fascinating place to learn about Irish history, book a tour of Dublin Castle in advance.
From castles to the crashing sea, a visit to County Mayo and beyond will be a vacation as unique, and as memorable, as the Pirate Queen herself.
Last Updated 28 September 2023