When I was younger, any large box that entered our house was immediately commandeered by me and my sister and it would soon become a ship. I would captain my ship as a pirate leader while my sister was my first mate. We would 'sail' around looking for treasure or new lands to discover. Hours would be spent in that box, tossing our yard stick with rope or string tied to its end as a fishing pole over the side, or using an old toilet paper tube as our looking glass to spy treasure. There's something powerful about make believe, isn't there? It was the whimsy of make believe that drove us to feature October's fearless lady. We wanted to cultivate a crate that inspired this kind of imagination. We wanted to take a figure, like a pirate, that has mostly been "for boys" and put a female face on it. This is why this month we're introducing little ones to The Bold Pirate, Grace O'Malley.
Pirates have a fearsome reputation. A lot of not nice people claimed the descriptor of pirate. Grace O'Malley was not quite that type of pirate. Born in the northwest corner of County Mayo, Ireland in the 1500s, Grace's family lived by and worked on the sea. They were sailors and traded all over. Grace grew up in this culture and to her, there was nothing abnormal about a woman sailor. To her culture, her clan, and her family, that was not at all normal. The legend goes that when she told her father she wanted to be a sailor he said she couldn't because she wasn't a man. How did he try to rationalize his point? He said because her hair was long, it would get caught in the sails. Right, because that's why a woman can't be a sailor. So, Grace did what she needed to do. She lopped her hair off, dressed like a boy, and climbed aboard. She never looked back.
Over the years Grace O'Malley gained a reputation as a shrewd and savvy businesswoman. She traded upon different coasts all the while building her fleet and helping her family amass a large fortune. Her reputation also began to paint her in the image of a pirate. It's hard to say that Grace O'Malley was REALLY a pirate in the terms that we've come to think of them--forcing people to walk the plank, pillaging, raiding, and the like. I don't doubt that she did things that were probably considered piracy, but at the same time it's been suggested that perhaps she gained this reputation because she was a woman and folks weren't accustomed to women being successful in trade, running a crew, and determining their own course. Or maybe she just really was a pirate. There's another legend about Grace that says she gave birth to her son in the midst of a battle. Though she'd just delivered her son, she was able to defend her ship by the strength of her sword. Pirate or not, that's one heck of a woman.
A lot of who exactly Grace O'Malley was remains a mystery shrouded in legend and lore. Her clan's book, likened to a family history, did not survive. So really what's known about Grace is mostly found in Irish poetry, song, and oddly enough in official English state documents from her interactions with Queen Elizabeth I. During Grace's time, the English were set on exerting their power and rule over Ireland. Clan O'Malley did not want to be under English rule, heck they didn't want to be under Irish rule either as Grace wanted to be queen of her own corner of Ireland. However, as a businesswoman Grace knew that there could be value in allowing the English to use her men and goods. But soon the English-appointed a governor did all he could to bring the clan under English sovereignty. He took their cattle, he took their land, he took their ships, and eventually forced them into near poverty. In desperation Grace petitioned Queen Elizabeth to allow Grace to attack the monarch's enemies on her behalf. It was a veiled cry for help. Instead the queen responded with a series of questions to determine who Grace O'Malley was, her family connections, and more. This is where we get the bulk of information about Grace. It also gave the queen context into who Grace was and this was important because in 1590s the governor took her son and brother captive. Grace did what she did best, she set sail and the greatest part of the legend of Grace O'Malley is about to come to light.
Imagine an Irish seawoman, rumored to be a pirate, walking into the queen's court. Surely the two women couldn't have been more different. She met the queen in her court and though it was expected to curtsey before the monarch, she refused to bow. Grace said that she herself was a queen and therefore, she was equal to Elizabeth. The queen went so far as to offer to make Grace a Countess, but Grace refused. She said a title cannot be given from one equal to another. Oh to be a fly on the wall at that meeting, am I right?! It's also said that Grace sneezed during the encounter and one of Elizabeth's courtiers handed Grace a handkerchief. Well, Grace blew into it, wiped her nose, and promptly threw it into the fire. The queen and her court were aghast. Elizabeth accused Grace of rudeness and explained that the handkerchief had been a gift. Grace responded that the people in Ireland must be cleaner than the English because they didn't keep cloth they'd blown their noses into. What cheek! Despite all of this, the queen eventually relented and sent Grace back to Ireland with her son and brother's pardons.
This is why we wanted to celebrate Grace O'Malley. Sure the pirate title makes it fun because, again, pirates are usually "for boys," but really this example of boldness was one we couldn't pass up. This was a woman who went after what she wanted and when she came up against opposition and any attempt to hold her back, she responded with boldness. We want our girls, and even ourselves, to know and embody this trait. Being bold is not a bad thing. All too often as women we're taught to step aside, to even apologize when someone gets in our way or when we speak our mind. I can guarantee you that Grace never apologized when someone cut her off or pushed in front of her. No, she boldly moved towards what she wanted and her family needed. Grace O'Malley is the stuff of Irish legends and lore. Here's to raising girls who someday take part in that legend and lore because of their boldness.
The Bold Pirate is available NOW through October 15th. With this whimsical crate little ones will engineer their own pirate's cannon, play a fun strategic game for their own pirate treasure, and have fun with kitchen chemistry by making their own edible 'sea glass.' Subscribe today HERE.