Fashion History

What My Ancestors Would’ve Worn: Grace O’Malley

So, I’ve decided to write a series of posts about what I think my ancestors would’ve worn when they were alive. You may know that I’ve spent the past couple of years researching my family history which has resulted in some incredibly interesting finds! I have a lot more interesting people in my family than I ever would’ve thought. Because of this, a lot of my ancestors have portraits which show exactly what they would’ve worn so there’s really no point in me trying to analyse. But I also have a lot of people that are unknown therefore their fashion is something I can figure out with an educated guess.

In order for me to figure out what they would’ve worn I would need to know their gender, years alive, social status and country they lived. These are the main factors that would dictate what clothes they would’ve worn. I’m not saying that I will be 100% accurate because I obviously don’t know them and there’s no actual way for me to know for sure what they wore, but I can make some really guesses that will shine some insight into their fashion.

The first ancestor I want to analyse is my 12x Great Grandmother, Grace O’Malley. Grace was a really cool, badass woman. She was known as the pirate Queen of Connaught. From her name you can probably tell she was Irish and lived and worked in County Mayo, West Ireland.

As a pirate, Grace would tax any ship that fished off the coast of West Ireland. She was the leader of the O’Malley Clan, taking over the position when her father died, even though she had brothers. She was fearless and ruthless. After her first husband died it’s rumoured that she took a younger sailer as her lover after his ship sunk. When he was killed she sought vengeance, attacked and killed the men that murdered her lover, taking over the castle and becoming known as the ‘Dark Lady of Doona’.

Grace (left) meeting Queen Elizabeth I (right)

There are some interpretations of what people think she looked like and therefore what clothes she wore. There is also a statue of her at Westport House, County Mayo, Ireland. This statue was erected in 2003. There’s also a drawing of her meeting Queen Elizabeth I, but again, this drawing is from two centuries after this meeting actually happened. Therefore I personally wouldn’t use either of these artworks as a description of her. She’s open to interpretation, so that’s what I’m going to do!

So, what we know about Grace is that she was alive from about 1530-1603. This is the time of the Tudor era in England. We know that she was born in County Mayo, Ireland.

Statue of Grace O’Malley at Westport House

She was a clan leader which implies she’s wealthy. She was known to have owned livestock and was well educated, she could speak more than one language although it’s not known how many exactly. Grace was a pirate so spent a lot of time on ships, a prolific fighter too. So taking all of that into account I think we get a pretty good image of her.

When we look at images people have documented from that time we can see that the traditional dress for women was a long dress probably made from wool. But I think it is unlikely that Grace would’ve worn this. With her career, I think she would’ve worn something a lot more practical when out ‘pirating’. The way I imagine her to dress is similar to what Daenerys wears in Game of Thrones, you know the riding trousers with a tunic? She would’ve needed something to keep her warm and dry whilst out at sea. It’s very likely that she wore something on her head either a hat or a bandana. There’s a story that when Grace was young she wanted to go on an expedition to Spain with her father but was told that her long hair would get tangled in the ropes, so she cut it all off. If this is true then she probably needed something to keep her warm. Although as an adult she probably had long hair just braided.

I also believe that Grace would’ve dressed rather masculine. If we look at what pirates from the 16th Century wore I think we can imagine that Grace would’ve taken inspiration from them. Including the trousers and jacket made of leather. If you take agrace-omalley-the-pirate-queen look at this interpretation of Grace, she is seen wearing trousers, a shirt, a jacket, and a hat. I reckon this is a pretty good depiction of her. You have to remember that she is nothing like the average woman in the 16th Century. She was a fighter who regularly took part in fights and often killed people. She was not someone you would want to mess with. As a girl, she had to prove herself more than any man would, therefore her fashion is a good way to assert her dominance among the men, even though I bet none of them dared challenge her.

I know we don’t have much to go on, but this post is mainly my opinion on what Grace might have worn. I may not be right, but hey, I’m still learning! I enjoyed writing this post so be prepared for many many more in the future!




(2) Comments

  1. This is such a cool idea and was a really interesting read. What an amazing ancestor to have! 😊

    1. Thank you! She was pretty cool 😎

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