Westmeath's most valiant and celebrated commander

Captain Richard Tyrrell is probably best remembered as the man who engineered a famous victory over Crown Forces at Tyrrellspass in 1597, during the Nine Years War but he was also an able commander who served both sides during his long life.

He is also responsible for the construction of the great castle in Tyrrellspass, close to the main Dublin-Galway road which was bought and restored by Phillip Ginnell in the 1980s.

So feared was he that the Calendar of State Papers for Ireland in 1603 noted "Tyrell who of all that were in rebellion, next to Tyrone, was the most dangerous, being the most sufficient soldier and of the greatest reputation throughout all Ireland."

He also merits a mention in the Annals of the Four Masters as ‘a gentleman of the Anglo-Norman family of the Tyrrells, lords of Fartullagh in Westmeath. He was one of the most valiant and celebrated commanders of the Irish in the war against Elizabeth; and during a period of ten or twelve years, had many conflicts with the English forces in various parts of Ireland”

This account suggests that following the failure of the last prolonged rebellion against the British until the 1916 Rising and the subsequent War of Independence, Tyrrell fled to Spain. Other sources dispute this.

Following the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 the rebellion led by O’Neill and O’Donnell petered out and the Treaty of Mellifont, signed in 1603 within days of the death of Queen Elizabeth, marked a turning point in Anglo-Irish relations.

Unfortunately most of that life is not very well documented, but his family background makes for interesting reading. The Tyrrells held the title Lord of Fertullagh (Fartullagh in some sources), a barony in south Westmeath that centred on the village of Tyrrellspass, a position they held since the time of Henry II.

Of Norman stock they were generally, loyal to the crown and Richard would probably have followed suit but for an incident that occurred when he was in his early twenties.

In 1565 Richard was apprehended by the Earl of Kildare and wrongly accused of the murder of Garrot Nugent, one of the Nugents of Delvin and this apparently had a huge bearing on his decision to lend his support to the rebel side.

Despite the presence of Norman and English invaders since the late 12th century, four centuries later the Tudors had achieved limited control of the country. The English had adopted a policy of supporting key candidates for the leadership of Gaelic clans in an attempt to gain influence of these families.
Hugh O’Neill (1550-1616), Third Baron Dungannon and Second Earl of Tyrone, one of the key figures in the Nine Years War was taken at the age of nine by Sir Henry Sidney to his castle in Ludlow, Shropshire.

Following his return in 1568 he remained loyal to the crown until suspicions of his commitment to the crown were aroused by his decision to come to the aid of survivors of remnants of the Spanish Armada who were shipwrecked near the Inishowen Peninsula. In 1595, he succeeded Turlough O’Neill as head of the clan.

The other central figure in the Nine Years War was Red Hugh O’Donnell (c. 1571-1602). At the age of 17 he was kidnapped by the Lord Deputy Sir John Perrott, who feared the power of the O’Donnell’s, and imprisoned in Dublin Castle, from where he successfully escaped four years later, having made a short-lived bolt for freedom the previous year.

At the age of 21 he was inaugurated as chief of the O’Donnell clan and joined forces with O’Neill and in tandem they instigated what became known as the Nine Years War.

Details of Tyrrell’s early life are sketchy. It appears that he was born in Spain in 1545 the son of Phillip Tyrrell and his Spanish wife who was also the foster mother of Don Carlos, son of the Phillip II of Spain.

Regarding his own personal life there are two conflicting versions. One suggests that he married Doryne, daughter of Rory Og O’Moore from Laois while other evidence suggest that he married a woman called Maud and had two children with her, Godfrey (Geoff) and Rita.

During the Nine Years War he was Commander of the rebel forces in Leinster and took his orders from Hugh O’Neill of Tyrone and was regarded as one of the most valiant and resourceful commanders in the Elizabethan Wars.

His background made his an ideal for the role of mediator between the Old Irish families and the New English and he was seen as a great manager of armed forces, and was trusted by O’Neill.

Trained to fight for the English he seems to been embittered against themafter being falsely accused of murdering Garrot Nugent, son of the Baron of Delvin in 1565.

About this time the State Papers pick up on his association with the O’Moore’s of Laois but nothing else his noted on him until the Battle of Tyrellspass, 32 year later by which time Tyrrell is in his early fifties.

O’Neill learned that the English forces were preparing to advance on Ulster and requested that Tyrrell engage some of the crown troops in a diversionary action.

In the summer of 1597, with help from O’Connor of Offaly they set an ambush for the Crown Forces led by Barnwall the Baron of Trimbletown near Tyrellspass and routed them. Such was the scale of the defeat that it is hardly mentioned in the State Papers.

Some sources suggest only one English source survived the carnage and Arthur G. Geoghegan’s poem the ‘Battle of Tyrrellspass’ claims that after the battle O’Connor’s hand was so swollen form the heat of battle that his handle of his sword had to be filed off.

Shortly afterwards O’Neill made Tyrrell Colonel General of his forces in Munster. In 1600, Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy was dispatched to Ireland by Queen Elizabeth in a bid to quell the rebellion.
Mountjoy set about breaking the rebel resistance by besieging Tyrrell at his headquarters at ‘Tyrrell’s Island’, the exact location of which is not verified, possibly on a crannog in an area north of Tyrrellspass and south of Lough Ennell.

Later Tyrrell escaped north to join O’Neill at his Tyrone base. By this time both were on top of the most wanted list with informers employed to gather intelligence on the pair as rebellion became more unified and widespread.

There is a suggestion that Tyrrell married Doryne O’More in the same year as the war continued. By 1601 fighting was reported all over Leinster as the rebel forces headed south to join up with the Spanish Forces at Kinsale.

At this pivotal battle in Irish history, O’Neill led the main attack with O’Donnell at the rear and Tyrrell in the vanguard as they engaged British forces at a number of different sites close to that coastal town.
With defeat imminent the rebels fled to the nearby village of Inishannon to assess the situation. O’Neill decided to return to Ulster, O’Donnell headed for Spain and Tyrrell remained in Munster.

After defeat at Kinsale the rebellion petered out. After moving around various locations in Munster, Tyrrell offered to submit to Carew, Lord President of Munster. O’Donnell died shortly after in Spain. O’Sullivan Beara was defeated by Carew at Glengarriff.

In 1603, as news of Queen Elizabeth’s death was withheld from him Hugh O’Neill signed the Treaty of Mellifont. She was succeeded by the Catholic James I, also James O of Scotland.

Seeing that the game was up, Tyrrells seems to have been successful in cutting a deal with Carew in return for some lands in the Cavan area. For the rest of his life he features little in the State Papers.
Referred to as a ‘Captain of his Nation’, that being the soldiers he led. Records suggest he spent most of his latter years in county Cavan, living off his army pension. There were murmurs to treason and no record of his death but papers suggest he was caught while trying to head to Flanders in 1632 when he would have been close to 90.

Those interested in finding out more about Richard Tyrrell and his times should check out “Richard Tyrrell – Elizabethan Captain” by Jennifer A. Kelly published in 1997 to mark the 400th anniversary of his greatest triumph, the Battle of Tyrrellspass. Within 50 years of the Battle of Kinsale most of the Tyrrells had disappeared from Westmeath.

Taken from Maroon & White 2004