The women of Tyrone's Rebellion

The conflict between Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone and Queen Elizabeth I is known by several names. Tyrone’s Rebellion is one, the Nine Years War is another (though it lasted ten but that’s an argument for another day). One thing is common in all narratives of the war: the absence of women as participants in the conflict. The only women of real power and influence was the queen and in her palaces in England even she is remote from the harsh realities of the war in Ireland. Look at the list of major players and one thing becomes apparent, its Y chromosomes all round. Examination of the most frequently cited narrative like Richard Bagwell’s Ireland under the Tudors or Cyril Falls’ Elizabeth’s Irish wars would have one think that women played no real part in the events unfolding around them. The role of women seemed limited to wives, victims or prostitutes. Yes they could be all three, but they were much more.

Women fulfilled many roles that would have been common in Europe at the time. Wherever soldiers went they were accompanied by large numbers of civilians, notably women and children. Their numbers could vary but often the equalled or outnumbered the army they followed. Women performed tasks found in daily civilian life, such as cooking and laundry and gathering firewood. Women also provided medical assistance to the soldiers and were often found serving as nurses. Prostitution was an almost inescapable factor of army life. English lord deputies frequently tried to banish them from the camps as detrimental to discipline but with limited success. O’Neill took a dim view of sexual impropriety and enforced harsh penalties for ‘concubinage’ which he enforced on his military camps. Women were subject to ‘exile, whipping, or deforming of their faces by branding or slitting’, but there is little reason to assume O’Neill had any more success than his English counterparts.

O’Neill’s fast-paced campaigns early in the war were unlikely to have many women with them, as civilians and baggage trains tended to seriously limit an army’s mobility. This was one of the reasons why the Irish could easily outmanoeuvre English troops, but later in the war when baggage trains became a feature of Irish armies women were present in Irish camps. Catherine Magennis, O’Neill’s fourth wife, accompanied the earl in 1599 on campaign in 1599 in County Meath, less than a month after giving birth to Seán in Dungannon. Capture proved no deterrent to the wives of the garrison of Listowell, who demanded to be with their husbands after they surrendered the castle in 1600.

Tyrone had excellent intelligence on his English adversaries. At the start of 1595, Lord Deputy Russell noted that Tyrone knew about the order to send fresh troops out of England before he did and that ‘he [Tyrone] could hear anything out of England sooner than the deputy’.  Another author remarked how women played a key part in gathering intelligence, noting that ‘in time of hostility these [women] … doe serve for espials to give all possible intelligences to the enemy of any project intended against them’.  Consequently, it was highly likely that women were an integral part of Tyrone’s intelligence network. Women were certainly part of the crown’s intelligence gathering, as the archbishop of Cashel controlled 17 spies, which he described as ‘men and women, dispersed throughout all Munster… in disguised manner, some like fools, other lame, counterfeit blind jesters’.

Irish women often acted as messengers and diplomatic go-betweens. While some were elite noblewomen, there were also many references to nameless women carrying dispatches. It was claimed women formed the core of a communication network which carried news and letter throughout the island. They were described as ‘a roughish kind of people some are stout beggars, some are professed whores, or common women’, but also itinerant messengers and letter carriers. In times of trouble women ‘be the instrument, that do whisper them at all times from one to another of all the Irish faction. These be the conduits that carry and convey these evils from place to place, these do divulge and scatter this reprobate opinion in every corner of that kingdom and these do join these firebrands together’. 

The author went further, claiming that the women also acted as spies and saboteurs, likely to burn down houses or villages which through compassion or charity gave them shelter. Though this may simply be an attack on Irish women (a common occurrence in contemporary English literature about Ireland) it is clear that women carried letters and messages for both Irish and English throughout the war. Moreover, they may have been able do so in greater safety than men performing the same role. In Munster, Florence MacCarthy noted that the letters sent by Sir George Carew during the summer of 1600 would have cost the messenger his life ‘if he had been taken [by the Irish] along the way’. MacCarthy’s replies to Carew and the earl of Thomond were ‘hid or stitched in women’s apparel’. 

Throughout Europe women wielded indirect political power by influencing their husbands or male relatives to whom official authority was vested.  The same was true in Ireland, but in the context of the divisions between native Irish, Old English and New English. Many in the English establishment had bewailed the impact of intermarriage on English culture in Ireland long before the outbreak of the war in 1593. Indeed, there was some efforts to ban intermarriage but with little effect. Edmund Spenser catalogued the dangers of Irish wives, noting that intermarriage and fostering had caused the Berminghams through their ‘licentious conversing with the Irish, or marrying, or fostering’ were ‘now waxen the most savage Irish’. One author noted that Irish wives could draw their husbands to ignore their duty, protect Irish relatives in revolt and even coerce their spouses defect or surrender their wards or castles into Irish hands; Irish wives changed the English in name to Irish in nature. 

There were references to Irish wives drawing away formerly loyal lords. Ormond claimed that it was the baron of Cahir’s link to Viscount Mountgarret that had caused him to rebel against the crown. Mountgarret was allied to Tyrone and Ormond claimed that Cahir was ‘simple and foolish, carried away by his wife that was Mountgarrett's sister’.  However, a wife’s sway over her husband could cut both ways in this war. Wives also exerted a strong influence on the Irish confederates and in many instances forced or convinced their husbands to defect to the crown. Certainly the wishes of a lord’s spouse could be a decisive factor. In Connacht John Burke joined Tyrone, but was persuaded to return his allegiance to the crown on the intercession of his wife and mother.  Furthermore, it was alleged that Florence MacCarthy’s wife Ellen, refused to share his bed until he reconciled himself with the English. 

Inevitably the impact of the war fell on both men and women, regardless of the decidedly male biased narrative of the contemporary papers. Notwithstanding their relative lack of representation in the manuscripts and contemporary publications, women were intrinsic to the operations of both English and Irish armies during the war. Wherever troops were found, women were almost always with them providing support by replicating their domestic roles of civilian life, attending to the sick and wounded and addressing the sexual appetites of the troops, just as in any other military camp found in Europe. Women also provided intelligence and were employed as spies and messengers, conveying information between allies and enemies alike. As envoys women could maintain communications where men could not due to inherent dangers or for fear of attracting accusations of disloyalty. The power of women to influence their husbands was well recognised and profoundly influenced the course of the war.


Many thanks to the Irish Research Council who funded my research on this aspect of the Nine Years War