Born in Arklow in 1863, Ms Tyrrell was the second of four daughters born to Edward and Elizabeth Tyrrell. She blazed a trail as the first female ship’s captain.
Her father had a shipping company that imported and exported goods between Ireland and Wales. From childhood, Kate could be found around the shipyard learning her father’s trade and it became clear that she would be his obvious successor.
By the time she was twelve, she was filling out shipping journals for him.
He promised her that one day she would be the owner of her own ship and, in 1885, her father purchased a 62-ton schooner called the ‘Denbighshire Lass’ from Wales which he registered in his daughters name. Kate captained the ship on its way back home to Arklow. A strong will meant she would fulfill the role she most wanted by becoming the first woman to be called Captain. She successfully fought rules forbidding women from having their name listed as the owner of a vessel.
In 1886, her father died from a heart attack, and Tyrrell took over the family business. She sold off several ships and became the sole owner of the Denbighshire Lass. Despite her ownership, however, as a woman she was not permitted to have her name on the ship’s official documentation. As a temporary solution, a trusted male employee put his name on the documents, while Tyrrell ran all business operations, inspected repairs, and captained the crew.
Tyrrell spent most of her time captaining the Denbighshire Lass, becoming adept at navigation and all aspects of sailing. She was known for being a stern enforcer of order on board her ship, intolerant of any drunken crew members on duty. The Denbighshire Lass continued to sail throughout World War I, navigating landmines in the Irish Sea without incident, despite having no insurance. It was the first ship to fly the new Irish tricolour flag at a foreign port.
Kate Tyrell was an extraordinary woman and ahead of her time. In the face of outdated laws, she pursued her dream to be called Captain.
This is an excerpt from The Wicklow People. Full article can be viewed here . Visit the Arklow Maritime Museum, Bridgewater Centre Arklow for more information about Kate Tyrrell and about Arklow’s maritime heritage.