Taaffe, Sir William (d. 1631), soldier, official, and landowner, was second son of John Taaffe of Harristown and Ballybraggan, a member of a family who had long been prosperous landowners in Co. Louth. He found employment in the service of Sir Richard Bingham (qv), an English soldier who was appointed governor of Connacht and Clare in 1584. That year Taaffe appears as deputy to Bingham's brother George (qv), then sheriff of Clare. During 1585–8 he continued as George Bingham's deputy in his capacity as sheriff of Co. Sligo. Abetted by Taaffe, the Binghams brutally imposed their authority on this strategically important region on the border with Ulster. He appears to have routinely and illegally quartered soldiers on the locals, seizing goods and foodstuffs, and took advantage of the (often wrongful) imprisonment of a number of landowners to steal either their property or their tenants. By these means, he had established an estate at Bunannaden in south-west Co. Sligo by 1588. He was also able to use his influence to secure an exemption from the composition paid by Connacht landowners to the government.
Fitzwilliam and the Bingham regime In autumn 1588 the landing on the Sligo coast of survivors from wrecked Spanish armada ships led to an intensification of government repression in the area, which culminated in an uprising in spring 1589. Taaffe served as sheriff of Sligo that year, but was unable to preserve the county from a devastating raid by Sir Brian O'Rourke (qv), an independent Gaelic lord from neighboring Leitrim, who appears to have borne a grudge against Taaffe for executing one of his relatives. The lord deputy of Ireland, Sir William Fitzwilliam (qv), resented the independence enjoyed by Bingham and his associates, and listened sympathetically to the complaints of the Connacht Irish against him. He pacified the province by empowering a royal commission to investigate the manner in which Bingham had ruled Connacht. That summer these commissioners accumulated damning evidence against both Taaffe and George Bingham, which suggested that they were guilty of theft, extortion, and executing people without trial; Taaffe was further accused of rape. The real target of these investigations was Sir Richard Bingham, but the queen was unwilling to countenance his disgrace and removal from office. As a result, Taaffe and George Bingham escaped censure.
In 1591 Taaffe found himself once more caught up in a high-level power struggle when Fitzwilliam sought to press Bingham into producing evidence that would help him convict a former lord deputy, Sir John Perrot (qv), of treason. One of the charges against Perrot was that during his lord deputyship (1584–8) he had taken no action after hearing that O'Rourke had defaced a likeness of the queen, which was held to indicate that Perrot had conspired with O'Rourke to commit treason. At the time, a report of this incident had reached Taaffe, who later passed it on to Bingham. However, when Fitzwilliam demanded that Bingham and Taaffe testify against Perrot, they refused to cooperate, partly because the allegations against Perrot were plainly untrue, partly because they feared that their enemy Fitzwilliam would use their testimony to accuse them similarly of treason. In autumn 1591 Fitzwilliam had Taaffe summoned to London to face questioning. It is uncertain if he divulged anything, and this matter was not raised at Perrot's trial. On 24 June 1592 and soon after Perrot's conviction for treason, the English privy council granted Taaffe leave to return to Ireland, commending him to Fitzwilliam.
Land acquisition and war He made the most of his enforced stay in London by obtaining a letter from the queen dated 6 July 1592, granting him a lease of unspecified crown lands worth £30 a year. Once back in Sligo, he used this grant to expand his landed interests, principally at the expense of his neighbour Donough O'Connor Sligo (qv) who was the rightful heir to the largest estate in the county but had been disinherited in 1588 after Sir Richard Bingham had secured a verdict from a local jury that O'Connor Sligo's parents had not been married. Taaffe had been a member of that jury, and during the 1590s he procured grants to much of the hapless O'Connor Sligo's estate. These lands appear to have been granted to him because they were held to be ‘concealed lands’ – crown lands that had been illegally withheld from the crown by private landowners. During the 1590s the crown officials that were active in Connacht, seeking to uncover concealed lands, discharged this duty in a flagrantly corrupt and self-seeking manner and colluded with local officials to deprive Irish landowners of their rightful possessions. Foremost among these officials was Richard Boyle (qv), with whom Taaffe cooperated closely in pillaging the estate of O'Connor Sligo and others. They also appear to have used Taaffe's grant to acquire lands worth well in excess of the £30 a year originally specified. On 2 September 1596 he was passed various lands in the counties of Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo, and Galway, which he quickly sold to Thomas Spring, Boyle's proxy, for £500.
These activities contributed to growing unrest in north Connacht in the mid 1590s, by which time disaffected locals had found a champion in the form of Red Hugh O'Donnell (qv), who launched a series of raids into the region from his lordship of Tyrconnell (modern Donegal). These attacks were part of a wider rebellion against the crown, led by a confederacy of Ulster lords. By autumn 1595 the Binghams' grip on north Connacht had been broken and the government decided to sacrifice them in the hope of appeasing the Irish. Taaffe was among a number of Connacht officials who fell in behind this dramatic reversal of royal policy and suddenly began criticising Sir Richard Bingham – who, in any case, had antagonised Taaffe by seeking to restrain his land-grabbing activities – for driving the Irish into rebellion by his harshness. In July 1596 Taaffe revealed to royal commissioners that Bingham had brought about the disinheritance of O'Connor Sligo in 1588 by intimidating the jurors. His and other testimonies led to Bingham's suspension from office soon after. After being detained in London for nearly a decade, O'Connor Sligo was dispatched home in August to rally the Sligo Irish against O'Donnell and to sink his differences with Taaffe as the two men sought to combine against a common threat. As part of this placatory strategy, Taaffe tried to woo other members of the O'Connor clan away from their alliance with O'Donnell, but to no avail. Instead, the rebels interpreted Bingham's removal as a sign of weakness and renewed their efforts to such effect that by the close of 1596 Taaffe and all the other leading loyalists were forced to flee from north Connacht, which fell under rebel control.
Munster He appears to have returned to his native Louth, where he was appointed constable of Ardee castle (21 November 1597); he held this position till 1611. By summer 1598 he had been made a lieutenant in Henry Norris's troop of horse, and as such took part in the royal army's disastrous defeat at the hands of the main rebel army at the battle of the Yellow Ford in Ulster in August 1598. News of the government's defeat in Ulster sparked a mass uprising in Munster that October, and Taaffe took part in a short and relatively successful campaign commanded by Thomas Butler (qv), 10th earl of Ormond, which preserved a number of important towns and garrisons in the province from the rebels. By September 1599 he was captain of a troop of fifty horse based in Kilkenny.
In 1600 his troop was assigned to Munster and appears to have been based in west Cork. He served as sheriff of Co. Cork in 1601. The president of Munster, Sir George Carew (qv), thought highly of Taaffe both for his military ability and for his success in obtaining good intelligence. His main contacts appear to have been among the MacCarthys of the lordships of Carbery and Muskerry in west Cork. After the landing of a Spanish expeditionary force at Kinsale in September, he was authorised to use his own troop and another company of foot to hinder the Spanish from receiving supplies and provisions from the surrounding countryside. He was also authorised to command a force of loyalist MacCarthys who had arrived to assist in besieging the town. On 26 October he led a daring night-time raid and, after a fierce skirmish, drew away a large prey of sheep and cows that the Spanish had herded for their own use into a narrow peninsula near Kinsale.
However, by 23 December the royal army besieging Kinsale was itself surrounded by a relieving force of Ulster Irish. That night Taaffe was informed by a rebel soldier, who had formerly worked for him, that the Irish would attack either that night or the next day. As a result, the forewarned English were ready when the assault came at dawn the next day. The rebels quickly retreated beyond two streams, which prevented the royal horse from harassing them at first, but the cavalry soon discovered a ford downstream. Taaffe and his company were at the forefront of the charge that caused the rebel army to break and run, turning a fighting retreat into a rout. This victory induced the Spanish within the town to surrender and proved the turning point in the war in Ireland.
He spent the latter part of 1602 stationed in west Cork, where he was engaged in mopping up rebel resistance. At this time the catholic vicar apostolic of Ross, Owen MacEgan (qv), had landed in Munster with supplies from the king of Spain, and temporarily reinvigorated the rebel cause. In December Carew put Taaffe in command of a force of 400 men to confront some of the MacCarthys of Carbery who had rallied to MacEgan's banner. He led his men to victory in a fiercely fought encounter along the banks of the River Bandon (5 January 1603), in which MacEgan was killed. This was the last major battle of the Nine Years' War fought in Munster.
Consolidation of estates Soon afterwards Taaffe left for London, and in September the recently crowned King James I granted him land worth £50 a year. As before, he sold this grant to Boyle, who exploited it for the covert benefit of himself and his associates. Following the end of the Nine Years’ War in spring 1603, Taaffe was discharged from the army and returned to Sligo to reclaim his estate there, which was concentrated around Bunannaden. Most of this property had formerly belonged to O'Connor Sligo, who protested at this, citing the travails he had endured on behalf of the crown during the war. In the end Taaffe sold his Bunannaden estate to O'Connor Sligo for £1,000 and used the proceeds to purchase Ballymote castle and demesne for £1,500. During the 1580s and 1590s George Bingham had developed Ballymote as an administrative centre and market town, making it a far more attractive holding than Bunannaden. Taaffe also acquired from Boyle the property of the abbey of Sligo, which included parts of Sligo town. His other major holding in Sligo was at Ballintogher, along the border with Leitrim, which contained commercially valuable woodlands. However, a royal official, Francis Edgeworth, procured a grant to this estate, leading to a costly legal dispute between the two men for possession of this property that dragged on throughout the 1610s. Eventually (2 July 1617) Taaffe received a grant from the king confirming all the property he then held in Co. Sligo. However, Edgeworth contended that much of Ballintogher was in Leitrim, forcing Taaffe to procure another royal grant specifically acknowledging his title to Ballintogher on 17 April 1620.
Throughout his career he maintained his links with his native Louth, where he had a second residence and settled a number of Louth men as tenants in his Sligo estates. It is likely that he had also recruited tenants from Louth for his estate at Bunannaden during the 1580s and 1590s. Most of his tenants about Ballymote castle appear to have been Scottish merchants and tradesmen. He borrowed money from Boyle to purchase land during the 1610s and struggled to repay this loan, being forced to sell some land in order to raise capital. His long-running legal battle with Edgeworth, the manner in which many of his tenants paid him in kind, and his expenditure on developing his lands all contributed to his financial difficulties, although he surmounted them in time.
Final years Taaffe remained in high favour with the crown due to his outstanding record of military service during the Nine Years’ War, and was further rewarded with a knighthood (25 March 1604) and with a grant (1611), as part of the Ulster plantation, of 1,000 acres in Co. Cavan, which he sold. In 1610 he served as joint sheriff of Sligo, and in October 1612 was made a burgess of Sligo town. However, the authorities were wary of him due to his catholicism and generally excluded him from government office, despite his being the largest and wealthiest landowner in Co. Sligo. In the mid 1630s his successor's estate comprised some 3,400 profitable acres, yielding an annual rental income of £527. About 1620 he returned to live in Louth, leaving his heir John to manage his Sligo estates. He died on 9 February 1631 and was buried in the church of Ardee with his ancestors.
Taaffe married first Elizabeth, daughter of Sir William Brett of Tulloch in Fingal, and secondly Ismay, daughter of Sir Christopher Bellew. With his second wife he had a son, the aforementioned John (d. 1642), and two daughters, both of whom were married into the Louth catholic gentry. John, who was created Viscount Taaffe (1628), married Anne, daughter of Theobald Dillon (qv), 1st Viscount Dillon; their son Theobald (qv), grandson of William Taaffe, was created earl of Carlingford (1661).