Te Tirarau Kūkupa, the son of Kūkupa and his first wife, Whitiao, was born probably in the late 1790s. He was descended from Rāhiri, an ancestor of Ngāpuhi; his grandmother was Te Toka-i-Tawhio, leader of Ngāti Ruangaio. Although he is often referred to as a Ngāpuhi leader, Tirarau (as he was familiarly known) was closely related by marriage alliances to Te Uri-o-Hau, a tribal group which had links with Ngāti Whātua. He also belonged to Ngāi Tāhuhu and Te Uriroroi, and was the leader of Te Parawhau, of Whāngārei. Tirarau held authority over the area south and west of Whāngārei Harbour, and by conquest his power extended to Kaipara Harbour. His main place of residence was Tangiterōria, about half-way between Whāngārei and Kaipara harbours.
As a young man Tirarau witnessed inter-tribal conflict. Sometime before 1820 Ngāti Pāoa mounted a raid on Te Parawhau at Onemānia, and one of Kūkupa's wives was abducted by Kaea. Tirarau pursued the raiders, and when he caught up with them called on Kaea to give up his captive. In return he gave the Ngāti Pāoa chief his musket.
Not long after these events, in 1820, Samuel Marsden visited Tangiterōria and met Tirarau, whom he called Tourow. Marsden said Tirarau had one of the best dwellings he had seen in New Zealand. The house had a portico at the front that was 16 feet wide; the surrounding pā, Te Aotahi, was fortified with timber 24 to 30 feet high. Marsden said that Tirarau's people were subject to attacks from 'Shunghee's tribe', by which he meant Hongi Hika's followers. Consequently, there was a great number of people living in the pā, and the surrounding countryside had been abandoned. However, Tirarau later became an ally of Hongi. His brother Te Ihi joined with Hongi to attack Ngāti Pāoa in 1821, and after fighting against Ngāti Whātua at Mahurangi Tirarau helped Hongi's forces to defeat Ngāti Whātua at Te Ika-a-ranganui in 1825. He continued to belong to the Ngāpuhi alliance and in 1832 took part in a raid on Waikato.
Joel Polack went to Tangiterōria in 1832 seeking to establish trade. He found Tirarau involved in a local war. The CMS missionary Charles Baker had attempted, unsuccessfully, to end this conflict. Polack described Tirarau as a 'tall commanding figure, apparently about thirty-five years of age, with a countenance at once very expressive, features possessing European regularity, and a complexion of light bronze. He was marked entirely with the moko, or tattoo'. Polack observed that Tirarau had numerous wives; it was later claimed that he took 12 wives and that when his principal wife became a Christian the rest received their freedom. The remaining wife was baptised by the Wesleyan missionary James Buller and took the name Harriett. Tirarau also encouraged Catholic missionaries, and in 1843 provided Antoine Garin with a house at Mangakāhia. It is not known if Tirarau himself became a Christian and there is no record of his having had a baptismal name.
In 1835 Tirarau signed the Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand organised by James Busby, and he was one of the chiefs who sold Busby 40,000 acres of land at Whāngārei in December 1839. Earlier that year he had sold about 60,000 acres in north Wairoa to Henry Walton, who married his niece Kohura. It was later said in the Native Land Court that Tirarau's actions were not questioned by his people in those days; he sold land and timber and distributed the proceeds as he wished.
Tirarau was involved in some conflict with Pākehā as he continued to claim authority over land he had sold. In 1842 he threatened the settler Thomas Forsaith at Kaipara over a breach of tapu after a skull was found on Forsaith's land, and the same year eight settler houses at Whāngārei were ransacked on his orders because he alleged that their owners had violated sacred places. He had, however, signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, and in 1845 refused passage through his territories to Hōne Heke Pōkai. This prevented conflict from spreading south towards Auckland.
In the 1850s Tirarau became concerned about the sale of timber and land by other tribes in the Kaipara area. He had assisted in conquering the area after the battle of Te Ika-a-ranganui and he was now embroiled in disputes with Ngāti Whātua and Te Uri-o-Hau, the original inhabitants of the land. In 1854, when his claim to the area was still unresolved, he threatened to burn the house of any person who settled on land at Mangawhai sold by Ngāti Whātua. War in Kaipara was averted when a meeting of the parties arranged by Governor Thomas Gore Browne in 1857 decided to sell 300,000 acres of land to the government.
In 1862 Tirarau was involved in a major conflict over land sales with a relative, Matiu Te Aranui. Tirarau said that he was going to sell land on the banks of the Wairoa River to the government. Armed conflict began when Te Aranui attempted to mark out the boundary line between Tirarau's land and the portion that he claimed; several people were killed. Both parties fortified positions on the disputed land at Waitomotomo, 12 miles north of Maungatāpere. A local chief and assessor, Ārama Karaka, joined Te Aranui, as did about 50 Ngāpuhi. Tirarau probably had more support and in addition was employing Te Arawa gum-diggers to fight for him. The government eventually negotiated an agreement whereby the dispute was referred to a court with representatives from both sides. The flags over the rival pā were lowered simultaneously and the area was abandoned. When Tirarau's flag was lowered he and his followers knelt to give thanks that their lives had been spared.
In the same year Tirarau was involved in a dispute over precedence with his cousin Paikea Te Hekeua, a leader of Te Uri-o-Hau. Governor George Grey planned to visit the north to introduce his rūnanga system of Māori government. Tirarau insisted that the governor call at Whāngārei before visiting Kaipara; Paikea Te Hekeua refused to meet the governor if he came to Kaipara from Whāngārei. Finally, the resident magistrate, Walter Buller, suggested the governor make two separate trips from Auckland.
In 1864 William Fox, the colonial secretary, visited Tirarau at Māreikura on the Wairoa River. Tirarau assured Fox that Ngāpuhi would not be affected by the war in Waikato and would remain at peace unless there was an attempt to disarm them. Fox later reported that Tirarau was suffering from rheumatism and appeared to carry the marks of many battles.
Te Tirarau remained active on behalf of his people in later years. He farmed, using horses and ploughs, and had a European-style house, although he preferred not to live in it. In the mid 1870s he built a church, and a road to Whāngārei was opened from his settlement later that decade. In February 1877 he applied successfully to the Native Land Court for title to the Kauaeranga and Ngāturipukunui land blocks, on behalf of the people of Te Uriroroi. A counter-claim by Te Uri-o-Hau was rejected.
Te Tirarau Kūkupa is said to have died on 19 December 1882. The place of his death is not known. He left no children and was succeeded by his brother Taurau Kūkupa. He was buried at Hikurangi cemetery, Whatitiri, with his father, Kūkupa, but his remains may have been reinterred in a burial cave. There is a monument to him at the Tangiterōria marae.
Once an autocrat who imposed his own justice on Māori and settler alike, Tirarau, like many northern chiefs, gradually accepted the need to co-operate with colonial authority. By the end of his life he achieved his aims through land courts.