The Desmond Rebellion

Eleanor Hull
The Desmond Rebellion

The troubles in Munster, which were later to develop into the long Geraldine rebellion, began in the old quarrels and jealousies that no time could heal between the Desmonds and the house of Ormonde. Three members of the Geraldine family, in particular, took an active part in these wars, the Earl of Desmond and his brother Sir John, and their cousin, Sir James FitzMaurice FitzGerald, who was later to become known as “the Arch-traitor.”

The then Earl, the fifteenth of his line, was Gerald or Garrett, son of the James Fitzjohn FitzGerald who in St Leger’s time had done homage to Henry VIII. He was a warlike youth, who had passed his early years in fighting the MacCarthys, and was on one occasion imprisoned by them for six years in his own castle of Askeaton. He had also supported O’Brien, Lord of Inchiquin, against the Earls of Thomond and Clanricarde, inflicting on them a disastrous defeat.

He succeeded to his title in 1558, on his father’s death, by the English law of primogeniture, and went to England “with a willing mind and intention,” attended by a hundred gentlemen, to make his submission to Elizabeth in person. She received him very graciously and confirmed to him all his lands, seignorities, and privileges by letters patent, so that he returned in quiet possession of his estates. But “the worm of ambition and the damnable spark of envy”[1] caused the old wars between him and the Butlers to break out afresh, although Joan, Ormonde’s mother, was now Desmond’s wife.

Thomas Butler, the tenth Earl of Ormonde, known as “the Black Earl” (Tighearna Dubh), was the most powerful representative of the great family of the Ormondes, whose strong Lancastrian leanings had made them special favourites at the Tudor Court, and who in their sympathies had remained more English than the Geraldines. Nevertheless, some members of the family had followed the example of the Kildares, who, though they adopted English ways when they visited the Pale, were in their own country clad in Irish fashion, spoke Irish, and ruled their dependents by native law and custom.

The Black Earl of Ormonde had been brought up in England. He had adopted the Protestant religion and had been knighted on the accession of Edward VI. His father it was who, having been suspected of hostility to the Government, had been called to London and poisoned with seventeen of his followers at Ely House at a banquet to which he had been invited by his own retainers.

Edward VI, who ascended the throne in the following year, did what he could to expiate the foul deed and sent the young Ormonde back to his country with honour, where he was received with general rejoicings. He entered into friendly relations with Sussex, the Lord Deputy, and became Lord Treasurer of Ireland. During the wars in the North he had assisted Sussex against Shane O’Neill, but his position became difficult when Desmond came forward as champion of the Irish and Catholic cause, the position being complicated by their close family relationship.

So long as the Countess of Desmond lived her efforts to patch up the quarrel between her son and her husband were unremitting and were partially successful.

The rash courage of Desmond was no match for the subtle ability of the Black Earl, nor were his large bodies of loose kerne, 5000 strong, or his 750 horse which employed themselves in raiding Ormonde’s lands competent to resist the great ordnance which Ormonde was able to put into the field.

At Bohermore, between the counties of Limerick and Tipperary, the two armies stood for fourteen days facing each other, but the entreaties of the Countess prevailed to keep them asunder. On her death in 1565 the two Earls, “much like thunder,”[2] burst out afresh, and at Affane on the Blackwater the Black Earl, in company with the Decies, came upon Desmond when he was ill supported, shot him in the thigh and took him prisoner, slaughtering all his followers. At this moment, when he was being carried, wounded and beaten, off the field, the spirit of his race flared up. “Where is now the great Earl of Desmond?” cried one tauntingly, as he passed. “Where, but on the necks of the Butlers,” was the reply.

The Queen summoned both Earls to London to answer for their turbulence. She kept Ormonde at Court for five years and paid the handsome Earl much attention; but he complained that Desmond’s brother, Sir John, was meanwhile wasting his lands and fighting the English.

From the first appointment of Sir Henry Sidney to office in Ireland he had been called upon by Ormonde to support him in his quarrels with Desmond. It was a task which Sidney disliked, as much because of Ormonde’s underhand efforts to bring him into disgrace at Court and his personal disloyalty to his rule as because he believed the case against Desmond to have been “forejudged to Desmond’s disadvantage.” Nevertheless, in examining the matter closely he adjudged that Desmond owed reparation to Ormonde for the destruction of his lands, on hearing which the Earl made “sundry and several speeches of very hard digestion, falling into some disallowable heats and passions,” not, perhaps, surprising in a man who had been mulcted of £20,000.

Sidney did not like Desmond, he found him “a man void of judgment to govern or will to be ruled,” and his country, from Youghal to the borders of Limerick,

“like as I never was in a more pleasant country in my life, so never saw I a more waste and desolate land. … There I heard such lamentable cries and doleful complaints made by that small remnant of poor people that yet was left, who hardly escaping from the fury of the sword and fire of their outrageous neighbours, or the famine, … make demonstration of the miserable estate of that country.”

He speaks of

“the horrible and lamentable spectacles he has beheld, the burning of villages, the ruin of churches, the wasting of such as have been good towns and castles; yea, the view of the bones and skulls of the dead subjects who, partly by murder, partly by famine, have died in the fields, as in troth, hardly any Christian with dry eyes could behold."[3]

All reports of the time confirm Sidney’s observations. The rebels forced the peaceable inhabitants either to join them or to starve by famine. They also “sent naked to the city the men, not sparing (a shameful thing to be reported) to use the honest housewives of the country in like manner, and torment them with more cruel pains than either Phalaris or any of the old tyrants could invent.”

In this destructive warfare James FitzMaurice lent a hand. Among his feats was the taking of Kilmallock by a night surprise attack. The town was so wealthy that they were engaged for the space of three days and nights in carrying away its riches on their horses to the woods of Atherlow, and dispersing them among their friends and companions. They tore down and demolished the houses and set fire to the town “so that Kilmallock became the receptacle and abode of wolves in addition to all the other misfortunes up to that time.”[4]

These descriptions, which are hardly exceeded in horror by the account given by Spenser of the condition of Munster after the long Desmond rebellion, show the result of the fifteen years’ misrule which had passed since Cusack had visited the province in 1553.

Sidney kept Desmond in his company as a prisoner, and placed the charge of his dominions in the hands of his brother, Sir John of Desmond, in whom he had much greater confidence. Sir John seems to have governed well and kept the country quiet. But this plan was suddenly brought to an end by the enemies of both.

In 1567, while Sidney was in England, leaving Sir William FitzWilliam as Deputy, the two Desmond brothers were sent for as though for a conference in Dublin; they were captured and sent over to the Tower of London without Sidney’s knowledge. “And truly,” he wrote in after days, “this hard dealing was the origin of James FitzMore’s [FitzMaurice’s] rebellion and consequently of all the evil and mischief of Munster, which since hath cost the Crown of England and that country £100,000.”

This imprisonment was largely owing to Ormonde’s representations, for he was high in the Queen’s favour. In spite of the Queen’s assurance to Desmond’s Countess that the slight restraint to the Earl “would do him no harm,” the two brothers remained in London for seven long years, part of the time occupying one small room and suffering often from cold and hardships.

The accusations against the Earl were that he was still oppressing his tenants with “coyne and livery”, that he was encouraging and siding with the Queen’s enemies, and that he had committed against Lord Roche, the Lord Barry, and other chief nobles of the South such extreme disorders that Sussex was ashamed to go into them more closely, he having wasted the country “with as much cruelty as any foreign enemy, French or other, could use.” Against Sir John there was no definite accusation.

In their own country, meanwhile, their absence was taken advantage of by an elder brother, Thomas Roe FitzGerald, who had been set aside as illegitimate, to endeavour to establish his claim to the earldom, Ormonde helping him to carry on a civil war and devastate the country.

This attempt to unseat the imprisoned earl brought more actively into the field James FitzMaurice FitzGerald, the Earl’s cousin, who stoutly supported the Earl’s rights, and for the whole seven years fought on his behalf partly against the usurper, but more often against the Government, with forces strengthened by an intermixture of Scottish mercenaries.

This James was a restless but brave and gallant man, quick-spirited and witty, of an adventurous and politic mind. He became the chief centre of Irish hopes and English fears in his day. His powers of organization were pitted not only against the astute policy of Ormonde and the ruthless severity of Fitton, but against the stern and untiring vigilance of Perrot. The latter was appointed President of Munster in 1568, but did not actually take up office till 1571.

It had been one of Sidney’s methods of governing the country to appoint Presidents in Connacht and Munster, these provinces being too distant from Dublin to be kept under the immediate eye of the Lord Deputy, and in constant need of a governor on the spot. The idea was a sound one, but the choice of governors was not always equally wise, and they were sufficiently removed from the central authority to be able to act almost independently. They governed in concert with the military authorities on the spot.

Soon after Perrot’s appointment Ormonde, who had returned to Ireland in 1569, was made General for Munster, Lord Deputy FitzWilliam having declared in a letter to Burghley that the South was always the “ticklish” part of Ireland and that Ormonde alone could manage it.

Ormonde was given a free hand in his enemy’s country, even at a moment when his own brothers were in open rebellion. He was authorized to “banish and vanquish those cankered Desmonds,” and Pelham, the Lord Justice, who had been sent down to Munster only to find “the burden of this service too hard” for him, approved the appointment, Ormonde being thought “a hard match for Desmond” even in his private dealings, and without the aid of the Queen’s forces.[5]

Complaints were later laid against Ormonde that he had not prosecuted the war against Desmond as vigorously as was expected of him,[6] but his own reports of his second campaign in 1580 was that he had executed and put to the sword forty-six captains and leaders under Desmond, with eight hundred notorious traitors and malefactors and above four thousand of their men, a record of services rendered that might have satisfied even a Tudor Government.[7]

The result of it all is summed up in the Queen’s complaint of Ormonde. She “found it strange” that after two years Ormonde, who had promised with only three hundred soldiers to reduce Desmond, yet having more than fifteen hundred had done nothing. “There were now a thousand more traitors than at his coming.”[8]

Sir John Perrot, the blustering, choleric, energetic man who arrived in Ireland in 1571, was commonly reported to be a son of Henry VIII, whom he resembled both in appearance and character. “God’s death,” he exclaimed, when, on his return from Ireland he was tried on a charge of high treason at Westminster, “will the Queen suffer her brother to be offered up a sacrifice to the envy of his frisking adversary?”

A German lord who was present at his Parliament in Dublin declared that “he did never see any man comparable to Sir John Perrot for his porte and majesty of personage,” while among his English associates he left a memory of hard usage and haughty demeanour such as none of his predecessors had done. He would have no chief come to his Parliament but in English attire, and provided cloaks of velvet and satin for those that had them not. It vexed him that they thought their native garb fitter for comfort and quite as rich.

The Irish liked the bluff, hard-swearing, active Deputy, who never objected to lodge in a half-burned house when campaigning, and when the enemy took refuge beyond the bogs would “rip off his boots and plunge into the bog, driving them before him and his light horse with staves instead of pikes.” He took his revenge on James FitzMaurice for burning the town of Kilmallock and hanging the chief townsmen at the market-cross, by putting the heads of fifty of James’s followers in their place. He never forgave FitzMaurice for breaking his engagement, offered by the rebel himself and accepted by Perrot, to end the war by a hand to hand fight with sword and target, both clad in Irish trews.

On the day appointed Perrot was at the place of meeting, resplendent in new trousers of scarlet and attended by the lords of the province to see the fight; but FitzMaurice did not come. The President was furious and swore “that he would hunt the fox out of his hole without delay.” When FitzMaurice came in at Kilmallock and asked for pardon Perrot made him lie prostrate on the ground and placed the point of his sword next his heart.

When, in January 1584, Perrot returned to Ireland as Lord Deputy, and found his old enemy planning to rise again and Turlogh inciting him to come out, he was told that FitzMaurice said “that since the Deputy had arrived he could do nothing.” He put down the incipient rebellion without any delay, and he wrote to the Earl of Warwick after FitzMaurice’s submission saying that the province was so quiet that “the idle sort fall as fast unto the plough as they were wont to run into mischief.”

Though Perrot’s word was generally respected he did not scruple to take extreme means to attain his ends. He excused his capture of O’Donnell by saying that it saved blood-money; and he tried to suspend Poynings’ Act when it suited his policy. It was to his suggestion that the Queen gave ear when, in 1573, she debased the Irish coinage and nearly ruined the country. He made many enemies, who slipped over to London to undermine his influence and finally succeeded in turning the Queen against him, and he only escaped execution by dying in the Tower before the sentence on him was carried out.

Toward the close of 1572 it had been decided to send Desmond with his brother home to his own country in the hope that his return would quiet the distracted land. He had long been only a nominal prisoner, having been released from the Tower in midwinter 1570, on account of the state of Sir John’s health, and they had since been living with ‘old’ Sir Wareham St Leger at his house at Southwark and “ranging abroad in London” among their friends, restrained only from wandering outside the radius of twenty miles from the metropolis.

Sir Wareham, who had always been friendly to Desmond, had been President of Munster before the appointment of Perrot, and was to return there in 1579 as Provost Marshal, a new post created during the rebellion. He was the pronounced foe of Ormonde, whom he accused on one occasion of treason, and there is no doubt that the Earl, placed between his rebellious brothers the Butlers on the one hand, and Desmond on the other, frequently played a doubtful part. His dealings in the field were clear enough but his private policy was less certain.

In January 1573 Desmond and Sir John were received by her Majesty, and she made an earnest appeal to them to be loyal and to establish their possessions in peace. Desmond was fully restored and an Act of Oblivion passed, the two brothers being accompanied to Dublin by Fitton, who was sent to restore order in Connacht.

Fitton detained Desmond in Dublin for a further period of five months, and though he was only under an “easy restraint” the time was wearisome to a man who had already suffered long confinement, who was now pardoned and restored, and whose enemies were all the time, as he complains, “taking up his rents and revenues of which he had great need.”

An appeal to the Earl of Leicester in May failed to bring him his release, and at length, at daybreak one morning, he succeeded in making his escape from Dublin, and mounting a fleet horse he arrived safely, five days later, in the wild fastnesses of Kerry. Once among his own people, he flung off English dress and instantly set about arranging a new combination with Turlogh O’Neill, the sons of Clanricarde, and “all the gentlemen of Thomond.”