Desmond Rebellions

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Desmond Rebellions

Of the three great Anglo-Norman earldoms—Kildare, Ormond, and Desmond—the last was the most remote from English authority and administration in the sixteenth century. The earl's territories stretched over much of Munster in southwest Ireland. His palatinate in north Kerry gave him unusual jurisdiction over a large area, though he possessed other, more valuable land in counties Limerick, Cork, and Waterford. In the same region were further members of the numerous FitzGerald family, known collectively throughout Ireland as the Geraldines, holding their land in varying degrees of subordination to the earl. Many of the Geraldines, not least the earl himself, had adopted certain Irish ways and customs. As the Tudor government exerted itself to bring this area of Ireland under control, Desmond's autonomy and way of life was threatened. Some sort of resistance became likely.

Feud with the House of Ormond

Gerald FitzGerald, the fifteenth earl (c. 1538–1583), faced other problems besides advancing English centralization. The Desmonds were traditional enemies of the house of Ormond, whose representative was Black Tom Butler, the tenth earl (1531–1614). Ormond outshone his rival at court and in personal ability. In fact Desmond had little experience of England, having been brought up with a haphazard education in his homeland. In 1565 their private armies had met in open battle, with Desmond being defeated and carried off wounded by his opponents. (Despite his inadequacies, it is said that the earl managed some smart repartee, replying to the taunts of "Where was the great earl of Desmond now?" by retorting "On the backs of the Butlers where he belongs.") The government summoned both nobles to London, decided in favor of Ormond, fined his rival, and detained him in England until 1573.

Taking advantage of the earl's absence, his cousin, James Fitzmaurice FitzGerald, claimed to be his deputy and led much of the province into rebellion from 1569 to 1573. With him joined numerous Geraldines, including the earl's brothers, a few dissident Butlers, and some Irish lords, principally MacCarthy Mór. Their motives were: concern over the destruction of Desmond's traditional military power base; dismay at the attempts by English adventurers, colonizers, and swordsmen to confiscate and occupy lands by claiming that the local inhabitants had insufficient land titles; and, in Fitzmaurice's case particularly, a defense of the Roman Catholic religion—the first overt sign of the Counter-Reformation in Ireland.

The rebellion commenced with small numbers of English settlers being attacked and driven off their lands. Cork and other towns were then threatened; however, the insurrection lost momentum with the return of Ormond and the arrival of Sir Henry Sidney, the lord deputy. Fitzmaurice's supporters soon fell away. Pacification of the province continued under the ruthless policies of Sir Humphrey Gilbert and the first lord president of Munster, Sir John Perrot. In 1573 Fitzmaurice capitulated and soon went abroad to plot his return.

Reinforcements from Abroad

By the late 1570s Ireland was beginning to be drawn into the greater European power play. Now the pope openly (and Spain covertly) was prepared to aid insurrection in Ireland as a means of attacking English Protestantism in general. Gathering together a motley band of papal troops left over from a bizarre expedition against Muslims in Morocco, Fitzmaurice reappeared in Munster in 1579, calling for a political and religious rising against the queen and the new religion. Instantly, this charismatic rebel was joined by many Munster Geraldines, including the earl of Desmond's capable brothers. The second, and last, Desmond rebellion of 1579 to 1583 had been launched.

Desmond Lends Support to Rebellion

The earl himself was not among those first supporters of the rebellion. Despite some restless behavior since his release from sequestration in England, he had cooperated, by and large, with the authorities in Munster, particularly the sympathetic Sir William Dury, lord president of Munster in the late 1570s. It was in Desmond's own interests, moreover, to adopt certain of the new reforms pushed by the administration. Much of his wealth and power came from unwieldy and controversial feudal services merged with Gaelic custom, a prime example being coign of vantage and livery whereby a lord could billet his troops on his tenants. Such a custom was open to abuse and resistance, and from the government's point of view it resulted in large numbers of swordsmen being maintained in quarrelsome idleness. It made sense for both the earl and the government when such services were commuted to an agreed rent in 1578. Less enamored of this development, however, were the MacSheehy gallowglass and other of Desmond's professional soldiers, now threatened by unemployment, and hence willing recruits to Fitzmaurice's call.

Once the rebellion had broken out in 1579, the earl of Desmond was placed in an awkward position. To support the government unambiguously would mean losing control over many of his followers, already seduced by his cousin, who was fast becoming an open rival. Even Fitzmaurice's death in a confused inter-Irish scuffle did not lessen the pressure, for his banner was seized by Desmond's brothers, Sir John and Sir James of Desmond. On the other hand, to challenge the Crown meant the possible loss of lands and life. Such conflicting pressures explain Desmond's equivocal actions and protestations in the first few months after Fitzmaurice's landing. In addition, suspicious English officials, particularly the new lord president of Munster, Sir Nicholas Malby, put the worst possible gloss on the earl's reactions, hoping perhaps to encourage Desmond to take that last, fatal step. After the battle of Monasternenagh in October, when Malby destroyed Sir John of Desmond's army, the victor proceeded to attack the earl's castles and execute his followers. Eventually, the earl of Desmond was proclaimed a traitor in November 1579.

Over the next four years the rebellion waxed and waned. At times Desmond inflicted his will, as in the sacking of Youghal in 1579 and of Cahir in 1582. More often, he was a fugitive, with comparatively few troops, dodging Crown forces as they marched about his territories. His strategy seems to have been to stay in the field until strengthened by foreign aid or further Irish rebellion. But the Baltinglass rebellion in the Pale and the landing of papal reinforcements at Smerwick in 1580 were both dealt with effectively by Lord Deputy Grey. The latter suppression became a cause célèbre, with the entire force of some six-hundred odd men being massacred after their surrender. (It took an hour's concentrated stabbing and thrusting to kill the naked prisoners. One of the two army captains in charge of this operation was Walter Raleigh; another Renaissance luminary, Edmund Spenser, was Grey's secretary and vigorously defended his employer's actions against later criticism.) In 1581 the Jesuit Nicholas Sanders, the intellectual éminence grise behind the rebellion, died; in the next year Desmond's two brothers were killed. These disasters and defeats encouraged many in Munster to swap sides. Many of the Irish lords had not participated in this Geraldine venture in the first place, and soon the rebellion resembled a civil war within Munster. The scorched-earth policy by government troops and retaliatory depredations by the rebels caused unspeakable suffering and plentiful examples of famine throughout the province, especially in Desmond's heartlands. Yet it proved impossible to administer the final blow. It was not until the appointment of the earl of Ormond as overall commander in 1583 that at last the rebellion was extinguished. The queen allowed him to issue pardons indiscriminately, with the result that Desmond soon was left with a bare handful of followers. After stealing some cattle, revenging Moriartys surprised his men in camp and simply cut off the earl's head.

The Munster Plantation

After the rebellion the government recognized that this was a supreme moment to impose a new order on the province. The confiscated lands of Desmond and his associates came to about 300,000 acres, two-thirds of the value belonging to the earl. To grant this massive area to the usual favorites on the Irish establishment would effect no permanent social change. Instead the plantation of entire English families would provide a sheet anchor for security and a powerful impetus toward Anglicization. There had been minor English settlements in the Irish midlands in the middle of the century, but the scale of these Munster confiscations presented the opportunity for much more radical measures.

It was decided largely by Lord Burghley—very much the instigator and planner of the entire venture—that portions of land, ranging up to 12,000 acres, would be granted to suitable individuals in England, who then would undertake to settle or "plant" it with a stipulated number of English families. The resultant Munster plantation gradually got off the ground in the half dozen years after Desmond's death, and by 1598 the English population might have reached four thousand. In that year the plantation was destroyed by the extension of the Nine Years War from the north; however, in the early seventeenth century it was reestablished and thereafter became the nucleus of the substantial English presence in Munster. Various Geraldines survived the plantation, though most were to follow the last earl of Desmond into oblivion, owing to the Cromwellian and Williamite land confiscations of the seventeenth century.

SEE ALSO Colonial Theory from 1500 to 1690; English Political and Religious Policies, Responses to (1534–1690); Land Settlements from 1500 to 1690; Nine Years War; Sidney, Henry; Spenser, Edmund


Berleth, Richard. The Twilight Lords. 1978

Canny, Nicolas P. The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland. 1976.

Ellis, Stephen. Tudor Ireland, 1470–1603. 1985.

Hayes-McCoy, G. A. "The Completion of the Tudor Conquest and the Advance of the Counter-Reformation, 1571–1603." In volume 3 of A New History of Ireland, 1534–1603, edited by T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, and F. J. Byrne. 1976.

MacCarthy-Morrogh, Michael. The Munster Plantation: English Migration to Southern Ireland, 1583–1641. 1986.

Michael MacCarthy Morrogh

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Desmond Rebellions

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