We break from the saga of Shane O’Neill in the north to take a look at happenings further south around the same time, that were no less important in determining Ireland’s fate under the Tudors.
Desmond and Ormond were the great rivals of medieval and Early Modern Ireland, especially once Kildare had been so enfeebled. Sharing a large border with each other, that ran through modern day Tipperary down to modern day Waterford, the two were always going to be in conflict, no matter what the central authority in England might think about two of its subjects warring with each other. The two Earldoms raided into the others territory, occupied castles and forts along the border, supported enemies of their enemy and stoked up discontent against the other as often as they could.
Ormond, in this time led by Thomas Butler, the 10th Earl, was a favourite of the monarchy, as the family had been since Henry VIII’s days. Always finding themselves on the side of the crown and whatever lord deputy held sway at that time, Ormond and his subjects were also some of the most enthusiastic reformers in Ireland. It’s easy to paint Ormond in a villainous light in history, but being a Protestant in the time of Elizabeth was good politics, as well as a religious affiliation.
Desmond, while not exactly out of favour, was hardly in it either. Then led by Gerald Fitzgerald (yes, another one, the 15th Earl), the family’s connection to the Kildare Fitzgerald’s, conflicts against Thomond and Ormond, their highly Catholic ethos and an poor first impression made by Gerald when he met Elizabeth in 1560 (which led to some time in the Tower) all combined to make Desmond the lesser of Ormond in terms of royal favour. This was all prelude to future rebellions against the English crown by the Earldom, but that was still a ways off in 1564.
The crown and Lord Deputies did try to intervene and put an end to the internecine conflict between the two Earldoms, but to no avail. Any settlement made was invariably broken soon after. One of the most notable attempts was a crown-arranged marriage between Thomas’ mother and Gerald. While her position as the first lady of Desmond was crucial in stopping conflict between the two for a time (most notably at “the battle that never was”, a military stand-off between the two sides at Bohermore, Tipperary, in 1560), she could not keep the peace forever. Her death in 1564 was the signal for a renewed bout of raid and counter-raid, of plundering for cattle and goods, firing of villages, and repeated efforts at provocation.
Both sides were on dangerous ground, the conflict between the two being to the intense dislike of the crown. Elizabeth was annoyed that two of her vassals were in such conflict with each other, dissatisfied with a feud and warfare that had practically been the status quo for centuries in Ireland. In line with Tudor attempts to gain greater control in Ireland, she was unwilling to simply back off and pay such fighting no notice, as previous Kings and Queens had.
Things came to a head in 1565. That year, a Desmond vassal, Maurice Fitzgerald, lord of lands in Waterford, decided to renounce the overlordship of his kinsman Gerald and accept the protection of Ormond. Just what Maurice was doing is not clear. Certainly, his declarations and actions were bound to illicit a harsh response from Gerald, as well as attract the interest of Thomas Butler. Thusly, the two men were set upon a course of conflict over Waterford lands. It is not unfeasible that Maurice and Thomas were working in concert before such declarations were made, with the aim of luring Gerald and whatever forces he could bring to bear into a trap. Maybe Maurice preferred his long term chances with Ormond.
Gerald had to respond of course, baiting or no. Losing such a vassal, and to Ormond, was unacceptable, both in terms of prestige and territorial loses. He quickly mustered his forces and marched into Waterford. Aside from his own troops, he was able to call upon the services of several Irish vassals, such as the McCarthy’s of Kerry, O’Sullivan’s from Cork and even a contingent of O’Brian’s from Thomond. With around 200 or so cavalry and a few thousand soldiers of various types – from his own gallowglass gunmen to light Irish infantry – he initially encamped at Lismore, western Waterford. Very soon, Ormond had gathered his own army and his own Irish vassals – the O’Kennedy’s and a contingent of Burke’s – along with units brought from the Pale.
Gerald got as far as the village of Bewley before he sent demands to Maurice, insisting on his surrender and for homage to be paid to him. Maurice delayed, playing for time by asking for arbitration in the dispute. He was in no position to face his former superior on his own.
The Geraldines were encamped and burning a few nearby settlements for intimidation purposes when word came of Ormond’s approach from the Knockmealdown Mountains. His numbers are not recorded, but may possibly have been less than those of Gerald, considering what happened next. Upon hearing of Ormond’s force, and possibly operating under the misassumption that Thomas himself was not present, Gerald decided to take the attacking option over a defensive withdrawal to Lismore. Gerald moved further north towards Dromana, on the Munster Blackwater River.
Affane was the name given to a ford of a Blackwater tributary – the Finisk – and it was there that the battle was fought. As is typical, few details are left to us, other than that Desmond did the attacking while Ormond fell back on a defensive posture. Desmond crossed the river to meet Ormond, with the water to his rear. A clash of infantry probably took place, with gallowglass on both sides engaged. Both leaders were also in the thick of the fighting, leading from the front.
Desmond would have been in the better position. Probably superior in numbers, he was, technically, fighting in his own land, with a supply base nearby in the form of Lismore, just a few miles west. Ormond was far from home and fighting a risky action.
Battles turn on twists of fate and so it was at Affane. Gerald, positioned so perilously, was badly wounded by a gunshot which broke his hip, making him fall from his horse. The shot was apparently fired by Thomas brother Edmund, who would soon become a very notable figure of his own in military history of the time.
When Gerald fell, the tables were turned on Desmond decisively. It is rare to find soldiers extremely willing to die on the whim of a personal feud between men far above them in station. The sight of their leader falling, possibly dead, was enough to break the morale and spirit of the Desmond forces which were soon routed, retreating back over the Finisk and Blackwater as best they could, many drowning in the process. Somewhere in the region of 300 were killed, sizable numbers for the place and time.
It did not have to be so. If Gerald had missed the bullet with his name on it, he could have gone on to lead his army to victory. Even if he had been defeated anyway, the possibility of a fallback to Lismore would not have been unlikely. But leadership of the visual, upfront variety was critical in the medieval/early modern world and the loss of that was frequently a deciding factor in battles that were otherwise closely contested.
Gerald was captured alive, paraded, shoulder high, before his enemy’s army as a trophy. Allegedly (as most sources describe) Thomas mocked Gerald with the words “Where is now the great Lord Desmond?” Gerald responded “Where but in his proper place, on the necks of the Butlers.” Satirical retorts were the only weapons that Gerald had left. In truth, the defeat was a total disaster for him, though it could be measured more in prestige terms than in lasting geo-political effects.
Ormond had won a great victory in the endless feud between the two, in many ways the reverse of the Battle of Piltown, fought during the Wars of the Roses. But it is important to note that Ormond was somewhat fortunate. Gerald’s attacking posture cannot really be judged too harshly given the situation. A calculated risk is what it was, but they do fail sometimes. Sometimes, in war, you can do everything in your power right, but still lose.
Not that Ormond came out of proceedings the big winner. Elizabeth, on hearing the news that her two Irish Earls had not only fought a large-scale battle against each other, but had done so under their own banners – making it more than just a brawl or raid, but an “official” clash of arms – was incensed. Such activities flew in the face of her royal power, a declaration that Ormond and Desmond would not heed her commands when it came to their personal feud. Only the state – through the monarchy – should have had the authority to make war, be it on outside enemies or rebellious subjects. To Elizabeth’s eyes, Desmond and Ormond were thumbing their noses at her. Affane was a factor that led to the collapse of another Lord Deputyship in Ireland due to its ineffectiveness in establishing royal authority.
Both Thomas and Gerald were summoned to London to explain themselves and their actions. The correct solution would probably have seen both nobles censured and punished for their actions, as one of them could hardly be held to be more at fault that the other legitimately.
But Elizabeth was more inclined to Thomas who, aside from being a cousin, a Protestant and head of the ever-loyal Butler family, had been a childhood friend of hers. Thomas and Ormond were largely exonerated in her conclusion on the affair, while Gerald and his brothers spent several years imprisoned in harsh conditions within the Tower of London.
While it may not have seemed like such a terrible thing in the political manoeuvrings of the time, Elizabeth had seriously erred in her preferences. The imprisonment of the head of the Desmond Fitzgerald’s was a key factor in causing the trouble that was soon to erupt in the Munster Earldom. While Elizabeth may have stamped out the possibility of future “private” battles in Ireland, she had merely provoked something much worse: open rebellion.
But before we get to all that, we will return to the story of Shane O’Neill and his quest for the crown of Ulster.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.