Ireland’s Wars: The Failure Of The Geraldine League

The Earldom of Kildare had been, as a political entity, wiped out after the capture and eventual execution of Thomas FitzGerald and his uncles, with the previous balance of power in Ireland severely warped as a result. In those frantic years after the fall of Maynooth, English policy in Ireland underwent a significant shift from the previous maintenance of the status quo towards a far more aggressive and lasting strategy of increased centralisation and intolerance towards the autonomy of declared vassals. The armed forces that had crushed Thomas did not go home. The expansion of Ormond did not cease.

The reformation was at the heart of all this of course, Henry’s desire to spread his religious alterations being one of the key reasons for expanded English interest in Ireland. A Catholic island, by and large, the reformation did not take hold in Ireland to any great degree in this time period anywhere beyond the Pale and the higher echelons of Ormond’s circle. The attacks on the Church in Ireland, the dissolution of monasteries and the targeting of priests bred more resentment towards the English then had existed for a while, but this was all in conjunction with the political situation.

That situation was not working out to the betterment of the native Irish. The Kildare FitzGerald’s, during their time in the ascendency, had essentially insured that the Irish Kingdoms in Ulster, Connaught and Munster remained largely as they were: fighting with each other, but free from any real English dominance. This arrangement could not last, as we saw with Kildare’s complete break from England, which occurred with such ill-fated consequences. Now, without the protection or diplomatic skills of the FitzGerald family, kingdoms like Thomond, Tir Eoghain and Tyrconnell looked with more fearful eyes towards the English administration in Ireland, now under the control of Sir Leonard Grey, who had ruthlessly seen out the last of the fighting with Thomas FitzGerald. Working closely with the Piers Butler, the Earl of Ormond, and with a substantial force of archers, gunmen and artillery, Grey went beyond this and pursued an aggressive policy against any who dared raise arms against England in any fashion.

Thomond was the first Kingdom to be on the receiving end of a concerted effort between Grey and Ormond after the defeat of Thomas FitzGerald, the two combining their forces and marching south-west in the summer of 1536. The O’Brien clan had been causing problems in the River Shannon area and western Desmond for generations, more recently facilitated by an impressive bridge constructed over the river a few miles north-east of Limerick City (the village of O’Briensbridge today). Ormond, as he had done during the Silken rebellion, paved the way for their success by inciting a revolt from one of the O’Brien sons, the discord within Irish royalty being an easy target for such attempts, given their inheritance structure. With the O’Brien’s distracted, the attack on the bridge and the impressive guard towers was carried out quickly and with little loss, with Grey following up his success with the capture of Carrigogunnell Castle to the west of Limerick City. Irish in-fighting benefited the English yet again.

Still, the campaign was not a glorious moment for Grey, who is on record of complaining about the behavior of his own soldiers, who rarely missed an opportunity for seeking plunder and looting. The English advantage in cannon and missile troops was probably a major difference maker, not forgetting numerical superiority. The losses they had suffered were probably a large shock to the O’Brien’s, not used to such active intervention from the English in the area.

Ormond was becoming the dominant Irish figure of the time, controlling more land and exerting more influence than ever before. The head of the Butlers did not get on too well with Grey, who is recorded as a brash and somewhat arrogant man, and it wasn’t too long before they were at each other’s throats. But, in the late 1530’s, the two men could put that aside long enough to become allies in battle.

The FitzGerald’s were defeated but not eliminated, the young Gerald, half-brother of Thomas, now the head of the family. Only a child, Gerald was still a vitally important person, a threat to English interests as a potential rallying point for those dissatisfied with English/Ormond activities. With none of the native Irish looking especially strong, Gerald spent these few years moving from place to place, Munster to Ulster, avoiding the hunt that Gray and others were carrying out. The FitzGerald dynasty hung by a thread.

It was around young Gerald that the “Geraldine League” sprang up, a grandiose term that historical posterity has thrown on a loose alliance between the more powerful native Irish Kingdoms that found a common foe in the English, and common reason to support the FitzGerald patriarch. Taking in a number of clans, the main ones were, as you may expect, Thomond, Tir Eoghain and Tyrconnell, all connected to the FitzGerald’s by marriage, all of whom saw benefit in a return of the Kildare Earldom, if only to provide a counter-balance to the hostile Butlers. It is telling that the O’Neill’s of Tir Eoghain and O’Donnell’s of Tyrconnell were willing to put aside their old enmity (Knockavoe was only 14 years previous) and work together.

But certain sources exaggerate the activates and aims of the league, making them far more ambitious and heroic than they likely were. The league probably had little to do with achieving Irish freedom, or of seeking a decisive military victory over England. If it had, all of those involved would have sent more troops to help Thomas FitzGerald during his insurrection, rather than hold their manpower back. It was about the restoration of the previous balance of power, and working together against a common threat that just so happened to be England. The native Irish frequently allied with each other when facing larger enemies and one consistent trend throughout this period was for the native Irish to treat the English like they were just another clan to be dealt with.

In 1537, having dealt decisively with the Offaly O’Connors and with Ormond taking south Leinster to task, Grey turned to the north, where he knew the real opposition to the Tudors lay. Initial diplomatic attempts to get Tir Eoghain and Tyrconnell to stand down were rejected, just as attempts to get Gerald FitzGerald to be given up were rejected. Resigned to war, Grey and Ormond marched north and invaded Tir Eoghain, finding no pitched battles to be fought, just more places to burn and castles to capture, in this case Dungannon. Grey was an aggressive campaigner, but even he couldn’t keep armies in the field forever, so the English had to content themselves with their destruction of the surrounding countryside before heading south again. With no significant engagements recorded, we can surmise that the traditional policy of retreat, ambush, scorched earth and raid were what the Irish fell back on.

The incursion didn’t really do much good for Grey’s cause, and the “league” grew larger and larger over the next year, soon joined by the FitzGerald’s of Desmond, the O’Rourke ‘s of Breifne and the MacDermot’s of Moylurg.

But while all these families found common cause in the restoration of Kildare, they were too scattered and lacked focused command in order to be fully effective in combating the English. The next few years saw Grey return several times to Ulster on similar expeditions as the one which took Dungannon, all of which followed the same pattern of raids and burnings, with little military combat to be found. Back in friendlier areas the attempts at reformation were floundering in an island that was not especially interested, with resentment from reformers being thrown at an uncaring Grey, who was an unrepentant Catholic. This, along with his over-bearing nature, brought him into growing dispute with the committed reformists in Ormond and parts of the Pale, and soon the two factions were not even acknowledging the other, with Grey showing some sympathy for FitzGerald family members as time went on, including them in his councils.

In May 1539, the leagues two most active members, Tir Eoghain and Tyrconnel, joined up to go on the offensive. Conn O’Neill and Manus O’Donnell were well used to the other in martial contest, but put aside past enmity to lead a successful raiding campaign into Meath, perhaps as much about thumbing their nose at the Lord Deputy as it was about plunder. Getting as far as the towns of Navan in Meath and Ardee in Louth, indicating a force of fast moving, lightly armoured troops, the combined army won itself a large amount of spoils and plunder without engaging in a serious fight, and were soon heading for home.

Grey was no fool however, and while he may have been surprised by the suddenness of this incursion, it could not have been unforeseen. He soon had his own forces assembled and heading north. With the O’Neill’s and O’Donnell’s apparently drunk on the ease of their victory and not marching home in any kind of watchful formation, they were easy prey for the attack that Grey forced upon them. At Ballyhoe, on the modern day border of Meath and Monaghan, he inflicted a devastating defeat on this Ulster alliance, in a fight that was little more that a total rout by most accounts, the Irish forces surprised and outflanked by sudden arrival of an English army in their rear, and divided between confused decisions of attempted flight and hopeless stand. 400 of them died that day, and massive amounts of loot that had been won were now lost, along with most of their actual supplies. Grey was exultant in victory, and most accounts mention numerous knighthoods being conferred on the field. If the raids into Meath were an attempt to bring back the status quo of the 1520’s, Ballyhoe was the clearest sign that this could never happen.

The league, such as it was, collapsed after Ballyhoe, as any attempts to seriously challenge the English petered out, the point of English dominance proven. Soon Grey was marching into Desmond, overrunning much of that Earldom’s territory with ease, and essentially ending any chances of a Thomond/Desmond alliance threatening the Pale’s position from the south. It was Grey’s last great victory. Recalled to England and finding himself victim of the whispers of Ormond and others, he was arrested for treason. Among the accusations were his complicity in the escape of young Gerald FitzGerald to France, along with sympathetic actions towards the church. In the suspicion-obsessed court of Henry VIII, such accusations were a death sentence, and Grey did not survive long. Considering his service to the crown in Ireland, this can be viewed as particularly unjust.

Though the English position in Ireland was not completely favourable by any means, for the Irish the truth was becoming clear. A real alliance of the major Kingdoms could have offered a significant challenge to the Pale and Ormond, but simply could not come about in 16th century Ireland, not an Ireland that was so divided among its natives and lacked the coordination for such an alliance to operate to its fullest potential. Even if such coordination existed, the difference in guns, artillery, value of infantry and cavalry, the availability of reinforcements, the factor of naval strength and the quality of leaders would probably still have seen the English forces triumph in this war. The Geraldine League was, in many respects, the last gasp from the old Irish way of politics and warfare, a society that was going out with a whimper in many areas. Though, that does an injustice to the cold hard reality of the situation. Things could not continue as they had. The Irish Kingdoms were living on borrowed time.

The English could not be beaten back in a permanent manner militarily, and had demonstrated that time and again. The main shield against English aggression was gone, and Ormond was the new Earldom of power and influence. Better for the Irish to seek terms now and attempt to reassert autonomy in the aftermath as they had done before, before the English decided that more political units in Ireland needed to be wiped out, as Kildare seemed to have been. But it was going to cost more this time.

With a new, more conciliatory Lord Deputy – Anthony St Ledger – in place, a policy of “surrender and regrant” was carried out, as a succession of Irish and Anglo-Irish clans and families, including all members of the Geraldine League, eventually bent the knee and accepted Henry’s overlordship one after the other.

But this was to be no revisiting of Richard II’s failure, of accepting empty declarations of fealty. The Irish had been beaten this time. Henry had other ideas. With the vast majority of the country’s political powers now swearing loyalty to him, a Parliament was convened in June 1539, which now included a vast number of those who had fought against him only a year previously. There, Ireland was declared to no longer be a Lordship, but a Kingdom, the crown of which went to Henry in a personal union with England. The native Irish kingdoms began to vanish as lands were regranted under new titles after submission. The MacMurragh’s became the Kavanagh’s. Tir Eoghain became Tyrone. The King of Thomond became the Earl of Thomond.

This was important for recognising Henry’s interest in now retaining greater control over Ireland. This was no longer some estate that he had claim to – this was a Kingdom that was his by divine right. It was one thing to swear allegiance to a lord of Ireland, much different to swear it to a King of Ireland. The Tudors – Henry, and in succession his children Edward, Mary and Elizabeth – were done with accepting the status quo in Ireland. A greater military presence in Ireland on a more permanent basis would now be the norm, with control being moved ever outward. The inevitable conflagration of the FitzGerald’s had destroyed the delicate equilibrium that was previously acceptable. While it had been simmering for an age, now the time of the Tudor conquest was well and truly begun.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Failure Of The Geraldine League

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The First Plantation | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Desmond And Ormond At Affane | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Ireton Crosses The Shannon | Never Felt Better

  5. Noel O'Brien says:

    The only time the O’Neill & O’Brien clans collaborated they ejected the Vikings .
    Yes, the ‘Geraldine League’ was their last chance for an Irish Kingdom .

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