Ireland’s Wars: The First Desmond Rebellion

In 1567, Henry Sidney, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, embarked on a tour of Munster and Connaught, seeking a lay of the land in order to have a better knowledge of his position in the country. What he found startled him. He described Munster as a “waste and desolate land”, an area suffering from banditry, never ending raids, injustice, corruption, a lack of proper religious institutions and abject poverty. Even the Earldom of Ormond, such a royal stalwart, did not escape his criticism, on much of the same headings.

Sidney blamed the state of affairs on the soft power approach of the Tudor dynasty, which was more than content to refrain in direct involvement in Irish conflicts when they could simply provoke infighting between Irish factions, like those that had recently seen the end of Shane O’Neill. Such policies, in Sidney’s view, produced a distinct lack of civilisation that was leaving the lands in ruin. He was determined to change that if he could, and his favoured target was the Earldom of Desmond.

What was to follow was a long time in the coming, and was not solely provoked by Sidney. The enmity between Desmond and Ormond was a factor, as was royal preference for the Butlers over the Fitzgerald’s in this feud. The imprisonment of Gerald, the Earl of Desmond, in the aftermath of Affane had riled up tensions in the region, and despite his release there was still plenty of grumbling. Sidney’s subsequent actions lit a spark to kindling that was already assembled.

Aside from the loss of power and prestige that Desmond had been forced to suffer after Affane, many in the region – not least the gallowglass families and clans – objected strenuously to the demilitarisation policy that the Tudors attempted to inflict. Elizabeth was determined that private warfare between her Earls no longer be allowed to continue and set about reducing the legal powers that the Earl of Desmond had to raise troops, policies that would reach their fruition after the trouble that was to come. Gerald and his son were taken back into custody in 1568 and sent to the Tower once more as part of an attempt by Sidney to impose his own authority. Regional “Presidents” were appointed to provide closer control over troublesome areas, including Munster, irritating those nobles who felt their power was being superseded.

And behind everything lay the divisive factor of religion and reformation, with the Protestant faith that Elizabeth and others were trying to introduce finding tough opposition in the heavily Catholic areas of Desmond and the rest of Munster. When Sidney pointed out a dearth of religious institutions in Munster, it is unlikely that he meant Catholic ones. As the Catholic faith and institutions suffered from Tudor repression, so did those who were still faithful to the Roman creed.

With all of these factors in play, seething resentment was not hard to feel in the nobility and commoners of Desmond. When Sidney and his government started moving towards land confiscation, using the very flimsy pretext of centuries old claims from the initial Norman invasion, matters finally came to a head. The man who had taken charge of Desmond was not willing to allow the re-settlement of his lands by “loyal” English colonists.

That man was James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, a cousin of Gerald. In the Earl’s absence someone had to take up the reins of command: James was actually an unlikely candidate on paper, but rapidly swept his way to power in the vacuum left by Gerald’s imprisonment. Some sources claim this was done by the actions of the “people” of Desmond crying out “with one voice” for James to lead them. Undoubtedly an exaggeration, but is possible that Fitzmaurice garnered much of his power from “mob” support. James would be a pivotal figure in the history of the region for the next twelve years, but his career as the overall leader of the Desmond military got off to a poor start: in July 1568 he was roundly defeated while attempting to gain the submission of the Fitzmaurice’s of Kerry to his new rule.

But from there things moved quickly. By the end of 1568, Sidney was prepared to seize and give away James’ very own land, which prompted the “Captain” of the Geraldine’s to essentially declare himself and the Earldom he led in rebellion.

Such a decision was not taken lightly, and from what followed James’ ambitions were probably limited. He must have known that his own position of power was one that was living on borrowed time: the Tudors could release Gerald at any moment of their choosing. If he wanted to fulfil his aim of seeing Desmond power restored and respected by the English monarchy, he had to move fast. If he could gain early victories, a few smashing successes, perhaps replicate the earlier fortunes of Shane O’Neill in the north, then he could likely get the crown to back down and offer up concessions. As is typical of many Irish rebellions of the period, there is evidence to suggest he sought support and assistance from English enemies abroad, in France and Spain.

His objectives were not even that unreachable, though it is very easy to paint the First Desmond Rebellion as a doomed enterprise from the outset. James had substantial support from much of the Desmond Earldom including that of the McCarthy Mor. He even gained an ally in Edmund Butler, a brother of the Earl of Ormond, who was leading a minor (but incredibly embarrassing for the family) rebellion of his own over attempts to re-colonize his inheritance.

James soon had a an army of around 4’500 at his call, and marched south into the lands of what is now County Cork, embarking on a quick campaign to bring those Desmond nobles who had resisted his orders to heel. This culminated in a successful attack and capture of Kerrycurihy Castle, south of Cork City, in June 1569.

With his homeland secured – for the time being – James headed west. By now Sidney and his allies, most notable the Earl of Ormond who had recently returned to the country from England on the express mission of combating Fitzmaurice, were gathering their own forces. Aiming for the quickest blow with the maximum impact, James and his ally Edmund Butler marched straight for the Ormond heartland, besieging the town of Kilkenny.

One could have been forgiven for thinking that things were turning against Sidney and Ormond. But the truth was that James and Edmund were over-extended. Only a quick capture of Kilkenny would have been effective and that did not happen. Sidney, taking a page from the Irish playbook perhaps, choose not to attack James directly with the Pale forces he was able to muster, sending them into Munster directly, with others landing in the south at Cork. The Earl of Ormond, Thomas Butler, soon had most of the rebel Butler forces quelled, with his brother submitting to royal justice the next year.

With Desmond pitifully undefended, Sidney and others, like Humphrey Gilbert, undertook an absolutely vicious campaign. Burnings, plundering, rapine, and mass executions were commonplace sights, as Sidney abandoned any pretence of “soft” power. Little quarter was given in a military expedition that can be viewed as little more than a series of reprisals for the rebellion – a terror approach that made all involved infamous. While exaggeration from sources is to be expected, there is a general sense that what took place in Munster was especially bad, even for the times that were in it. The Tudor soft power policy was heading towards its end.

James’ army around Kilkenny broke apart, as numerous smaller lords took their own personal forces and headed home to defend their own lands as best they could, or to submit to the overwhelming power being presented. The offensive efforts of Fitzmaurice were done.

With the bulk of his army disintegrated and his homeland aflame, James headed west with what little he had, setting up shop in the mountains and forests of Kerry , manning the castles and walled towns that could be found in the area, there to maintain a low-scale insurgency that was to last for several more years. What he hoped to achieve by such a drawn out endeavour, by this point, cannot be rightly known. The limited force he had left was not enough to defeat the English militarily, and Desmond was in no fit state to rise up again after the brutal treatment it had received from Sidney, Ormond, Gilbert and its new Lord President, John Perrot.

By mid 1570, James was reduced to only his most loyal men, who numbered only a few hundred. Sidney pulled back his own forces, leaving Perrot in command of 700 or so with the task of ending the rebellion himself. Progress was slow. James was well secured in the terrain of Kerry, which was ever advantageous for the defender and the small mobile force. Perrot busied himself by capturing all the fortresses and castles that remained loyal to James one by one, a conventional task that was much easier to accomplish than counter-insurgency.

James and his guerrillas had some small success, most notably the burning of the town of Kilmallock, Limerick, a major urban centre of the area at the time, undertaken after a surprise night assault had seen his army scale the walls and catch the defenders off their guard. James benefitted from the fact that Perrot was a nervous and rash military commander, challenging Fitzmaurice to single combat and wasting much of his time and resources on enthusiastic but utterly fruitless hunts and searches for his quarry.

It could not continue however. While James was able to hold out and continue his struggle for a couple of years more, eventually his force was reduced to little more than a hundred men. His last great stronghold, Castlemaine in Kerry, gave in to Perrot due to starvation in mid 1572. Retiring to the Aherlow region in Tipperary, James was surprised by an attack based from the partially rebuilt Kilmallock in October, which severely reduced what little remained of his army.

In early 1573, James admitted defeat and submitted. He was pardoned his crimes in the process, the Tudor policy of partial reconciliation in action. With Gerald released and put back in power, in a severely curtailed fashion, James left Ireland for France. He would return before too long. James’ survival might seem amazing under the circumstances, but his life was the price of his submission. In the end, the Tudors were willingly to let him off the hook, to an extent, if it meant the end of his rebellion. The Desmond rebellions would eventually cost Elizabeth close to 500’000 pounds for troops and rebuilding – in contrast the English “northern rebellion” of 1569 cost 93’000 – indicating another clear reason why the Tudors were willing to be lenient.

The First Desmond Rebellion was a drawn out failure. While James Fitzmaurice started his war from a position that was not inconsiderable, he failed to really appreciate the strength and diversity of the foe that he was up again. The factures and feuding within the Earldom delayed his early moves, Edmund Butler was not a reliable ally, and he lacked the manpower to both launch offensives and defend his own land. Perhaps taken in by success of Shane O’Neill, James may have expected a quick campaign out of Desmond followed by him going to ground as Sidney hit back, the eventual outcome to be a return to the status quo from an exasperated English administration. Sidney and his underlings did not play by those rules, and the savagery of what occurred in Munster after Kilkenny was besieged is evidence of that. From that point, Fitzmaurice was on a countdown to failure. With no success to speak of he would not get support from others in Ireland or from abroad. While other military problems in Ireland popped up, especially in Connaught, his insurgency was essentially a sideshow, a contained threat that posed no real danger to the administration in Munster or in Ireland as a whole.

James wasn’t a bad military leader, he just faced odds that were against him to too much of an extent. He didn’t know when to quit either, though his extended resistance may well have been the only reason that his life was spared at the end of his revolt. That was probably little comfort to the scores of civilians who died in the process, but James’ actions, in the context of the times, hardly merited the backlash that Desmond received.

That backlash simply engendered further problems. Simply put, James Fitzmaurice’s insurrection is called the “First” Desmond Rebellion for a reason.

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

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16 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The First Desmond Rebellion

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