Ireland’s Wars: The Second Desmond Rebellion Begins

In 1579, the Tudor administration seemed to be on the up throughout Ireland.

Leinster had been largely pacified, the Pale secured, the Earldom of Ormond onside. Connacht was in the process of being pacified, the MacWilliam Burkes and other rebels being rooted out of various strongholds. Ulster was not the threat it once was. Munster seemed largely supplicant.

But this was just an illusion, especially in Munster. The Earldom of Desmond, after the conclusion of James Fitzmaurice’ rebellion a few years previously, remained a hotbed of unrest and dissatisfaction.

It was all for the same old reasons. The influx of English settlers, taking over land confiscated from long standing Irish families. The pushing of military governors and Presidents on areas. A coordinated assault on Irish/Gaelic ways of life with the outlawing of Irish speech, dress, customs etc. The continuation of an unpopular reformation. The feeling that the Gerald, the Earl of Desmond, was nothing more than a weakling. The memories of previous atrocities committed during the earlier rebellion.

Added to this was the continuing demilitarisation of the land, with the Earl of Desmond’s powers to raise and maintain troops numbers severely limited under new rules. The Tudors were playing a long game in Desmond, slowly removing its inherent identity through their reforms and colonialism. Taking the teeth away from the area was part of this plan. With the gallowglass and other soldiering families and clans suddenly deprived of a livelihood, and in many cases hunted down ruthlessly by the English administration as a potential future threat, there was a substantial movement of armed and trained men who were itching to start trouble in the region. All it would take was the right spark.

While all that was brewing, James Fitzmaurice was abroad. Though pardoned for his rebellion, he had been left destitute and landless in the aftermath. Probably determined to reverse this situation by any means, he spent several years travelling throughout Europe. His attempts to convince the Kings of France and Spain to finance and supply an invasion of Ireland came to nought. It was in Rome, at the court of Pope Gregory XIII, that he found what he was looking for.

Gregory had no love for the reformer Elizabeth, proclaimed a heretic in 1570, and saw in Fitzmaurice a chance to undermine her position. Duly impressed, he authorised the organisation of a Papal force to invade Ireland.

The first attempt, in 1578, was an aborted expedition led by the noted English mercenary Thomas Stukley, which never even left the Mediterranean, the 2’000 or so men diverted by the King of Portugal to a war in Morocco, where Stukley was killed.

It took a year for Fitzmaurice and his main allies – exiled English Catholic priests like William Allen and Nicholas Sanders who wanted to overthrow Elizabeth – to organise another force. This, much smaller, army numbered around 600 or so and consisted of a mixture of Italian and Spanish troops, departing Spain in June 1579 in a small fleet.

This small fleet had its first success in the crossing, capturing a few English vessels, before making landfall in Ireland on the 18th of July, at Smerwick harbour, County Kerry. An old Iron Age fort, known locally as Dun an Oir, was located near the landing sight. The foreign troops came to know it as Fort Dell Oro. This basic fortification was enlarged and improved on Fitzmaurice’s direction, and would serve as one of the main strongholds of the rebels in the fighting to come. The choice of landing area was probably with the natural barriers ahead of it mind.

Though his army was small, the effect they created was electric. Marching through nearby Dingle with Papal banners flying, proclaiming Holy War against the English on the authorisation of Gregory, Fitzmaurice and his allies had the country in a spin very fast. This was no limited rebellion designed to just increase Desmond’s standing in the island. This was a clear and open challenge to the entire Tudor position in Ireland. Native Irish had been trying for generations to get foreign troops onshore to help fight the English. Now it had finally happened and the possibilities that opened up were staggering.

While Fitzmaurice almost certainly had personal motivations, such as his dislike of Gerald and the loss of his own lands, his move was one that could only have ended positively in the event of a total Irish victory over the Tudors. There would be no mercy this time. He was declaring a full scale war, with foreign, Catholic troops to boot. More than likely he had his eyes on the Earldom for himself, but in order to achieve that he was going to have to beat the English decisively.

While Fitzmaurice was gathering a larger force from the dissatisfied population of the country, the English were already responding. Less than ten days after their landing a small fleet under William Wynter seized the Geraldine vassels in Smerwick harbour, cutting of any possible retreat and severely effecting their supply routes. Mindful of what had happened before and how dangerous Fitzmaurice could potentially be, armies were being gathered in the Pale, with the Earl of Ormond mobilizing.

But the spark had lit a fire that was growing out of control. Plenty of Geraldine nobles were throwing in with Fitzmaurice, adding their forces to his. The most prominent were John and James of Desmond, brothers of Gerald. Soldiers, and tired of seeing their lands and rights stripped away by the English, they lost no time in joining the rebellion that Fitzmaurice had started, assassinating several Tudor officials on their way to meet up with him.

Gerald, loyal to the Tudors, wanting a more peaceful life and mindful of how easily the situation could get out of control, denounced their actions and attempted to raise his own forces to stop them. Gerald is characterised often in history as a weak puppet, too” on the fence” when it came to most issues. His inability to raise an army – one source claims only 60 men answered his call – simply served to make him seem more impotent. From afar, to the English administration, it looked more like treason. If Gerald had reacted a bit faster, and with a bit more force, the rebels would have been slaughtered easily enough. That may have been the thinking anyway.

The Geraldine rebels meanwhile had assembled an army of around 3’000 within a month, a not inconsiderable force of men. Mostly native Irish of course, it had the musketeer soldiers of the Papal contingent at its core. However, it was still small compared to the potential numbers it could face in the form of the English and was still, as summer came to a close, focused on recruitment and training.

Facing supply issues and mindful of the need to whip up more support, the Geraldines broke up. While a garrison was left to defend Dun an Oir, some took to the fields of Desmond to garner supplies and support, others to occupy various castles, most notably Carrigafoyle in North Kerry. Fitzmaurice took a small mobile group and headed northward to Connacht, seeking to exploit the vast amount of anti-English feeling there.

His objective was a sound one. The rebellion could not allow itself to be limited to just one province if it was to succeed. If Irish rebels in different parts of the country could unite and co-ordinate a large movement, the chances of success would greatly increase. Fitzmaurice probably remembered his small beleaguered rebel band getting smaller by the day in his first rebellion, limited to piece meal strikes in a small corner of the country.

But Fitzmaurice erred along the way. Stealing some horses from the MacWilliam’s of Castleconnell to keep his trip moving at a fast pace proved the death of him, as the MacWilliam’s caught up with Fitzmaurice near the city of Limerick and shot him dead in retribution. Somewhat ironically, the man who led this vengeance attack was Fitzmaurice’s cousin.

It was an awful blow to the Geraldine cause, though not a fatal one. Fitzmaurice was the instigator and major figure of the rebellion, without whom it would not have been possible. But John of Desmond was able to take over command following his demise without too much difficulty and would go on to prove himself an equal, or better, when it came to military matters. A greater loss was the lack of success in Fitzmaurice’s mission, especially with English land forces now moving into Desmond.

Sir William Drury, the Lord Justice, was the nominal commander in the area, though he was sickly and dying at the time. His army was a collection of native Irish from Munster, many of them Catholics, who had answered his call to defend the crowns position. Perhaps they had memories of the previous failures of the Geraldines, and were mindful of the dangers of being on the losing side. Certainly, the indications are that the majority of Desmond was siding with the rebels at this point, but Drury still had enough clout to put an army in the field, of around 1500 men or so. It is telling that while this was so, the actual Earl of Desmond could not.

The time of year was now late September/early October as armies began to move in earnest. Drury, from Kilmallock, sent his forces south and west to try and flush the Geraldines out of their hiding places in the woods of the area (West Limerick/Kerry). Two battles were fought in this general time period. The first, at Gort na Tiobraid, known as Springfield today in southern Limerick, was fought when a party of several hundred of Drury’s men encountered the army of John and James of Desmond unexpectedly. The result was a rout of the English army, with little details recorded. Surprise and knowledge of the terrain may have favoured the Geraldines. The success was a great boon to Geraldine morale, which had probably been waning since Fitzmaurice’s death, and Drury was dead of his illness soon after.

The English army found itself in the hands of Nicholas Malby, the Lord President of Connacht at the time, who had marched south to assist Drury. Moving from Kilmallock and knowing John’s army was in the area, he made aggressively to force an encounter. The two fought a more expected and set-piece battle at Monasteranena (modern day Manister), near Croom, Limerick. This battle was a more closely fought encounter, fought shortly after Gort na Tiobraid. The Spanish and Italian officers had spent the time drilling the native Irish into a better trained force than they previously had been, to the noted surprise of the English. They twice, apparently, had Malby’s lines broken. But the English were good fighters too, retaining their shape and reforming every time. One or two sources claim that this battle ended in victory for the Geraldines. Most others do not agree, claiming the Irish were routed, though the loss – a couple of hundred men – was not as terrible as might have been expected. Perhaps a better prepared enemy, lack of supplies, fatigue from marching and the previous fight all took their toll.

The opening salvos of the Second Desmond Rebellion had been fired. Though the forces had proved evenly matched so far, the Geraldines were not in a good position. Their army had a limited recruitment area and would not get much bigger. They had failed to incite open rebellion in other areas. The English had control of the sea, and were massing large armies to deal with the problem. The legitimate ruler of the area, Gerald, was not on their side. They had placed themselves in a situation where a negotiated settlement was unlikely and retreat was impossible. The winter months were coming, with no guarantee that they would be kept supplied.

So, the rebellion might have been headed towards failure then and there, but for the actions of Malby in the aftermath of his victory. He went on a rampage in the Askeaton/Rathkeale area, an orgy of burning and destruction, where Gerald had situated himself, wanting to better observe the progress of the rebellion. With added reinforcements from Ormond and Kildare, he demanded that Gerald surrender several of his castles, including the one he was then in. When Gerald, protesting at the slaughter going on in the area and the disrespectful way he was being treated, refused, Malby had him declared a traitor.

It was a fateful moment. Thus accused, Gerald saw himself with no choice but to cast his lot in with his brothers and rebel, lest his life be taken by an administration that never done much to appeal to his loyalty.

Gerald took over leadership of the rebellion in spectacular style, riding with his brothers forces to the English garrisoned town of Youghal, Cork. Here, in mid-November, he led a sack of the town that resulted in its almost total destruction, the burning of most buildings, the slaughter of the garrison and the plundering of anything worth taking. Any civilians who would have survived were probably doomed by the oncoming winter. After briefly blockading the city of Cork, Gerald withdrew into Kerry for the cold months. A further boost was added to the Geraldine cause before the end of the year: the McCarthy Mor joined the rebellion, burning the town of Kinsale.

With Gerald’s involvement more troops would have joined the rebels cause, along with the added sense of legitimacy it now held. No longer was Desmond divided – now everyone was in the fight together and apparently winning that fight too. There can be no doubt that the latter half of the year 1579 was a terrifying one for the English in Munster, though they still had plenty of strength to use. But their armies were being defeated in the field, and their towns were under threat. The hostile way that the people of Desmond – especially Gerald –  had been treated in the past was now bearing bitter fruit for the English, leading them into a campaign that need not have been necessary.

The Second Desmond Rebellion was in full swing, but after these early success, the Geraldines would have to weather the storm.

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

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21 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Second Desmond Rebellion Begins

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