As 1580 began, things were poised very delicately in Munster.
The Geraldines, now under the leadership of Gerald, the Earl, had achieved some very notable success, not least the burning of Youghal. But they were still outnumbered by the kind of forces that the English could muster, were still alone in their fight and still lacked sufficient means to win through to victory. A good start was one thing, but continuing that success would be much more difficult.
With Gerald now involved, that victory would have to be total, or else death would be the only outcome. With possible support still available from the Papacy and other Catholic nations, the Geraldines had reasons to be optimistic. They had an army, they had decent military leaders, and they held numerous fortified positions across the country. They could certainly make things difficult for the English.
What the Geraldines did not have was control of most of the land in Desmond. As soon as it was feasible, forces under the Earl of Ormond, still Thomas Butler, the victor of Affane, and William Pelham, the new Lord Justice of Ireland, were marching into Desmond, travelling from major urban centre to major urban centre, destroying everything that fell into their path in-between. From Limerick to Cork and on to Tralee, the English ravaged the land, as noted by nearly every source, burning, despoiling, raping and killing.
Little military action between armies is noted in this period, save for some raids carried out by John of Desmond on English garrisons in a few towns. The Geraldines were largely hunkered down. The rebellion had become a totally brutal fight, one that the civilians of Desmond now became the chief victim of. The English, especially Pelham, were fixated on reducing the influence of the Geraldines and eliminating any support they may have gotten from the populace, rightly knowing that the elimination of such support would be a gigantic blow. The neutralisation of farmland, through its capture or burning, was part of an aim to simply starve the rebels out. The policy decided upon was a harsh one, a campaign of punishment and reprisal, which left the Munster area devastated. Such was the magnitude of the policy, even the English army began to suffer from supply shortages. With plenty of Irish – Geraldine enemies and others from as far away as Ulster – in their ranks, the English were committed to a swift put down of the rebellious province, unwilling to give Gerald and his forces any time to breathe. Things would only get worse for Desmond as time went on, but the true misery started here, as the beginnings of famine, population reduction and disease began to raise their ugly heads.
After a few months of this activity, with the Geraldine armies safely hidden away in the secure areas of Kerry that had previously sheltered James Fitzmaurice’s rebels, Pelham took his army and headed north, to the Shannon Estuary.
There, not far from the town of Ballylongford and around 25 miles west of Limerick City, stood Carrigafoyle Castle. Built a century before and one of the strongest defensive structures in Ireland at the time, Carrigafoyle overlooked the shipping lanes that supplied Limerick, with a double defensive wall and a moat, not to mention some natural barriers that offered further protection. One of the main fortresses of the Geraldines, Carrigafoyle was a crucial lynchpin in the rebels position.
In Spring 1580, owing to the scattered nature of the Geraldines and other positions that had to be manned, only 66 or so men defended Carrigafoyle – 50 Irish and 16 Spanish. They were under the command of a Spanish engineer, Captain Julian, who had spent much of his year in Ireland thus far shoring up the castles defences in preparation for any attack. Numerous civilians, women and children, could also be found within its walls.
Pelham wanted Carrigafoyle taken down. He understood that the castle did not have just a strategic purpose and value – it was also one of the most important parts of the Geraldines Earldom in terms of prestige and appearance of power. If Carrigafoyle could be taken, and quickly, it would be a gigantic blow to Geraldine morale.
To that end, Pelham planned his moves carefully. Aside from his own land based forces, he co-ordinated with Sir William Wynter – busy patrolling Irish waters to see off any potential reinforcements to the rebels – in order to have a naval element attack and besiege from the river, cutting off any reinforcement or resupply.
Pelham’s total force was presumably quite large, a few thousand maybe, and more than enough to encircle the castle. Julian refused to surrender when called upon, proclaiming he held his position for the King of Spain, something that must have been a red flag to a bull for the English.
Presumably he thought that he could hold his position and win out – either through withstanding the English attack or breaking it with reinforcements. But he had not thought to factor in, to a sufficient extent, the power of English cannon.
Pelham’s supply of artillery, perhaps added to by naval guns and operators supplied by Wynter, began an intensive two day bombardment. The stone of Carrigafoyle succumbed all too easily, and soon breaches had been made. Clearly, Irish castles had not been built to withstand such pressure. Just as critically, Pelham’s guns were allowed to fire without any hindrance or harassment, probably owing to the small size of the garrison in comparison to the attackers. Sortie’s were unwise, and there was only so much Julian could do in the face of such an attack, from land and from sea. Wynter’s ships were firing on the castle too.
A first assault on the north side of the castle, made on the very first day of the siege, was thrown back with some loss, with Pelham himself slightly wounded in the attempt. The Spanish beat the attack off, pinning down the attackers through musketry and thrown rocks, displacing raised ladders as soon as they could. Soon reinforced by some of Wynter sailors, Pekham tried again on the second day from a different direction, using his cannon to blast down the west wall of the castle.
A second storming attempt succeeded, perhaps aided by the destruction that the collapsed wall had caused within the structure. In truth, once a breach had been made and held, the likelihood of any successful defence being made was astronomically small. They simply didn’t have the numbers. The garrison was slaughtered, killed in the fighting or hanged afterwards along with most of the civilians who tried to flee. Only two days had passed since the beginning of the siege, and Carrigafoyle was now a hollowed out wreck.
The results were swift and catastrophic for the Geraldines. In only two days, the power of the English had been decisively demonstrated. Carrigafoyle was gone, the garrison dead, the Shannon now essentially impassable for any foreign troops who may have been considering a landing near Limerick.
Within a few months, nearly every castle or fortification garrisoned by the Geraldines had been given up or destroyed. Castles at Askeaton, Newcastle-West, Baliloghan, Rathkeale and Ballyduff all fell into the hands of the English, though in some cases only after the walls had been destroyed by the defenders. Some lesser Desmond lords surrendered to the English, like the McCarthy Mor, mindful of where the war seemed to be going and wanting to get out before they lost everything.
It was a dire time for the Geraldines, now reduced to their fastnesses in Kerry, unable to face the English in the field or hold their ground, relying on guerrilla warfare to strike back. While this still made them a threat, it meant that the Desmond rebellion was now much like the rebellion James Fitzmaurice had led a decade previous – one that was a serious concern, but unlikely to really trouble the English to a dangerous degree.
One could certainly be forgiven for thinking that, like Fitzmaurice, all that was required now was patience and a commitment to hunt down the last of the rebels. Certainly, Pelham and Ormond did not let up on their savage attacks on the Desmond countryside, continuing to burn, pillage and kill, destroying farms, stealing herds and denying as much support to the enemy as they could through such strategy.
However, an unexpected attack on the English position within Ireland, striking not far from the Pale, was about to alter the strategic balance once again, and give the Geraldines new hope. Leinster was about the rebel.
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