Ireland’s Wars: Smerwick And The End Of The Desmond Rebellion

It was the Autumn of 1580, and one could be forgiven for wondering just how things were going to work out in Desmond.

The area had been in revolt for some time now, the Geraldines of Munster facing off against the combined forces of the English and the loyal Irish Earldoms. The fight had not been going well for the Geraldines up to that point, with a few early successes undone by a succession of castle captures and the ferocity of the enemy in targeting the civilian population.

The actions of the O’Byrne’s in Wicklow, and their spectacular victory at Glenmalure, had certainly been a help, but it really was only as good as the advantage that was taken afterwards, which was non-existent. But it was a critical defeat of the English and the loss of many men, and offered a huge morale boost to the Geraldine cause. Yes, they might be lacking strong points to hold and yes, they might be resorting more and more to guerrilla warfare in the face of English numerical superiority. But they were still fighting, still inflicting damage, still had the country with them.

But much more importantly than that, they had the prospect of reinforcements.

It was the Papal States that had got the rebellion going in their support for James Fitzmaurice. It was their troops that had helped defend Carrigafoyle, that had helped to train the Desmond army into something more than just a ragtag group of armed peasants. But they were not great in number. The prospect of more troops arriving in Irish shores bearing Papal banners and marching against the English was a thought that kept many dreams alive during this period.

And it was only a few weeks after Glenmalure that they arrived, a small fleet of four ships carrying a contingent of Spanish and Italian troops numbering somewhere between 600-700. The Pope had not forgotten the rebellion, and still had hopes that the action in Desmond could lead to a greater push against Protestantism in Ireland, and maybe even England. In hindsight, it was probably a case of throwing good money after bad.

In order for any success to happen as the Pope wanted, Gerald, the Earl of Desmond, needed more men and needed more arms. His forces had a distinct lack of artillery and musketry with which to combat the English, and could not hope to hold out resistance as it stood. The Papal reinforcements were badly needed, and their actions now –and the re-action to them – would be the decisive moment of the entire rebellion.

In the same vein as Fitzmaurice the previous year, the Papal force, under the command of a man named Sebastiano di San Giuseppi (named in some sources as Sebastian de San Josef, leaving his nationality in doubt), landed near Smerwick, County Kerry, on the edge of the Dingle Peninsula. The English fleet patrolling the area, under William Wynter, was absent, resupplying in England, facilitating the Papal passage and landing. The Papal fleet was led by a man named Juan Martinez de Recalde. He didn’t know it, but he would be back in Ireland eight years later under very different circumstances.

While the numbers were not exactly stellar, the Papal army was more than just the men it included. They brought money for the fight, arms and ammunition for 5’000 men, vital experience that could be used both in battle and training. But more than that, they brought their very existence. The sight of Papal troops fighting in Ireland, assisting the Geraldines, would be a truly gigantic propaganda victory, sure to boost flagging morale levels and encourage even greater support from the native population for the rebellion.

But with little instructions about what to do after landing, the Papal force located to the old fort at Dún an Óir, previously fortified by Fitzmaurice, and dug in.

This action is, of course, strange is hindsight, and may only be explained through lack of orders. Presumably Sebastian did not want to go marching through Desmond on his own and wanted to meet up with the forces that Gerald or John of Desmond had before making any offensive move. With the best places in the area under English control, maybe Dún an Óir was as far as they felt comfortable going, at least until they could add their strength to Gerald’s.

But Dún an Óir was a defensive position from another age. Small, next to high ground, and with walls that were designed for deflecting spears, not cannon balls, the position was obviously untenable in a crisis. Yet, the Papal troops moved there and stayed there. What they could have achieved if they had moved out is debatable. Some sources claim that every town in Munster would have opened its gates. But to walk into Desmond, with a force so small and so much to lose, probably made discretion the better part of valour for the Papal troops. Bumping into an English army in the field would not have been good, so they simply decided to stay put.

With that reality, all swung on who could get to them first. Gerald, when he heard, moved as fast as he could, but the Geraldines were divided, with John’s own contingent then meeting up with the rebels in Wicklow. The delay in Gerald’s movements was critical. The arrival of the Papal troops was no secret, and the Earl of Ormond, with his forces ready, was able to start marching towards them immediately. Gerald, with the meagre forces he had available to him, could do little but snipe at the bigger enemy army at points, as he desperately tried to raise his own country in his favour.

The other army moving was that of Arthur Grey, the new Lord Deputy. Burning with the disgrace of his defeat to Fiach McHugh O’Byrne in the Wicklow Mountains, he was moving rapidly southwards from Dublin as soon as he had confirmation about the Papal army, determined to regain his honour and strike a deadly blow at the Desmond Rebellion. He knew the power that the Papal troops had, and had to challenge the power of a foreign country that had appeared on nominally English shores.

The Geraldines were undone, their own armies too piecemeal and divided to get moving in a co-ordinated fashion fast enough. Ormond got to the east of the peninsula first. Upon observation of Dún an Óir and intelligence from prisoners, he determined the size of the enemy force. Lacking sufficient numbers to take on Sebastiano and his men alone, he opted to simply begin a minor blockade from distance, preventing either the Papal army from leaving or Gerald meeting up with them. He actually thought little of the fort, but it still had guns that could cause some damage. By the time the Geraldines were in any position to enact an aggressive move, Smerwick and Dún an Óir were completely cut off. By the close of October, Grey had combined his large, artillery burdened, army with Ormond, with the return of William Wynter and his naval detachment preventing any escape by the sea. Occupying the high ground, the English had all the advantages.

The noose was tightening, as the Italians/Spanish hurriedly improved the meagre defensives of Dún an Óir as best he could, looking for any way out. It was simply not to be. The lack of movement and the choice of defensive point could mean only one outcome.

Grey’s siege was undertaken with speed and ferocity. The trenches dug before Dún an Óir advanced in a rapid fashion, and on just the third day – the 10th of Novemebr – the commander had enough. The bombardment from the English cannon had been devastating, largely silencing their Papal counterparts and making ruin of the walls around the fort. What little musketry they had been able to fire back had been ineffective. Sebastian faced a choice of fighting on in a hopeless battle, in a lousy position with no chance of reinforcement or escape, or raising the white flag.

The white flag was raised, but what happened next is up for debate. Differing sources can only agree on one essential fact: the vast majority of the garrison was slaughtered afterward. The key issue is whether Grey offered mercy to all and sundry before he did so, and whether the killing of the Papal troops after the surrender of the fort was an ordered event.

Grey’s own account leaves some wriggle room. He is open about his orders to butcher the garrison, but he does not mention any offer of clemency. This does not corroborate with other reports, ones which were far more believed in the country afterward, deemed especially true when subsequent years showed Grey’s bloodthirsty nature in more detail. The chances that the garrison surrendered unconditionally seem unlikely – why would they lay down their arms if they had no guarantees about their safety? Perhaps they were confused, or maybe they really were betrayed.

Whatever happened exactly, the final result was clear: the Papal army was completely destroyed, save its commanders who were spared, crushing the last great hope of the Geraldines. Gerald had never had a chance to help his foreign comrades, while John of Desmond , travelling from the other side of the country, arrived far too late, after Grey had actually marched back to Dublin .

In one of those odd quirks of history, one of the junior officers during the siege was none other than Walter Raleigh. His presence and participation at the massacre would, much later, be used as a charge against him in the trial that led to his execution in 1618.

Just as with the first Desmond Rebellion, the aftermath of Smerwick was a long, slow death for the rebel cause. The Pope would not be sending more troops. Gerald and John were largely on their own, with forces that were diminishing quickly in the face of English pressure. Becoming almost entirely subsistent on guerrilla fighting, the Geraldines could only delay the inevitable.

Grey, in his subsequent campaigns and the campaigns of his underlings, showcased a truly savage character. Before Munster had suffered. Now, the province was truly devastated. Vast areas of Desmond were plundered again and again, herds were butchered or stolen, farms and crops were burned, civilians were slaughtered. The English, under Grey, were now determined to meet Gerald’s rebellion with a wave of repression and massacre unseen before, stamping out any support for the rebellion with a cold ruthlessness.

Munster became a wasteland, devoid of livestock and produce. A famine ensured, followed soon after by a bout of plague. The depopulation was intense and unprecedented. Huge parts of the province now contained little to no life. By the end of the rebellion, perhaps as much as a third of the pre-war population no longer lived.

Grey eventually went too far. His brutality was noted by those back home, but more importantly were the lack of results. The Geraldines continued to raid and ambush, operating out of the mountains and forests of Kerry and Tipperary primarily, targeting the English, the Irish Earls, and any native Irish who sided with them. Their efforts were at times heroic, but the days of substantial impact being made were gone. Gerald and John kept fighting, even as their few remaining allies began to drop off, one by one. But they were still fighting.

The counter-insurgency campaign being waged was a clumsy one, and the hatred of Grey from the population was well noted. Such feelings could easily be transformed into support for the rebels. Campaigns of this sort has always been traditionally bloody, but Grey’s was extended over several years, targeting the same general area all the time. It easily crossed the line into counter-productivity and this, along with other considerations, led to Elizabeth stepping in.

Grey was eventually recalled to England, his role in Munster largely taken over by the Earl of Ormond, who spearheaded a somewhat more conciliatory policy, one driven by financial necessity: the cost of keeping so many troops in Ireland, combined with the lack of revenue from the Munster area, was seriously damaging the royal exchequer. The main threat of foreign troops had been decisively defeated, the rest could now be done in a more gentle fashion. Pardons were now freely offered to those who had rebelled, with the exceptions of the main leaders – Gerald and John. They had undertaken too great a treason to be left off the hook this time. The Tudors were committed now to wiping out the main Geraldine dynasty in Munster, and preventing rebellion from happening again from that source. That Gerald had been basically forced into the position meant little.

1581 turned to 1582. Fiach O’Byrne, after much coaxing, laid down his arms. The Viscount Baltinglass left the country. Nicholas Saunders, still supporting the rebellion he had helped start, died in the wilds from hunger and cold. Gerald and John were largely reduced to commanding bands of a few hundred men each, raiding into the territories of the McCarthy Mor and Ormond for provisions. Starvation and disease continued to ravish Desmond.

The entirety of the rebellion was now centred on these two men and what meagre forces they still commanded. John was the first to fall, caught with just a handful of followers in an ambush north of Cork in the summer of 1582. Gerald carried on, living wild with what few loyal soldiers and friends he had left, hiding from those still hunting him. He fought several successful actions in this final period, at Pea-field and Knockgraffon, Tipperary, but he was still just delaying the inevitable. Gerald had a decent military mind, but there was simply no way out.

He continued fighting and living on the run for another year before the final end came. In November 1583, while hiding in the Slieve Mish Mountains in Kerry, Gerald was set upon by members of the local Moriarty clan, whom he had stolen cattle from. On the 11th of that month, he and the last of his men were finally cornered and killed, the Moriarty’s being well rewarded for their actions. With that, the Second Desmond Rebellion, though long past the point of success, can finally be said to have ended.

It is easy to look back and claim that the rebellion was doomed from the start. Certainly, the issues of English superiority in men and arms, the lack of an island-wide uprising or co-ordination between different sets of rebels and the failure of foreign troops to be utilised to the full are obvious.

Did the rebellion have any chance of success? There are many “What If?” moments I suppose. What if James Fitzmaurice had made it to Connacht and raised that province? What of Gerald had joined the rebellion from the start? What of Carrickfergus had held, or what if the garrison had escaped? What if Fiach McHugh marched on Dublin after Glenmalure? What if the Papal army had met up with Gerald and John?

Yes, the rebellion could have succeeded, but the odds were stacked against that outcome from the start. Only the most optimal of scenarios would have seen long-lasting success. The English had more men, were better trained, had artillery. They were committed to a rampaging policy through Munster, which the Geraldines could not replicate to the full. They had command of the sea for the most part. They were able to seize fortresses at will. They were able to bounce back from defeats and keep going.

The Geraldines were too scattered, too disinclined to major combat actions, too slow to move when the need arose. They couldn’t coordinate with the O’Byrne’s to an effective extent, and wasted the various opportunities that came their way. Once the garrison at Dún an Óir was massacred, it was simply a matter of time, the slow decaying guerrilla efforts of Gerald being little more than an annoyance to a victorious Tudor regime in the final years of the rebellion.

The Desmond Rebellions tend to be grouped together in some narratives as one “great” period of uprising. They certainly had similar elements, but the second was a far more expansive beast than the first. In the lists of Irish uprising the Desmond Rebellions have their place, between the first great effort by Silken Thomas and the latter devastation, soon to be covered here, of the Nine Years War.

The aftermath and its effects were critical to the future history of the island. A major Anglo-Irish dynasty had been destroyed. A quarter of the country lay open, and in large parts unoccupied. The Tudors were buoyant in their success, eager to take advantage.

The Tudor conquest was in full swing alright. And it would only continue.

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

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20 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Smerwick And The End Of The Desmond Rebellion

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