(15th E. Desmond)

Born: ABT 1533

Acceded: 1558

Died: 11 Nov 1583, Glenagintigha, Tralee, Kerry

Notes: The Complete Peerage vol.IV,pp.252-254.

Father: James FITZGERALD (14º E. Desmond)


Married 1: Joan FITZGERALD (C. Ormonde/C. Desmond) ABT 1551


1. Margaret FITZGERALD

Married 2: Eleanor BUTLER (C. Desmond)


2. James FITZGERALD (16° E. Desmond)

3. Catherine FITZGERALD



6. Elizabeth FITZGERALD

7. Margaret FITZGERALD


Known to English writers as the "Rebel Earl", or "Ingens Rebellibus Exemplar". He was the son of James Fitzgerald, 14th Earl of Desmond, by his second wife Mor O'Caerbhaill. His father had agreed in Jan 1541, as one of the terms of his submission to Henry VIII of England, to send young Gerald to be educated in England. At the accession of Edward VI proposals to this effect were renewed; Gerald was to be the companion of the young King. Unfortunately for the subsequent peace of Munster these projects were not carried out. The Desmond estates were held by a doubtful title, and claims on them were made by the Butlers, the hereditary enemies of the Geraldines, for James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormonde had married Lady Joan Fitzgerald, daughter and heiress-general of James Fitzgerald, 10th Earl of Desmond. On Ormonde's death she proposed to marry Gerald Fitzgerald, and eventually did so, after the death of her second husband, Sir Francis Bryan. The effect of this marriage was a temporary cessation of open hostility between the Desmonds and her son, Thomas Butler, 9th Earl of Ormonde.

Sir Thomas Desmond, his elder half-brother, by his father's first marriage, afterwards annulled as contracted within degrees of consanguinity, was for a short time recognized as Earl. Gerald was, however, chosen by the septs of Desmond, and his claim was eventually allowed by Government. Thomas took no part with his brothers in the succeeding convulsions, and died at his castle of Connagh, near Youghal, 18 Jan 1595. Gerald succeeded to the earidom in 1558; he was knighted by the lord deputy Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex, and did homage at Waterford surrounded by a noble retinue of 100 youths, all of honourable birth. The Earl sat in a parliament held in Dublin in 1559. He soon established close relations with his namesake Gerald Fitzgerald, 11th Earl of Kildare (1525–1585), and with Shane O'Neill. In spite of an award made by Sussex in Aug 1560 regulating the matters in dispute between Ormonde and the Fitzgeralds, the Geraldine outlaws were still plundering their neighbors. Desmond neglected a summons to appear at Elizabeth's court for some time on the plea that he was at war with his uncle Maurice. When he did appear in London in May 1562 his insolent conduct before the privy council resulted in a short imprisonment in the Tower of London.

He was detained, in England until 1564, and soon after his return his wife's death set him free from such restraint as was provided by her Butler connection. He now raided Thomond, and in Waterford he sought to enforce his feudal rights on Sir Maurice Fitzgerald of Decies, who invoked the help of Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormonde. The two nobles thereupon resorted to open war, fighting a battle at Affane on the Blackwater, two miles south of Cappoquin, where Desmond was defeated and taken prisoner. While being carried on a litter from the field, one of his captors is said to have tauntingly asked: 'Where now is the proud 'Earl of Desmond?' to which he haughtily rejoined: 'Where he ought to be... upon the necks of the Butlers'. Ormonde and Desmond were bound over in London to keep the peace, being allowed to return early in 1566 to Ireland, where a royal commission was appointed to settle the matters in dispute between them. Desmond and his brother Sir John of Desmond were sent over to England, where they surrendered their lands to the Queen after a short experience of the Tower.

Sir Henry Sidney, in his progress through Munster in Jan 1567, said:

"[the Earl of Desmond]... a man both devoid of judgment to govern, and will to be ruled... Like as I never was in a more pleasant country in all my life, so never saw I a more waste and desolate land...Such horrible and lamentable spectacles are there to behold as the burning of villages, the ruin of churches, the wasting of such as have been good towns and castles..."

He was especially severe against the Earl for the mismanagement of his estates, and being likewise fearful of his strong Catholic procilivities, seized him at Kilmallock, and carried him about in durance the remainder of his progress. The sons of the Earl of Clanricard were also captured in Connaught, and the Lord Deputy returned to Dublin with his prisoners the 16 Apr. He had caused numberless malefactors to be executed in the course of his visit. In Oct Sidney proceeded to England, bringing with him the Earl of Desmond and his brother John, Hugh O'Neill, the O'Conor Sligo, and other chieftains.

The Earl and his brother were detained captives for six years in the Tower of London, while their cousin James FitzMaurice assumed the leadership of the family in defiance of Phillip Sidney, and in the evident expectation of usurping the earldom. He sought to give the movement an ultra-Catholic character, with the idea of gaimling foreign assistance, and allied himself with John Burke, son of the Earl of Clanricarde, with Connor O'Brien, Earl of Thomond, and even secured Ormonde's brother, Sir Edmund Butler, whom Sidney had offended. Edward Butler also joined the rebellion, but the appearance of Sidney and Ormonde in the south-west was rapidly followed by the submission of the Butlers. Most of the Geraldines were subjugated by Humphrey Gilbert, but FitzMaurice remained in arms, and in 1571 Sir John Perrot undertook to reduce him. Perrot hunted him down, and at last on 23 Feb 1573 he made formal submission at Kilmallock, lying prostrate on the floor of the church by way of proving his sincerity.

After FitzMaurice's submission in 1573, and against the advice of the Queen's Irish counsellors the Earl and his brother were set free and received at court. A ship was furnished to convey them to Dublin, where, however, the Earl was detained under an honourable arrest promising not to exercise palatinate jurisdiction in Kerry until his rights to it were proved, whilst Sir John was pemitted to return to Munster. Before long the Earl managed to escape whilst out hunting near Grangegorman, and although large rewards were offered for his apprehension, he was soon safe amongst his followers in the fastness of Desmond. During the O'Neill wars of the following months he remained neutral.

Within a very short time had reduced to a state of anarchy the province which Perrot thought to have pacified by his seventies. Edward Fitzgerald, brother of the Earl of Kildare, and lieutenant of the Queen's pensioners in London, was sent to remonstrate with Desmond, but accomplished nothing. Desmond asserted that none but Brehon law should be observed between Geraldines; and FitzMaurice seized Captain George Bourchier, one of Elizabeth's officers in the west. In May 1574 the Earl met at Waterford by appointment the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Kildare, and under the protection of a safe conduct returned with them to Dublin. Bourchier was surrendered. There he was informed that Elizabeth I desired his presence in London; but remembering his former captivity, he made many excuses, and Essex honourably conducted him to the frontiers of the Pale. Shortly afterwards he surrendered Castlemaine and Castlemartyr, which were occupied by English garrisons. In other respects, his authority over his feudal principality was left undisturbed, and he passed for a loyal subject. A document offering £500 for his head, and £1,000 to any one who would take him alive, was drawn up but was vetoed by two members of the council.

On 18 Jul 1574 the Geraldine chiefs signed the Combination promising to support the Earl unconditionally; shortly afterwards Ormonde and the lord deputy, Sir William Fitzwilliam, marched on Munster, and put Desmond's garrison at Derrinlaur Castle to the sword. Desmond submitted at Cork on the 2 Sep, handing over his estates to trustees: Sir Henry Sidney visited Munster in 1575, and affairs seemed to promise an early restoration of order.

In 1576 Desmond was brought into collision with the new President of Munster, Sir William Drury. He protested against the holding of courts within his palatinate; but finding Drury obdurate, and about proceeding to Tralee to hold a sessions, he made a virtue of necessity, and offered the hospitality of his castle.

On approaching Tralee, the President perceived about 800 armed men retiring into the woods. Eleanor Butler, Countess of Desmond, met him outside the town and assured him that her lord had no hostile intention, but that, his visit being unexpected, the forces had assembled for a general hunting. Shortly afterwards Drury seized Sir John of Desmond in Cork, on suspicion of treasonable practices, and sent him under an escort to Dublin.

FitzMaurice had fled to Brittany in company with other leading Geraldines, John Fitzgerald, seneschal of Imokilly, who had held Ballymartyr against Sidney in 1567, and Edmund Fitzgibbon, the son of the White Knight who had been attainted in 1571. He intrigued at the French and Spanish courts for a foreign invasion of Ireland, and at Rome met the adventurer Thomas Stukely, with whom he projected an expedition which was to make a nephew of Pope Gregory XIII king of Ireland. When FitzMaurice landed with the Papal expedition at Smerwick Bay, in 1579, the Earl of Desmond maintained a semblance of loyalty, and even forwarded to Dublin his cousin's letters. FitzMaurice was joined later by some Spanish soldiers at the Fort del Ore.

Sir John of Desmond, who appears to have been liberated, and Sir James, his brother, hastened to meet their cousin and his allies. The Lord Justice, who was in Cork, immediately despatched Henry Davells, constable of Dungarvan, and Arthur Carter, Provost-Marshal of Munster, to summon the Earl of Desmond and his brothers to attack FitzMaurice and the Spaniards. They were extremely officious and insolent to the Earl, reconnoitred the fort at Smerwick, where FitzMaurice and the Spaniards were entrenched, and were on their way back to Cork, when they were murdered by Sir John in a little inn at Tralee. The atrocity of the deed was aggravated by the fact that Sir John and Davells had been intimate friends.

A few days after FitzMaurice's death in Aug 1579, the Earl met Sir William Drury at Kilmallock, and endeavoured to clear himself from the charge of complicity in his cousin's proceedings. After being kept under arrest for three days, he was liberated on undertaking to send in his only son, James, as a hostage. He received a promise that his lands and tenants should be respected, an engagement violated almost as soon as made. Most of the Earl's forces went over to Sir John of Desmond, who took his cousin FitzMaurice's place, the Spanish officers materially assisting in disciplining these irregular levies. Drury, on the other hand, collected a considerable army, chiefly composed of Catholic Irish. In an engagement that ensued between a portion of these forces and those under Sir John and Sir James, at Springfield, in the south of the County of Tipperary, the latter were successful.

Shortly afterwards, on 30 Sep, Sir William Drury sickened of the fatigues of the campaign and died at Waterford, whereupon the command of the royal forces devolved upon Sir Nicholas Malby, who was reinforced by 600 Devonshiremen, landed at Waterford. A fleet also hovered off the coast under the command of Sir John Perrot. Leaving 300 foot and 50 horse at Kilmallock, Malby early in Oct marched with some 600 of his army to Limerick; then turning south, he encountered and gave battle to Sir John and Sir James with vastly superior forces at Monasteranenagh, two miles from Croom. For a time victory seemed undecided. Malby's lines were twice broken; but ultimately the Desmonds were routed with the loss of Thomas Fitzgerald, the Earl's cousin, and some 260 men.

The Earl of Desmond and FitzMaurice, Lord of Lixnaw, watched the progress of this engagement from top of Tory Hill, little more than a mile distant, and late in the evening sent to congraulate Malby on his victory. This message was treated with contempt--there being no doubt that the Earl would have congratulated the winning side, and Malby proceeded to lay waste Desmond's territory in the neighbourhood. Askeaton, Rathkeale, and Adare, were given to the flames.

On 30 Oct the Earl of Ormonde, his step-son, acting under Malby demanded that Desmond should give up the Papal Nuncio, Dr. Saunders, and surrender for Elizabeth's service the castles of Carrigfoyle and Askeaton. Desmond hesitated; on 2 Nov a proclamation was issued declaring him a traitor unless he submitted within twenty days, and the next day the Queen's troops marched into the Earl's palatinate of Kerry, and the Earl of Ormonde was constituted governor of all Munster.

The vacillating Earl of Desmond was forced to choose a side, and he took the field with his brothers about Christmas 1579. The war in which he now found himself involved, continued the four remaining years of his life. It had already been carried on by his cousin FitzMaurice and his brothers for nearly six years. For ten years the country was desolated by contentions of the most sanguinary and merciless character. The conclusion of the war found Munster well-nigh depopulated, and the whole of Desmond parcelled out amongst new proprietors. The war had its origin in the effort of Elizabeth to impose English habits and laws upon the people of Munster; in the rapacity of adventurerers thirsting for the confiscation of Irish estates; and in the almost inevitable contest between Elizabeth and her Catholic subjects, forced on by the Papal Bull of 1569, which had excommunicated and deposed her. The points at issue were clearly put by the Earl of Desmond himself:

"It is so that I and my brother are entered into the Defence of the Catholic faith, and the overthrow of our country by Englishmen, which had overthrown the Holy Church, and go about to overrun our country, and make it their own, and to make us their bondmen"

The Earl was, however, utterly unfit to conduct a war of any kind; no important engagement occured; and his exploits were never more in Mr. Richey's words:

"than an occasional skirmish or plundering excursion; and he gradually sank into a fugitive, and finally into a mere criminal fleeing from justice...[Between the two parties] the interest or the existence of the mass of the people was wholly disregarded. On the one hand they were excited by the promises of Spanish invasions, and succour which never arrived [in sufficient forces to effect anything]; on the orher, they were trampled down and decimated by way of precaution; and thus, from year to year, the plundering and killing went on, until there was nothing left to plunder, and very few to kill"

On more than one occasion the Earl nobly refused terms for himself which would involve the surrender of Dr. Saunders, the Papal Legate.

In Jan 1580 two Italian vessels with powder arrived at Dingle, bringing news that he might soon expect other forces from abroad. As spring opened Pelham and Ormonde passed through the rebel counties in two companies, consuming with fire all habitations and executing the people wherever they found them. FitzMaurice's widow and her two little girls were discovered by the way, concealed in a cave. Mr Froude adds: "They are heard of no more, and were probably slain with the rest". The Irish annalists say that the bands of Pelham and Ormonde killed the blind and the aged, women and children, sick and idiots, sparing none. Pelham's own words too closely confirm the charge.

In Aug 1580 Sir James of Desmond was captured and taken to Cork. There he was hanged and quartered, and his head spiked over one of the city gates.

In Sep, 700 Spaniards and Italians under Sebastian San Josef were landed from four vessels in Smerwick harbour. They conveyed arms for 5,000 men, together with large sums of money and promises of further aid. The fort of Oilen-an-Oir, at Smerwick, garrisoned by FitzMaurice and his party the previous year, was again occupied, repaired and strengthened. The Earl hastened to meet his foreign auxiliaries, and some weeks were spent in desultory excursions in the neighbourhood.

On 31 Oct, Lord Grey, burning to retrieve his recent disgrace in Glenmalure, encamped with a strong force under experienced officers some eight miles from Smerwick. Five days afterwards Admiral Winter arrived with his fleet from Kinsale. Heavy guns were landed, trenches opposite the fort were opened on the 7, and on the 10 the Spaniards surrendered, unconditionally, according to English dispatches: Irish authorities state that the lives and liberties of the soldiers were guaranteed.

After surrendering, the English commander asked who they were, and for what purpose they had landed in Ireland; to which they replied in effect that they had been brought over to Ireland "upon fair speeches and great promises, which they had found vain and false". Next morning the officers were, by Lord Grey's orders, reserved for ransom, while the soldiers were slaughtered in cold blood, and a few women and a priest amongst them were hanged. The bodies, 600 in all, were stripped and laid out upon the sands "as gallant and goodly personages as ever were beheld", said Grey. To him, says Mr. Froude, "it was but the natural and obvious method of disposing of an enemy who had deserved no quarter. His own force amounted barely to 800 men, and he probably could not, if he had wished, have conveyed so large a body of prisoners in safety across Ireland to Dublin". Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the officers commanding the party who carried the Deputy's orders into execution.

The war in Munster now assumed, if possible, a more savage character, and untold atrocities were committed on both sides. A large though diminishing number of followers still surrounded the Earl and his countess.

About Jul 1581, while encamped at Aghadoe, Killarney, he was taken unawares by Captain Zouche, many of his men were slain, and he escaped with difficulty. In Sep he penetrated as far as Cashel, and carried off into Aherlow large spoil of cattle and other property. In the course of the next winter Dr. Saunders died of cold and exposure. In Aug 1581, one year after his brother's death, Sir John of Desmond was intercepted (a spy having given information as to his whereabouts) at Castlelyons by Captain Zouche with a strong party, was wounded by a spear thrust, and expired before his enemies had carried him a mile. His body was thrown across his own steed, and conveyed to Cork, where it was hanged in irons, his head being cut off for exposure in Dublin Castle.

The unhappy Earl now remained alone in arms. While the Government offered terms to such minor persons as would submit, he was excluded from mercy. The large rewards offered for his capture appeared to attach the peasantry of Desmond only the more to the faith and fortunes of their old lord. Hunted from place to place, he occasionally dealt heavy blows at his adversaries. The Glen of Aherlow was his favourite retreat, at other times he frequented the woods in the south-west of Limerick, or the fastness of Kerry.

He passed Christmas of this year at Kilquane, near Kilmallock. There he was surprised by a party of soldiers led by a spy, John Welsh; the Earl's retreat was surrounded, and he and the Countess only saved themselves by plunging into a river hard by, and hiding in the water under an overhanging bank until the enemy had retired.

On 28 Apr 1583 he wrote to Queen Elizabeth, offering to come to terms "So as me country, castles, possessions, and lands, with me son, might be put and left in the hands and quiet possession of me council and followers, and also me religion and conscience not barred".

About Jun, Lady Desmond, the companion hitherto of all her husband's wanderings, left him, probably by his own desire. Free from the incumbrance of her presence, the aged Earl wandered from glen to glen, and mountain to mountain, attended only by a priest and three or four faithful followers who would not leave him.

On the 9 Nov he left the woods near Castleisland and went westward towards Tralee. Some of his kerns carried off forty cows and nine horses for his use from Maurice MacOwen, who immediately despatched messengers to Lieutenant Stanley at Dingle, and to his brothers-in-law, Owen and Donnell Moriarty. The two latter followed in the track of the prey, with a band of eighteen kerns. At Castlemaine they obtained the assitance of a few soldiers. From Tralee they traced them to Galnagenty. When dusk fell they saw a fire in the glen beneath them.

At dawn, 11 Nov 1583, the Moriartys with Daniel O'Kelly, one of the soldiers, took the lead of the band up the glen, and rushed with a loud shout to the cabin where the Earl's party had lain. All escaped except a venerable looking man, a woman, and a boy. O'Kelly, who entered first, aimed a blow with his sword and almost severed the arm of the old man, who cried: "I am the Earl of Desmond: spare my life". O'Kelly immediately cut off his head, which was forwarded to London and impaled on the bridge. His body, after being concealed for some time by the peasantry, was ultimately interred in the little chapel of Kilnamanagh, near Castleisland. The spot where the Earl was killed is still pointed out as Bothar-an-Iarla, and the trunk of an old tree under which his body was thrown, remained in 1850.

Froude says:

"So ended a rebellion which a mere handful of English had sufficed to suppress, though three-fourths of Ireland had been heart and soul concerned in it, and though the Irish themselves, man for man, were no less hardy and brave than their conquerors. The victory was terribly purchased. The entire province of Munster was utterly depopulated. Hecatombs of helpless creatures, the aged, the sick, and the blind, the young mother, and the babe at the breast, had fallen under the English sword. And though the authentic details of the struggle have been forgotten, the memory of a vague horror remains imprinted in the national traditions..."

The whole of Desmond, extending over nearly four modern counties, or 800,000 acres, was confiscated to the Crown, and greater part divided amongst English settlers.

The Countess appears to have been made an allowance by the Government. In Oct 1584, Perrot writes: "The Countess of Desmond lay at Clonmel, where she was allowed a diet of viiis. per diem for herself, her daughter, and weemen". This was afterwards disallowed, and she was permitted to live in Dublin Castle. In Mar 1587 she repaired to Elizabeth, who gave her a pension of £200 to be paid in Ireland, with 100 marks for her two daughters.

The Earl left no issue by his first wife, dau. of the 11th Earl, widow of James, Earl of Ormonde. She died in 1564, and was buried at Askeaton. By his second wife, Eleanor Butler, dau. of Lord Dunboyne (who remarried Sir Donough O'Conor Sligo, and died in 1636), he left two sons and five daughters. The elder of this sons, James, (b. 1570 – d. 1601), spent most of his life in prison. After an unsuccessful attempt in 1600–1601 to recover his inheritance he returned to England, where he died, the title becoming extinct.


Burke, Sir Bernard. Dormant, Abeyant, Forfeited, and Extinct Peerages. London, 1866

Calendar of the Carew Manusripts. 4 vols. London, 1869-73

Cox, Richard. History of Ireland. London, 1689

Haverty, Martin. History of Ireland. Dublin 1860.

Webb, Alfred. A Compendium of Irish Biography (Dublin: M.H. Gill & Son, 1878) pp. 140-144.

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