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The Desmond Rebellions occurred in 1569–1573 and 1579–1583 in the Irish province of Munster.

They were rebellions by the Earl of Desmond – head of the FitzGerald dynasty in Munster – and his followers, the Geraldines and their allies against the threat of the extension of their Anglicised South Welsh Tewdwr cousins, Elizabethan English government over the province. The rebellions were motivated primarily by the desire to maintain the independence of feudal lords from their monarch, but also had an element of religious antagonism between Catholic Geraldines and the Protestant English state. The result was the destruction of the Desmond dynasty and the subsequent plantation or colonisation of Munster with English settlers. 'Desmond' is the Anglicisation given to the Irish Deasmumhain, which translates to 'South Munster'.


The south of Ireland (the provinces of Munster and southern Leinster) was dominated, as it had been for over two centuries, by the Old English Butlers of Ormonde and the FitzGeralds of Desmond, who maintained feudal principalities. Both houses raised their own armed forces and imposed their own law, a mixture of Irish and English customs independent of the English government of Ireland. Beginning in the 1530s, successive English administrations in Ireland tried to expand English control over the entire island (See Tudor conquest of Ireland). By the 1560s, their attention had turned to the south of Ireland and Henry Sidney, as Lord Deputy of Ireland, was charged with establishing the authority of the English government over the independent lordships there. His solution was the formation of "lord presidencies"—provincial military governors who would replace the local lords as military powers and keepers of the peace.

The local dynasties saw the presidencies as intrusions into their sphere of influence, and into their traditional violent competition with each other. This had seen the Butlers and FitzGeralds fight a pitched battle against each other at Affane in County Waterford in 1565. This was a blatant defiance of the Elizabethan state's law. Elizabeth I summoned the heads of both houses to London to explain their actions. However, the treatment of the dynasties was not even handed. Thomas Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormonde — who was the Queen's cousin – was pardoned, while both Gerald FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond (in 1567) and his brother, John of Desmond, widely regarded as the real military leader of the FitzGeralds, (in 1568) were arrested and detained in the Tower of London on Ormonde's urging.

This decapitated the natural leadership of the Munster Geraldines and left the Desmond Earldom in the hands of a soldier, James FitzMaurice FitzGerald, the "captain general" of the Desmond military. Fitzmaurice had little stake in a new de-militarised order in Munster, which envisaged the abolition of the Irish lords' private armies. A factor that drew wider support for Fitzmaurice was the prospect of land confiscations, which had been mooted by Sidney and Peter Carew, an English claimant to lands granted to an ancestor just after the Norman conquest of Ireland that were lost soon afterwards.

This ensured Fitzmaurice the support of important clans, notably MacCarthy Mor, O'Sullivan Beare and O'Keefe and two prominent Butlers –brothers of the Earl. Fitzmaurice himself had lost the land he had held at Kerricurrihy in County Cork, which had been leased instead to English colonists. He was also a devout Catholic, influenced by the counter-reformation, which made him see the Protestant Elizabethan governors as his enemies. To discourage Sidney from going ahead with the Lord Presidency for Munster and to re-establish Desmond primacy over the Butlers, he planned a rebellion against the English presence in the south and against the Earl of Ormonde. Fitzmaurice however had wider aims than simply the recovery of FitzGerald supremacy within the context of the English Kingdom of Ireland. Before the rebellion, he secretly sent Maurice MacGibbon, Catholic Archbishop of Cashel, to seek military aid from Philip II of Spain.

First Desmond Rebellion

First Desmond Rebellion
Part of the Desmond Rebellions
DateJune 1569 – 23 February 1573
LocationProvince of Munster, Ireland
Result English victory
Second Desmond Rebellion
St Patrick's saltire.svg FitzGeralds of Desmond
allied Irish clans
 Kingdom of England
Kingdom of Ireland
allied Irish clans
Commanders and leaders
-James FitzMaurice FitzGerald -Henry Sidney
-Thomas Butler
-Humphrey Gilbert
-John Perrot (1571–1573)
? ?
Casualties and losses
? ?

Fitzmaurice launched his rebellion by attacking the English colony at Kerrycurihy south of Cork city in June 1569 before attacking Cork itself and those native lords who refused to join the rebellion. Fitzmaurice's force of up to 4,500 men went on to besiege Kilkenny, seat of the Earls of Ormonde in July. In response, Sidney mobilised 600 English troops, who marched south from Dublin and another 400 troops landed by sea in Cork. Thomas Butler, Earl of Ormonde returned from London, where he had been at court, brought the rebel Butlers out of the rebellion and mobilised Gaelic Irish clans antagonistic to the Geraldines. Together, Ormonde, Sidney and Humphrey Gilbert, appointed as governor of Munster, began devastating the lands of Fitzmaurice's allies. Fitzmaurice's forces broke up, as individual lords had to retire to defend their own territories. Gilbert in particular was notorious for the terror tactics he employed, killing civilians at random and setting up corridors of severed heads at the entrance to his camps.

Sidney forced Fitzmaurice into the mountains of Kerry, from where he launched hit and run attacks on the English and their allies. By 1570, most of Fitzmaurice's allies had submitted to Sidney. The most important, Donal MacCarthy Mor, surrendered in November 1569. Nevertheless, the guerrilla campaign dragged on for three more years. In February 1571, John Perrot was made Lord President of Munster, pursuing Fitzmaurice with 700 troops for over a year without success. Fitzmaurice had some victories, capturing an English ship near Kinsale and burning the town of Kilmallock in 1571, for example, but by early 1573, his force was reduced to less than 100 men. Fitzmaurice finally submitted on 23 February 1573, having negotiated a pardon for his life. However in 1574, he again became landless and in 1575 he sailed to France to seek help from the Catholic powers to start another rebellion.

Gerald FitzGerald, Earl of Desmond, and his brother John were released from prison to stabilise the situation and to reconstruct their shattered territory. Under a new settlement imposed after the rebellion, known as "composition", the Desmonds' military forces were limited by law to just 20 horsemen; their tenants were made to pay rent to them rather supply military service or to quarter their soldiers. Perhaps the biggest winner of the first Desmond Rebellion was the Earl of Ormonde, who established himself as loyal to the English Crown and as the most powerful lord in the south of Ireland.

Although all of the local chiefs had submitted by the end of the rebellion, the methods used to suppress it provoked lingering resentment, especially among the Irish mercenaries; gall oglaigh or "gallowglass" as the English termed them, who had rallied to Fitzmaurice. William Drury, the new Lord President of Munster from 1576, executed around 700 of them in the years after the rebellion. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the rebellion, Gaelic customs such as Brehon Laws, Irish dress, bardic poetry and the maintaining of private armies were again outlawed – things that were highly provocative to traditional Irish society. Fitzmaurice, by contrast, had deliberately emphasised the Gaelic character of the rebellion, wearing the Irish dress, speaking only Irish and referring to himself as the captain (taoiseach) of the Geraldines. Finally, Irish landowners continued to be threatened by the arrival of English colonists.[Clarification needed] All of these factors meant that, when Fitzmaurice returned from continental Europe to start a new rebellion, there were plenty of discontented people in Munster waiting to join him.

In late 1569 a similar Catholic rebellion, the "Northern Rebellion," broke out in England, but was quickly crushed. This and the Desmond Rebellion caused the Pope to issue "Regnans in Excelsis", excommunicating Elizabeth and depriving her of the allegiance of her Catholic subjects, in early 1570. Elizabeth's regime had previously accepted discreet Roman Catholic worship in private; afterwards it suppressed organised Catholicism more severely.

Second Desmond Rebellion

The second Desmond rebellion was sparked when James Fitzmaurice FitzGerald launched an invasion of Munster in 1579. During his exile in Europe, he had reinvented himself as a soldier of the counter-reformation, arguing that since the Pope's excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570 Irish Catholics no longer owed loyalty to a heretic monarch. The Pope granted Fitzmaurice an "indulgence" and supplied him with troops and money. Fitzmaurice landed at Smerwick, near Dingle (modern County Kerry) on 18 July 1579 with a small force of Spanish and Italian troops. He was joined in rebellion on 1 August by John of Desmond, a brother of the Earl, who had a large following among his kinsmen and the disaffected swordsmen of Munster. Other Gaelic clans and Old English families also joined in the rebellion. After Fitzmaurice was killed in a skirmish with the Clanwilliam Burkes on 18 August, John FitzGerald assumed leadership of the rebellion.

Carrigafoyle Castle

Gerald, the Earl of Desmond, initially resisted the call of the rebels and tried to remain neutral but gave in once the authorities had proclaimed him a traitor. The Earl joined the rebellion by sacking the towns of Youghal (on 13 November) and Kinsale, and devastated the country of the English and their allies. However, by the summer of 1580, English troops under William Pelham and locally raised Irish forces under the Earl of Ormonde succeeded in bringing the rebellion under control, re-taking the south coast, destroying the lands of the Desmonds and their allies in the process, and killing their tenants. By capturing Carrigafoyle at Easter 1580, the principal Desmond castle at the mouth of Shannon river, they cut off the Geraldine forces from the rest of the country and prevented a landing of foreign troops into the main Munster ports. It looked as if the rebellion was fizzling out.

However, in July 1580, the rebellion spread to Leinster, under the leadership of Gaelic Irish chieftain Fiach MacHugh O'Byrne and the Pale lord Viscount Baltinglass, both motivated by Catholicism and hostility to the English administration. A large English force under the Lord Deputy of Ireland Earl Grey de Wilton was sent to subdue them, only to be ambushed and massacred at the battle of Glenmalure on 25 August, losing over 800 dead. However, the Leinster rebels were unable to capitalise on their victory or to effectively co-ordinate their strategy with the Munster insurgents.

On 10 September 1580, 600 papal troops landed at Smerwick in Kerry to support the rebellion, but were besieged in a fort at Dún an Óir. They surrendered after two days of bombardment and were then massacred. By relentless scorched-earth tactics, the English broke the momentum of the rebellion by mid 1581. By May 1581, most of the minor rebels and FitzGerald allies in Munster and Leinster had accepted Elizabeth I's offer of a general pardon. John of Desmond, in many ways the main leader of the rebellion, was killed north of Cork in early 1582.

For the Geraldine Earl however there could be no second pardon, and he was pursued by crown forces until the end. From 1581 to 1583, the war dragged on, with his supporters evading capture in the mountains of Kerry. The rebellion was finally ended on 2 November 1583 when the earl was hunted down and killed near Tralee in Kerry by the local clan O'Moriarty. The clan chief, Maurice, received 1000 pounds of silver from the English government for Desmond's head, which was sent to Queen Elizabeth. His body was triumphantly displayed on the walls of Cork.


After three years of scorched earth warfare, famine hit Munster. In April 1582, the provost marshal of Munster, Sir Warham St Leger, estimated that 30,000 people had died of famine in the previous six months. Plague broke out in Cork city, where the country people fled to avoid the fighting. People continued to die of famine and plague long after the war had ended, and it is estimated that by 1589 one third of the province's population had died. Grey was recalled by Elizabeth I for his excessive brutality. Two famous accounts tell us of the devastation of Munster after the Desmond rebellion. The first is from the Gaelic Annals of the Four Masters:

... the whole tract of country from Waterford to Lothra, and from Cnamhchoill to the county of Kilkenny, was suffered to remain one surface of weeds and waste... At this period it was commonly said, that the lowing of a cow, or the whistle of the ploughboy, could scarcely be heard from Dun-Caoin to Cashel in Munster.

The second is from the View of the Present State of Ireland, written by English poet Edmund Spenser, who fought in the campaign:

In those late wars in Munster; for notwithstanding that the same was a most rich and plentiful country, full of corn and cattle, that you would have thought they could have been able to stand long, yet ere one year and a half they were brought to such wretchedness, as that any stony heart would have rued the same. Out of every corner of the wood and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them; they looked Anatomies [of] death, they spoke like ghosts, crying out of their graves; they did eat of the carrions, happy where they could find them, yea, and one another soon after, in so much as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves; and if they found a plot of water-cresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue therewithal; that in a short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or beast.

The wars of the 1570s and 1580s marked a watershed in Ireland. Although English control over the country was still far from total, the southern Geraldine axis of power had been annihilated, and Munster was "planted" with English colonists following the parliamentary arrangements of 1585. Following a survey begun in 1584 by Sir Valentine Browne, Surveyor General of Ireland, the thousands of English soldiers and administrators who had been imported to deal with the rebellion were allocated land in the Munster Plantation of Desmond's confiscated estates. The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland was completed after the subsequent Nine Years War in Ulster and the extension of plantation policy to other parts of the country.

See also


  • Colm Lennon, Sixteenth Century Ireland – The Incomplete Conquest, Dublin 1994.
  • Edward O'Mahony, Baltimore, the O'Driscolls, and the end of Gaelic civilisation, 1538–1615, Mizen Journal, no. 8 (2000): 110–127.
  • Nicholas Canny, The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland, Harvester Press Ltd, Sussex 1976.
  • Nicholas Canny, Making Ireland British 1580–1650, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2001.

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