A History of the Desmond Rebellions in Ireland

The Desmond Rebellions occurred between 1569-1573 and 1579-1583 staged by the Earls of Desmond against Elizabeth I’s attempts to impose her control on the province of Munster. James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald launched the First Desmond Rebellion in 1569, attacking Cork and laying siege to Kilkenny. Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy of Ireland mobilised troops and began devastating Fitzmaurice’s allies’ lands. This had a terrible effect on Fitzmaurice, breaking up his forces as individual lords had to return to defend their lands.

Fitzmaurice fled into the Kerry mountains from where he conducted a guerrilla campaign against the English forces. However, by 1573 his forces had been completely decimated until less than one hundred were left by his side, he submitted, negotiating a pardon for his life. Arguably, the real winner of the rebellion was the Earl of Ormonde, who established himself as loyal to the English Crown and became the most powerful lord in the south of Ireland. In the aftermath of the rebellion; Gaelic customs, Gaelic dress, Brehon laws and the maintaining of private armies were again outlawed. In addition English colonists continued to arrive into the province threatening the existence of Irish landowners. So when Fitzmaurice returned from Continental Europe with a view to mounting another insurrection, there were plenty of disenfranchised contenders willing to join his ranks, paving the way for the Second Desmond Rebellion.

James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald had spent his exile on the Continent re-inventing himself as a crusader for the counter-Reformation. He argued that becasie Queen Elizabeth I had been ex-communicated by the Pope Pius V in 1570, Irish Catholics no longer owed their allegiance to the English Crown. The Pope granted troops and supplies to Fitzmaurice for his planned invasion of the province of Munster. He landed at Smerwick, near Dingle, Co. Kerry on July 18, 1579 with a small force of Spanish and Italian troops. He was joined by a number of Gaelic clans and Old English families, however he was killed in a minor skirmish and John Fitzgerald of Desmond assumed leadership of the rebellion. Gerald, the Earl of Desmond joined the rebellion and succeeded in sacking both Youghal and Kinsale.

However by mid-1580, it appeared that the English forces had succeeded in crushing the insurrection, but in July it sparked off in the province of Leinster under the leadership of the Gaelic chieftain Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne and the Old English lord, Viscount Baltinglass. They destroyed a large English force at the Battle of Glenmalure. However, the rebel forces in Munster and Leinster failed to develop a co-ordinated strategy to capitalise on these early advances. In September 1580, six hundred Papal troops landed at Smerwick to support the rebels, however they made little impact, becoming sieged within the confines of a fort at Dun an Oir, they soon surrendered and were massacred. The English forces broke the back of the insurrection with a comprehensive and relentless scorched earth policy. As Fitzmaurice had done during the First Desmond Rebellion, the remaining Geraldines sought sanctuary in the Co. Kerry mountains. The rebellion ended with the killing of the Gerald, the Earl Of Desmond near Tralee, Co. Kerry by the local clan O’Moriarty. After the devastating scorched earth policy, a prolonged famine enveloped the province, it is estimated that by 1589, a third of the province’s population had died.

Leave a Reply