The Fall of the Noble House of Desmond, Part I: 1579-1583

In 1579 James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, cousin to the 14th Earl of Desmond, took up arms against the English foe.

Complex and confused as are the events that took place in Ireland four centuries ago, they are nevertheless a presage of developments in English-Irish relations that can be traced until the final re-conquest by the Elizabethans in the last years of the Queen’s reign. The rebellion in 1579 of James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald, generally known as James Fitzmaurice and cousin of Gerald Fitzgerald, the 14th Earl of Desmond, was strictly the second Desmond rebellion in the stormy history of that noble house.

Fitzmaurice’s career and rebellion begin to high-light international Catholic intrigue, the uneasy loyalty of the Old English in Ireland and the lack of cohesion among the Gaelic and hibernicised Anglo-Norman families, and particularly the internecine strife among such families as the Fitzgeralds of Desmond, the Buders of Ormond, and the Burkes of Clanrickard, who controlled the province of Munster.

To his English contemporaries James Fitzmaurice was ‘a silly wood-kerne’, and the ‘arch-traitor’; to the Irish he was a brave and noble warrior, the captain of the Geraldines, the general of the Papal army, who had raised the Irish war from the petty and sordid to one of European dimensions in the cause of Catholicism. Modern historical opinion also looks variously at the career, personality and motives of James Fitzmaurice; to some he is ‘a stormy petrel’, an ‘heroic and tragic figure’.

But, perhaps, the latest and most carefully considered opinion is that of Professor Hayes McCoy who regards Fitzmaurice as a leader who miscalculated his chances, and, though his concern for religion was genuine, essentially a Fitzgerald dynast, threatened by the real possibility that the English would bring the province of Munster, if not the whole land of Ireland, into what must be euphemistically called a state of ‘renaissance civility’.

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