The medieval centuries, the centuries of bastard feudalism associated with the Geraldine family, earls of Desmond, ended with the Plantation of Munster by English and Welsh settlers in the late 1580s. What the series of crises was that brought about gradual fall and eventual ruin of the earls of Desmond is examined here. Following the killing of the rebel Earl of Desmond in November 1583, Kerry, the Geraldine liberty ceased to exist. But the Dominican Abbey of Tralee, the liberty’s capital, held the graves of many Geraldine chiefs.
Earl Gerald came to power in 1357 as fourth Earl of Desmond . He would reign to 1398. Some consider him the most remarkable of all the earls, for it is said that he had magical powers, and he still rides across Lough Gur every seven years because he is fated to do so until the silver shoos of his horse wear out. He was a poet, and some of his poems have come down to our day. The first phase of England’s Hundred Year War with France ended with the Peace of Bretigny in October 1360. In 1367 the English under John of Gaunt, the King’s son, invaded Castile. On the King’s death in 1377 his grandson succeeded to the throne as Richard II. It was to be an unhappy reign. The Watt Tyler revolt happened in 1381, and the peasants reached Blackheath and the Savoy. Richard II was in Ireland when he lost his throne: Gaunt’s son, Henry of Lancaster, landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire to begin the fight which brought him to the throne as Henry IV (1399 -1413).
We come now to an earl who does not lie in the Abbey of Tralee. This is Thomas, grandson of the poetical and magical Gerald. History knows him as “the Love Lost”. Thomas lost his heart to the daughter of one of the Desmond vassals – or was she a poor girl, as some believe? Her home was near Port Castle, Abbeyfeale, and their first meeting happened when Thomas was benighted there as part of a hunting party. He reigned from 1401 to 1411, when he was deposed by his uncle James, son of Gerald. Thomas departed to France, where he died and remains buried.
The advent of Earl James, uncle of the “Love Lost” coincided the rise of the second Lancastrian, the martial Henry V (r. 1413-22). It was this Henry who re-ignited the Hundred Years War and won the mighty victoryof Agincourt. Henry took advantage of civil strife in France consequent on the madness of its king, Charles VI, and the resulting struggle between Orleans and Burgundy. England became the ally of Burgundy. As France declined, Burgundy rose to eminence. Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy (r.1419-1467) put together an impressive inheritance from conquest and arranged marriages. Duke Philip inaugurated the Order of the Golden Fleece. The power of James, Earl of Desmond, the usurper, thrived during the weak rule of the next Henry, King Henry VI. Joan of Arc rallied the French to defeat the English in 1429, and English power in France faded after that. Henry VI’s rule in England (which roughly coincided with Earl James’s) was weak and turbulent, and James, seventh Earl of Desmond, reigned triumphantly. James died in 1462 or 1463. His fame spread throughout the world and to the reputed place of Geraldine origin: Florence. In 1440 he was addressed by leaders of the Florentine Republic as one of “the right noble and antique stock of Gherardini, still one of the highest and greatest families of that State”. With the earl of Ormond he stood sponsor to George Duke of Clarence, son of the Duke of York, born in Dublin Castle in 1449.
“The death of James, son of Garret … head of the hospitality and of the valour of the fair Foreigners of Erin in this time: a man who bestowed wealth and numerous gifts a man who enlarged the earldom, and made conquest on many lands, such as Ciarraighe Cuirce, the Barony of Aine, the Ui Mac Aille (Imokilly) and Airinidhe, and others besides. In Caislean Nua O’Conaill he died after the ending of his age, and he was buried in Tralee, 1462.” (Michael O’Clery’s Book of Pedigrees, in “The Geraldines of Desmond”, in Irish Archaeological Journal, 1879-82, p. 227)
Many trace the beginning of the decline of Desmond earls to the execution of Earl Thomas in 1468 at Drogheda. He was the son of James, the usurper Earl, and many believe his fate to be a case of retribution of the expansionist career of his father. After Thomas’s execution the Desmond earls had only intermittent contact with the Government in Dublin, and unfortunately for themselves they suffered a period of internal struggle. Thomas of Drogheda’s son and successor, James, ninth Earl, had difficulty establishing his rule against the claims of a half-brother, and he would be murdered in 1487 at Rathkeale. James followed the prejudice of his family in favour of the house of York, whose representative Edward IV occupied the throne from 1461 to 1483. Richard III replaced his brother on Edward’s death, and Earl James was still in power when the Lancastrian Henry Tudor defeated Richard on Bosworth Field in 1485 and killed him. James’s successor was his brother Maurice, tenth Earl, who may have had a hand in James’s death. Maurice’s long reign (thirty-three years, dying in 1520), witnessed the tightening of English control in Ireland with the passing of Poynings’ Law (1494), and the two Yorkist coups of Perkin Warbeck against the King. Maurice supported Perkin Warbeck, who pretended to be a son of Edward IV, and perhaps he should have paid dearly for doing so had circumstances been different. It seems that he believed that the pretender, who enjoyed the backing of the Duchess of Burgundy, a sister of Edward IV, would help him in the ongoing struggle of the Desmonds with Ormond over the disputed territories in Decies. Ormond had taken the side of the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses, but Ormond power was in abeyance from the late 1480s, and the Earl of Ormond was living in England. So Earl Maurice was left to frolick uninterrupted with subversion aided by the ducal court of Burgundy. Earl Maurice lived to see the early reign of Henry VIII (s. 1509), and when he died in 1520 he was succeeded by his son, James eleventh Earl. James negotiated, first with France, and then with the Holy Roman Empire. His intention, like that of his predecessors, was prabably to tip the balance of power against the house of Ormond in the struggle over the prisage of wines, and the old struggle over the ownership of Youghal and Inchiquin. James was the one who brought the representatives of the Holy Roman Emperor to Dingle. A treaty was signed there in 1529. It gave Irish immigrants to the Empire (Austria, Spain and the Netherlands) the same rights of citizenship as Habsburg subjects:
“not content with his great power and riches, (James) entered into a conspiracy against King Henry VIII in 1523, with Francis I, King of France; and again in 1528, with the Emperor, for which he was proclaimed a rebel and traiter; he died at Dingle (or Rathkeale) on 18 June 1529 and was buried with his father in Tralee”. (Lodge and Arcdhdall)
The might of Earl James did not go unchallenged within his own family. In 1524 his uncle Thomas Maol (the Bald) helped the Muskerry MacCarthys defeat Earl James at the battle of Mourne Abbey, south of Mallow.
Earl Thomas, the Bald, inherited the earldom on his nephew’s death in 1529, and reigned to his death in 1534, a period of only five years. We remember him for the fact that he was old when he succeeded, and for the fact that his second wife was the famous Catherine, from Dromana, who lived to a great age: born in the reign of Edward IV, she is said to have died in that of James I.
From now on the Tudor grip on the throne of England strengthened, and during the 1530s the dissolution of the monasteries permitted the distribution of favours to Hanry VIII’s favourites. These included the house of Ormond. The Ormonds were allies of the Tudors; the Desmonds were not. Pierse Rua Butler (d. 1539), earl of Ossory and soon to be earl of Ormond, cashed in on the dissolution. Earl Thomas saw Piers as a threat. For many decades the Ormond family had resided in England, but now they were back and Henry hoped for a settlement of the border disputes between them and the Desmonds. Earl Thomas sent representatives to Henry VIII together with proofs of his allegiance “in case that my lord of Ossory or any other will sue by petition or otherwise concerning my inheritances granten by your progenitors and by your Grace as aforesaid, or will inform your Grace any misdemeanors otherwise than truth of my desert in that behalf …”. (Calendar of State Papers Carew, 1515-1574, p. 49. May 5, 1532. Thomas Earl of Desmond to Henry)
Now also there was deepening of division within the Desmond earldom itself, centred on the succession. Thomas’s heir and grandson was murdered by Thomas’s nephew Maurice, the Firebrand in 1540. His name was James and he had been raised at court in London. The murder of the Court Page hastened the downfall of the Desmonds, the final act of which would take place in the reign of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth. The Court Page would have done well to remain at court a little while longer. All the consulted authorities, contemporary and subsequent, identify the killing of the Court Page as the moment when the fate of the Desmonds was sealed. Thomas Russell said so, and so did Mary Hickson who decried the murder of one whose rightful claims the Government had refused to support, and whose murderers they refused to punish.