“We … depute you to speak to the King (Philip of Spain) that we may have his brother, Don John of Austria, for our King”. (Irish chiefs to their ambassador in Europe, Archbishop Maurice FitzGibbon, Tralee, 4 May 1570)
Placing the crown of Ireland at the disposal of a European monarch was nothing new for the Irish, and nothing new for the Irish of Munster. Had not the ambassadors of Charles V, Emperor of Austria, Spain and the Netherlands, come to Dingle in 1529 to discuss with the current earl of Desmond the transfer of sovereignty away from England?
We learn from G. O. Sayles that in the 1340s, during the reign of Edward III, the first Earl of Desmond wrote from Castleisland to the kings of Scotland and France to combine forces with him to oppose the English; he later wrote to the Pope to remove jurisdiction over Ireland from King Edward. (‘The Rebellious First Earl of Desmond’ in Medieval Studies Presented to Aubrey Gwynne S. J., p. 219)
In the 1520s the current Earl of Desmond, James, could still make an arrogant display of independence against the background of light-touch and imperfect English regulation of the Irish regions. Hence the Treaty of Dingle signed by Earl James with the emissaries of the German Emperor/King of Spain. That situation changed somewhat after King Henry VIII broke with Rome in the 1530. The revolt of the Kildare Geraldines was suppressed ruthlessly and the leaders, including ‘Silken Thomas’, the Kildare heir, executed at Tyburn. Even then, the Government had to come to terms with regional Irish lords like the current Earl of Desmond, and one of the reasons for this was the clever peace strategy employed by the Desmonds in their dealings with the English. A new Earl, James FitzJohn, usurped the title and understood that he could gain recognition through allegiance to the Crown, perhaps profit by the religious revolution under King Henry, or at least protect the monasteries founded by his ancestors.
From1570 the situation changed radically. Queen Elizabeth, successor to her father, Henry VIII, took a lively interest in the doings of her officials in Munster, on whose extensive and ragged coast the Spanish monarchy constantly considered a landing in order to open another front against her – if only to balance the excessive interest of Elizabeth’s subjects in insurrection in the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium). In the middle 1560s the current Earl of Desmond, the unimpressive son of James FitzJohn, was the Queen’s prisoner in London when, in 1568-69, certain adventurers, the most famous of whom was Sir Peter Carew, arrived in the Irish South-East claiming ancient rights to the territories straddling the Desmond and Ormond lordships. A hero appeared in the Earl’s absence, James FitzMaurice FitzGerald cousin of the Earl. The Irish proclaimed him their Captain; he would have allies in two of the brothers of Ormond. To the English, and to English historians, he would be the Arch-Traitor.
For the FitzGerald earls of Desmond, or one of their family, to offer Irish sovereignty to Philip II (grandson of Charles V) was the ultimate betrayal as far as the English were concerned, for the Geraldines were an Old English, and not a Gaelic, family. But the Geraldine point of view was that England’s claim to Ireland (the papal charter at the time of Henry II known as Laudabiliter) was torn up when Henry VIII broke from Rome. By the time of James FitzMaurice FitzGerald’s insurrection the Counter-Reformation was well under way, with Philip II as its principal sponsor. James cut an imperfect figure as far as the Earl’s wife, Eleanor, was concerned. She and her imprisoned husband believed that James harboured ambitions to become Earl himself. His father was Maurice the Firebrand who murdered an earlier earl, the one known as the Court Page who had been raised in London. To posterity James cuts an unimpressive figure for his apparently inconsistent and somewhat dissipated use of insurrectionary violence. About the time of his initial attack on the new English, in Kerrycurrihy and Youghal in East Cork, location of his own castle of Carrigaline which had been transferred to the ownership of the new English, he also launched his forces into Kerry to attack Clanmaurice, territory of the FitzMaurices, vassal lords of the Desmond earls.
James was not to enjoy any great fortune in Europe – at least not at this early stage. In February 1569 James sent the Geraldine Archbishop of Cashel, Maurice FitzGibbon, to seek Spanish or Papal intervention in Ireland. Rev. James Graves tells us that the Archbishop “was escorted from Cashel to the sea coast with solemn pomp by James FitzMaurice and the other leaders of the confederates”. Professor Binchy adds that the port of embarkation was Dingle. But international conditions did not favour the mission. Although England was rocked by the crises of the Ridolphi Plot and the Northern Rebellion (featuring the prominent Catholic, the Duke of Norfolk), diplomacy continued to take precedence over international war. Mary Queen of Scots, who fled to England after the murder of her husband Darnley, was under the “protection” of Queen Elizabeth, but Spain continued to enjoy the status of an old ally of England. France continued the traditional enemy of both Spain and England, and France was fanning the flames of insurrection in the Spanish Netherlands. The excommunication of Elizabeth by the Pope in 1570, giving authorisation to Catholics (including the Irish) to overthrow her, did not significantly alter matters as far as Philip II was concerned, despite the representations of Archbishop FitzGibbon and his backers, the letter writers in Tralee (above) in 1570.
With the Archbishop pressing the case for Spanish invasion James raised a new force in 1570, and he had a vigorous ally in the shape of the Conor O’Brien, third Earl of Thomond. In that year Conor attacked the President of Connaught, Sir Edward Fitton, at Ennis and drove him into Connaught. James attempted to retake Kilmallock but was driven back by Humphrey Gilbert, colonel of Munster 1569-71. Then Gilbert marched into the baronies of Connello and Kenry (Pallaskenry) in Limerick, where he took thirty or forty castles:
“I slew all those from time to time that did belong to, feed, accompany, or maintain any outlaws or traitors; and after my first summoning of any castle or fort, if they would not presently yield it, I would not afterwards take it of their gift, but won it perforce, how many lives so ever it cost, putting man, woman and child to the sword.”
Gilbert’s practice was to order the decapitation of entire villages so as to line the path to his tent with “a lane of heddes”. Gilbert’s successor was Sir John Perrot, appointed first President of Munster.
Perrot arrived at Waterford from Milford Haven in February 1571. He would depart in July of 1573. His priority was the capture of James FitzMaurice FitzGerald. Impressed with the legal infrastructure about to be rolled out by the presidency, which would end the Earl’s palatine prerogatives, Thomond reconsidered his alliance with James and sued for pardon, surrendering his lands in 1571 and receiving them back in a warrant two years later. Left again without a significant ally, James was hunted by Perrot. There were two sieges of Castlemaine, in 1571 and 1572. Then Perrot made his famous offer to fight James in single combat. James sued for pardon; his submission on 23 February 1573 was made at the church of Sts Peter and Paul in Kilmallock, where he was “led into the church with a halter around his neck”, and made to kneel before Perrot “who pointed a drawn sword at his chest”. In 1574 the Earl was released from captivity by the English, and in 1575 James departed the country for Europe. The first phase of the first Desmond insurrection was at an end.
Simancas archives, in Daniel Binchy, “An Irish Ambassador at the Spanish Court, 1569-1574”, Studies, December 1921. Rev. James Graves, “Unpublished Geraldine Documents”, in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 1870-71. B.B. FitzGerald, The Geraldines. Mainchin Seoighe, The Story of Kilmallock, 1987. Dictionary of National Biography, Perrot. Hon. Donough O’Brien, History of the O’Briens from Brian Boroimhe, A.D. 1000, to A.D. 1945, New York, Toronto, Sydney 1949. David Edwards, “Some days two heads and some days four”, in History Ireland, January/February 2009.