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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of James FitzMaurice

James FitzMaurice, a member of the 16th century ruling Geraldine dynasty in the province of Munster, dies on August 18, 1579. He rebels against the crown authority of Queen Elizabeth I of England in response to the onset of the Tudor conquest of Ireland. He leads the first of the Desmond Rebellions in 1569, spends a period in exile in continental Europe, but returns with an invasion force in 1579. He dies shortly after landing.

FitzMaurice is the son of Maurice Fitzjohn of Totane, a brother of John FitzGerald, de facto 12th Earl of Desmond, and Julia O’Mulryan of County Tipperary, cousin of Gerald FitzGerald, 14th Earl of Desmond. Totane had been granted the barony of Kerricurrihy in County Cork, but Gerald fell out with Totane and wars are fought between the families.

After the Desmond defeat at Battle of Affane in 1565, the 14th Earl and his brother, John of Desmond, are detained in England. During their absence, FitzMaurice becomes captain general of County Desmond with the warrant of the Earl. This means he has authority over the soldiers retained in the service of the Desmond Fitzgeralds. In July 1568, he enters Clanmaurice, the territory of the lord of Lixnaw, to distrain for rent and assert the Desmond authority. Having seized 200 head of cattle and wasted the country, he is confronted by Lixnaw on the way home and utterly defeated.

At the end of 1568, the absent Earl of Desmond grants Sir Warham St. Leger a lease of the barony of Kerricurrihy, which cast FitzMaurice’s inheritance into confusion. In 1569 the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney, is informed by FitzMaurice that he has assembled the people of Desmond to tell them that the Lord Deputy was unable to procure the release of the captive earl, who would be executed or perpetually imprisoned, and that the people should proclaim a new earl or captain. With one voice, the people cry out for FitzMaurice to be captain. The earl’s wife, Eleanor Butler, writes to her husband in November that FitzMaurice is seeking to bring the earl into further disrepute and to usurp his inheritance, “by the example of his father.”

To reassert Geraldine authority, FitzMaurice then launches what becomes known as the first of the Desmond Rebellions. The southern part of Ireland erupts into a general rebellion, owing in part to attempts at establishing plantations. In June 1569, FitzMaurice and the Earl of Clancarty (MacCarthy Mor) invade Kerrycurrihy, spoil the inhabitants, take the castle-abbey of Tracton, hang the garrison, and refuse to depart without the surrender to them of the custody of Lady St. Leger and Lady Grenville, the wives of the principal English colonists. FitzMaurice then joins in league with the turbulent brothers of the Earl of Ormond, and enters a bond with the Earl of Thomond and John Burke, son of the Earl of Clanricard. He writes to the mayor and corporation of Cork in July ordering the abolition of the new heresy of Protestantism, at a time when he appears to have been taking instruction from Irish Jesuits.

By September 1569, Sidney has broken the back of the rebellion and leaves Sir Humphrey Gilbert behind to suppress FitzMaurice, who seeks refuge in the woods of Aherlow, and after Gilbert’s departure FitzMaurice raises a new force in February 1570 and by a surprise night attack, takes Kilmallock and after hanging the chief townsmen at the market cross, plunders its wealth and burns the town. In February 1571, Sir John Perrot lands at Waterford as Lord President of Munster and challenges FitzMaurice to a duel, which FitzMaurice declines with the remark, “For if I should kill Sir John Perrot the Queen of England can send another president into this province; but if he do kill me there is none other to succeed me or to command as I do.”

FitzMaurice attacks Perrot, but retires on mistaking a small cavalry company for the advance party of a larger force. After a second and successful siege by Perrot of the Geraldine stronghold of Castlemaine, FitzMaurice sues for pardon, which is granted in February 1573, after he prostrates himself in Kilmallock church with the president’s sword point next to his heart. He swears fealty to the crown, and gives up his son as hostage.

On the return to Ireland of the Earl of Desmond in 1573, FitzMaurice leaves for the continent, offering his reasons variously as a desire to gain pardon from the Queen through the French court, and the unkindness of the earl. In March 1575 he and his family, along with the Geraldine Seneschal of Imokilly, James Fitzedmund Fitzgerald, and the White Knight, Edmund FitzGibbon, sail on the La Arganys for Saint-Malo, Brittany where they are received by the governor. He has several interviews with Catherine de’ Medici in Paris, offering to help make Henry III of France king of Ireland, and is granted a pension of 5,000 crowns in 1576.

Early in the following year FitzMaurice leaves for the Spanish court, where he offers the crown to the brother of King Philip II, Don John. The king is cautious, however. FitzMaurice leaves his sons Maurice and Gerald with Cardinal Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, and travels to Italy to meet Pope Gregory XIII.

At the papal court FitzMaurice meets adventurer Captain Thomas Stukley, and together they persuade the pope to underwrite the cost of 1,000 troops to invade Ireland, most of whom, according to Philip O’Sullivan Beare, are desperadoes the pope wishes to get out of Italy. Fitzmaurice and Stukley are to rendezvous in Lisbon and proceed to Ireland, however, Stukley decides to throw his troops and support to King Sebastian‘s expedition to Morocco, where he dies.

Following the diversion of Stukley to Morocco, FitzMaurice sets out with the nuncio Nicholas Sanders, and Matthew de Oviedo from Ferrol in Galicia, Spain on June 17, 1579 with a few troops on his vessel and three Spanish shallops. They capture two English vessels in the channel and arrive at Dingle on July 16, 1579, launching the Second Desmond Rebellion.

On July 18 they cast anchor in Ard na Caithne, where they garrison at Dún an Óir (Fort of Gold), and are joined on July 25 by two galleys with 100 troops. Four days later their ships are captured by the English fleet under the command of Sir William Wynter. Having exhorted the Earl of Desmond and the Earl of Kildare, as Geraldine leaders, to fight the heretics, FitzMaurice leaves the fort to await the arrival of Stukley who, unknown to him, had been killed at the Battle of Alcácer Quibir in the previous year, during a campaign by King Sebastian of Portugal.

FitzMaurice goes to make a vow at the monastery of the Holy Cross in County Tipperary but becomes caught in a skirmish with the forces of his cousin, Theobald Burke, during which he is shot with a ball in the hollow of the chest, but cuts his way through to Burke and his brother William, both of whom he kills with single strokes of his sword.

The battle is won, but close to the scene his injuries overcome him. He makes his will and orders his friends to cut off his head after death in order that his enemies might not mutilate his body. He begs his attendants to attest that he had not turned tail on the enemy. They assure him, and wish him to be quiet because hostile soldiers are closing in, but he insists, “My wounds are clear, my wounds are clear.” Upon his death, a kinsman orders the decapitation and then wraps the head in cloth. An attempt is made to conceal his trunk under a tree, but it is discovered by a hunter and brought to the town of Kilmallock. For weeks, the trunk is nailed to the gallows, until it is shattered by musket fire and collapses.


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The Siege of Smerwick

smerwick-massacre-memorialFollowing a three-day siege, the English Army beheads over 600 Papal soldiers and civilians at Dún an Óir, County Kerry on November 10, 1580.

On November 5, a naval force led by Admiral Sir William Wynter arrives at Smerwick Harbour, replenishing the supplies of Arthur Grey, 14th Baron Grey de Wilton, who is camped at Dingle, and landing eight artillery pieces. On November 7, Lord Grey de Wilton lays siege to the Smerwick garrison. The invading forces are geographically isolated on the tip of the narrow Dingle Peninsula, cut off by Mount Brandon, one of the highest mountains in Ireland, on one side and the much larger English force on the other. The English forces begin the artillery barrage on Dún an Óir on the morning of the November 8, which rapidly breaks down the improvised defences of the fort.

After a three-day siege, the commander Sebastiano di San Giuseppe surrenders on November 10. Accounts vary on whether they had been granted quarter. Grey de Wilton orders the summary executions, sparing only the commanders. Grey has also heard that the main Irish rebel army of 4,000 are somewhere in the hills to his east, looking to be rearmed and supplied by Di San Giuseppe, and they might in turn surround his army but this army never appears.

According to Grey de Wilton’s account, contained in a despatch to Queen Elizabeth I dated November 11, 1580, he rejects an approach made by the besieged Spanish and Italian forces to agree to terms of a conditional surrender in which they would cede the fort and leave. Lord Grey de Wilton claims that he insisted that they surrender without preconditions and put themselves at his mercy, and that he subsequently rejects a request for a ceasefire. An agreement is finally made for an unconditional surrender the next morning, with hostages being taken by English forces to ensure compliance. The following morning, an English force enters the fort to secure and guard armaments and supplies.

Local historian Margaret Anna Cusack notes in 1871 that there is a degree of controversy about Lord Grey de Wilton’s version of events to Elizabeth, and identifies three other contemporary accounts, by O’Daly, O’Sullivan Beare and Russell, which contradict it. According to these versions, Grey de Wilton promises the garrison their lives in return for their surrender, a promise which he breaks. Like Grey himself, none of these commentators can be described as neutral, as they are all either serving the state or opposed to it. Cusack’s interpretation of the events cannot be described as unbiased, given her position as a Catholic nun and fervent Irish nationalist at the time.

According to Cusack, the few that are spared suffer a worse fate. They are offered life if they renounce their Catholic faith. On refusal, their arms and legs are broken in three places by an ironsmith. They are left in agony for a day and night and then hanged.

According to the folklore of the area, the execution of the captives takes two days, with many of the captives being beheaded in a field known locally in Irish as Gort a Ghearradh (the Field of the Cutting). Their bodies are later thrown into the sea. Archaeologists have not yet discovered human remains at the site, although a nearby field is known as Gort na gCeann (the Field of the Heads) and local folklore recalls the massacre.

(Pictured: A memorial to the victims of the massacre at Dún an Óir)