Kilcolman Settlement at Kilcolman

Conflict: The Desmond Rebellion, 1579-83

Gerald Fitz James Fitzgerald (c. 1533-83), fifteenth* earl of Desmond, the main overlord of the western part of the province of Munster, rebelled against the crown in 1579.  He died violently as a result, hunted down and decapitated in a glen in Co. Kerry in 1583.  After his rebellion dwindled and collapsed, the government began the process of planning the Munster Plantation on his territory and on that of allies or subordinates who rebelled with him (Munster Plantation).

Gerald had frequently been a thorn in the crown’s side, waging small wars against his neighbor (and son-in-law) to the east, Thomas Butler, the tenth earl of Ormond, suppressing native Irish lords such as the McCarthys and ruling his corner of the country as a semi-independent palatinate or fiefdom.  Both Desmond and Ormond (who also had extraordinary powers in his earldom in east Munster) were both gaelicized Old English lords who operated as comfortably within Irish cultural and legal systems as within English ones.  Many of Elizabeth’s mightiest nobles chafed against Tudor rule, but few had the power and wealth of Desmond or Ormond.  These two acted like feudal magnates and/or Irish kings in their domains, and both faced reprimands from the crown for breaking England’s laws and flaunting the queen’s authority.

Unlike Ormond (until his deathbed conversion), Desmond was a Catholic and defied the queen and her government more often than did Ormond, who was a close cousin to and favorite of the queen.  In the 1560s and ‘70s, Desmond spent years at a time locked up in the Tower of London.  Other efforts were made by the crown to curtail his “liberties” or extraordinary powers of jurisdiction over his palatinate territories.  

As Queen Elizabeth sought to centralize and extend Tudor rule all across Ireland, successive New English provincial presidents of Munster, acting as crown agents, tried to curb Desmond’s powers.  This process accelerated in the 1570s and helped to push Gerald into rebellion.  Gerald reacted strongly to encroachments on his rights and territories.  He also became swept up in Catholic, Counter-Reformation ideology and rhetoric that helped fuel outright rebellion. By the time Gerald formally rebelled in 1579, following his powerful brothers James and John, Ireland’s conflicts had already taken on a sectarian dimension as well as an international one.  Both the Pope and Catholic Spain became involved in support of Desmond, for example by landing an armed expeditionary force at the promontory fort of Smerwick, County Kerry in 1580.  The earl of Desmond failed to relieve the poor troops, who soon surrendered to the crown forces and were massacred.  Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the captains put in charge of killing the foreign troops. 

The rebellion coincided with the pro-Catholic Baltinglass rebellion against the Crown that shook the Dublin Pale. One suspects that Spenser’s horrible giant in Book I of The Faerie Queene, the “rebellow[ing]“ Orgoglio (I.viii.11.4 passim), whose name signifies pride, alludes to these overmighty lords in Ireland. Spenser satirizes (and warns against) the temporal power of the Catholic church and the King of Spain in the same figure; to these threats might be added their allies, the Irish, and specifically the Old English aristocracy.

Spenser, in The Faerie Queene Book III, celebrates Sir Walter Raleigh’s part fighting the Desmonds (Spenser and Raleigh).  The horrific results of warfare and depopulation during the rebellion also deeply impressed the poet.  Spenser first came to Ireland to settle in Dublin, in 1580, as secretary to Lord Deputy of Ireland Arthur, Lord Grey.  In Dublin Spenser witnessed the suppression of the Baltinglass rebellion and Grey’s failed campaign against the gaelic chieftain Feach MacHugh O’Byrne in the nearby Wicklow mountains (Rivers).

Spenser also travelled with Grey to Munster during his campaign against Desmond. The rebellion and the harsh means used by crown forces to suppress it, including deliberate famine, caused widespread destruction and depopulation in the province. It is uncertain how many of the native population were killed or displaced--perhaps up to 48,000, or a third of the populace (McCormack, “The Social…”; McCormack, The Earldom of Desmond 193-4).

Spenser witnessed the destruction in Munster first-hand, and he describes the population of Munster as “like ghosts” digging up corpses to eat.  Others ate watercress and shamrocks, which were insufficient.  Spenser then blames the suffering among the general populace squarely on the victims themselves for having rebelled in the first place:

ere one year and a half they were brought to such wretchedness, as that any stony heart would have rued the same. Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands, for their legs could not bear them.  They looked [like] anatomies of death, they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves,  they did eat of the dead carrions, happy were they [who] could find them, yea and one another soon after in so much as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves, and if they found a plot of water cress or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able long to continue therewithal, that in short space there were none almost left and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or beast.  Yet sure in all that war there perished not many by the sword, but all by the extremity of famine, which they themselves had wrought. (View 104)

After Grey’s recall, in 1582, the war was successfully concluded by the tenth earl of Ormond, who had taken command of the queen’s armies.  Ormond used force and widespread pardons of rebels as means to pacify the enemy. During this time, Spenser moved to Kilcullen, County Kildare, from 1582-4.  He was to move back to Munster to occupy Kilcolman, on the Munster Plantation, sometime in the late 1580s.  He occupied Kilcolman Castle, which he claimed was formerly a property of the fifteenth earl’s brother Sir John of Desmond, who also died in the rebellion.

*Labelled the fifteenth earl in genealogical tables of the authoritative New History of Ireland; known more commonly as the fourteenth earl, as in McGurk.


Anthony M. McCormack, Earldom of Desmond 1463-1583: The Decline and Crisis of a Feudal Lordship (Dublin:  Four Courts Press, 2005):  126-97.

—.  “The Social and Economic Consequences of the Desmond Rebellion of 1579-83.”  Irish Historical Studies 34 (2004), 1-16.

J.J.N. McGurk, “Fitzgerald, Gerald Fitz James, fourteenth earl of Desmond (c. 1533-1583).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford UP, 2004), online ed., Jan 2011.

[section on ”Rebellion in Munster: The Fall of Desmond” from the ”Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland” exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Includes photos of primary texts.]