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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 15399

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The tale of the great Desmond rebellion which ended only with the ruin of that house, and with the slaughter or starvation of thousands of its unhappy adherents, is one of those abortive tragedies of which the whole history of Ireland is full. Our pity for the victims' doom, and our indignation for the cold-blooded cruelty with which that doom was carried out, is mingled with a reluctant realization of the fact that the state of things which preceded it was practically impossible, that it had become an anomaly, and that as such it was bound either to change or to perish.

From the twelfth century onwards, the Desmond Geraldines had been lords, as has been seen, of a vast tract of Ireland, covering the greater part of Munster. Earlier and perhaps more completely than any of the other great Norman houses, they had become Irish chieftains rather than English subjects, and the opening of Elizabeth's reign found them still what for centuries past they had been, and with their power, within their own limits, little if at all curtailed. The Desmond


(From the "Pacata Hibernia.")

of the day had still his own judges or Brehons, by whose judgment he professed to rule. He had still his own palatinate courts; he still collected his dues by force, driving away his clansmen's cattle, and distraining those who resisted him. Only a few years before this time, during an expedition of the kind, he and Ormond had encountered one another in the open field at Affane, upon the Southern Blackwater, each side flying their banners, and shouting their war cries as if no queen's representative had ever been seen or heard of.

Such a state of things, it was plain, could not go on indefinitely, would not indeed have gone on as long but for the confusion and disorder in which the country had always been plunged, and especially the want of all settled communication. The palatinate of Ormond, it is true, was theoretically in much the same state, but then Ormond was a keener sighted and a wiser man than Desmond, and knew when the times demanded redress. He had of late even made some effort to abolish the abominable system of "coyne and livery," although, as he himself frankly admits, he was forced to impose it again in another form not long afterwards.

Sir James meanwhile had left Ireland, and at every Catholic Court in Europe was busily pleading for aid towards a crusade against England. Failing in France, he appealed to Philip of Spain. Philip, however, at the moment was not prepared to break with Elizabeth, whereupon Fitzmaurice, undeterred by failure, presented himself next before the Pope. Here he was more successful, and preparations for the collection of a considerable force was at once set on foot, a prominent English refugee, Dr. Nicolas Saunders, being appointed to accompany it as legate.

Saunders, who had distinguished himself not long before by a violent personal attack against Elizabeth, threw himself heart and soul into the enterprise, and in a letter to Philip pointed out all the advantages that were to be won by it to the Catholic cause. "Men," he assured him, "were not needed." Guns, powder, a little money, and a ship or two with stores from Spain, and the whole country would soon be at his feet.

Although absurdly ignorant, as his own letters prove, of a country of which he had once been nominally king, Philip knew rather more probably about the circumstance of the case than Saunders, and he met these insinuating suggestions coldly. A fleet in the end was fitted out and sent from Civita Vecchia, under the command of an English adventurer Stukeley, the same Stukeley in whose favour we saw Shane O'Neill appealing to Elizabeth. Though it started for Ireland it never arrived there. Touching at Lisbon, Stukeley was easily persuaded to give up his first scheme, and to join Sebastian, king of Portugal, in a buccaneering expedition to Morocco, and at the battle of Alcansar both he and Sebastian with the greater part of their men were killed.

Fitzmaurice meanwhile had gone to Spain by land, and had there embarked for Ireland, accompanied by his wife, two children, Saunders, the legate, Allen, an Irish priest, a small party of Italians and Spaniards, and a few English refugees, and bringing with them a banner especially consecrated by the Pope for this service.

Their landing-place was Dingle, and from there they crossed to Smerwick, where they fortified the small island peninsula of Oilen-an-Oir, or "Gold Island," where they were joined by John and James Fitzgerald, brothers of the Earl of Desmond, and by a party of two hundred O'Flaherties from Iar Connaught, who, however, speedily left again.

But Desmond still vacillated helplessly. Now that the time had come he could not make up his mind what to do, or with whom to side. He was evidently cowed. His three imprisonments lay heavily upon his soul. He knew the power of England better too than most of his adherents, and shrank from measuring his own strength against it. What he did not realize was that it was too late now to go back. He had stood out for what he considered his own rights when it would have been more politic to have submitted, and now he wanted to submit when it was only too plain to all who could read the signs of the times that the storm was already upon him, and that no humility or late-found loyalty could avail to avert that doom which hung over his house.

If Desmond himself was slow to rise, the whole South of Ireland was in a state of wild tumult and excitement when the news of the actual arrival of Fitzmaurice and the legate became known. Nor in the south alone. In Connaught and the Pale the excitement was very little less. Kildare, like Desmond, held back fearing the personal consequences of rebellion, but all the younger lords of the Pale were eager to throw in their lot with


(Reputed to have been killed at the age of 120 by a fall from a cherry tree.)

(From the Burne Collection.)

Fitzmaurice. Alone amongst the Irishmen of his day, he possessed all the necessary qualifications of a leader. He had already for years successfully resisted the English. He was known to be a man of great courage and tenacity, and his reputation as a general stood deservedly high in the opinion of all his countrymen.

That extraordinary good fortune, however, which has so often befallen England at awkward moments, and never more conspicuously than during the closing years of the sixteenth century, did not fail now. Fitzmaurice started for Connaught to encourage the insurrection which had been fast ripening there under the brutal rule of Sir Nicolas Malby, its governor. A trumpery quarrel had recently broken out between the Desmonds and the Mayo Bourkes, and this insignificant affair sealed the fate of what at one moment promised to be the most formidable rebellion which had ever assailed the English power in Ireland. At a place called Harrington's Bridge, not far from Limerick, where the little river Muckern or Mulkearn was then crossed by a ford, Fitzmaurice was set upon by the Bourkes. Only a few followers were with him at the time, and in turning to expostulate with one of his assailants, he was killed by a pistol shot, and fell from his horse. This was upon the 18th of August, 1579. From that moment the Desmond rising was doomed.

Desmond meanwhile still sat vacillating in his own castle of Askeaton, neither joining the rising, nor yet exerting himself vigorously to put it down. Malby, who had newly arrived from Connaught, took steps to hasten his decision. Ordering the earl to

come to him, and the latter still hesitating, he marched against Askeaton, utterly destroyed the town up to the walls of the castle, burning everything in the neighbourhood, including the abbey and the tombs of the Desmonds, the castle itself only escaping through the lack of ammunition.

This hint seems to have sufficed. Desmond was at last convinced that the time for temporizing was over. He rose, and all Munster rose with him. Ormond was still in London, and hurried over to find all in disorder. Drury had lately died, and the only other English commander, Malby, was crippled for want of men, and had been obliged to retreat into Connaught. The new deputy, Sir William Pelham, had just arrived, and he and Ormond now proceeded to make a concerted attack. Advancing in two separate columns they destroyed everything which came in their way; men, women, children, infants, the old, the blind, the sick all alike were mercilessly slaughtered; not a roof, however humble, was spared; not a living creature that crossed their path survived to tell the tale. Lady Fitzmaurice and her two little children seem to have been amongst the number of these nameless and uncounted victims, for they were never heard of again. From Adare and Askeaton to the extreme limits of Kerry, everything perishable was destroyed. The two commanders met one another at Tralee, and from this point carried on their raid in unison, and returned, to Askeaton and Cork, leaving the whole country a desert behind them. There was little or no resistance. The Desmond clansmen were not soldiers; they were unarmed, or armed only with spears and skeans. They had just lost their only leader. They could do nothing but sullenly watch the progress of the English forces. Desmond, his two brothers, and the legate were already fugitives. The rising seemed to be all but crushed, when a new incident occurred to spur it into a momentary vitality.

Four Spanish vessels, containing 800 men, chiefly Italians, had managed to pass unperceived by the English admiral, Winter's, fleet, and to land at Smerwick, where they established themselves in Fitzmaurice's dismantled fort. They found everything in confusion. They had brought large supplies of arms for their Irish allies, but there were apparently no Irish allies to give them to. The legate and Desmond had first to be found, and now that arms had come, the Munster tribesmen had for the most part been killed or dispersed. Ormond and Pelham's terrible raid had done its work, and the heart of the rising was broken. The Pale, however, had now caught the fire, and though Kildare, its natural leader, still hung back, Lord Baltinglass and some of the bolder spirits flew to arms, and threw themselves into the Wicklow highlands where they joined their forces with those of the O'Byrnes, and were presently joined by Sir John of Desmond and a handful of Fitzgeralds.

Lord Grey de Wilton had by this time arrived in Ireland as deputy. Utterly inexperienced in Irish wars, he despised and underrated the capabilities of those opposed to him, and refused peremptorily to listen to the advice of more experienced men. Hastening south, his advanced guard was caught by Baltinglass and the other insurgents in the valley of Glenmalure. A well-directed fire was poured into the defile; the English troops broke, and tried to flee, and were shot down in numbers amongst the rocks.

Lord Grey had no time to retrieve this disaster. Leaving the Pale to the mercy of the successful rebels, he hastened south, and arrived in Kerry before Smerwick fort. Amongst the small band of officers who accompanied him on this occasion were Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser, both then young men, and both of them all but unknown to fame.

The English admiral, Winter, with his fleet had long been delayed by bad weather. When at length it arrived, cannon were landed and laid in position upon the sand hills. Next day the siege commenced. There was heavy firing on both sides, but the fort was soon found to be untenable. The garrison thereupon offered to capitulate, and an unconditional surrender was demanded. There being no alternative, these terms were accepted. Lord Grey thereupon "put in certain bands," under the command of Captain Raleigh. "The Spaniard," says Spenser, who was an eye-witness of the whole scene, "did absolutely yield himself, and the fort, and all therein, and only asked mercy," This, "it was not thought good," he adds, "to show them." They were accordingly all slaughtered in cold blood, a few women and priests who were with them hanged, the officers being reserved for ransom. "There was no other way," Spenser observes in conclusion, "but to make that end of them as thus was done[8]."

[8] "View of the State of Ireland," pp. 5, 11.

This piece of work satisfactorily finished, Grey returned rapidly to Dublin to crush the Leinster insurgents. Kildare and Delvin, though they had kept themselves clear of the rebellion, were arrested and thrown into prison. Small bands of troopers were sent into the Wicklow mountains to hunt out the insurgents. Baltinglass escaped to the Continent, but the two Eustaces his brothers, with Garrot O'Toole and Feagh McHugh were caught, killed, and their heads sent to Dublin. Clanricarde's two sons, the Mac-an-Earlas, were out in the Connemara mountains and could not be got at; but Malby again overran their country, burning houses and slaughtering without mercy. In Dublin, the Anglo-Irishmen of the Pale were being brought to trial for treason, and hung or beheaded in batches. Kildare was sent to England to die in the Tower. With the exception of the North, which on this occasion had kept quiet, the whole country had become one great reeking shambles; what sword and rope and torch had spared, famine came in to complete.

The Earl of Desmond was now a houseless fugitive, hunted like a wolf or mad dog through the valleys and over the mountains of his own ancestral "kingdom." His brothers had already fallen. Sir John Fitzgerald had been killed near Cork, and his body hung head downwards, by Raleigh's order, upon the bridge of the river Lee. The other brother, Sir James, had met with a similar fate. Saunders, the legate, had died of cold and exposure. Desmond alone escaped, time after time, and month after month. Hunted, desperate, in want of the bare necessities of life, he was still in his own eyes the Desmond, ancestral owner of nearly a hundred miles of territory. Never in his most successful period a man of any particular strength of character, sheer pride seems to have upheld him now. He scorned to make terms with his hated enemy, Ormond. If he yielded to any one, he sent word, it would be only to the queen herself in person. He was not given the chance. Hunted over the Slemish mountains, with the price of £1,000 on his head, one by one the trusty companions who had clung to him so faithfully were taken and killed. His own course could inevitably be but a short one. News reached the English captain at Castlemain one night that the prey was not far off. A dozen English soldiers stole up the stream in the grey of the morning. The cabin where the Desmond lay was surrounded, the door broken in, and the earl stabbed before there was time for him to spring from his bed. The tragedy had now been played out to the bitterest end. As formerly with the Leinster Geraldines, so now with the Munster ones, of the direct heirs of the house only a single child was left, a feeble boy, afterwards known by the significant title of the "Tower Earl," with the extinguishing of whose sickly tenure of life the very name of Desmond ceases to appear upon the page of Irish history.

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