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The Ancient Earldom of Desmond

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     In the early times, long before the arrival of the English under Henry II, nearly the entire county of Cork-the largest of all the counties of Munster, and indeed of all Ireland-formed a separate kingdom, under the rule of princes of the clan or sept of Macarthy. But the invaders made short work of the native race; the fair territory over which the sept had held sway for
centuries was reduced to submission by Henry, who granted it to Robert FitzStephen and another Norman noble, with the exception of a small portion of land on the southern shore, which was kept in the king's own hands. The larger part of what since King John's days has been the county of Cork, but was formerly the kingdom or princedom of Desmond, is still vested in the descendants of the early Norman settlers;' but the old race of Macarthy, though robbed of its lands, yep survives in the middle and lower classes, though scattered up and down the length and breadth of Munster, Leinster, and Connaught.
     But it is not of the Macarthies that I now write, though I could tell how they fought on equal terms with the Barrier and the De Burghs, to say nothing, of the Geraldines. It is said that at one time they were so powerful that the Geraldines durst not put a plough into the ground in Desmond.' On their fall, their lands were mainly given to the followers and favorites of the sovereign, and the whole territory of Desmond was made into an earldom, which was conferred by Edward III in 1330 on Maurice FitzThomas, one of the most popular and most powerful nobles in the southern counties, who had been called in by the Lord Justice to aid him in suppressing an insurrection of the native chiefs. One of these lords, Thomas, commonly known as 'the great earl,' from the extent of his possessions, obtained from Edward IV. a charter of incorporation for the town of Youghal, and even founded here a college and a monastic house. But the Desmonds were proud and fierce, and the great earl rose in rebellion against the English king.
     "The Palatinate--for such it really was--that King Edward granted to the Earl of Desmond . . . . formed the ninth of those petty sovereignties into which the kingdom had been wantonly parceled, in order to enrich and exalt a few favored individuals . . . . In fact, these palatine lords had royal jurisdiction throughout their territories; made barons and knights, and erected courts for civil and criminal causes, as well as for the management of their own revenues, according to the forms in which the king's courts were established in Dublin. They made their own judges, sheriffs, and coroners; nor did the king's writ run in the palatinatas.'* Such being the case, it will not be surprising to learn that on one occasion the Earl of Desmond, at the head of nearly ten thousand men, having the 0'Briens for his allies, took the field against the combined septa of Leinster, the Nolans, 0 'Morroughs, and 0'Demp seys, and, laying waste all their lands, compelled them to submit and give hostages:
     On another occasion the earl refused to attend the king's parliament at Dublin, for which he was arrested and cast into prison, though he was afterwards set free on giving sureties for his future fealty. Not very long after the earl, instead of obeying the royal summons, called together a rival parliament at Callan; and in the long run made his peace with the king so effectually that he was appointed Governor or Lieutenant of Ireland for life. He survived the appointment, however, only five months, and; dying in the castle at Dublin in 1855, was buried in the church of the Friars Preachers at Tralee.  His son and successor, Gerald, called, from his skill in verse, I The Poet,' held the same post for a short time in 1369, but was killed in an affray near Limerick.
     It was at a castle called Mogealey, the ruins of which are still to be seen on the banks of the small river of the Bride, a tributary of the Suir, that Thomas, the Great Earl of Desmond, resided when at the height of his power. An anecdote is related which may serve to illustrate the rudeness as well as the hospitality of that period in the South of Ireland. Without consulting his lord, the steward of the Great Earl invited numerous chiefs, or petty princes, of Munster; with their followers and retainers, to spend a month with him at the castle. Crowds accordingly flocked to Mogealey, to the surprise and, it is to be feared, the annoyance also of the earl, as he was not provided, in larder at least, for so large a party for so many days. The steward, meantime, went off on a holiday; and this earl, finding that his stores were nearly exhausted, resolved to save his credit as a host, even at the cost of his castle itself. So he led his company out on a hunting expedition into the neighboring forests and woods, having given orders to a trusty servant to set fire to the castle, and then, when it was burnt, to say that it was an accident, for such an accident he knew would be regarded by his visitors as a notice to quit. Throughout the morning, during the intervals of the chase, he cast many a long look at the towers of Mogealey, in the earnest hope of seeing the flames burst from the top of his towers. But no such fire arose. The earl wondered, as well he might, to find that his orders were not carried out. On his return home in the evening it was found that meantime his steward and seneschal had come back, just in time to prevent the servants from firing, the building, and had brought with him I a large prey' of cattle and corn, which he had obtained by. force and threats-enough, at all events, to keep the earl and his .friends in meat for a longer
period than it was intended that their revelry should last.
     From this time to the reign of Elizabeth, the history of Ireland may be said to be little more than a record of strife between the house of Desmond and the house of Fitzgerald, Barons of Offaley and Earls of Kildare, the heads of the former being alternately masters of the situation and then again all but beggars. Thus, for instance, in the reign of Henry VIII., we find the Earl of Desmond, I the noblest man in all the realm,' petitioning the king for robes to wear in Parliament, likewise for apparel for daily use, I whereof he had great lack: St. Leger himself, who states this fact, had already given to this once potent earl a gown, a jacket,
a doublet, hose, and other articles of dress, I for which he was very thankful, and which he wore in all places where he accompanied the lord deputy.' The true reason of the hard straits to which he was driven to supply himself with such necessaries is probably to be found in the wasting wars in which he had been engaged in supporting the cause of the king.
     In the hands of Gerald, the sixteenth and last earl, the possessions of the house of Desmond had grown to such an excessive size as to be quite unexampled in the history of the three kingdoms. They extended for upwards of one hundred and fifty miles through the counties of Waterford, Cork, Kerry, and Limerick, and comprised more than five hundred and seventy thousand acres, according to the rough estimate of that period, when ordnance surveys were unknown.
     Such a wealthy and powerful subject was a standing menace to the royal crown of the Tudors, and it did not need much provocation for Elizabeth to suppress him and his house with a high hand. That royal personage seldom, used half measures; and where she laid her hand the blow was sure to be a heavy one. How heavy we may learn from Baker's Chronicle, who tells the tale of the fall of the Desmonds with affecting simplicity. ' Desmond possessed whole counties, together with . the .county palatine of Kerry (Cork), and had of his own name and race at least five hundred gentlemen at his command, all of whom, and his own life also, he lost within the space of three years, very few of his house being left alive.'
     Appearing in arms against Elizabeth, early in 1578, on one of the mountains of Cork, he proceeded to attack Youghal, which he captured.
     Some Spanish troops had been landed in the mouth to aid the Roman Catholic cause, 'the country having been offered by Pope Gregory XIII to Philip of Spain; and with these forces Desmond proceeded to garrison some of his many castles. This rebellion caused a long and tedious warfare, by which Munster was largely desolated, and the Earl of Desmond was reduced to so low au ebb that he, his countess, and the Papal Legate were glad to escape with their lives from the Queen's troops. Pursued from one retreat to another, he was forced, after several narrow escapes, to I keep big Christmas in 1582 in a wood near Kilmallock.'Being attacked here, his followers were all put to the sword, and he and his countess escaped only by remaining under the bank of a river up to their chins in the cold water. About the middle of the following year his chief force, reduced by disease and death to about fifty in all, was surprised in the act of boiling down horseflesh by a party from Kilmallock, when half of them were slain.
     The last scene of the earl's life, however, was the most tragical of all. His necessities having driven him to take some cattle belonging to a poor woman, he was closely pursued by some English musketeers, who, on entering at night a grove in a lonely and mountainous glen near Tralee, found, seated round a hovel, four or five of Desmond's most faithful followers, who, however, fled on their entrance, leaving behind them one venerable and powerless old man. A soldier aimed at him one blow with his sword, and wounded him in the arm, so that the blood flowed freely. On his repeating the blow, the old man cried out, 'Spare me; I am the Earl of Desmond.' The appeal, however, was made in vain; for the soldier at once struck off his head, and sent it to the Earl of Ormond, who I pickled it in a pipkin;' and packed it off to England, where it was exposed, as usual with the heads of traitors, on London Bridge. The headless body of the once formidable Lord--I had almost written Prince-of Desmond was consigned to an obscure and nameless grave in the little chapel of Killnamana, in the county, of Kerry.
     The poet Spencer, who writes as an eyewitness of the scenes, thus describes the effects of civil warfare in the south of that green island for which Nature has done so much, and which man has so cruelly marred: I Any heart would rue the sight. Out of every corner of the woods and glynns (glens) they (the people of Munster) 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 the dead carrions, happy when they could find them; yea, and one another soon after, insomuch as the very carcasses they spared not to scrape out of their graves; and, if they found a plot of watercresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able to continue there withal; so that in a short time there was none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly became void of man and beast: 
     After the attainder of Desmond his huge estates were forfeited, and distributed piecemeal among various favorites of the English sovereign, and especially among those adventurers who had chosen to settle in Ireland under the protection of the English banner. Upwards of six thousand acres were given by Elizabeth to. the Hydes; and Kilcoleman Castle, as is known to every reader of history, in like manner was presented to Edmund Spenser, the author of the 'Fairy Queen.' Other and larger tracts of broad lands were given to the Boyles, the St. Legers, the Fitzmaurices, the Fitzgeralds, etc., and many of these still remain in the hands of their descendants.
     As for the earldom, it was revived as a title, without the estates, in the noble family of Preston, but became extinct after two generations. It was again granted, however, by Charles T. to a younger son of the house of Fending;  and its head, the present Earl of Denbigh, is also 'Earl of Desmond in the kingdom of Ireland.' But it is an empty title, and nothing more. His lordship owns not an acre of the vast possessions of that gallant earl whose death and forfeiture was really a greater event in the history of the 'sister kingdom' than the absorption of many a petty dukedom and princedom in the empire of Germany has proved to be in the history of modern Europe.

* See Thomas Moore's 'History of Ireland' Vol. iii, p. 85

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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