James Fitzmaurice of Desmond

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE death of John the Proud gave the English power respite in the north; but, respited for a moment in the north, that power was doomed to encounter danger still as menacing in the south. Once more the Geraldines were to put it severely to the proof.

Elizabeth had not witnessed and studied in vain the events of her father's reign. She very sagaciously concluded that if she would safely push her war against the Catholic faith in Ireland, she must first get the dreaded Geraldines out of the way. And she knew, too, from all previous events, how necessary it was to guard that not even a solitary seedling of that dangerous race was allowed to escape. She wrote to Sydney, her lord lieutenant, to lay a right cunning snare for the catching of the Geraldines in one haul. That faithful viceroy of a gracious queen forthwith "issued an invitation for the nobility of Ireland to meet him on a given day in the city of Dublin, to confer with him on some matters of great weight, particularly regarding religion." The bait took. "The dynasts of Ireland, little suspecting the design, hastened to the city, and along with them the Earl of Desmond and his brother John." They had a safe conduct from Sydney, but had scarcely arrived when they were seized and committed to the castle dungeons, whence they were soon shipped off to the Tower of London. This was the plan Elizabeth had laid, but it had only partially succeeded. All the Geraldines had not come into the snare, and she took five years to decide whether it would be. worth while murdering these (according to law), while so many other members of the family were yet outside her grasp. The earl and his brother appear not to have been imprisoned, but merely held to residence under surveillance in London. According to the version of the family chronicler, they found means of transmitting a document or message to their kinsmen and retainers, appointing their cousin James, son of Maurice—known as James Fitzmaurice—to be the head and leader of the family in their absence, "for he was well-known for his attachment to the ancient faith, no less than for his valor and chivalry." "Gladly," says the old chronicler, "did the people of Earl Desmond receive these commands, and inviolable was their attachment to him who was now their-appointed chieftain."

This was that James Fitzmaurice of Desmond—"James Geraldine of happy memory," as Pope Gregory calls him—who originated, planned, and organized the memorable Geraldine League of 1579, upon the fortunes of which for years the attention of Christendom was fixed. With loftier, nobler, holier aims than the righting of mere family wrongs he conceived the idea of a great league in defense of religion; a holy war, in which he might demand the sustainment and intervention of the Catholic powers. Elizabeth's own conduct at this juncture in stirring up and subsidizing the Huguenots in France supplied Fitzmaurice with another argument in favor of his scheme. First of all he sent an envoy to the pope—Gregory the Thirteenth—demanding the blessing and assistance of the Supreme Pontiff in this struggle of a Catholic nation against a monarch nakedly violating all title to allegiance. The act of an apostate sovereign of a Catholic country drawing the sword to compel his subjects into apostasy on pain of death, was not, only a forfeiture of his title to rule, it placed him outside the pale of law, civil and ecclesiastical. This was Henry's position when he died; to this position, as the envoy pointed out, Elizabeth succeeded "with a vengeance;" and so he prayed of Pope Gregory, "his blessing on the undertaking and the concession of indulgences which the church bestows on those who die in defense of the faith." The holy father flung himself earnestly and actively into the cause. "Then," says the old Geraldine chaplain, "forth flashed the sword of the Geraldine; like chaff did he scatter the host of reformers.; fire and devastation did he carry into their strongholds, so that during five years he won many a glorious victory, and carried off innumerable trophies."

This burst of rhapsody, excusable enough on the part of the old Geraldine chronicler, gives, however, no faithful idea of what ensued; many brilliant victories, it is true, James Geraldine achieved in his protracted struggle. But after five years of valiant effort and of varied fortunes, the hour of reverses came. One by one Fitzmaurice's allies were struck down or fell away from him, until at length he himself with a small force stood to bay in the historic Glen of Aherlow, which "had now become to the patriots of the south what the valley of Glenmalure had been for those of Leinster—a fortress dedicated by nature to the defense of freedom." Here he held out for a year; but, eventually, he dispatched envoys to the lord president at Kilmallock to make terms of submission, which were duly granted. Whether from motives of policy, or in compliance with these stipulations, the imprisoned earl and his brother were forthwith released in London; the queen making them an exceedingly smooth and bland speech against the sin of rebellion. The gallant Fitzmaurice betook himself into exile, there to plot and organize with, redoubled energy in the cause of faith and country; while the Earl of Desmond, utterly disheartened no doubt by the result of James' revolt, and "only too happy to be tolerated in the possession of his five hundred and seventy thousand acres, was eager enough to testify his allegiance by any sort of service. "

Fitzmaurice did not labor in vain. He went from court to court pleading the cause he had so deeply at heart. He was received with honor and respect everywhere; but it was only at Rome that he obtained that which he valued beyond personal honors for himself—aid in men, money, and arms for the struggle in Ireland. A powerful expedition was fitted out at Civita Vecchia by the sovereign pontiff; and from various princes of Europe secret promises of further aid were showered upon the brave Geraldine. He little knew, all this time, while he in exile was toiling night and day—was pleading, urging, beseeching—planning, organizing, and directing—full of ardor and of faithful courageous resolve, that his countrymen at home—even his own kinsmen—were temporizing and compromising with the lord president! He little knew that, instead of finding Ireland ready to welcome him as a deliverer, he was to land in the midst of a prostrate, dispirited, and apathetic population, and was to find some of his own relatives, not only fearing to countenance, but cravenly arrayed against him! It was even so. As the youthful Emmett exclaimed of his own project against the British crown more than two hundred years subsequently, we may say of Fitzmaurice's—"There was failure in every part." By some wild fatality everything miscarried. There was concert nowhere; there was no one engaged in the cause of ability to second James' efforts; and what misfortune marred, incompetency ruined. The pope's expedition, upon which so much depended, was diverted from its destination by its incompetent commander, an English adventurer named Stukely, knave or fool, to whom, in an evil hour, James had unfortunately confided such a trust. Stukely, having arrived at Lisbon on his way to Ireland, and having there learned that the King of Portugal was setting out on an expedition against the Moors, absolutely joined his forces to those of Dom Sebastian, and accompanied him,[1] leaving James of Desmond to learn as best he might of this inexplicable imbecility, if not cold-blooded treason!

Meanwhile, in Ireland, the air was thick with rumors, vague and furtive, that James was "on the sea," and soon to land with a liberating expedition. The government was, of course, on the alert, fastening its gaze with lynx-eyed vigilance on all men likely to join the "foreign emissaries," as the returning Irish and their friends were styled; and around the southwestern coast of Ireland was instantly drawn a line of British cruisers. The government fain would have seized upon the Earl of Desmond and his brothers, but it was not certain whether this would aid or retard the apprehended revolt; for, so far, these Geraldines protested their opposition to it, and to them—to the earl in particular—the population of the south looked for leadership. Yet, in sooth, the English might have relieved the earl, who, hoping nothing of the revolt, yet sympathizing secretly with his kinsman, was in a sad plight what to do, anxious to be "neutral," and trying to convince the lord president that he was well affected. The government party, on the other hand, trusting him naught, seemed anxious to goad him into some "overt act" that would put him utterly in their power.

While all was excitement about the expected expedition, lo! three suspicious strangers were landed at Dingle from a Spanish ship! They were seized as "foreign emissaries," and were brought first before the Earl of Desmond. Glad of an opportunity for showing the government his zeal, he forthwith sent them prisoners to the lord president at Kilmallock. In vain they protested that they were not conspirators or invaders. And indeed they were not, though they were what was just as bad in the eyes of the law, namely, Catholic ecclesiastics, one of them being Dr. O'Haly, Bishop of Mayo, and another Father Cornelius O'Rorke. To reveal what they really were would serve them little; inasmuch as hanging and beheading as "rebels" was in no way different from hanging and beheading as "popish ecclesiastics." Yet would the authorities insist that they were vile foreign emissaries. They spoke with a Spanish accent; they wore their beards in the Spanish fashion, and their boots were of Spanish cut. So to force a confession of what was not truth out of them, no effort was spared. They were "put to every conceivable torture," says the historian, "in order to extract intelligence of Fitzmaurice's movements. After their thighs had been broken with hammers they were hanged on a tree, and their bodies used as targets by the soldiery.

By this time James, all unconscious of Stukely's defection, had embarked from Spain for Ireland, with a few score Spanish soldiers in three small ships. He brought with him Dr. Saunders, papal legate, the Bishop of Killaloe, and Dr. Allen. The little fleet, after surviving shipwreck on the coast of Gallicia, sailed into Dingle Harbor July 17, 1579. Here James first tasted disheartening disillusion. His great kinsman the earl, so far from marching to welcome him and summoning the country to rise, "sent him neither sign of friendship nor promise of co-operation." This was discouragement indeed; yet Fitzmaurice was not without hope that when in a few days the main expedition under Stukely would arrive, the earl might think more hopefully of the enterprise, and rally to it that power which he alone could assemble in Munster. So, weighing anchor, James steered for a spot which no doubt he had long previously noted and marked as pre-eminently suited by nature for such a purpose as this of his just now—Illan-an-Oir, or Golden Island, in Smerwick Harbor, on the northwest Kerry coast, destined to be famed in story as Fort del Ore. This was a singular rock, a diminutive Gibraltar, jutting into the harbor or bay of Smerwick. Even previously its natural strength as a site for a fort had been noticed, and a rude fortification of some sort crowned the rock. Here James landed his small force, threw up an earthwork across the narrow neck of land connecting the "Isle of Gold" with the mainland, and waited for news of Stukely.

But Stukely never came! There did come, however, unfortunately for James, an English man-of-war, which had little difficulty in capturing his transports within sight of the helpless fort. All hope of the expected expedition soon fled, or mayhap its fate became known, and matters grew desperate on Illan-an-Oir. Still the earl made no sign. His brothers John and James, however, less timid or more true to kinship, had chivalrously hastened to join Fitzmaurice. But it was clear the enterprise was lost. The government forces were mustering throughout Munster, and nowhere was help being organized. In this strait it was decided to quit the fort and endeavor to reach the old fastnesses amid the Galtees. The little band in their eastward march were actually pursued by the Earl of Desmond, not very much in earnest indeed—in downright sham, the English said, yet in truth severely enough to compel them to divide into three fugitive groups, the papal legate and the other dignitaries remaining with Fitzmaurice. Making a desperate push to reach the Shannon, his horses utterly exhausted, the brave Geraldine was obliged to impress into his service some horses belonging to Sir William Burke, through whose lands he was then passing. Burke, indeed, was a relative of his, and Fitzmaurice thought that revealing his name would silence all objection. On the contrary, however, this miserable Burke assembled a force, pursued the fugitives, and fell upon them, as "few and faint," jaded and outworn, they had halted at the little river Mulkern in Limerick county. Fitzmaurice was wounded mortally early in the fray, yet his ancient prowess flashed out with all its native brilliancy at the last. Dashing into the midst of his dastard foes, at one blow he clove to earth Theobald Burke, and in another instant laid the brother of Theobald mortally wounded at his feet. The assailants, though ten to one, at once turned and fled.

But alas! vain was the victory—James Geraldine had received his death wound! Calmly receiving the last rites of the church at the hands of Dr. Allen, and having with his last breath dictated a message to his kinsmen enjoining them to take up the banner fallen in his hand, and to fight to the last in the holy war—naming his cousin John of Desmond as leader to succeed him—the chivalrous Fitzmaurice breathed his last sigh. "Such," says the historian, "was the fate of the glorious hopes of Sir James Fitzmaurice! So ended in a squabble with churls about cattle, on the banks of an insignificant stream, a career which had drawn the attention of Europe, and had inspired with apprehension the lion-hearted English queen!"

Faithful to the dying message of Fitzmaurice, John of Desmond now avowed his resolution to continue the struggle; which he did bravely, and not without brilliant results. But the earl still "stood on the fence." Still would he fain persuade the government that he was quite averse to the mad designs of his unfortunate kinsmen; and still government, fully believing him a sympathizer with the movement, lost no opportunity of scornfully taunting him with insinuations. Eventually they commenced to treat his lands as the possessions of an enemy, wasting and harrying them; and at length the earl, finding too late that in such a struggle there was for him no neutrality, took the field. But this step on his part, which if it had been taken earlier, might; have had a powerful effect, was now, as I have said, all too late for any substantial influence upon the lost cause. Yet he showed by a few brilliant victories at the very outset that he was, in a military sense, not all unworthy of his position as First Geraldine The Spanish king, too, had by this time been moved to the aid of the struggle.

The Fort del Ore once more received an expedition from Spain, where this time there landed a force of seven hundred Spaniards and Italians, under the command of Sebastian San Josef, Hercules Pisano, and the Duke of Biscay. They brought, moreover, arms for five thousand men, a large supply of money, and cheering promises of still further aid from over the sea. Lord Grey, the deputy, quickly saw that probably the future existence of British power in Ireland depended upon the swift and sudden crushing of this formidable expedition; accordingly with all vehemence did he strain every energy to concentrate with rapidity around Fort del Ore, by land and sea, an overwhelming force before any aid or co-operation could reach it from the-Geraldines. "Among the officers of the besieging force were three especially notable men—Sir Walter Raleigh, the poet Spenser, and Hugh O'Neill—afterward Earl of Tyrone, but at this time commanding a squadron of cavalry for her majesty Queen Elizabeth. San Josef surrendered the place on conditions; that savage outrage ensued, which is known in Irish history as 'the massacre of Smerwick.' Raleigh and Wingfield appear to have directed the operations by which eight hundred prisoners of war were cruelly butchered and flung over the rocks. The sea upon that coast is deep, and the tide swift; but. it has not proved deep enough to hide that horrid crime, or to wash the stains of such wanton bloodshed from the memory of its authors!"[2]

It may be said that the Geraldine cause never rallied after this disaster. "For four years longer," says the historian whom I have just quoted, "the Geraldine League flickered in the south. Proclamations offering pardon to all concerned, except Earl Gerald and a few of his most devoted adherents, had their effect. Deserted at home, and cut off from foreign assistance, the condition of Desmond grew more and more intolerable. On one occasion he narrowly escaped capture by rushing with his countess into a river, and remaining concealed up to the chin in water. His dangers can hardly be paralleled by those of Bruce after the battle of Falkirk, or by the more familiar adventures of Charles Edward. At length on the night of November 11, 1584, he was surprised with only two followers in a lonesome valley, about five miles distant from Tralee, among the mountains of Kerry. The spot is still remembered, and the name of 'the Earl's Road' transports the fancy of the traveler to that tragical scene. Cowering over the embers of a half-extinct fire in a miserable hovel, the lord of a country which in time of peace had yielded an annual rental of 'forty thousand golden pieces,' was dispatched by the hands of common soldiers, without pity, or time, or hesitation. A few followers watching their creaghts or herds, further up the valley, found his bleeding trunk flung out upon the highway; the head was transported over seas to rot upon the spikes of London Tower."

Such was the end of the great Geraldine League of 1579. Even the youngest of my readers must have noticed in its plan and constitution, one singular omission which proved a fatal defect. It did not raise the issue of national independence at all. It made no appeal to the national aspirations for liberty. It was simply a war to compel Elizabeth to desist from her bloody persecution of the Catholic faith. Furthermore, it left out of calculation altogether the purely Irish elements. It left all the northern half of the kingdom out of sight. It was only a southern movement. The Irish princes and chiefs—those of them most opposed to the English power—never viewed the enterprise with confidence or sympathy. Fitzmaurice devoted much more attention to foreign aid than to native combination. In truth his movement was simply an Anglo-Irish war to obtain freedom of conscience, and never raised issues calculated to call forth the united efforts of the Irish nation in a war against England.

Before passing to the next great event of this era, I may pause to note here a few occurrences worthy of record, but for which I did not deem it advisable to break in upon the consecutive narration of the Geraldine war. My endeavor throughout is to present to my young readers, in clear and distinct outline, a sketch of the chief event of each period more or less complete by itself, so that it may be easily comprehended and remembered. To this end I omit many minor incidents and occurrences, which, if engrafted or brought in upon the main narrative, might have a tendency to confuse and bewilder the facts in one's recollection.


[1] Stukely, and most of his force, perished on the bloody field of Alcazarquebir, where Dom Sebastian and two Moorish kings likewise fell.

[2] McGee.