The Desmond Rebellion (3)

Eleanor Hull
The Desmond Rebellion | start of chapter

There was no doubt that by the middle of 1580 the rebel organization was breaking up. Desmond’s first act after his proclamation as a traitor had been to sack and burn the town of Youghal, which was betrayed into his hands by the Mayor and townsmen. The Earl of Clancar, at first his adversary but now his confederate, committed a similar outrage at Kinsale.[31]

Ormonde, who followed Desmond to Youghal and was refused admission for his English garrison, took his revenge by hanging the recalcitrant Mayor before his own door, after which he entered the town and fortified it. Youghal had been one of the favourite seats of the Desmond family, and we may well believe the report of Pelham a few weeks later that Desmond was either dead or benumbed of his limbs by an extreme palsy.[32]

Pelham got no commendation from the Queen for the severity of his actions. She was deeply displeased that Desmond had been proclaimed; and Pelham, “being utterly unable to bear her Majesty’s indignation,” besought to be relieved of his charge.[33] His wish was acceded to in the following year, 1580, when Lord Grey de Wilton was sent over to replace him.

Meanwhile, Sir John and his brother played a slowly losing game. Pelham was as indefatigable as he was merciless. He and Captain Zouche ploughed through the bogs of Slieve Lougher in wet and stormy weather by a march of twenty-one miles to intercept Desmond, and it was only by chance that they were seen in time for the Earl with his Countess and Saunders to escape.[34]

The terrible execution done at Carrigofoill Castle on March 25 struck terror into the countryside. The house was “circuited by the sea” and was held by sixteen Spaniards and fifty others, commanded by one Captain Julian, who said he kept it for the King of Spain. They fortified it by every device that occurred to them, but Captain Mackworth entered the outer walls after a fierce fight and drove the Spaniards up to a turret on the barbican wall; some of them sprang down from this height into the water to endeavour to escape by swimming, but were shot as they passed by. Others took refuge in the vaults. The Spaniards in the turret were seized as they came down and executed.[35]

On the report of the fate of Carrigofoill, Askeaton Castle surrendered at once ard Ballylogh, Desmond’s other castle, was vacated by its garrison, who tried to fire it as they left. The loss of the Earl’s chief seats drove him back into the woods and secret recesses of Atherlow or the fastnesses of Kerry.

From time to time he wrote long letters to the Lord Justice, who “pleasantly jested at these things” while his victim fled before him. He had many narrow escapes. On one occasion he was so nearly captured that his pursuers “found the aqua-vitæ, wine, and meat provided for their dinner” and thankfully possessed themselves of the provision. Of the two, the English troops seem to have been often the worse off for food; supplies did not arrive and money was short, they were constantly ill and were always ready to mutiny in consequence.

When Grey came down he reported that there was nothing wrong with the captains except that there were more sick than whole, Pelham himself was “touched with the disease of this country” and complained that the toil of the war was unfit for one of his years.

The young military captains of companies that were now sent over were generally able officers, trained in that great school of warfare, “the wars of Flanders.” Names like Mackworth, Zouche, Raleigh, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, are familiar in other connexions than the Munster wars. From a distance it seemed a lighter task to repress a rebellion in Munster or Connacht than to stand up against the trained armies of Spain or France in the Low Countries, under commanders of world-wide fame. But one after another learned by experience that “it was easier to talk at home in London of Irish wars” than to be in them, and one officer after another, distinguished in service abroad, lost his reputation in Ireland and appealed pathetically to be relieved of the thankless and interminable guerilla warfare that they met with in that country.

At length, toward the close of 1580, the confidence which had “so bewitched” the Irish of the coming of foreign aid met its reward. It was reported, and with truth, that a mixed force of from six to eight hundred Spaniards, Italians, and Basques had landed at Smerwick in Kerry, where the Earl still lay concealed when Sir John and Saunders, weary of Pelham’s close pursuit and not too well agreeing with Desmond, went off to join the rising of Baltinglas in Leinster.

An interesting letter from Captain Richard Bingham to Leicester written on October 18, 1580, from Smerwick Harbour, gives an account of the course of events. He had been sent round by sea and entered the harbour of Ventry shortly after the Spaniards, to find them fortifying themselves in that old fort of Smerwick which Pelham had carefully examined a few months before and had pronounced to be “a vain toy and of little importance;” they were now restoring it into a fort of passable strength. Since their time it has been known as the Fort d’Ore, or Golden Fort, from the exaggerated tales of the fabulous wealth brought over by the foreigners.

Bingham learned from some French fishermen who had been captured by the Spaniards, but who had stolen away in the hope of escaping, of the disasters that had befallen the foreign fleet on the English coast. One of their largest vessels and one smaller ship had been lost sight of in the storm they had met on their way over, and only two ships and a galley remained. Of these the larger, a baskeyne of 400 tons, carried on board the Pope’s nuncio and their colonel, both Italians; an Irish bishop; two preachers, Jesuits and friars, all Italians; with 400 men, some munitions, and 12,000 ducats in money. The expedition would appear to have been rather an Italian religious crusade than a Spanish army for the relief of Desmond.

The report of the mariners was that the vessels had on board “a thousand poor simple Bysswynes, very ragged, and a great part of them boys.” Not an Armada, certainly, or likely to stand a siege by the trained troops of Mackworth and Grey. More than two hundred of the eight hundred men they brought with them had to be shipped back to Spain in the great baskeyne,[36] “sick and malcontent with the country and their evil and hard entertainment.” Of the others “very many do die daily”; these Southerners being quite unable to endure the damp and storms of the Dingle in this winter season.

No doubt it was some of these “wild Basques and straggling Italians” whom the State Papers report Ormonde to be busy chasing shortly afterward in the mountains about Tralee. Most of them seem to have been Italian brigands to whom Pope Gregory XIII had promised pardon for their misdeeds if they would join the Irish expedition. Bingham thought that only five hundred at most had survived of the original body.

Already, by October 18, Ormonde had arrived before the fort of Smerwick with “divers English Captains” of whom Raleigh, Zouche, and Mackworth, were the chief, and had begun to skirmish about the fortress. There was little fighting. The Italian commander, San Joseph, was a coward, or else he probably could see at once that his ragged Basques, “most of them boys,” could make no sort of stand against the disciplined troops outside. The black and white ensigns which they had hung out beside the Pope’s banner had to be hauled down. Instead, the white flag was hoisted alone, and a parley called for.[37]

Their camp-master and one Plunkett, an Englishman born near Drogheda, who seems to have acted as interpreter and guide, met Captains Mackworth and Zouche, who demanded their commander and, according to the official report, would agree to nothing but unconditional surrender.[38]

“After they had remained some while in consultation, the Colonel and Captains came forth, trailing their ensigns rolled up and yielded to my Lord’s demands and left pledges to yield up the fort the next morning.”

The Earl and Sir John, who had promised to relieve the fort with four thousand men, never showed themselves. The report continues:

“The morrow after, being the ninth of this month [November], the forts were yielded, all the Irishmen and women hanged, and upward of four hundred Italians, Spaniards, Byskins [Basques] and others put to the sword. The Colonel, Captain, Secretary, Camp-Master, and others of the best sort [were] saved to the number of twenty persons. Dr Saund[ers], … an Englishman Plunkett, a friar and others [were] kept in store to be executed after examination had of them. …”

At the end of this letter is added:

“This day was executed an Englishman who served Dr Saunders, one Plunkett, of whom before is written, and an Irish priest; their arms and legs were broken and hanged upon a gallows upon the wall of the fort.”

Grey’s own report to the Queen adds some details:

“I sent straight some gentlemen in to see their weapons and armures laid down and to guard the munition and victual there left for spoil. Then put I in certain bands, who straight fell to execution. There were 600 slain … whereof 400 were as gallant and goodly personages as I ever beheld. So hath it pleased the Lord of hosts to deliver the enemy into your Highness’ hands.”[39]

We learn from another report that Captains Raleigh and Mackworth,[40] who held the ward for that day, were those who led the slaughter in the castle, “many or most part of them being put to the sword.”

The tradition of the country, well known to Russell and believed by him,[41] though he was a royalist, was that Grey put the garrison to the sword in cold blood after having, on promise of their life, made them stack their arms and surrender the place, “for which breach of promise and bloody act her Majesty gave him small thanks.”

Tradition is often right, especially in Ireland, and “the faith of Grey” became a synonym for an atrocious perjury. In regard to the Queen’s displeasure, however, her own letters show no sign of such grace in her. The only regret she expresses is that the principal head of the expedition had not been reserved for her own judgment, “either justice or mercy as to us should have been found best.” It seemed to her reasonable that the principals should receive punishment before the accessories, which “would have served for a terror to such as may hereafter be driven to so wicked an enterprise.”[42] They would apparently have received justice without mercy at her hands.

It must be said for Elizabeth that when she was dealing with a rising of her own subjects only, such as Shane or Hugh O’Neill or Desmond, she was always disposed to employ means of pacification. The Queen’s instructions to Grey on his departure show her anxiety for the good treatment of her Irish subjects. The soldiers are to be restrained and severely punished if they misconduct themselves; she confesses that “in truth, we being interested alike in our subjects of both regions, do carry a like affection to them,” and that it is through “ill-disposed persons” that a contrary impression has been given. She excepts none but those who have been in open rebellion.[43]

But an insurrection made in concert with her deadliest enemies, either in Scotland, France, or Spain, met with no mercy, as it seemed to her to have no justification; the dangers involved were too great, and no means were too severe to check or punish the fomenters or actors in such an enterprise. Any other sovereign in Europe would have thought the same. She appointed Zouche Governor of Munster, and Grey was promised that he should have no cause to “forthink [regret] his serviceable act.”

Zouche’s first concern in taking over office was to lay hold of Sir John of Desmond, with whom were the MacSweeneys, and Dermot O’Sullevan, Lord of Dunboy, father of Philip O’Sullevan Beare the historian. Sir John was a far abler commander than his brother, and at the battle of Gort-na-Tibrid (now Springfield), in Co. Limerick, his vigorous onslaught had broken the English line and driven the troops to retreat with the loss of three hundred men. At this battle Dr Saunders, the unwavering supporter of the Geraldines, stood praying on the hill above the battlefield during the whole course of the conflict. In spite of official reports of his death at Smerwick, he is said to have died of hunger under a tree in Kerry shortly after this battle. He was a distinguished man, who lectured at Oxford and afterward at Louvain and wrote several controversial works.

Several times Sir John snatched victory from the troops sent to find him, and it was only by an ambush set for him by Zouche that he fell at last. Zouche was informed that Sir John had arranged to meet the son of Viscount Barry at Castle O’Lehan (now Castle Lyons) for discussion of their plans. Setting an ambush on the path, he awaited the coming of Desmond’s small party, and surrounded them, but before they could capture Sir John he was shot full in the throat by one Thomas Fleming, who had formerly been his servant. His body was brought to Cork and hanged in chains over the city gate, where it remained as a spectacle to all beholders for three or four years, until a great storm of wind blew it off. The head was then sent to Dublin and spiked on the castle wall.

Zouche sent to the Queen Desmond’s “fair turquoise ring, set in gold,” and it was suggested that her Majesty might do well to bestow on him the traitor’s lands. The proclamation had promised £500 for the taking of Sir John; “but where,” ask the official dispatches, “is the money?”[44]

The suppression of the rebellion was now practically accomplished. For two years more the feeble old Earl held out with his cousin Maurice FitzGerald, a gallant leader who subsequently rose high in the Spanish navy, until the Queen, wearied by the awful accounts that were continually reaching her of the condition of the country, offered a general pardon and Act of Oblivion to all who would come in, hoping thereby to detach the minor lords from Desmond’s party and force him to surrender. A considerable number submitted, among them David Barry, son to Lord Barrymore, Patrick Condor, and the Seneschal of Imokilly.[45] Barry was most graciously received and was restored to all his honours and dignities on his father’s death.

The Earl, who was still in hiding in the woods of Aghadoe, but harassed by the untiring watchfulness of Zouche’s troops, at last “growing feeble, and extremely falling sick,” was betrayed by his own foster-brother, one Owen Moriarty, in whom the Earl reposed so much confidence that he was privy to all his secrets. He informed the garrison at Castlemaine that the Earl was to be found in a miserable hovel; here he was surrounded by the soldiers, who took him out and beheaded him on the night of November II, 1583.[46]

One Daniel O’Kelly was rewarded for the act, but was later executed for highway robbery. Fifteen years later, Moriarty was hanged on a gibbet at his own door by the Lord of Lixnaw. All the Desmond lands were declared forfeited to the Crown.

To the poor, Desmond’s rebellion brought unrelieved misery, and when they met the Earl “they cursed him bitterly for the war.” When, in 1580, Viscount Baltinglas endeavoured to stir him up to fresh efforts for the Catholic faith “his people came and cried with one voice that they were starved and undone, and therefore would forsake him in it, as not able to endure the war any longer.”[47]

They flocked over to Wales in such numbers to escape the miseries at home that West Wales was practically recolonized by them, Richard Griffiths, writing to Wolsey, speaks of twenty thousand as settling in Pembroke and Tenby, “most part rascals out of the King’s rebellion, the Earl of Desmond, and very few out of the English Pale.” They were “so powdered among the inhabitants” that in some villages “all are Irish except the parson.”[48]

Desmond’s subordinate Lords, MacCarthy Reagh, Sir Dermot MacCarthy, and “other very great possessioners” in Cork complained that they were so exacted upon by the Earl that they were become in effect his thralls and slaves. Munster was becoming a veritable waste. The accounts given by Spenser show the horrors of the time, the inhabitants dying by the roadsides of hunger or endeavouring to subsist on herbs and cresses. It was left to the new planters to restore some show of prosperity and cultivation to the devastated regions.[49]