The Earls of Desmond in Castleisland

The Erl of Desmond and his kin hath of lands under him 120 miles.  Four hundred horse, eight battles of Galoglas, 1 battalion crossbow men and gunners, three thousand kerns.  His country is long, and so environed, and hateth the kings laws, so they give none aid.  A part of Burghs, called the Bourgh country, twenty four horse, one battalion, two hundred kern environed and dissevered.  Part of the Butlers in Tipperary, sixty horse, two battalions, two hundred kern.  Severed amongst themselves and enemies, and environed.1



The Fitzgeralds, Earls of Desmond, were lords of a vast estate covering much of north Kerry, Limerick and west Cork.


Castleisland was part of the Fitzgeralds’ vast Munster estate. The castle at Castleisland was one of the main Desmond castles in Kerry and there were others nearby (including Kilmurry, Ballyplimoth, Ardnagragh).


Gerald Fitzgerald was killed in 1583 after the defeat of the second Desmond rebellion and was later regarded as the last true earl of Desmond.


‘Very extensive’: Detailed description of Castleisland Castle given by O’Donovan in his Ordnance Survey letters of 1841


The collection comprises material relating to the Earls of Desmond but with particular focus on Gerald.  A tale of him was recorded in The Schools Collection:


There is a place in Glounowen called Tig an Iarla. Here are the ruins of a mud-walled cabin where the Earl of Desmond found shelter for some time before he went to Glounnaneenta.2


In volume one of Gaspey’s The Self Condemned, Desmond’s final hour is imagined:


It was in a lonely glen … that the noble fugitive, about an hour before midnight, determined to halt.  He entered a little grove, and in the ruins of a fallen hovel his attendants made a fire round which they seated themselves and prepared to repose till the return of day … The hour of 12 had struck and sleep was descending on their closed eyelids when a sudden rush disturbed them and by the light of their fire they saw the kerns approach.


Death of the Earl of Desmond from Haverty’s History of Ireland (1867)


‘In the wild alarm’ they had not time to recover their arms:


All fled, some of them being wounded as they passed, and the aged Earl alone remained to confront his foes.  A blow on his sword arm, which almost severed the limb from his trunk rendered him defenceless … his head struck from his body was carried by Ormond. By him it was sent … pickled in a pipkin to England.  There this relic of a brave murdered man was greeted as a trophy of victory …3


The Earl was buried at Kilnananima graveyard – a traditional Fitzgerald burial ground – near Cordal,  a few miles east of Castleisland.


Kilnananima, traditionally held as the resting place of the Earl’s body. IE MOD/71 discusses the fate of the Earl’s head


The history of the Earls of Desmond continues to fascinate as evidenced by publications on the subject in recent times.4


A small selection of notes on the Earls of Desmond (series ref IE MOD/23) is transcribed below in illustration of the research conducted by Michael O’Donohoe. The notes are extracted from published sources and in isolation, provide a vivid picture of ‘the last true earl’, a man described by Sir Henry Sidney as ‘void of judgement and will to be ruled’.


Illustration of Michael O’Donohoe’s copious notes on the Desmonds


Notes on the Earl of Desmond 1569-1584

 (from Romantic Hidden Kerry by T F O'Sullivan, 'The Desmond Tragedy', pp48-52)
 Adventurers submit confiscation plan to Sir Wm Cecil (Lord Burleigh) McCarthy, Fitzmaurice (cousin Gerald in Tower of London) and others seek help
 August 20.  Sir John Perrot, President of Munster report – 6 Fitz's men killed Dingle.  Examination of James Trant interpreter.  Sidney made aware that chieftains had sent for help to Spain
 Castlemaine besieged by Perrot
 January 21.  Desmond undertakes to observe his oath and also to suppress FitzMaurice.  Also not to levy and to refer disputes with Ormond to Lord Deputy.  Desmond and brother transferred to Dublin from London.  Desmond escapes.  Fitzmaurice submits
 Earl reported to Justice Walsh from the Island of Kerry that he had apprehended his men who had taken Castlemaine and placed a ward in the castle
 January.  Desmond at Dingle threatening to spoil Lord Clancare's territory
 March 8  Lord Deputy wrote to Desmond requiring delivery of Castlemaine and all other castles and places in Munster under his control and to render himself simply before the last of March. Desmond refused
 June 15  Queen writing from Greenwich to the Lord Deputy instructing him to proceed against the Earl without attending further answer
 July 7  Desmond submitted before the Lord Deputy and Council in Dublin
 July 18  Desmond writing from Askeaton to the Privy Council complaining that though he had submitted, the Lord Deputy had concluded upon a war with him
 Sept 2  Desmond submits to the Lord Deputy at Cork
 Sept 3 Castlemaine delivered to Captain Apsley
 Sept12  Lord Deputy writes to Queen – everything OK
 Sept 12? Earl wrote to the Queen promising to faithfully and dutifully obey her and prays for one drop of grace to assuage the flame of his tormented mind
 Elizabeth not very much impressed apparently
 February 28  Fitzmaurice informed Ormond that he had gone to the continent for the recovery of his health and to make friendship to come to the Queen's favour
 March 12 Wrote to Ormond – keep an eye on Desmond. Thanks for telling me of the departure of Fitzmaurice and the White Knight to the continent without licence
 The Earl of Desmond refused to associate himself with the struggle from the start and offered to suppress it...and informed English officials of Fitzmaurice's movements.  Refused to hand over Sanders.  Desmond had Bishop Hely of Mayo and a Franciscan named O'Rourke arrested ... followed by the death of the prelate and companion after suffering excruciating torture
 20 April  Desmond wrote to Sir Wm Drury stating that his relative James Fitzmaurice (who had acted as his representative while he was locked in the Tower of London) was at St Malo with 300 men and several ships
 Andrew Martin, Constable of Castlemaine  – Fitzmaurice at Dingle on July 18 1579
 23 August  Sir Wm Drury reported to the Privy Council that James Fitzmaurice had been killed and that Desmond was suspected of complicity.  The Earl crazed  – see 1574 Sept 12
 Fitzmaurice secured the assistance of Pope Gregory XIII who sent soldiers, a consecrated banner and an accredited papal Legate (Dr Nicholas Sanders) an English refugee.  Fitzmaurice was killed shortly after he landed at Dun an Oir in Smerwick harbour
 Sir Walter Raleigh under the orders of Lord Grey of Wilton the new Lord Deputy who arrived in Ireland in August 1580 carried out the massacre of the Papal forces at Dun an Oir
 Hooker's Chronicle  The Earl of Ormond took Castleisland
 Sir George Butcher divided his soldiers into 2 companies and burned the country from Castleisland to Dingle, a distance of 28 miles
 The heads of Desmond's two brothers John and James were impaled on spikes in Dublin Castle
 27 Jan  Captain John Zouche afterwards Colonel Zouche governor of the country, wrote from Dingle to Walsingham  complaining of the illness and sufferings of his men
 In April 1581 the slaughter officially ceased with the publication of the Queen's Pardon to all the rebels except Desmond
 15 June  Zouche made a surprise attack from Dingle on Desmond's camp at Castlemaine and killed over 60 men.  The Earl escaped with difficulty
 Doctor Sanders died a miserable death in the woods of Cloonglaishe near Castleisland
 The Age of Christ 1582  At this period it was commonly said that the lowing of a cow or the voice of the ploughman could scarcely be heard from Dun Caoin to Cashel in Munster – Four Masters
 Nov 11  Garret murdered in a hut at Glanageerty.  His head was sent to Queen Elizabeth exposed in cage on London Bridge.  Headless body secretly buried at night in the little chapel of Killanamanagh
 January 8 Thomas Cheston, constable of Castlemaine, sent a petition to Burleigh, Elizabeth's minister, praying for £1000 head money as he was the officer who procured Desmond's head to be taken
 Daniel Kelly, "my beloved subject and soldier" was granted a pension of £30 a year
 25th Sept 24th year of our said lady the queen, Gerald, by ordinance of law, was attainted
 Conoghor O'Dalye, gentleman, Kiltarcon, forfeited his estate

Notes on the Earl of Desmond 1558-1584
 (from The Ancient and Present State of the County of Kerry by Charles Smith)

 Gerald, son of James, confirmed to the regalities of Kerry
 Opposed initially by half brother Thomas and others.  Very ambitious
 Attempted to levy Coin and Livery, Black rents, cosheries etc on the Decies
 Feb 15  Defeated by Ormond at Affane.  Both to England.  No solution. £20,000 bail
 At issue – wine profit Youghal and Kinsale, boundaries, depredation, trespasses, etc
 Encamped on frontiers of Ormond.  Barry, Roche etc with 2000 men.  Show of strength
 With brother John he defended the frontiers of Leinster while Sir Henry Sidney the Lord Deputy waged war against O'Neill in Ulster
 Earl reprimanded by Sidney at Youghal and bail forfeited
 Cork, the pleasantest county, ravaged and burnt by Desmond and supporters
 Desmond in arms.  Confined in Kilmallock, Dublin, London
 Sir John of Desmond, Henry Davells or Danvers and Skiddy appointed to govern
 Sir John makes reparations to injured parties (£3000)
 Ormond got him imprisoned in the Tower
 July 11  Desmond made humble submission.  Acknowledged loss of bail.  Desmond and brother allowed return to Ireland some time after.  Irish chieftains in general revolt.  Ormond from England to serve v. rebels
 Sir John Perrott appointed Lord President of Munster
 Fitzmaurice surrenders at Kilmallock which he had burnt, plundered and executed, McCarthy also reconciled and sat in Parliament
 March 25  Desmond lands in Dublin.  Committed to custody of Mayor.  Escapes
 Proclaimed a traitor.  Reward of £1000.  Pension of £40 alive
 July 18  Signed a confederacy with several others
 Sir Wm Drury, new Lord President of Munster appointed Earl to his Council
 Sir Wm intended to reform province.  Narrow escape near Tralee
 James Fitzmaurice sent to Pope. Returned via Spain
 Springtime  Following complaints from President, Desmond meets Deputy at Kilkenny.  Gave information on Fitzmaurice's movements
 Fitzmaurice, Saunders (Eng Jesuit) with consecrated banner and authority to curse and bless, Allan (Irish Jesuit) landed at Smerwick.  Built fort
 Sir John and James joined them (Earl rebuilding castle in Limerick), sent for help to Glencar.  Fitzmaurice heads for Holy Cross Abbey, Tipperary (a vow)
 Stole 2 horses of Sir Wm Bourke of Castleconnell.  Chased and slain (Theobald)
 Drawn, quartered and fixed on gates of Kilmallock
 Wm Bourke created Baron of Castleconnel
 Sir John murders Sir Henry Danvers.  Meade and Charters in Tralee Castle in order to ingratiate himself with Spaniards who wished for licence to go
 Sir Wm Drury, now Lord Justice, encamped near Kilmallock
 Sent for Earl of Desmond who came, submitted and was freed
 Drury drove John of Desmond from Slievelogher and returned to Kilmallock
 Later Sir John defeated a party of the Justices' forces with little loss
 Drury, being reinforced, marched through Tipperary towards Waterford where he met the Countess who presented her only son as a pledge.  He was put under the care of Ormond and later taken to Dublin (and thence to London)
 Drury sick.  Sir Nicholas Malby commands the army
 Malby defeated Sir John (2000 men) at Monasterniva near Limerick.  Allan slain
 Fight watched by Earl and Lord Kerry.  Earl sent congratulations to Malby
 That night he attacked them with great loss.  Another unsuccessful attack next night
 Joined by Lord Kerry's son Patrick who had been a hostage in England
 In spite of pleas the Earl refused to reform. Drury died at Waterford
 Sir John unsuccessfully attacked Adair.  Sir Wm Pelham becomes Lord Justice
 Sent Ormond to treat with the Earl who vacillates.  Ormond, Malby, Bishop of Waterford, Lord Mountgarret, Lord Dunboyne, Sir Edward Butler and others sign a proclamation declaring the Earl a traitor at Rathkeale 2 Nov 1579 where the Countess pleaded unsuccessfully
 Earl plundered Youghal and took spoils to castles in Waterford manned by Spaniards
 Wrote arrogant letter to Lord Justice Pelham.  You come to me!
 Ormond made governor of Munster. With Sir Wm St Leger he destroyed the castles in Waterford and slew the Spaniards.  John by Pelham (Lord Justice) they entered Kerry, burned as far as Slievelogher and slew 400
 Palm Sunday 1580  Pelham battered and stormed Carrigafoyle.  Put 50 to the sword
 hanged 6 and later executed Spanish commander Julio
 Askeaton and Ballylohane castles deserted by Irish
 15 June  Army takes large number of Earl's cattle
 4 August  Sir James takes cattle from Sir Cormac MacTiege of Muskerry, chased by Cormac's brother, James mortally wounded.  Executed in Cork.
 Earl and brother John on the run.  Countess pleads unsuccessfully with Lord J Pelham
 Army mutiny for want of pay discreetly quelled by Pelham Lord Justice
 Ormond divided his men.  One group to Castleisland, other from Castlemaine to Tralee where they joined and drove all before them to Dingle
 Sir John and Saunders attempted to join Lord Baltinglass who had revolted in Leinster  Intercepted at Kilmallock and forced to return
 September  700 Spaniards and Italians at Dun an Oir.  Ormond, Pelham, Capt Zouch, Raleigh, Denny etc massacred them
 Zouch appointed to govern Kerry marched towards Castlemaine.  Surprised the Earl at Aghadoe.  Fled in his shirt to Aharlow Wood.  Pursued by garrison of Kilmallock
 Many of his men killed.  Carriages and cattle taken
 Zouch appointed governor of Munster.  Took Sir John of Desmond and James Fitzjohn prisoners and executed them.  Thereafter he reduced the size of the army
 Lord Kerry attacked Adare. Slew many. Took Lisconnel Castle. Failed at Adnagh.  Ranged through Tipperary and Waterford without resistance.  Zouch came on him at Lisconnel.  Fled, overtaken by Captain Dowdal at Glenflesk.  Heavily defeated
 Appealed to Ormond, though he had damaged him, for protection which that generous nobleman readily granted and procured a queen's pardon
 Earl of Desmond attacked the garrison of Adair
 Saunders died miserably of ague and flux in the woods of Clonigh (Tullygarron)
 Lord Justice Loftus and Wallop endeavoured to bring Desmond to a sense of duty
 Spent Christmas in Wood near Kilmallock (with Countess), surprised, escaped by hiding, up to his neck in water, under a bank with his Lady
 Earl of Ormond made General of Munster.  Slew many of the rebels
 Most of rebels submitted and were pardoned
 June 5  Earl wrote a most submissive letter.  Ignored by Ormond
 August.  Earl surprised in Aharlow Wood
 September  Escaped from Lord Roche's men at Duhallow
 Sent servants towards Castlemaine to take some cattle – which they took from a poor woman named Moriarty.  Her brother Owen got help from the governor of Castlemaine Castle. Followed the cattle track.  Came on Earl at Glenageerty
 Nov 11  Daniel Kelly cut off the Earl's head.  Pension of £20 for 30 years.  Tyburn
 Ormond sent head to England as present for Elizabeth.  Fixed on London Bridge
 Body after 8 wks hiding, interred in a small chapel near Castleisland
 Sir John Norris made Lord President.  Received hostages from all suspected persons

View of Sir Henry Sidney, Lord Deputy, on Earl of Desmond
 "He was a man both void of judgement and will to be ruled"

Notes on the Earl of Desmond 1532-1576
 (from 'The Fall of the House of Desmond' by Sister Margaret MacCurtain, Journal of the Kerry Archaeological & Historical Society, No 8, 1974, pp28-43)
 Thomas Butler (Ormond) born
 Took possession of estate
 Wyatt Rebellion
 Granted abbeys and estates by Queen Mary
 Elizabeth made him Lord Treasurer of Ireland.  Continued by James I
 Castlemaine taken for the Crown
 Gerald, Earl of Desmond, transferred to Dublin after a long sojourn in the Tower of London, dashed to freedom unopposed by the mayor.  Met the Countess at Lough Gur.  Proclaimed that no cess or constable or sheriff should ever exercise their office in his county.  Repaired to Castleisland
 Changed dress
 2 October  Wm Drury hanged 42 at Cork Assizes (2 McSweeneys)



1 From 'Ireland, as described by Lawrence Nowel, Dean of Lichfield, who died 1576', History of Ireland, as disclosed by Irish Statutes passed by Irish Parliaments between 1310 and 1800 (1893) by Annie M Rowan.
2 The Schools' Collection, Cait Ní Tarrant, as related by Mr Jerh Sullivan, Glounawaddra, Kingwilliamstown, Gleanntán, Scairteach an Ghleanna (Cordal east), p257.
3 The Self Condemned (1836), 3 vols, by Thomas Gaspey (1788-1871).  Quotation from a description in Researches in the South of Ireland (1824) by Thomas Crofton Croker, to whom Gaspey's book was inscribed. 
4 The Earls of Desmond: the Fall of a Munster Lordship by Gerald O'Carroll was published in 2014. The Legend of the Castleisland Goose: a tale of Gerald the Poet, 4th Earl of Desmond (2015), contains references to further reading on the subject. See also chapters 11 (The Earls of Desmond) and 13 (The End of The Geraldine League. Death of the last Earl of Desmond) in The Story of Kerry (1935) by Pádraig Pléimionn (Patrick J Fleming) in IE MOD/A15. Further reference IE MOD/23, IE MOD/39, IE MOD/71.