The Earls of Desmond – A Headcount


Depending on authority consulted, the numbering of the Earls of Desmond (first creation) and the dates of demise can differ.  The use of patronym adds to the confusion.  The earls may number 15, 16 or 17.  The illustration below shows the ranking according to the research of Michael O’Donohoe.1


17 Earls: from the research of the late Michael O’Donohoe


The Earl of Desmond chart below counts 15 earls in the family tree, based on the research of the late Brian Fitzgerald.2


15 Earls appear in Fitzgerald’s research


In the illustration below, published in 1911, the count is 16.3


The tally of Earls of Desmond is 16 in this chart


All’s not fair in love and war


The discrepancy in the count of James – distinguished as ‘the Court Page’ and numbered 13 in Michael O’Donohoe’s research – arose because he was opposed in the title by his grand-uncle, Sir John Fitzgerald. Sir John, brother of Thomas, the 12th earl (in O’Donohoe’s research), argued that the Court Page was illegitimate, his parents marrying without obtaining a Papal dispensation and therefore Sir John was the rightful 13th Earl.


The dispute raged during the years 1534 to 1536 when Sir John died.  In Michael O’Donohoe’s reckoning, they could not both be 13th Earl and so Sir John is positioned 14.4


Illustration of Michael O’Donohoe’s notes


Neither Sir John nor the Court Page held title for long because four years after Sir John’s death, James was murdered at a place in Kerry called Leacan Sgail by Sir John’s son, Sir Maurice Fitzgerald.  James, eldest brother of the murderer, succeeded as 14th earl. 5


Rewriting history: Who was the 3rd Earl?


The count of 3rd and 4th earls can also perplex.  In Michael O’Donohoe’s research, John, a half-brother of Maurice, the 2nd Earl, is named as the 3rd earl, who died in 1369 and was buried in Youghal.  In some sources, Nicholas Fitzgerald also finds place as the 3rd Earl, born c1338, the second son of Maurice, 1st Earl of Desmond and brother of the 2nd earl.  He died childless in 1367.   The following is recorded of Nicholas, 3rd Earl of Desmond: ‘Being an idiot, Edward III granted custody of the Desmond estates to his younger brother Gerald’.6


Nicholas is generally white-washed out of the headcount amid claims that he never held the earldom.  However, the beguiling, often treacherous and utterly theatrical history of the earls suggests that, until an authoritative line can be drawn under their history, all should remain open to question. 7


1 IE MOD/23.  Michael O’Donohoe’s research is supported by the information contained in Tralee Abbey and Holy Cross Dominican Church A Brief History (1897) by Rev John C Ryan OP, pp12-18 (reproduced in 2018

2 IE MOD/C21. Drawn by Elizabeth Fitzgerald.  Published in The Geraldines An Experiment in Irish Government 1169-1601 (1951) by Brian Fitzgerald, a copy of which is held in this series.  Biographical notice of Brian Fitzgerald also held in IE MOD/C21.

3 ‘Table 17 Genealogies British Empire’, The Cambridge Modern History Planned By the late Lord Acton LLD (1911) Edited by A W Ward, G W Prothero, Stanley Leathes, Vol XIII.

4 IE MOD/23.  Michael O’Donohoe records the death of James in 1535 though many authorities date his death as 1540.   

5 Leac/Lough Scal.  Slater’s of 1881 identifies a lake of this name about half way between Tralee and Dingle.  Michael O’Donohoe’s research places the murder in the barony of Clangibbon.

6 We must take it from this entry in the Compendium of Irish Biography (1878) that it was Nicholas alluded to in the matter of unsound mind.

7 Many works of literature stand testament to Desmond including, more recently, The Earls of Desmond: the Rise and Fall of a Munster Lordship (2014) by Gerald O'Carroll and Scéal Ghearóid Iarla (2011) by Máire Mhac an tSaoi.  Early nineteenth century works include St Clair, or the Heiress of Desmond (1803) by Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan); The Earl of Desmond; or, O’Brien’s Cottage.  An Irish Story (1809 or 1810, 3 vols) by Georgina Caroline Maxwell; Researches in the South of Ireland (1824) by Crofton Croker; Geraldine of Desmond, or Ireland in the Reign of Elizabeth An historical Romance (1829, 3 vols) by Miss Crumpe, dedicated to Thomas Moore Esq; Gerald Fitzgerald; An Irish Tale (1831, 5 vols) by Ann of Swansea and The Self Condemned. A Romance (1836) by Thomas Gaspey.  A later 19th century work, The Heiress of Kilorgan; or, Evenings with the old Geraldines (1868) by Mrs J[ames] Sadlier drew on Gilbert's Viceroys, Rev C P Meehan's The Geraldines, Earls of Desmond, and the Persecution of the Irish Catholics Translated from the Original Latin [of Brother Dominicus De Rosario O'Daly] with notes and illustrations (1847); the Marquis of Kildare's Earls of Kildare and the historical, biographical and statistical works of Smith, Moore, Wills, M'Gee, Leland, M'Geoghegan and the Four Masters.