Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

Sir James Fitzmaurice, Rebel

In 1566, Sir Henry Sidney became Lord-Deputy of Ireland. He proved himself a strong ruler and marched on a royal progress through the country after the death of Shane O'Neill, noting the general distress and poverty of the South and West.

The houses of Desmond and Ormonde had long been engaged in deadly feud, though they were both sprung from the famous race of Geraldine. Their kinship was forgotten once they met in field of battle, flying their banners and shouting their war-cries after the manner of foreigner against foreigner. Their raids and cattle-driving, wars and exactions of tribute were ruinous to the people they lived among, and an open insult to the queen, under whose government they should have kept the peace. Sidney thought to put an end to their brawling, at last, by the capture of the Earl of Desmond and his brother, who were shipped off to the English Court.

The queen favoured Ormond, who was related to her own mother's family and had been the playmate of her young half-brother, Edward VI., whereas Desmond had never been on good terms with the English, and was suspected of disloyalty. Desmond, therefore, was made prisoner, and when he attempted to escape, his life was spared only on condition that he gave up all his lands to the Queen of England. Englishmen were sent out to take up confiscated estates, but some of them ventured on plundering the favoured family of Ormonde. Their treatment of the natives was so cruel that fear and rage caused many to take up arms.

Sir James Fitzmaurice, cousin of the Earl of Desmond, was one of the first to head a rising. Even Ormonde, who was now in England, declared that he should not remain loyal to England if the land of faithful subjects was given up to marauders.

Ormonde was pacified, but Fitzmaurice carried on a vigorous skirmish with the Deputy, retiring to the mountains and making sallies to get plunder and burn towns, then retiring to some remote place before any one could capture him.

Sir John Perrot, President of Munster, boasted that he would soon have "that fox out of his hole," but he found it hard to make good his words. After Fitzmaurice had successfully opposed him for many months, he suggested that they should have a fight to decide the matter, but the Irishman refused, knowing that his death would leave the rebels without a leader of mark. He held out staunchly, till money and men failed, when he consented to kiss the President's sword, in the church of Killmallock.

In 1575, Fitzmaurice went to France, hoping to win support. The French were pleased to see him, and made many fair speeches, greeting him in Paris as King of Ireland. He found, nevertheless, that they were slow to follow up their promises, and set out for Rome to seek an audience from the Pope. Elizabeth was, of course, under the papal displeasure, and her enemy was encouraged in his revolt against a Protestant. The Pope pardoned a number of wild Italian robbers, who spent their time infesting the roads where travellers journeyed. These were placed at Fitzmaurice's service, as good fighting men. Dr Nicholas Saunders, an English Catholic, also joined the Irish expedition, and attempted to persuade Philip of Spain to take up the cause of his religion against Elizabeth. Philip thought the rebellion was doomed to failure, but he allowed Stukeley, an English traitor, to fit out a fleet in Spain. Stukeley was heart and soul for the Roman Catholic cause, his enemies declaring that he aimed at the red hat of a cardinal.

He was not to be depended on in a crisis, and was too rash for a leader. He touched at Lisbon on his way to Ireland, became mixed up in a quarrel that led to the battle of Alcanzar, and fell fighting for Sebastian, King of Portugal, disloyal to his own queen and country to the last, but with all his wounds in front.

The Italians perished with Stukeley, and Fitzmaurice did not regret their loss, saying to Saunders, "I care for no soldiers; you and I are enough. Therefore, let me go, for I know the minds of the people of Ireland." When he landed in Munster, he tried to raise an army of Irishmen, but in the end had a mixed company of Italians, Spanish, Flemish, and a few English soldiers. There were men in Elizabeth's own kingdom not satisfied with her religious views, and these followed Fitzmaurice. The rebel leader landed at Dingle in triumph, for there was only one poor ship in Ireland to oppose him. One of his foes describes his landing bitterly: "The traitor upon Saturday last came out of his ships. Two friars were his ancient bearers, and they went before with two ancients. A bishop with his crozier-staff and mitre was next to the friars. After came the traitor himself, at the head of his company, about one hundred, and went to seek for flesh and kine, which they found and so returned to the ships."

Fitzmaurice crossed from Dingle to Smerwick, where he constructed a fort that became famous as the stronghold of the Desmond rising. John and James Fitzgerald, brothers of the Earl of Desmond, joined him, but the earl himself had too great a dread of English power after his three periods of captivity. The younger lords of the Pale knew no fear, and declared for Fitzmaurice, the leader who had inspired the South of Ireland with frenzied expectation.

The rebels brought papers with them from Rome, declaring that they fought for the glory of God, and Saunders did his best to give a religious aspect to the rising. He described Elizabeth constantly as a wicked woman, who insulted the papal power by her rule and was a mere usurper of the throne of England. Meanwhile, Spaniards, French, and Englishmen worked steadily at the entrenchments of the fort of Smerwick, making the prisoners assist them. Everything seemed to be in favour of the rebels when a sudden quarrel deprived them of their leader.

Fitzmaurice was in Connacht, trying to gain more followers and using all his efforts to win Burke to his side. Burke refused in words that reflected on the honour of all who fought against their queen. A fight ensued in which Fitzmaurice met his death at the hands of a musketeer who had marked his yellow doublet. He met death coolly, entreating his friends to cut off his head as soon as he knew that he was mortally wounded, because he feared mutilation by the enemy. His end was as the knell of doom to the rising of the Desmonds. The English general, Lord Grey of Wilton, put down the rebellion with harsh determination, shrinking, in spite of himself, at the butchery he ordered his soldiers to perform.

The Earl of Desmond was hunted through the mountains, and stabbed mortally in the humble cabin, where he had taken refuge. Of all that splendid race of Geraldine, only one sickly child was left. He was known by the name of the Tower Earl, from which his fate can easily be guessed.