THE REBELLION OF THE IRISH EARLS



About the middle of the 12th century, Anglo-Norman lords from the south of Wales began to invade Ireland.  Henry II of England felt it necessary to assert his authority and landed with a strong force near Waterford in 1171.  The majority of the Irish leaders, both native and Anglo-Norman, promptly made submission and were confirmed in their holdings.  Henry left early the next year after having set up a framework of government for "his" Irish domain.  Over the course of the next four centuries, England gradually filled in this framework while allowing a variable but large degree of autonomy to the local lords.  In the 14th century, reaction to the Anglo-Normans led to a revival of Irish political power, language, and culture.  Meanwhile, the Anglo-Normans themselves became more Irish, intermarrying with the Celts and adopting many of their ways and, to some extent, even their language - "Hibernia Hibernescit": Ireland makes all things Irish.  Opposition to England greatly increased after the Protestant Reformation and the attempt to establish the Anglican Church throughout the British dominions.  The great majority of Irish were staunch Roman Catholics and the confiscation of Church property pushed both clergy and the Anglo-Irish into alliance with the Celts.  In addition, Ireland and the Irish were largely unknown or incomprehensible to the English.  Celtic Ireland had a different culture and language and lived by different values and laws than Anglo-Saxon England.  Outside of the Pale (the areas around Dublin and a few other coastal towns where the English influence ruled), there existed a different world where an older culture prevailed and the people were hostile to invaders.  Ignorant of a civilization that had flowered a thousand years before their own, the English considered the Irish primitive and barbarous.  They were determined to convert Clan Chiefs to Earls and kerns to yeomen, and to replace Brehon Law with their own jurisprudence.  By 1558, when the first Elizabeth ascended to the English throne, Irish rebellion awaited only its leaders; they were not long in appearing.

By the end of the 15th century, three great Earldoms dominated Ireland: Desmond in the South, Ormond Northeast of Desmond, and Kildare in the East central region.  In the North were the lands of O'Donnell, O'Neill of Tyrone, and de Burgh.  In the reign of Henry VIII, repeated attempts were made to break the power of the Anglo-Irish earls and replace them with English administrators, but the complexity of the situation always defeated these efforts and the earls were restored to their powers.  Throughout these times, the earls and the chiefs of the great families continued the Celtic tradition of fighting with each other and within their own families, so that there was never a clear-cut center of power which the English could try to conquer or win over.

The first of the great rebel earls come out of Ulster in the North.  About 1541, Con Bacagh, the O'Neill, had joined a number of Irish chiefs in making submission to Henry VIII and had received the title "Earl of Tyrone", with his eldest son, Matthew, his designated successor.  Matthew was illegitimate and Shane, the oldest legitimate son, protested and got his father to confirm his own right to the title.  Matthew took his case to the English, and Con was summoned to Dublin castle supposedly to discuss the succession.  Instead, he was imprisoned; Shane protested and when the government denied him, he declared war.  The English, with help from Matthew O'Neill, who had been made Baron of Dungannon, sent several forces against Shane but all were defeated.  The English finally gave up, released Con and left Shane in control of the area.  In 1559, Con Bacagh died and Matthew was killed in a clash with Shane's followers.  Shane was elected clan chief and repudiated the title "Earl of Tyrone" in favor of "the O'Neill".  He immediately began to extend his power and subjugated the O'Donnells and the MacDonnells of Antrim.  His influence was soon felt throughout Ireland and he was invited to the English court in 1562 to negotiate.  Appearing in full clan chief regalia and speaking only Gaelic, he so overwhelmed Elizabeth that he returned home with the title of Captain of Tyrone, and with the charge to expel the MacDonnells, which he did, as well as many of the loyal O'Donnells.  In 1567, he made a foolish attack on the clan O'Donnell and his army was routed.  Shane fell into the hand of the MacDonnells, who promptly killed him, doing a great service to England - probably unintended.  The lands of O'Neill and even of the loyal Gaelic lords were declared forfeit in 1569 and a number of English opportunists were allowed to establish plantations on Munster, Leinster and Ulster.  All of these enterprises were met with determined resistance and England dropped support for the plantations in Ulster and greatly limited help for the others.  The O'Neills were allowed to elect Turloch Luineach as their clan chief and the Butlers of Ormond were pardoned and allowed to retain their lands and titles.
Gerald Fitzgerald became earl of Desmond in 1558 on the death of his father.  He and Thomas Butler, earl of Ormond, soon fell to fighting and were summoned to Court in 1560, where Gerald's intransigence angered the Queen and he was imprisoned.  He returned to Ireland in 1564 and immediately took up the quarrel again, being wounded and captured the next year.  The two earls were summoned to London again, where the Queen decided in favor of Ormond; when Gerald refused to accept her judgment, he was held captive until 1573.  During this time, the Geraldines (as the Desmond leaders were called) chose Gerald's cousin, James Fitzmaurice, as their captain.  England had begun allowing certain of its subjects to claim large plantations in the south of Ireland, while Pope Pius V had excommunicated Elizabeth and decreed that all her subject were released from their allegiance to her.  James was able to instigate a revolt in Munster and Leinster with the purpose of defending both the faith and the absent earl.  The English responded savagely and James was forced to submit in 1573, although he was later pardoned.  Early in 1579, James invaded Ireland with a force of about 700 men obtained from the Pope.  After some minor successes and the usual quarrels with his own side, he was killed in August in a trivial altercation over a plow horse he had ordered his men to seize.
By this time, Gerald seems to have grown somewhat more moderate in his views.  His desire, supported in general by his actions, was to rule his own earldom in peace, and he was willing to honor his obligations to the Crown.  At the same time, he was unwilling to abandon or betray his own people, particularly his brothers John and James, who had become leaders of the rebellion after the death of Fitzmaurice.  Sir Nicholas Maltby, the commander of the English forces in Ireland, was a "kill them all and let God sort them out" soldier and a fervent Puritan.  He had conceived a great distrust and dislike of Gerald and was determined to destroy him.  To this end, he made repeated impossible demands for Gerald's support, and sent repeated messages to England condemning him as a traitor and urging that he be formally declared such.  Gerald withdrew to his fortress Askeaton, west of Limerick, and Maltby marched against him, ravaging the countryside on the way.  Unable to mount an effective attack on the fortress, Maltby ordered the desecration of the Abbey of Askeaton and had the graves of the Desmonds opened and the bones of their dead scattered along the river bank, and then marched back to Limerick for supplies and reinforcements.  Gerald wrote to England detailing these outrages and requesting relief as a loyal subject, but the government there had already turned against him and he was declared a traitor on November 3rd.  On the same day, Gerald Fitzgerald, the "Great Rebel Earl" of Irish tradition, torn in spirit and broken in body, accepted his fate and rode to war.
The rest of the year 1579, the rebellion flared up in all of Ireland.  Sir John of Desmond led a force including Spanish troops through Kerry and Killarney, sacking Tralee and Kinsale and looting any estates in their path.  Scottish gallowglass reinforced the rebels in the North and foreign troops in the South, while Gerald himself attacked his own city of Youghal and razed it.  In England, the Queen was finally spurred to action, belatedly sending more troops and supplies to the forces in Ireland. She also authorized Pelham, the Lord Justice there to institute a plan whereby purported rebels who had been captured would be spared only if they killed or betrayed a higher placed rebel.  This effectively weakened the unity of the Irish and created a climate of distrust and suspicion among them.  Gerald withdrew to the West, constantly on the run and ravaging the countryside.  The English forces followed, indiscriminately killing everyone they met and stripping the land bare.  They successfully reduced one after the other of the Desmond fortresses until Gerald's allies deserted him and he became an outlaw, on the run with a few followers, taking temporary shelter wherever he could and attacking small English forces when the opportunity arose.   By 1580, Gerald's rebellion seemed, for practical purposes, over.  But in 1582, prostrate Munster was further ravaged by famine and plague and desperate kern rose up to support him yet again.  Initially he won some victories, but both the Queen and the English public were finally fully engaged in the war and by 1583, he was again a fugitive with a diminishing band of followers.  In November of that year, his band raided the farmstead of a man named O'Moriarty, who was so outraged that he gathered some of his family and a few kern and tracked them to their final refuge in the Slieve Mish Mountains.  Attacking at night, they routed most of the able bodied men, dragged the crippled Gerald out, and took his head in order to claim a long standing reward.  A hundred years later, Gerald had become a legend of Irish patriotism and resistance: The Great Rebel Earl.
For the rest of the 1580s, the native Irish struggled to survive while England sought to wring some return from the devastated land.  In principle, Irish landowners who had been loyal to the crown were to be confirmed in their holdings, while lands confiscated from the rebels or depopulated by war were to be awarded to English settlers who would make them productive and at the same time, impose English social and political structure.  Predictably, in the mutable labyrinth of English government, principle succumbed to money and influence and the spoils often fell to connivers and scoundrels.  (Not unique to Elizabethan England - compare with the United States today.)  Even those who made an honest effort to make their holdings productive had little concern for the wretched mass of Irish common people, while former gallowglass and kerns were hunted as outlaws and only survived by submerging themselves in the Irish underclass.  By the end of the decade, this mass of the dispossessed and desperate, leavened with seasoned fighting men, may have been the greatest threat the English had yet faced in Ireland.
As noted above, Con Bacagh, earl of Tyrone died in 1559 and his son, Shane O'Neill, became clan chief, and successfully defended his position against several English forces.  Con's other son, Matthew, sided with the English and aided their military efforts; he was killed in 1559 in an engagement with Shane's forces.  Matthew's son, Hugh, was taken to London, fostered by a great English family, and raised as an English nobleman.  He returned to Ulster in 1566, when he was 16, took up his father's title of "Baron of Dungannon" and began to build his power.  His years in England had given him invaluable insights into the plans and ways of thought of his future enemies, and a much broader view of power than any Irish leader before him.  At home in both worlds, he was able to extend his contacts among the English while building a network of alliances and support among the Irish clans.  When Turloch Luineach died in 1586, Hugh succeeded him as Earl of Tyrone and clan chief of the O'Neills.  For the next several years, he spent his time strengthening his alliances among the northern clans - and killing any of Shane's descendents who fell into his hands.
In 1587, when he was thirteen, Hugh Roe (Red Hugh) O'Donnell of Tirconnel was captured by deception, along with some others, and imprisoned in Dublin.  On Christmas day, 1592, he and two companions escaped, with help from Hugh O'Neill, and set out across the Wicklow mountains in a heavy snow storm.  Red Hugh's two friends died before help reached them but he himself was rescued and recovered from the ordeal, eventually joining O'Neill in Ulster.  Although their clans had been traditional enemies, the two Hughs became staunch allies, Red Hugh openly opposing the English, while O'Neill publicly supported the crown and privately built influence among the clans.  In 1594, Red Hugh became clan chief of the O'Donnells and Lord of Tirconnel and with his allies the Maguires, began military attacks against the English forces.  Early in 1595, an English relief party to Monaghan was ambushed and routed at Clontibret southwest of Armagh; joining the O'Donnells for the first time were the O'Neills, led by their clan chief.  The English were shocked to learn of O'Neill's strength, but so meager were their own resources that they allowed him to temporize yet again, hoping that he would confine his actions to Ulster and the North.  They were disappointed: in 1596 O'Neill issued a demand for the recognition of Irish civil and religious liberty and the restoration of Desmond lands.  In response, Philip II of Spain offered support, the Earl of Desmond's former supporters rallied around Gerald's nephew John Fitzgerald, and the Red Hugh's forces pushed into Connaught.  English fortunes briefly improved when Thomas, Lord Burgh was appointed Lord Deputy for Ireland in 1597.  A skilled military commander, he forced Red Hugh out of Connaught and pushed back O'Neill's forces in the North.  Unfortunately for himself, he also attacked the corruption and incompetence of the Crown army and administrators in Dublin; in October of the year, he died suddenly, probably poisoned by his own people.  By 1598, the charades were over, the line of forts supposed to seal off the North was breached, and O'Neill was advancing south.
In July, O'Neill and O'Donnell attacked a strategic fort commanding a pass to the North on the Blackwater River.  In August, an English force set out from Armagh to relieve the fort, while the Irish established a position near a place called Yellow Ford.  The numbers of foot and horse on each side were comparable, although the English had artillery, which the Irish lacked.  Further, the terrain was relatively level and clear, which would favor the English style of battle had the Irish still been a loose collection of gallowglass and kern.  However O'Neill, raised as an English noble and familiar with European military usage, had welded them into a trained, disciplined fighting force, with arms to match those of their foe - a force he was uniquely able to command.  The Battle of Yellow Ford was the worst military disaster of Elizabeth's reign: O'Neill had met her forces on their own terms, and they had lost nearly half their men and all of their artillery, supplies and gold.  Never again could the Irish be dismissed as primitive brawlers, incapable of carrying on a "real war".
In the autumn, O'Neill sent a force of about 2000 cavalry through Leinster into Munster under Captain Richard Tyrrell.  They established a base in the Aherlow Valley from which they besieged the surrounding castles and seized cattle and grain to provide for the forces to come from the North.  The Desmond supporters joined with them and soon the entire province was in flames: Tralee, Castlemain and Killarny were taken and everywhere the English settlers were killed unless they could escape to the few remaining English strongholds.
In 1599, O'Neill controlled all of Ireland except for a few coastal cities, but England was finally committed to all out war.  In March, Elizabeth's favorite, the Earl of Essex, sailed for Dublin with a force of 16,000.  Essex was a courtly ornament of the throne room, with great ambition but little talent, particularly in war.  Ordered to proceed north and attack O'Neill, he turned south instead to try and relieve Munster.  He had little success and, out of sorts with the rigors of campaign, he settled as comfortably as possible, while his army melted away until less than half remained.  In September, he was finally stung to action by the Queen's increasingly strident commands, and proceeded north, finally confronting O'Neill about 50 miles north of Dublin.  The latter, although by this time his forces were numerically superior, chose to parley and negotiated a truce until May of the following year.  Essex led his force back to Dublin, and then returned to England to rebel against the Queen and lose his head early the following year.  The English Lord Justices continued to pursue the war in a bumbling way, and there were a number of indecisive engagements throughout 1600, while O'Neill consolidated his control and received soldiers and arms from Spain.  Unfortunately for the cause of Ireland, he was never able to reduce the cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick.  In September, Lord Mountjoy was given command of the English forces and this time, Elizabeth had chosen wisely.  Over the winter, Mountjoy restored his army's discipline and training, and by the summer of 1601, he was ready to fight.  In September, a force of 4,000 Spaniards landed at Kinsale to support the Irish.  The English besieged them and although O'Neill soon came to their relief, he was defeated in a three-month struggle of mounting losses.  The Spaniards surrendered in December and O'Neill withdrew to Ulster, leaving the south to ruin and starvation worse than ever before.  O'Neill continued to fight back with his dwindling resources, but by 1603, the English had advanced into Ulster and his cause was hopeless.  On March 30, he surrendered - six days after the death of Elizabeth.  That fall, he and his earls were allowed to go into exile in Rome, where Hugh died 13 years later.  Ireland was defeated, but at a terrible price to both sides - a price that both would continue to pay for over 300 years until Ireland was finally free.

References:  The Twilight Lords, Richard Berleth, Barnes & Noble Books, 1978

              A Treasury of Irish Folklore, Padraic Colum (ed), Crown Publishers, Inc, Fourth Printing Revised, 1962
                      The blank outline map provided by The Ireland Story web site
 

July 10, 2002