1569-83: The Munster and Geraldine Rebellions


Munster 1569-73; Geraldine 1579-83


Three separate bursts of rebellion across 10 years – active rebellion for less than one


Munster, in south-west Ireland


  • Earl of Desmond
  • James Fitzgerald

Main causes

Local resistance to the centre – resentment at English incomers seizing land

Subsidiary causes

Religion – Fitzgerald an ardent supporter of the Counter-Reformation


  • Destruction of the power of the Desmonds
  • English ‘plantation’ (settlement) of Munster

Degree of threat

Low. English counter-measures were effective; brutality worked. No threat outside Munster


Desmond ruled over Munster in the south-west of Ireland. His family had long been on bad terms with the neighbouring Butlers. The leaders of both clans were summoned to London to arbitrate a dispute, then detained there for 7 years on charges of plotting treason English settlers from the west country were quick to take advantage of the power vacuum and seize lands in Munster to settle on.

The remaining Desmonds attempted to eject the incomers and unsuccessfully besieged the English garrisons at Cork and Kilkenny.

The English responded brutally. Sir Humphrey Gilbert committed atrocities – forcing Irishmen who came to his tent to walk between two rows of severed heads. 800 rebels were executed. The initial rebellion was crushed in under a year. Desmond, released from captivity in London, converted to Anglicanism to appease the English, but soon signalled his intention to rebel again, symbolically throwing off English dress to clad himself as a Gaelic chieftain.

Trouble lingered until 1573 thanks to Desmond’s general, his cousin, James Fitzgerald. In that year, Fitzgerald fled to Spain. This is generally regarded as the end of the Munster Rebellion.

Fitzgerald returned to Ireland in 1579 at the head of a small army of Catholic mercenaries. An ardent supporter of the Counter Reformation, he proclaimed a Holy War in support of a Papal bull (1570) that had excommunicated Elizabeth. Pope Gregory had given him letters to support the crusade.

This phase of the trouble is called the Geraldine Rebellion but it involved the same two principal leaders, so the two can be considered together.

Fitzgerald was soon killed in a skirmish, but Desmond rose again and a 600 man Spanish force landed to support him.

English fear of Spanish intervention was acute and no quarter was given to the invaders. All 600 were massacred.

Desmond was murdered by a rival Irish family in a dispute over cattle rustling in 1583, putting an end to trouble in the district. His head was sent to Elizabeth I as a gift.

Reasons for failure

  • English spending – an army of 6,500 was eventually raised – and English brutality. Nearly 2,000 men were massacred over the course of the rebellion, including the whole of a Spanish landing force of 600
  • Failure of the Desmonds to secure significant foreign backing despite Fitzgerald spending several years raising funds and men in Spain
  • Internal squabbles between Irish clans – the absence of Desmond and Butler in London resolving a spat was the spark for English incursions. The Butlers then sided with the English and sent 4,500 men to besiege Desmond’s main castle

Key stats, quotes and views

  • By 1572 the English policy of executing any Irishman found bearing arms had reduced the rebel forces to “50 poor kerns and 10 or 12 bad horsemen” (contemporary chronicler)
  • Desmond’s anger at the English was fuelled by forfeiting a £20,000 bond he had been forced to lodge when called to London

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