Dr. Colm Lennon

title.none: McCormack, The Earldom of Desmond (Dr. Colm Lennon)

identifier.other: baj9928.0602.022 06.02.22

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr. Colm Lennon, National University of Ireland,Maynooth,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: McCormack, Anthony M. The Earldom of Desmond 1463-1583. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005. Pp. 224. 55.00 1-85182-882-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.02.22

McCormack, Anthony M. The Earldom of Desmond 1463-1583. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005. Pp. 224. 55.00 1-85182-882-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dr. Colm Lennon
National University of Ireland,Maynooth

Of the three long-established Hiberno-Norman earldoms of late medieval Ireland, only that of Desmond failed to convey a patrimony intact into the modern era. While the Fitzgeralds of Kildare survived their relatives' attainder and executions and the Butlers of Ormond weathered the insurgency in the heart of their Kilkenny bailiwick to become dukes of Leinster and Ormonde respectively, the Fitzgeralds of Desmond were doomed to oblivion after the fifteenth earl's assassination and the impaling of his head upon London Bridge as a traitor in 1583. Despite brief attempts at its revival, the earldom died out and the estates were dismembered by the seventeenth century. In this compelling account of the earldom, Anthony McCormack makes a significant contribution to an understanding of why Desmond alone of the three contemporary earls failed to accommodate the centralising tendencies of the Tudor regime. With the appearance of The Earldom of Desmond, 1463-1583: the Decline and Crisis of a Feudal Lordship, there now exists a solid basis for informed comparison and contrast with the recent works of Vincent Carey and David Edwards on the earldoms of Kildare and Ormond in this transitional phase.

By taking a long view of the late medieval lordship of Desmond, the author indicates the continuities and discontinuities in its headship over time, and also adumbrates the challenges faced by the earls in forging an identity for their scattered possessions in southern Ireland. In the absence of any substantial Desmond archive, Dr. McCormack's achievement in presenting a detailed picture of the routine administration of the earldom from the fifteenth century onwards is impressive. Of the difficulties encountered by the late medieval earls in unifying their lordship, perhaps the major one was geographical. Sprawled over five large counties with daunting barriers to communication in the form of mountain, forest and river, the Desmond earldom lacked the compactness of the earl of Ormond's territories of Kilkenny and Tipperary and the Leinster Fitzgeralds' home county of Kildare. The study shows how such disparateness could on the one hand be protective of the indigenous defenders in times of rebellion but also militate against the wielding of overarching noble power. The deleterious effects of political fissipariousness on the region are closely examined, internecine strife being perennially exacerbated by the machinations of the great rival and neighbour of Desmond, the earl of Ormond. Despite these centrifugal forces, however, James, the fourteenth earl, very nearly succeeded in attaining an integrated lordship, under the auspices of a reforming presidency of Munster in the mid-Tudor period.

The weight of tradition, however, so clearly elucidated here, was to counter the thrust of reform under Elizabethan administrators with disastrous consequences. While feudal lordships everywhere evolved with differing degrees of success under the pressure of political, social and economic changes from the centre, the Desmond earldom, according to this reading, was seriously hampered by the problems, insecurity and compromises inherited from its troubled past. Most notable was the burden of overlordship, the dismantling of which presented a dilemma for the earls. A highly expensive military establishment was needed to enforce the exaction of a range of customary taxes and dues upon underlings, very often in the form of billeting, but any unilateral easing of these duties on subject lords through a regularised system of composition rendered the earls vulnerable to the attacks of unreformed rivals. Moreover, Dr. McCormack shows that the Desmond palatinate liberty of the county of Kerry was an abiding source of friction between earls and crown throughout the sixteenth century, any relaxation of their jurisdiction representing, at least in the earls' view, an unacceptable diminution of ascendancy. And the ambiguity of the Desmond Fitzgeralds' engagement with the Gaelic aspects of their cultural milieu was exposed when Earl Gerald and his wife symbolically donned Irish apparel when they re-entered Munster illegally after the earl's flight from Dublin in 1573. Remoteness and alienation from the English monarchy had sharpened the instincts of the Desmond earls to keep a firm grip on their palatinate liberty, their castles, their adopted Gaelic heritage and their system of socio-political organisation.

And yet, as Anthony McCormack argues persuasively, Gerald, the fifteenth earl, came very close, against all odds, to clinching a bargain with the reforming Tudor administration, which would have regularised his position, leaving him free from dependence on arbitrary exactions. But just as a system of composition in lieu of all of such takings was put in place, there erupted in Munster the force of crusading Roman Catholicism unleashed by the earl's first cousin, the zealous James Fitzmaurice. Pushed into a rebellion that he had neither willed nor anticipated, the earl attempted to lead an alliance of supporters, and to engage in diplomatic ventures to continental powers. Whether Desmond could have wrested from the crown a treaty that would have preserved his liberty and lands is problematic, according to McCormack, but then, the Kildare Fitzgeralds had been restored after the serious revolt of the 1530s. The colonialist drive on the part of the Elizabethan servitors who had fought in the attritional and bitter war of 1579-83 was too strong for Desmond to withstand, however, and he paid with both his life and his great earldom.

This book is a significant addition to the historiography of the late medieval nobility in an age of centralising and confessionalising states. In examining the Desmond lordship over a long duration and detailing its geographical, political, social and economic contours, Anthony McCormack sets it alongside not only the comparable Irish earldoms but also their counterparts in other late medieval and early modern societies. A telling contrast emerges in the book's concluding section between the fifteenth earl of Desmond, in whom, an Elizabethan governor opined, there was "some defecth," and his nemesis, the machiavellian and astute tenth earl of Ormond, favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. It was the pitched battle between the two earls in 1565 that triggered the ultimate confrontation between royal authority and aristocratic lese-majesty in southern Ireland. While Desmond floundered, Ormond went on to become "the epitome of what a Hiberno- Norman nobleman should be." In effect, this meant the accommodation of a major aristocrat within the early modern state. While the title of the book might imply that there was an inevitability about the collapse of the earldom of Desmond, this closely and cogently-argued study suggests that decline was not irreversible and that crisis might have been solved.