In the late 16th century private dispute between two Old English families, the Butlers and the FitzGeralds, erupted into two rebellions against English rule that left the population of Munster devastated by plague and famine, with thousands of English families planted in their midst to prevent any possible future uprising. The private affairs of the two clans led to the Battle of Affane in County Waterford.
Warfare between noble families was considered a direct challenge to the Queen of England’s authority, and both earls, the Earl of Desmond and the Earl of Ormonde, were brought to London to explain their actions.
Ormonde, a cousin of the queen, convinced her that Desmond was at fault, and Desmond and his brothers were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
This left the FitzGeralds leaderless, and the position of leadership was assumed by Captain James Fitz Maurice FitzGerald. He was given authority over the soldiery of the Desmonds.
Stung by the favouritism shown to the Butlers and ongoing English encroachments of Desmond authority, FitzMaurice launched the first Desmond Rebellion in 1569. Gathering a base of supporting in Cork and attacking the city itself, he then laid siege to Kilkenny with 4,500 men.
In response, the English moved troops into the region and gathered support from the loyal lords in the vicinity. They then launched a scorched earth campaign, devastating the lands of FitzMaurice’s allies, which fractured his army because his allies were forced to leave to defend their own lands.
The weakened FitzMaurice was forced into the Kerry mountains, from which he launched a series of guerrilla campaigns, but ultimately was reduced in strength and, with guarantees that his life would be spared, surrendered to the English in 1573.
Despite the families involved in the initial affray being of Old English stock, FitzMaurice had emphasised the Gaelic nature of his rebellion—he wore Irish dress, spoke Irish, and was called Taoiseach of the Geraldines. At the time English and Irish customs in the region were mixed, but FitzMaurice placed himself firmly to the one side. Perhaps in response to this, Irish customs were outlawed: Brehon law was supplanted by English law, Irish dress was replaced with English dress, and bardic poetry was made criminal.
The manner in which the English had brought about their victory left the Irish resentful and bitter. The Earl of Desmond was released from prison in order to help rebuild his territories, and FitzMaurice left Ireland for the Continent.
Few men were probably expecting FitzMaurice to return, especially not at the head of an army. But in 1579, he landed at Smerwick, near Dingle, with a small force of Spanish and Italian troops. He had styled himself as a soldier of the Counter-Reformation, had been given a Papal indulgence, and supplied with troops and money. This landing ignited the second Desmond Rebellion, a much larger scale and bloodier affair than the first.
The English response was much the same as it was to the first: to massacre, destroy, set ablaze, and ruin all that they could. The rebellion slowly crumbled and fell apart. FitzMaurice himself had been killed early in the rebellion, and the Earl’s brother John became de facto leader, a move which forced the Earl himself, who at the time had been vacillating, to side with the rebels.
Though many of the rebels received pardons at the conclusion of the war, the Earl of Desmond was given no such clemency; he was hunted down and killed at Glenaginty. His corpse was displayed on the walls of Cork city, and his head was sent to Queen Elizabeth.
In the aftermath of a massive scorched earth campaign, Munster was beset with famine and bubonic plague. The provost marshal of Munster, Warham St Leger, estimated that 30,000 people had died of hunger. Long after the war’s conclusion people were still starving, and by some estimates a third of Munster’s population starved to death.
The Annals of the Four Masters state:
‘… the whole tract of country from Waterford to Lothra, and from Cnamhchoill (a wood close to Tipperary) to the county of Kilkenny, was suffered to remain one surface of weeds and waste… At this period it was commonly said that the lowing of a cow or the whistle of the ploughboy could scarcely be heard from Dun-Caoin to Cashel in Munster.’
Edmund Spenser, an English soldier and poet, who served during the war, in his View of the Present State of Ireland, stated:
‘A most populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or beast.’
Geraldine power was broken, and the country was a prostrate wasteland. The English formulated plans to plant the country with their own people to prevent the same kind of rebellion from erupting again. This was the first Plantation of its kind in Ireland.
Desmond lands were confiscated and, after a survey by Valentine Browne, Surveyor General parcelled out to soldiers and administrators who had taken part in suppressing the rebellions. Undertakers, wealthy colonists who ‘undertook’ to import tenants from England, were selected to facilitate the Plantation. The survey revealed less available land than the colonists would like, and the scale of the plantation was much smaller than the initially envisaged population of around 11,000. Based on certain estimates the actual population planted was around 4,000.
The Plantation itself was motivated in large part by investors, who could buy confiscated land for next to nothing and exploit the resources of the land for their own benefit. Many of the colonists became extraordinarily wealthy as a result
The Plantation was chaotic, as not only had Desmond lands been seized, but also the lands of co-rebels, and due to ongoing legal disputes, this threw the availability of land into question. Furthermore, undertakers were often accidentally assigned to plant the same land, resulting in some families having to return to England empty-handed.
The chaos meant that the original defensive plan, which involved creating a series of colonist strongpoints, which would mutually support each other, and would buffer attacks from natives, was not implemented. The settlers were spread across the province in small pockets, wherever land was available to be settled. To compensate for this lack of security, troops were provided to undertakers for the protection of the colonists, but by the late 1590s, they had been withdrawn, leaving the colonists vulnerable.
By this point the Nine Years War was already well underway in Ulster, and with O’Neill’s triumphant victory at the Battle of Yellow Ford, his Confederation began to look to Munster for their support. O’Neill named James Fitzthomas as the successor to the now empty Desmond throne, and his allies began to invade Munster. The scattered English colonists and troops could provide no resistance, and fled the country for the safety of city walls. Many fled the country entirely and returned to England.
The Plantation was undone in a matter of weeks. A general uprising of the people of Munster, supported and assisted by O’Neill’s Confederation, had reclaimed the land.
But O’Neill’s war faltered, and at Kinsale the English gained the upper hand. Having lost his southern allies, he finally surrendered to the English in 1603. George Carew, the Governor of Munster, re-started the project, and by the 1620s, the English settler population was four times larger than the initial Plantation had been. This population was strong enough to resist when rebellion struck again in the 1640s and held large tracts of the countryside against Kilkenny’s Confederation.