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The Culmination of Conflict: The Decline of the Desmond Dynasty in Irish History |

The Culmination of Conflict: The Decline of the Desmond Dynasty in Irish History

In the annals of Irish history, a period of obscurity surrounds the events of the desultory war that followed the initial Spanish landing. English historians assert that John Desmond suffered a significant defeat at the hands of Malby in Monaster-neva, with Dr Allen counted among the fallen. On the contrary, O’Sullivan and O’Daly contend that the Geraldines emerged victorious not only at Monaster-neva but also shortly after in Atharlam and Gofl-na-pissi.

The narrative of this conflict, marked by uncertainty and conflicting accounts, takes a clearer shape in the subsequent year. The Earl of Desmond, witnessing the devastation of his lands and facing English proclamations of treason, raised his standard, openly joining the war. His motivation, as communicated to Pelham, the Lord Deputy, was rooted in his allegiance to the Catholic religion. Desmond strategically deployed messengers to allies, urging Fiach Mac Hugh, chief of the O’Byrnes in Wicklow, and Eustace, Lord Baltinglass, to lay waste to the vicinity of Dublin, diverting the Pale’s forces. Simultaneously, Desmond led an assault on Youghal, seizing it through escalade, pillaging, and establishing a garrison.

In parallel, the Earl of Ormond and English generals Malby and Pelham orchestrated the destruction of the county of Limerick. Their campaign involved laying waste to the cattle and crops, and capturing key Desmond strongholds like Carrig-a-Boyle, Askeaton, Ballyloghan, and Castlemaine. Amidst this tumultuous period, a pitched battle unfolded, revealing the ruthlessness of war. While not many perished by the sword, famine, the cruellest form of warfare, exacted a devastating toll, rendering vast territories uninhabitable.

The Catholic clergy, considered instigators of the conflict, faced unprecedented persecution. Additionally, eight hundred Spaniards who landed at Smerwick in September 1580 found themselves besieged by Ormond’s forces, only to surrender at discretion and face a ruthless massacre ordered by Lord Grey. A prominent adversary of Desmond emerged in the form of his hereditary foe, the Earl of Ormond, aided by Lord Roche and other Anglo-Irish lords. Strikingly, Hugh O’Neill of Dungannon, commanding cavalry for Queen Elizabeth, aligned with the English forces. Despite expectations, Hugh O’Neill’s allegiance did not extend beyond Ulster, indicating the complex dynamics of Irish loyalties during this turbulent period.

Two notable figures from the English ranks during the Munster war were Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser. Raleigh, destined for a life of adventure, would become a renowned Irish undertaker and a key player in the colonization of Virginia. Spenser, known to the realm of Faerie, witnessed the horrors of the Geraldine war alongside Lord Grey Wilton. Kilcolman Castle and its surroundings fell to Spenser as a poet-undertaker, providing him with the backdrop for his reflective work, “View of the Present State of Ireland.” This remarkable piece drew inspiration from the surrounding desolation, describing the ravages of war in the vales of Munster.

As the conflict progressed, the Munster and Leinster Irish were gradually broken and subdued, with Fiach Mac Hugh of Wicklow standing as a resilient exception. Amidst this lengthy and inglorious war, one notable episode that brought satisfaction was the day of Glendalough. In the summer of 1580, immediately following Lord Grey’s arrival in Dublin, he led a sizable force into the mountains, determined to confront the fierce O’Byrnes on their home ground. However, the day ended in disaster for the English forces as they suffered a significant defeat, leaving eight hundred slain in the glen, including notable figures like Sir Peter Caraw, Colonel Moan, and Captain Cosby.

The historical tapestry of the Desmond dynasty’s decline in Ireland is intricate, with each thread woven through battles, shifting alliances, and the grim realities of war. The conflicting accounts and obscured details only add to the complexity of this chapter in Irish history, leaving historians to carefully unravel the events that shaped the destiny of the Desmond legacy.

Weekly Freeman’s Journal – Saturday 16 August 1913

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