Eleanor, Countess of Desmond: Ireland’s ‘Forgotten’ Heroine
“Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping
forth upon their hands for their legs could not bear them, they
looked like anatomies of death, they spoke like ghosts, crying out
of their graves…in a short space there were none almost left and a most
populous and plentiful country suddenly left void of man or beast.”
So the English poet, Edmund Spenser, in 1583 described the province of Munster in the south of Ireland. While the dreadful spectacle of famine, death and decay may have appalled his eyes, Spenser, together with his friends, such as the famous explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, had actively participated in and personally benefited from Munster’s ruin, as the English Crown wrested the province from the grip of its once powerful overlord – Gearoid (Gerald) Fitzgerald, the 14th Earl of Desmond.
A Price on Desmond’s Head
By 1579 the writing was on the wall for Desmond. Rooted in the feudal tradition of a bygone era, from which he derived his status and wealth, the world outside his Munster domain had moved on. Queen Elizabeth I of England viewed him as a threat to her power in Ireland, his intrigues with Spain a threat to England’s security and the vast acres under his control in Ireland as a potential goldmine. After years of prevarication, in 1579 Elizabeth finally let loose the dogs of war. Desmond was proclaimed a traitor, a price on his head and his lands and numerous castles up for grabs.
Queen Elizabeth I of England. (Public domain)
For three years a savage military campaign was waged against him by Elizabeth’s military generals, aided by her Irish cousin the Earl of Ormond and ironically Desmond’s step-son as well as his bitter rival for power in Ireland. Abandoned by his Spanish allies, ill from dropsy and dysentery, too weak to even mount his horse, Desmond was hunted like a wild animal across the despoiled acres of his vast Munster lordship. Despite his overwhelming liabilities, however, he had one remaining asset - his countess, Eleanor.
The Countess of Desmond
Educated, intelligent, courageous and able, the daughter of Edmund Butler, Baron of Dunboyne, from Kiltinan Castle, county Tipperary, Eleanor’s destiny was as a wife, mother and chatelaine. But instead her marriage in 1565 to the Earl of Desmond, hurled her into a maelstrom of a bitter family feud, international political intrigue, a religious war, the enforced rebellion of her husband and finally social and political melt-down, destitution and ostracism.
With amazing skill, courage and diplomacy, Eleanor at first tried to mediate with Elizabeth and her administration. Her letters are pragmatic, astute and knowledgeable, as she tried to keep at bay avaricious officials in the Queen’s pay in Ireland, predatory English military generals, as well as power-hungry rivals from within her husband’s own family – all of whom hoped to profit from his downfall. Enduring imprisonment in Dublin Castle and in the Tower of London, exile in the slums of Southwark, her only son held hostage in the tower, her mission, to save the House of Desmond, her husband, her children and herself from annihilation, became her obsession.
Dublin Castle in modern-day Ireland. (Artur Bogacki / Adobe stock)
And when her efforts as a mediator between her husband and Queen Elizabeth were overtaken by international events, she endured three horrific years on the run with Gearoid across the wastelands of his Munster lordship. Enduring a knife-edge existence in desolate hastily-erected shelters in forests and mountains desperately she tried to keep her husband alive until either the vacillating English Queen called off her war dogs or help came from her husband’s fickle ally, King Philip II of Spain.
The Courageous Wife of a ‘Traitor’
When her husband was finally run to ground and ignobly beheaded in a lonely cave near Tralee, county Kerry in the winter of 1583, his head pickled in a wine cask, sent to London to end up on a spike at the entrance to the Tower of London, Eleanor set out to salvage what she could from the ruins of his estates for their children. Deserted as the wife of a ‘traitor’ by family and friends, a political and social outcast, pocketing her pride, forced to beg her bread with her five young daughters on the streets of Dublin, pawning everything she possessed, she took her case to the heart of the Machiavellian Tudor Court in London, experiencing humiliation, isolation and imprisonment in the process.
Her persistence and courage finally paid dividends, however, when she eventually won both the respect and assistance of Queen Elizabeth I and the love and protection of a new husband, Donagh O’Connor Sligo, chieftain of county Sligo.
Fighting her cause to the very end of her life into her nineties, Eleanor was forced, right up to her death in 1638, to defend her second husband’s estates and rebut the many spurious claims made in the Courts of Chancery, in both Dublin and London, to her property by the new wave of English carpetbaggers who like vultures descended on the unprotected lands of Sligo after the fall of Gaelic Ireland in the years following the Battle of Kinsale (1601) and the Flight of the Earls (1607).
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An Unsung Heroine With an Important Legacy
The life of Eleanor Countess of Desmond is testimony to the struggle of an exceptionally courageous, spirited and enduring woman who refused to abandon hope during the course of an inexorable period of unparalleled destruction and upheaval in Ireland, which sucked an entire civilization into its open maw. In life Eleanor received few bouquets and in death oblivion from written history, even from popular folklore.
In the quiet ruins of Sligo Abbey her tomb stands today as the only memorial to this unsung heroine of the Tudor Wars in Ireland.
Held in archives in Ireland and England, however, Eleanor’s prolific correspondence with such iconic figures of the 16 th and 17 th centuries as Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Henry Sidney, Sir William Cecil , Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir John Perrot, Sir Robert Cecil and King James I, bear testimony to the life and struggles of this exceptional woman on whom fortune seldom smiled but who steadfastly refused to succumb to the dark shadows that relentlessly clouded her long life.
Her only son, James, a tragic prisoner in the Tower of London for almost all of his life, and whom Eleanor was occasionally permitted to visit on her journeys to the city, died there in 1601, presumed by poison, at the age of thirty years.
The Tower of London, where Eleanor’s son James was held prisoner until his death in 1601. (rpbmedia / Adobe stock)
Eleanor’s third daughter, Lady Katherine FitzGerald married her first cousin Maurice Roche, Viscount Fermoy. Through the Viscount Fermoy line Eleanor’s descendants include the late Princess Diana and her sons Princes William and Harry.
Eleanor’s childhood home, Kiltinan Castle, Fethard, County Tipperary, is presently owned by the composer, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Top image: Representation of Eleanor, Countess of Desmond, from the author’s book ‘Eleanor Countess of Desmond’. Source: Provided by the author