25 January 1356: Maurice FitzThomas Fitzgerald, the 1st Earl of Desmond, died in Dublin Castle on this day. He was the first in a long line of the holders of this powerful name that ruled over much of south and southwest Ireland during the late Middle Ages. [above] The name Desmond derived from the Gaelic name Deasmhumhain, which means south Munster. An ambitious Anglo-Irish Freebooter at a time when Ireland was divided between the Gaels and the English he led a mixed force of English and Irish soldiers and into which Force he accepted any man willing to fight on his side. These bands were known as ‘MacThomas’s Rout’ and terrorised the towns and the countryside wherever they made their appearance.
He was later accused by other Colonialists that he:
‘had filled his heart with such pride and ambition that he thought to obtain the whole of Ireland for his own and to crown himself a false king’
There is at least a fair level of plausibility that he wished to rule if not all of Ireland then at least a fair chunk of it by carving the Country up between the most powerful magnates, both Gaelic and of English stock, and to pretty well ignore the King of England’s writ if that could be done.
In the turbulent 1320’s Maurice FitzThomas made war upon his enemies across Munster and especially with the powerful De Poer family based at Kilkenny. To placate him and also hopefully to reign in his depredations he was created by the Crown the 1st Earl of Desmond in August 1329.
However the new Earl was determined to remain his own master and he resented the overbearing interference of Crown Officials sent over from England. His ambition though exceeding his ability to do so for in 1331 he was forced to submit to the Justicar and remained a prisoner of the Crown for almost two years.
In 1341 he was the primary hand in the letters of complaint issued by the ‘Kilkenny Parliament’ that were sent to King Edward III. Yet despite his proto Anglo-Irish Patriotism his continued ability to alienate the Colonial townsfolk of the various urban settlements such as Clonmel and Tipperary led to further complaints against him.
His most dangerous moments came in 1345 when the new Justicar, Ralf Ufford, a man as ruthless as Maurice FitzThomas himself, launched an expedition from Dublin down to Limerick and Kerry to bring the obstreperous Earl to heel. Gathering an Army of over 2,000 men, both Foreign and Gaelic, the Justicar quickly took the Earl’s Castles of Askeaton in Limerick and Castleisland in Kerry. The Earl had to flee and go into hiding to avoid capture. But a stroke of Fortune paved the way for his recovery when Ufford died the following year. The Earl then made his way to England on issue of a summons to plead his case in person before King Edward III. Eventually after an enforced stay of some five or so years he was allowed to return home and restored to his lands.
Despite further tribulations in July 1355 he achieved a full acceptance by the Crown when he was made the Justicar of Ireland, that is the King of England’s right hand man here. It was the pinnacle of his vicious and bloody career and no doubt of immense satisfaction to himself to have reached such high office and to be at last in the King’s favour. On the other hand the appointment of such a man to that position must have filled his most ardent enemies, chiefly the townsfolk of the English Colony and the Magnates of the other great Lordships with foreboding and not a little anger that such an individual would be trusted to rule in the King’s name.
However his enjoyment of such new found power was to be of short duration for he died in Dublin Castle on 25 January 1356 just months after acceding to the position. He was interred in the Church of the Friars-preachers in Tralee and succeeded in the Earldom by his son Maurice, the 2nd Earl of Desmond.