The FitzGeralds of Munster.

by Peter O’Leary



When the first Anglo-Norman invaders arrived in Ireland in 1169 AD they included amongst the heavily armed knights, one Maurice the Invader, who was the ancestor of two of the greatest lords to rule on behalf of the English king.  These two brothers were named Gerald fitzMaurice and Thomas fitzMaurice of Shanid. 


Gerald was the ancestor of the Kildare fitzGeralds, and his progeny were probably the richer and more successful.  A later descendant became Earl of Kildare, and his family are still in existence.


Thomas fitzMaurice

Thomas and his descendants are of more interest to us because they became in effect the overlords of Desmond or South Munster.  They eventually owned most of the North and East of Co.Cork, and large estates in Counties .Kerry, Limerick, and Waterford.  They occupied or built numerous castles but resided mainly in Askeaton, in County Limerick.


It was intended that they should also rule over the territories held by McCarthy mór in the South and West of Co.Cork.  This turned out to be more a theory than practical.  Over the years the FitzGeralds demanded dues from McCarthys, but these were rarely paid.


It was also an experiment by successive English governments to give Palatinate   powers to the fitzGeralds which allowed them to rule without reference to the king, but in his name.  This was also eventually a failure, and many of the Desmond fitzGeralds spent much of their time in rebellion against their king.


The first Earl of Desmond was the great great grandson of Maurice of Shanid.  He was named Maurice fitzThomas Fitzgerald and he was created Earl in 1329AD.  He had a troubled reign, forfeited his Earldom once, then had it restored;  he spent much of this period attempting to destroy the power of his king.  He eventually became Justiciar of Ireland and died in 1355.


2nd.Earl.  Maurice, son of Maurice fitzThomas, married an English woman, but only reigned for three years before he was accidentally drowned in 1358AD


3rd.Earl.  Gerald, Maurice’s younger brother, had a forty year reign.  He became Hibernicised, and a Gaelic scholar, and all his children were brought up as Gaelic Irish.  He served as Justiciar from 1367 to 1369.     He was know locally as “Gerald The Poet”.  He died in 1398AD.


4th.Earl.  John eldest son of Gerald succeeded in 1398AD.  But he only reigned for one year, and was accidentally drowned in his first year of office. 


5th.Earl.  Thomas fitzJohn was expelled by his uncle, James, in 1411AD and retired to France where he died in 1420.  He was son of Earl John.


6th.Earl.  James fitzGerald, who had expelled Thomas, was a younger brother to John.  He was known as “James, The Usurper” and had a long reign of 40 years from 1422 to 1462 during which he became virtually king of Desmond.  He made great use of the Irish custom of Coyne, by maintaining a regular army which was cessed on the country under his control.   He died in 1462 


7th.Earl.  James’ son and successor, Thomas fitzJames, became Lord Deputy 1463-1467.  This was the time of the Wars of the Roses in England.  Thomas was a supporter of the Yorkists, and carried on war against his Lancastrian enemies, the Butlers.  He was captured by Tiptoft, the Lancastrian Deputy who succeeded him,  and was executed in the king’s name in an act of judicial murder.


8th.Earl.  James fitzThomas.  Did not succeed until 1470 because of the war which followed Thomas’ execution.  This was a campaign of wasting Leinster carried out by his uncle Garret.  James finally succeeded Thomas in 1470 but was murdered in 1487 allegedly at the hands of two of his brothers, John and Maurice.


9th.Earl.  Maurice “The Cripple” brother to James above.  He was a cripple but turned out to be a strong and effective ruler despite this.


10th.Earl.  James fitzMaurice.  Son of ”The Cripple”, he was defeated by McCarthy Mór at the battle of Mourne Abbey in 1521 and died 1529.


11th.Earl.  Thomas fitzThomas known as “Maol”.  The third brother of James he succeeded 1529.  He had been an ally of  McCarthy Mór at the battle of Mourne Abbey, and was on the winning side. He died 1534.


12th.Earl.  John fitzThomas.  The fourth brother of James.  He seized the Earldom despite the presence of a more legitimate heir, the grandson of Thomas.  He only reigned for two years and died in 1536.


13th.Earl.  James fitzJohn, son of John fitzThomas.  Succeeded in 1536 He had been brought up in England but returned to Ireland on the death of his predecessor.  He married the daughter of McCarthy Muskerry and died 1558.


James fitzJohn had a brother who was known as Muiris a tóteáin, or Maurice the Burner.  It was his son, James fitzMaurice, who went into rebellion in 1569 and was the ultimate cause of the demise of the house of FitzGerald.  He was killed in 1579 just before the massacre at Smerwick in Dingle.


14th. and last Earl.  Gerald fitzJames.  Half brother of James fitzMaurice. Went into rebellion after the death of his half brother, was hunted down in the wilds of the Cork mountains, and killed by his hunters in 1583.  All his property was confiscated by the Crown.




This was the end of this Earldom, but there are three other members of the family who carried curious titles which stick in the mind.



James “The Court Page”.  Was the grandson of the 11th.Earl.  He was put forward as a rival to the 12th.Earl but was murdered in 1540.


James “The Súgán Earl”.  Was a grandson of the 13th.Earl.  He was supported by

Hugh O’Neill as his nomination for 15th.Earl but he was captured by the English in 1601 , and put in the Tower where he died in 1608.


James “The Parliamentary Earl”.  He was the son of Gerald fitzJames but had been brought up in England as a Protestant.  He was brought to Ireland by Carew in 1600 and put up as the English nomination for 15th.Earl.  Was not accepted by his people because he was a Protestant, returned to England in disgrace and finally died from poison in 1601.




There were other Fitzgerald families which were branches off this main one.  These included Fitzgerald of the Decies,  Fitzgerald of Dromana,  Fitzgerald of Cloyne,  Fitzgerald of Conna,  Fitzgerald of Castlemartyr,  Fitzgerald of Carrigaline,  Fitzgerald of Imokilly and others, all related to the Earls.