Eleanor Countess of Desmond (1545-1638)
The Forgotten Heroine of the Tudor Wars in Ireland
In the quiet ruins of Sligo Abbey, an impressive tomb dated 1609, stands as the only reminder of one of Irish history’s most remarkable, if unsung, heroines.
Born in 1545 at Kiltinan Castle, county Tipperary, daughter of the Baron of Dunboyne, educated, intelligent and courageous Eleanor Butler’s destiny was as a wife, mother and chatelaine. But her marriage in 1565 to Garret FitzGerald, 14th 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.
With remarkable skill, courage and diplomacy Eleanor tried to mediate with Queen Elizabeth 1 and her administrators in Ireland. Her many letters are pragmatic, astute and knowledgeable, as she tried to keep at bay English avaricious officials and predatory 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 London, forced to beg her bread with her young daughters on the streets of Dublin, her only son held hostage in London, to save her husband, her children and herself from annihilation became Eleanor’s obsession.
When her efforts as a mediator with the English were overtaken by international events, Eleanor endured three years on the run with her husband across the wastelands of his former Munster lordship. Enduring a knife-edge existence in desolate mud cabins and in hastily erected shelters in forest and mountain, desperately she tried to keep Garret alive until either the vacillating Queen called off her war dogs or help came from his fickle Spanish allies.
When Desmond was finally run to ground and beheaded in a lonely cave near Tralee in 1583, Eleanor set out to salvage what she could for from the ruins of her husband’s estate. Deserted by family and friends, a political and social outcast, pocketing her pride, pawning everything she possessed, she took her case to the heart of the Machiavellian Tudor Court. Her persistence finally paid dividends when she won both the respect and help of Queen Elizabeth and the love and protection of a new husband.
In 1597 Eleanor married Sir Donough O’Connor Sligo, descended from the O’Connor kings of Connaught, chieftain of the barony of Carbury (now county Sligo). Donough’s territory occupied a strategic position between Ulster and Connaught and was consequently under threat from both sides in the war between the Ulster chieftains and the English Crown. When her husband was captured and imprisoned by Red Hugh O’Donnell, Eleanor protected his lordship in his absence.
After the Battle of Kinsale in the new battle for ownership of the land of Ireland Eleanor and her husband were forced to defend their Sligo lands and property this time from the wave of avaricious English colonists who tried to disposes them. Following her husband’s death in 1609, in a lengthy legal battle fought in the courts of Chancery, both in Dublin and London, Eleanor finally secured her rights to the lands and the castles of Sligo and Collooney.
In 1638, then in her nineties, Eleanor died at Collooney Castle, achieving her ultimate victory… by outliving all of her former adversaries.
Eleanor Countess of Desmond, 1545-1638 by Anne Chambers (Gill Books).