At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Fitzgerald earls of Desmond were among the élite of Hiberno-Norman society in Ireland. Equalled in status among the nobility of Ireland only by the earls of Kildare and of Ormond, the Desmonds possessed great power, wealth and influence. Their huge earldom, which covered much of Munster, rendered them the virtual masters of the province and of all the Gaelic Irish and Hiberno-Norman lords therein.
Yet by 1584 they were gone, the earl of Desmond killed while in rebellion, the earldom broken up as an entity, the estates and castles in ruins. Apart from a short-lived return at the end of the century, the house of Desmond was defunct.
The dramatic fall of the house of Desmond has intrigued many historians, who seek its cause in the period leading up to the 1580s and in the political context of the time. They cite the breakdown of the earl’s control, the indebtedness of the earldom, the alleged madness and incapacity for rule of Gerald, the fifteenth earl. They refer to the extension of crown control in Elizabethan Ireland, the English fear of foreign intervention in Ireland, and the campaign for conformity to the new Protestant religion.