Fitzgerald (Butler), Eleanor (c.1545–1638?), countess of Desmond, was born in Kiltinan castle, near Fethard, Co. Tipperary, second daughter of Edmund Butler, baron of Dunboyne, and his wife Cecilia MacCarthy Reagh. Her father was a liegeman of Thomas Butler (qv), 10th earl of Ormond, though there existed a longstanding animosity between the two families. Her early life was spent mainly in Kiltinan, her father's principal castle, where she was educated by tutors in both English and Irish.
She attracted the attention of Gerald Fitzgerald (qv), 15th earl of Desmond, shortly after the death of his first wife, and after a brief courtship they were married (January 1565). Like many alliances of the time it was a political match, and was probably viewed as a means of forging a link between the two great Munster families. She brought to the marriage a large dowry, and in turn Desmond endowed her with the castle and town of Bridgeford, Co. Carlow, as part of her jointure. Having settled in Askeaton castle, Co. Limerick, their married life was soon disrupted as Desmond entered into a disastrous conflict with his rival Ormond, which culminated in his defeat and capture at the battle of Affane, Co. Waterford, in early 1565. During his absence, which lasted until late 1565, she helped administer his vast estates.
In March 1567 the headstrong Desmond aroused the displeasure of the English administration in Ireland and was imprisoned. The arrest of Desmond's brother Sir John Fitzgerald (qv) in late 1567 and the dispatch of the two siblings to the Tower of London created a power vacuum within the earldom. Both Thomas Roe Fitzgerald and James fitz Maurice Fitzgerald (qv) laid claim to authority, and conflict between the two and their respective supporters seemed inevitable until Eleanor mustered her own supporters and arrested the two men in January 1568. At this point the government wanted Eleanor to rule the earldom along with Hugh Lacy, bishop of Limerick (deprived 1571), but she realised that she did not have the personal authority to fulfil this role. As fitz Maurice was her husband's preferred choice to act as his deputy, she ignored the crown's request to hand fitz Maurice over and released him, enabling him to establish himself as effective ruler of the earldom.
Desmond had expected Eleanor to ensure that he continued to receive his rents in Ireland, but this proved increasingly difficult to achieve, particularly after fitz Maurice launched a rebellion against the crown in summer 1569. She suspected fitz Maurice's motives, believing that his real intention was to usurp the earldom for himself. Helpless to influence the course of events, she left Ireland in early 1570 to be with her husband and to plead his case with the queen. An audience with the queen in May 1570 failed to secure his release. Thereafter, she resided with her husband in the Tower and in his alternate prison in the houses of Sir Warham St Leger (qv) in the country and in London. During her period in England her second child and only son James (qv) was born in June 1571. This development led to tensions between Eleanor and Sir John, who had seen his prospects of succeeding his brother as earl diminish considerably.
In early 1573 the queen finally agreed to release Desmond in order to stabilise Munster, but the Irish government detained him in Dublin until he agreed to certain conditions. Desmond was humiliated by this and by the fact that Eleanor was forced to rely on the hospitality of her family to maintain herself. In October she came to Dublin to request her husband's release, pledging that he would abide by the crown's demands, but nothing came of this and Desmond escaped from Dublin in November. He met with Eleanor in Tipperary and the two of them provocatively donned Irish clothes at a public gathering at Lough Gur, where Desmond proclaimed his defiance of the crown. Privately, she beseeched Desmond to come to terms with the crown, but many of his supporters urged war. She believed these men hoped to benefit from the chaos that would ensue, and from the overthrow of the house of Desmond. After a long standoff, the threat of a royal invasion of his lands led Desmond to submit to the crown in September 1574.
During 1574–9 Eleanor made great strides in persuading her husband to accommodate himself towards the crown, and by the end of this period was recognised as his chief counsellor. She acted as a mediator between Desmond and Sir William Drury (qv), who was successively president of Munster (1576–8) and lord justice of Ireland (1578–9). Drury developed a high regard for Eleanor, describing her as a modern Abigail. In late 1578 and at Eleanor's prompting, Desmond agreed to the crown's long-standing demand that he disband his private army and abolish the custom of authorising his soldiers to levy taxes in kind on landowners. This step earned Eleanor the hatred of powerful vested interests within the Desmond lordship, foremost among them her brother-in-law John.
Writing in 1638, the Irish chronicler Thomas Russell states that Eleanor was also responsible for effectively driving fitz Maurice into exile in 1575 by persuading Desmond not to fulfil his earlier promise to grant him land. According to Russell, she wanted her son James to inherit all his father's lands, and by her churlishness towards fitz Maurice helped to precipitate the destruction of the house of Desmond. Although she was out of sympathy with fitz Maurice's radical anti-Englishness, it is unlikely she would have antagonised him unnecessarily. The weight of evidence suggests that Desmond had intended rewarding fitz Maurice with land, and that fitz Maurice left Ireland in search of foreign support because he was fundamentally opposed to the crown.
The return of fitz Maurice from his exile on the Continent with a small invasion force in summer 1579 sparked another revolt in Munster. Most of Desmond's men flocked to the rebel banner while he prevaricated for a time, never having been wholly reconciled to the crown despite Eleanor's efforts. With great difficulty, she convinced him to meet Drury on 6 and again on 7 September. However, torn between his fear and hatred of the crown, he began acting in an unpredictable manner. Fearing for her son's safety and desperate to win the government's confidence, she arranged for James to be conveyed to Drury in late September.
Subsequently she would claim that had Drury lived, her husband would never have joined the rebellion. However, Drury's death in October meant that authority in Munster passed first to Sir Nicholas Malby (qv) and then to Sir William Pelham (qv), who became lord justice. Their extreme methods pushed Desmond into the rebels’ arms and he was formally proclaimed a traitor in November. Prior to Desmond's proclamation, Eleanor had shuttled constantly back and forth between Pelham and Desmond in a bid to prevent this. Once Desmond had been proclaimed, she immediately left him and made clear her continuing loyalty to the crown.
At first the royal captains in Munster were friendly towards her and advised that she receive royal maintenance. However, their attitude changed dramatically in January 1580 when she announced her intention to travel to London, ostensibly so that she could lobby for her marriage jointure. It was apparent that her real motive was to complain against the conduct of Malby and Pelham and to blame them for her husband's rebellion. Pelham refused her permission to go; henceforth, he and his associates portrayed her in the darkest light, alleging implausibly that she had encouraged Desmond to take up arms against the crown.
Unable to find any financial relief from either the crown or from her family and friends, who disowned her out of fear, she returned to her husband's side in spring 1580. As before, she encouraged him to make peace with the crown and often acted as his intermediary in negotiations with royal officials. She remained loyal to Desmond, sharing with him the hardships of life on the run: the two only narrowly avoided capture on numerous occasions. Despairing of their situation, she came before the lord deputy Arthur Grey (qv) at Monasterevin, Co. Kildare, in June 1582 and threw herself on his mercy. She then went to Dublin, remaining there until late August, when the queen ordered that she would not be received to mercy until she convinced her husband to surrender. Dismayed, she returned to Desmond and suffered alongside him for another year. Finally in June 1583 she surrendered to royal forces and was imprisoned in Limerick and then Clonmel. In the meantime, Desmond was finally caught and killed in November 1583.
Her attempts to secure a substantial portion of her husband's lands by right of her marriage jointure alarmed leading royal officials, who were hungrily eyeing these properties for themselves. As a result, they made her receipt of a royal pardon conditional on her disavowing her claim to any part of her husband's lands. Once she had done so the lord deputy, Sir John Perrot (qv), agreed to maintain her and her family in Dublin castle in autumn 1584, but he withdrew this support in 1585. Thereafter she lived in great poverty in Dublin, going deeply into debt in order to provide for herself and her five daughters. Although the queen granted her a pension, the unforgiving Dublin administration refused to pay it in practice. Thus in late 1587 she travelled without permission to London, eventually obtaining (October 1588) an audience with the queen, who increased her annual pension to £200 sterling. However, the queen's subordinates in Dublin refused to loosen the purse strings, and it was agreed that Eleanor would instead be paid out of the English exchequer. In 1589 she settled in London near Westminster, where she lived modestly and was able to visit her only son James, who remained a captive in the Tower of London.
She returned to Ireland in September 1597, by which time the chief royal minister in London, Sir Robert Cecil, had arranged her marriage to Donough O'Connor Sligo (qv), an Irish lord who had been deprived by the English of his estates, but who was now restored to them in order to counter a dangerous rebellion that had spread from Ulster into Connacht. To encourage her loyalty, the queen also acknowledged Eleanor's possession of an estate in Tipperary that had been part of her marriage dowry to Desmond but had been since withheld from her by her brother James Butler, baron of Dunboyne. Dunboyne contested this grant, leading to legal action between the siblings. During 1598–9 Eleanor moved between Sligo, Tipperary, and Dublin.
In summer 1599 O'Connor Sligo was besieged at Collooney castle in Sligo and – after the government failed to relieve him – surrendered to the rebels, who compelled him to serve on their side of the conflict. On hearing this she slipped out of Dublin to join her husband. She assured the sceptical authorities that O'Connor Sligo remained loyal at heart but was obliged to assist the rebels for the moment for fear of his life. This development was particularly unfortunate for Eleanor, as in autumn 1600 her son James was freed from the Tower and recognised as earl of Desmond, which the crown hoped would serve to pacify the rebellious Fitzgeralds in Munster. Her son's restoration to the earldom of Desmond had been her main goal since 1583, but her political position was compromised by O'Connor Sligo's presence (and by implication her own) on the rebel side. As a result, she was powerless in 1600–01 to assist her son, who gradually subsided into irrelevance and died in London in autumn 1601, dashing any lingering hopes of a revival of the Desmond dynasty.
Her second husband proved a more resilient and stable character than her first, and after enduring a long period of imprisonment by the rebels eventually submitted to the crown shortly before the war ended in 1603 and was allowed to retain his estates. After his death (1609), she received as her widow's jointure some thirteen castles and 11,000 acres of land in Co. Sligo; a testament to the affection in which he held her. This generous jointure undermined the financial viability of the O'Connor Sligo estate, and in 1613 the guardian of the successor to this estate (who was a minor) initiated legal action against Eleanor in order to deprive her of these life holdings. She pleaded old age and infirmity, at which the lord deputy and council of Ireland ruled that she could retain her jointure. This decision was made in the belief that she did not have long to live; in fact, she did not die for at least another twenty-five years. In 1635, she enjoyed an annual rental income of £289 and was living in her castle at Ballincor. She probably died soon after she made her will on 26 November 1638, and was buried in Sligo abbey with her second husband within an impressive tomb that she had erected in 1624, and which still stands.