Fitzgerald, Gerald fitz James (c.1530–1583), 15th earl of Desmond and reluctant rebel leader, was elder son of James fitz John Fitzgerald (qv) (d. 1558), 14th earl of Desmond, and his second wife, More, daughter of Maolrony O'Carroll. In 1547 his father rejected an offer from the newly crowned Edward VI for the 17-year-old Gerald to be brought up at court, a decision that the Desmonds would later rue. Had Gerald been sent, he would have acquired a formal education, something he appears not to have received in Munster, and would have been in a position to forge important personal ties with influential courtiers and officials in England. He might even have developed a personal relationship with the young princess Elizabeth, of the type his great rival Thomas Butler (qv), 10th earl of Ormond, was to enjoy, a relationship that Ormond used to great effect when she became queen. Instead he remained in Munster, where he acquired experience in dynastic politics and martial affairs. His father had made strong links with the Dublin administration, particularly with the lord deputy Sir Anthony St Leger (qv), in the process gaining the goodwill of officials and reestablishing the preeminence of the Desmonds in Munster. When James died in 1558, therefore, Gerald succeeded to the earldom in benign circumstances.
Officials in Dublin and Whitehall sought to continue the good relationship, and Gerald received tangible demonstrations of their goodwill. He was recognised as earl in November 1558, had the status of his liberty of Kerry (the northern part of the modern county) confirmed to him in June 1559, and the following month was appointed to the Irish council. In reality, however, his relationship with Dublin was deteriorating, due in large part to his deteriorating relationship with Ormond. On 16 November 1558, twelve days before Gerald's recognition as earl, the lord deputy, Thomas Radcliffe (qv), earl of Sussex, had sought to reconcile the two noblemen and end the historic tensions between the two houses. This proved only a temporary measure, as Gerald became involved in a long-running dispute with Ormond over the prise wines of Youghal and Kinsale, the manors of Clonmel, Kilfeakle, and Kilsheelan, and the territory of Onaght on the Limerick–Tipperary border. The dispute over the prise wines, a charge on wine imported through the ports of Youghal and Kinsale, although adjudicated many times, dragged on until finally Elizabeth awarded them to Ormond (June 1569). The other two issues were resolved somewhat earlier, again in Ormond's favour.
These constant failures in the courts angered Gerald, and in his frustration he resorted to violence. In 1559 he supported dissident members of the O'Brien family against Conor O'Brien (qv), 3rd earl of Thomond, who was a nephew of Ormond. The following year the conflict seemed set for a dramatic climax when the two earls gathered their forces, each reputed to have been approximately 5,000 men, near Tipperary town. A bloody battle was prevented by the timely intervention of Gerald's wife, who was also Ormond's mother, and eventually their forces dispersed. The two earls were brought before Sussex and the council at Waterford and a truce was agreed, but the raiding persisted. In January 1562 both earls were ordered to London, and Gerald left for England at the end of April. Brought before the privy council, he agreed in June to greater supervision of his activities and to obey the law, and was pardoned on 21 July. Negotiations continued with senior officials, however, and it was not until November 1563 that he was able to return to Ireland. For a time thereafter the violence abated, but on 1 February 1565 the two earls met in battle at Affane. Gerald was captured and brought by his rival to Waterford, where they gave differing accounts of the battle to the council, each blaming the other. Ordered to England a second time, Gerald arrived at Liverpool on 25 April. The two earls and various witnesses were examined by the privy council between May and September. Gerald submitted to Elizabeth on 12 September, and entered into recognisances of £20,000 on 22 November. On Christmas eve the queen ordered that a commission establish responsibility for Affane, and Gerald returned to Ireland early in the new year. The conflict resumed, and finally, fearful of another battle on the scale of Affane, the lord deputy, Sir Henry Sidney (qv), arrested Gerald at Kilmallock, Co. Limerick (25 March 1567). Detained in Dublin castle, Gerald refused to cooperate with a commission set up to investigate the violence between the two earls, and in October the commissioners ordered him to pay Ormond over £20,000 Irish in compensation for losses incurred as a result of the conflict. Sir John of Desmond, Gerald's younger brother, visited him in Dublin castle on 12 December 1567, was promptly detained, and the following day the two brothers were shipped off to England. Gerald's third period of detention in London was to last for over five years. During the first six months of 1568 he was engaged in negotiations with officials concerning both the legal disputes and the violence with Ormond. Gerald submitted in March and again in July, and finally in June 1569 the queen decided the legal case in Ormond's favour and ordered Gerald to compensate Ormond for the destruction caused by the violence.
With a decision finally made on the Desmond–Ormond feud, Whitehall largely ignored Gerald for the following three and a half years. He made various pleas to be returned to Ireland before eventually, at the end of 1572, contact was resumed with officials. The context to this was the lingering rebellion of James fitz Maurice Fitzgerald (qv), whom Gerald had placed in command of the Desmond earldom during his absence in England. Fitz Maurice, a devout catholic, used his new position to start a rebellion in June 1569 with the objective of restoring the Roman catholic faith in Ireland. Although the rebellion had been largely contained by 1570, fitz Maurice and his most ardent supporters remained active and at large until late 1572, when fitz Maurice offered to enter into negotiations with the English. The two sets of negotiations would appear to have been linked. Gerald agreed to a set of articles designed to regulate his future conduct on 21 January 1573. On 23 February fitz Maurice submitted to the lord president, Sir John Perrot (qv). A month later (25 March) Gerald and Sir John arrived back in Dublin. Instead of returning to Munster, however, he was detained in Dublin. Whitehall allowed local officials in Ireland to amend the deal Gerald had agreed in London, and Lord Deputy Sir William Fitzwilliam (qv) and Perrot did just that. They insisted in fresh negotiations with Gerald on tighter controls on his future actions, which Gerald refused to concede. Stalemate ensued, and was only broken when Gerald escaped from Dublin (16 November 1573). Welcomed back by his supporters in Munster, he quickly reestablished his authority over the earldom. Both Dublin and Whitehall sent a number of envoys to seek a resolution of the worsening crisis, and in July 1574 Gerald met the council in Dublin under protection, but agreement could not be reached. With the failure of negotiations Dublin sent military forces to Munster, and after a brief campaign, highlighted by the capture of Derinalare castle, Gerald met Fitzwilliam on 20 August at Clonmel. Compromise was reached, and Gerald submitted at Cork on 2 September and again in Limerick ten days later.
The relationship between Gerald and officials improved thereafter, and he cooperated in the government of the province, being appointed to the presidential council in June 1576 on the appointment of Sir William Drury (qv) as lord president. When Drury attempted to levy cess in the region, locals objected, and Gerald complained to the privy council in March 1577. Angered by Gerald's behaviour, Drury arrested Sir John in April, and in July held sessions at Tralee, Co. Kerry. Gerald viewed this as an attack on his rights within the liberty of Kerry, so much so that he gathered some of his forces and lay in wait as Drury approached Tralee, apparently intent on attacking the president. Gerald dispersed his men, however, and Drury continued on to Tralee. The situation appeared grave in December 1577 when Gerald began assembling his soldiers in Kerry, but Lord Deputy Sidney intervened and arranged a meeting between Gerald and Drury at Kilkenny in early January 1578. The two were reconciled, and thereafter Gerald had a good relationship with Drury. Gerald attended sessions held by Drury at Limerick (March), and later that year captured the pirate Gráinne O'Malley (qv) and handed her over to Drury. Drury, who was appointed lord justice in April 1578, maintained close contact with Gerald, and this paid off in November when Gerald agreed to forgo coyne and livery, the exactions that allowed the Desmonds to field large numbers of soldiers, in favour of receiving a fixed rental income. Such a momentous decision held the promise of a more peaceful Munster, but before it could be implemented, James fitz Maurice returned and launched a second rebellion. Fitz Maurice had left for the Continent in March 1575 and there he sought international support for an invasion of Ireland with the aim of restoring the catholic faith. Eventually, after a number of false starts, he landed in Kerry on 18 July 1579 with a force of approximately sixty.
Gerald initially tried to remain neutral. He met Drury twice (in August and early September 1579), but Drury fell fatally ill soon thereafter, and was replaced as commander in Munster by the hard-liner Sir Nicholas Malby (qv), governor of Connacht. Malby burned Askeaton when Gerald refused to surrender to him in October, and influenced the new lord justice, Sir William Pelham (qv), to adopt an uncompromising stance with Gerald. Eventually, on 2 November 1579, this led to Gerald's being proclaimed a traitor. With this, Gerald became the titular head of the rebellion, and led an attack on the town of Youghal (November). For the four years that followed Gerald and his rebel confederates maintained the rebellion, employing guerrilla-style tactics against the English troops in the province. He sought allies in Ireland and on the Continent, sending envoys to Spain and the Vatican. These contacts led to 600 Spanish and Italian troops arriving in Kerry in September 1580, where they were massacred at Smerwick by forces under Lord Grey de Wilton (qv) two months later. Against this background, however, Gerald entered into fitful and ultimately unsuccessful negotiations with English officials in an attempt to find a peaceful way out of his predicament. Gerald demanded his life, his freedom, and possession of his lands to be guaranteed, while Whitehall wanted him to submit to the queen's mercy. Agreement could not be found, and the talks failed, before eventually (11 November 1583) Gerald was tracked down to a cabin in the woods in Kerry and captured by a detachment of soldiers. They at first attempted to carry the injured earl to Castlemaine, but when his few remaining adherents rallied in an attempt to free him, the soldiers killed Gerald and cut off his head. The head was presented to Ormond at Cork before being sent to London, where it was displayed on London Bridge on 13 December 1583.
Gerald married first Joan Fitzgerald, widow of Sir Francis Bryan and James Butler (qv) (d. 1546), 9th earl of Ormond, and mother of Thomas Butler, 10th earl of Ormond. Joan died on 2 January 1565 and was buried at Askeaton. His second wife was Eleanor Butler (qv) (d. 1638), daughter of Edmund, Baron Dunboyne, with whom he had a son James (qv) (d. 1601), who spent most of his life in the Tower of London and was known as ‘the Tower earl’, and five daughters, Ellen, Margaret, Joan, Katherine, and Ellis. His widow married Sir Donough O'Connor Sligo (qv) as her second husband. Gerald's death while in rebellion led to the destruction of the Desmond dynasty and the termination of the earldom, with the forfeited land being granted away in the Munster plantation in the 1580s.