Fitzgerald, James fitz Thomas (d. 1607), ‘sugán’ earl of Desmond , was eldest son of Sir Thomas fitz James Fitzgerald (‘Thomas Roe’). The identity of his mother is uncertain but she appears to have been a daughter of Theobald Butler, 3rd Baron Cahir. Sir Thomas was bastardised when his father James (qv), 14th earl of Desmond, annulled his marriage to Joan, daughter of Maurice, Lord Roche; thus, on the death of Earl James (1558) the earldom descended to Gerald (qv), James's elder son from his second marriage. Nonetheless, Sir Thomas regarded himself as the rightful earl and supported the crown during the second Desmond rebellion (1579–83) in the expectation that his loyalty would be rewarded with royal recognition for his claim. Having reached manhood, James fitz Thomas fought alongside his father in this conflict and went to London in 1581 to petition for Sir Thomas to be made earl in order to put down the rebellion. Following Earl Gerald's defeat in 1583, however, the crown dissolved the earldom of Desmond and set about erecting an English plantation in its stead. The queen did grant him an annual pension of 365 marks, but this was only paid for a year. In 1589–90 he and his father were described as being poor and alienated from the government. After Sir Thomas's death (January 1595), James fitz Thomas succeeded to forty ploughlands at Killnataloon and Castlemore in east Co. Cork. He resided at Connihy castle and was described as one of the most handsome men in Ireland.
Despite enjoying amicable relations with some of his English neighbours, he continued to nurture hopes of becoming earl of Desmond and of regaining his family's traditional properties. His chance to make good this ambition came in autumn 1598, by which time a successful rebellion in Ulster had shattered the crown's authority throughout Ireland. At the behest of some discontented Munster nobles (including fitz Thomas's younger brother John), the leader of the Ulster rebels, Hugh O'Neill (qv), earl of Tyrone, dispatched 800 of his Connacht and Leinster confederates into Munster in late September. Their arrival led to the panicked retreat of the main English commander in the province, which in turn precipitated an Irish uprising throughout the province against the now defenceless English colonists, who were systematically plundered before being either expelled or killed. The Munster plantation was overthrown in a matter of days.
At first, fitz Thomas wavered and ignored the entreaties of both the rebels and the government, which suggests that he had not been a party to the plans for the uprising; but the rebels’ declaration that they would proclaim his brother John as earl of Desmond, if he would not accept this title, appears to have induced him to take the plunge. On 10 October he came to the main rebel army and was proclaimed earl, making him the effective leader of the Munster rebellion. In a letter to the loyalist Thomas Butler (qv), 10th earl of Ormond, he justified his actions by stressing the crown's failure to acknowledge him as earl, the land-grabbing activities of the English planters, and the manner in which a number of Irish landowners had been recently put to death after highly dubious legal proceedings. Later, he would emphasise that he rebelled primarily in order to defend the catholic faith, but this claim appears to have been made purely for propaganda purposes.
Virtually all the province fell into rebel hands, including about 200 castles and fortified buildings, but it was imperative for the rebels to capture as many walled inland towns as possible to prevent their being used as loyalist bases. The most important of these was Kilmallock, Co. Limerick, the gateway to the Fitzgerald heartland. The unexpected arrival at Kilmallock of 800 royal soldiers, commanded by Ormond, averted the imminent surrender of the town on 10 October. Under strict orders from Tyrone not to engage in open battle with a royal army, fitz Thomas then attempted to march on Mallow, Co. Cork, but Ormond's forces successfully barred his path during days of manoeuvring. He drew away into Kerry and then headed south-east through Co. Cork, capturing castles, plundering English settlers, and accepting the submission of the Munster nobility and gentry. In December he led an assault on Kilmallock which was bloodily repulsed, after which he made no further attacks on a walled settlement. Despite the apparent success of the Munster rebellion, the retention in government hands of the towns of Mallow and Kilmallock, and of a number of castles in the region of east Cork and west Waterford, left the rebels exposed to a loyalist counter-attack.
Moreover, once the English had been driven out, traditional clan rivalries began to reassert themselves, and as early as November 1598 a perceptive English observer noted that the Munster rebels sorely needed strong leadership. Fitz Thomas was incapable of providing this, having previously been only a minor landowner in Munster; on joining the rebellion he commanded a small personal retinue of some sixteen horse and twenty foot. Many of the leading Munster lords disliked having to defer to someone they had previously regarded as a social inferior. Embarrassingly, the presence of a royal garrison at Mogeely denied fitz Thomas control over his own lands.
Indeed, his very weakness had probably commended him to Tyrone, who wanted someone in Munster who would be dependent upon him. Large numbers of Connacht mercenaries (bonaghts) formed the backbone of the rebel army in Munster, and they took their orders from Tyrone, not from fitz Thomas. During 1599 the exactions levied by these outsiders progressively alienated the people of Munster. Given these circumstances, many in the province could not take fitz Thomas's claim to be the earl of Desmond entirely seriously, and some began to call him the sugán (straw) earl. English officials had started using this term by January 1600, but it had probably been coined earlier.
On 3 March 1599 he wrote to King Philip II of Spain, requesting military aid and comparing Queen Elizabeth to Nero for her persecution of catholics. Unfortunately for him this letter was intercepted by the English, and its contents enraged the queen, who demanded that fitz Thomas suffer exemplary punishment. During 1599 the military situation was one of stalemate, with neither side being strong enough to force a breakthrough. This pattern was broken briefly in May 1599 when the lord lieutenant of Ireland, Robert Devereux (qv), 2nd earl of Essex, swept through the province with 2,000 men, capturing Cahir castle, Co. Tipperary, and provisioning Askeaton, Co. Limerick. As before, fitz Thomas declined to offer battle; but he attempted an ambush near Adare, Co. Limerick, which, however, was botched. This failure led to recriminations among the rebel captains, some of whom accused each other of treason; fitz Thomas pacified them with difficulty. Subsequent attempts to harry Essex's army were more successful and the lord lieutenant left Munster having achieved little.
Later that summer a truce was agreed, which lasted into 1600. Regardless, fitz Thomas continued an ongoing blockade of the fort of Castlemaine, the only castle in Kerry that remained in government hands, which surrendered after a one-year siege in November 1599. During this lull in the fighting he also parleyed with royal agents but refused to submit to the queen without being recognised as earl and being granted the property of the historic earldom of Desmond – demands that were highly unlikely to be met. In February 1600 Tyrone marched deep into Munster with 2,000 men, and at a meeting at Inishcarra, Co. Cork, confirmed fitz Thomas as earl of Desmond, a title he was to hold of Tyrone, whom he acknowledged as his overlord. Tyrone also appointed him leader of the Old English rebels in Munster before withdrawing into the north.
That spring the crown finally embarked on a determined military effort to crush the Munster rebels by sending a reinforcing army into the province under the command of the newly appointed president of Munster, Sir George Carew (qv). Carew's mere arrival in the province prompted the defection of the leading rebels in Waterford and east Cork. In west Munster Tyrone had established Florence MacCarthy (qv) as the leader of the rebel forces there, but he proved an unsatisfactory ally. Hoping to avoid fighting until Spanish help arrived, MacCarthy maintained a position of neutrality, leaving fitz Thomas to bear the brunt of Carew's campaigning. In Carew he faced an exceptionally cunning and ruthless adversary who was quickly able to pry apart the already creaking rebel confederacy by a mixture of blandishments and demonstrations of military might. The president's most ingenious gambit was to advocate the release from the Tower of London and creation as earl of Desmond of James Fitzgerald (qv) (d. 1601), eldest son of the 15th earl. Although nothing ultimately came of this, the widespread reports that the queen intended restoring the heir to the last earl of Desmond sapped the resolve of many of the Fitzgeralds to fight hard for their sugán earl.
In early May fitz Thomas mustered all his forces to bar Carew's passage on his intended march from Cork city to Limerick. However, he was unable to keep a large force together for long, and Carew simply waited until he was compelled to disperse his army before marching north at speed, capturing a number of castles in Limerick. A respite ensued, during which fitz Thomas nearly fell victim to one of Carew's more devious stratagems. On 18 June he was arrested by Dermot O'Connor, commander of the bonaghts in Munster, on suspicion of plotting to betray his allies to Carew. In fact it was O'Connor who had done the plotting, agreeing to capture fitz Thomas in return for £1,000 from the government. Fitz Thomas was imprisoned at Castlelishen, Co. Cork, but misunderstandings between Carew and O'Connor delayed his delivery into royal custody, during which time reports circulated of O'Connor's treachery. The wider Fitzgerald clan converged on Castlelishen, the warders of which surrendered its captive after a one-day siege on 25/6 June. Nonetheless this development caused a complete breakdown in relations between the Munster rebels and the bonaghts, who withdrew from the province soon after, depriving fitz Thomas of his best soldiers. That very month, a failed assassination attempt on his brother and right-hand man John intensified his sense of insecurity. Thereafter he was reluctant to appear at the head of his forces for fear of further such attempts.
Meanwhile in June Carew resumed his campaigning, overrunning Limerick and north Kerry. By the end of August fitz Thomas had been deserted by most of his allies and was reduced to 600 men. On 16 September he headed for the fastness of Aherlow in south Co. Tipperary, but the English garrison at Kilmallock ambushed him en route, scattering his forces. Thereafter he was effectively a hunted fugitive who never spent more than one night in the same place and who moved about in groups of less than five. While his brother John went north into Ulster he resolved to remain in Munster, hoping to raise the banner of revolt in the province once again on the arrival of help from either Ulster or Spain. He seems to have spent most of his time in Co. Tipperary, where he had many relatives on his mother's side. In December 1600 the queen specifically exempted him from being pardoned.
Carew became increasingly frustrated at fitz Thomas's elusiveness and complained that his informants would only reveal where he had been the previous night; the placing of a bounty of £400 on his head in March 1601 had little effect. Although not highly regarded by his peers, fitz Thomas was enormously popular among the people in general, and many are said to have shrunk from betraying him for fear of being excommunicated by the catholic clergy. He had narrow escapes in November 1600 and in early May 1601, but as it became apparent that a Spanish force was due to land in Munster, Carew stepped up the pressure on the Munster lords to catch him. After being given a dressing-down by Carew, a shaken Edmund FitzGibbon (qv) (the White Knight) cornered fitz Thomas in a cave in the Slieve Gort mountains in Co. Tipperary on 29 May 1601. In a dramatic scene, fitz Thomas strode to the entrance of the cave and ordered the White Knight's retainers, who were traditional Fitzgerald vassals, to arrest their master, but was himself hauled off and imprisoned in Carew's castle at Shandon, Co. Cork.
Fitz Thomas was an unrepentant prisoner, arguing that his rebellion was a just one due to the tyrannical nature of English rule, and stressing that although many English settlers had been killed in October 1598, he had tried to prevent this and had conveyed some English refugees to the safety of the nearest town. At first he refused to divulge any valuable information but then revealed (possibly under torture) that Florence MacCarthy had been in constant communication with him and had given assurances of his support in the event of a Spanish landing in Munster. This information led to MacCarthy's immediate arrest. By 22 June fitz Thomas had been tried, convicted of treason, and sentenced to death at the assize court in Cork city. However, Carew advised against his immediate execution, noting that while fitz Thomas remained alive, his supporters and family would be reluctant to oppose the crown for fear he would come to harm; if he was executed they would simply proclaim his brother John as earl of Desmond and continue in their rebellion.
In August 1601 fitz Thomas was shipped to London, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London on 26 August. By the close of that year the chief royal minister in London, Sir Robert Cecil, was (in his own words) itching to order this execution, but the death sentence was never carried out, possibly because fitz Thomas's claims to have shown compassion towards English refugees in autumn 1598 were corroborated. In practice this proved a crueller form of punishment, as his mind broke under the strain of long-term confinement. By late 1602 the crown had to appoint someone to watch over him to prevent him from harming himself in his lunacy. During his final years he was tended by his sister Katherine, who beggared herself in doing so. He died in the Tower on 28 April 1607 and may have been buried in St Peter's chapel there.
He married (1585) Margaret, daughter of John, 3rd Baron Power, and his wife Eleanor Fitzgerald; later he married Ellen, daughter of Piers Butler and widow of Maurice Fitzgibbon. He had no surviving children.