Fitzgerald, Sir John fitz James (d. 1582), nobleman and rebel leader, was second son of James fitz John Fitzgerald (qv), 14th earl of Desmond (d. 1558), and his second wife More, daughter of Maolruanaidh O'Carroll (qv). By summer 1560 he had emerged as a key lieutenant of his older brother, Gerald Fitzgerald (qv), the 15th earl. At this time the Desmond family was preoccupied with a bitter and often violent dispute with the Butlers of Ormond, led by Thomas Butler (qv), 10th earl of Ormond. From May 1562 to early 1564 Desmond was detained in England, and the leadership of the earldom devolved on John. He actively prosecuted the feud with the Butlers, frequently attacking towns in Tipperary. Not being present at the battle of Affane in Waterford in February 1565 where Ormond defeated and captured Desmond, John resumed the leadership of the Fitzgeralds until Desmond was freed nearly a year later. In May 1565 Ormond accused him of aiding rebels, and the queen summoned him to London in July. He ignored the summons and launched a series of raids on Butler interests in Co. Tipperary and Co. Kilkenny during 1565–6.
The lord deputy, Sir Henry Sidney (qv), toured Munster in spring 1567 and after knighting John on 3 March at Limerick then arrested Desmond at Kilmallock on 25 March and imprisoned him in Dublin. In the earl's absence, Sidney placed John in control of the earldom for the third time. John's early career was furthered by the fact that Sidney and other crown officials disliked the power and royal favour enjoyed by Ormond and sought to use the Fitzgeralds of Desmond as a means of checking him. Perceiving that Desmond was erratic and unreliable, these officials looked to the apparently more pliant John to do their bidding. In fact, John also opposed the extension of royal power into the earldom of Desmond, albeit more subtly than his brother.
Sidney regarded John's rule of Desmond as a great success, but Queen Elizabeth disagreed and ordered John's arrest in November 1567. The officials in Dublin did not publicise this order as they knew John would go into hiding, but waited for him to visit Desmond in Dublin. When he did so on 12 December, he was apprehended and sent to London with Desmond. They were imprisoned first in the Tower of London before being moved in summer 1570 to the castle of Warham St Leger (qv) at Kent and then for a longer period in his townhouse at London. There they lived in poverty and close confinement, often suffering from illness due to unsanitary living conditions. The birth of Desmond's heir c.1570–71 led to friction between the two captives. Previously, John could have realistically expected his sickly brother to die without leaving an heir. Desmond's wife Eleanor Butler (qv) feared that John would kill her child, given a chance, and became his bitter enemy.
Meanwhile, back in Munster, John's successor as captain of Desmond, James fitz Maurice Fitzgerald (qv), had rebelled against the crown in 1569. In 1571 royal officials considered using the two brothers to pacify Munster. Without consulting Desmond, in early summer 1571 John offered to lead troops against the rebels in return for his freedom. Desmond then heard of this offer and was furious, regarding it as an attempt to usurp his authority. In any case, the queen vetoed the suggestion. Finally, in late 1572, an arrangement was made whereby John and Desmond were released and Fitz Maurice submitted to the crown.
The brothers landed on 25 March 1573 in Dublin, where John was soon allowed to proceed to Munster while Desmond was rearrested and imprisoned. Before leaving London, John, but not Desmond, had been granted an audience with the queen. He was promised land and possibly a royal pension in return for his cooperation, and that summer the departing lord president of Munster, Sir John Perrot (qv), restored him to the captainship of Desmond. Far from preserving order, in October he colluded with Fitzmaurice, who had formerly been his rival, and allowed him to quarter 200 men near Limerick. After Desmond escaped from Dublin in November and returned to Munster, John attempted on his behalf to hire Scottish mercenaries and then travelled into Connacht in early 1574 to seek an alliance with the Burkes of Clanricard against the government. He launched a series of raids on the Butlers, seizing Derrinlare castle, Co. Waterford, in early summer. With Desmond close to being proclaimed a rebel in summer 1574, he was among those of Desmond's followers who signed a document urging him to resist the crown's demands and promising to fight for him if necessary. At the last minute, John helped to broker Desmond's submission to the lord deputy, Sir William Fitzwilliam (qv), in August.
In April 1576 Sidney, once again lord deputy, appointed John to an important government commission to help establish his composition scheme for Munster. John also visited England that year. However, he now felt he had nothing to gain from the establishment of settled conditions in the earldom of Desmond. He had land in north Co. Cork, where he lived at Lisfinnen, and in Waterford, where he had a house at Dungarvan, but his years of imprisonment had left them heavily mortgaged. More fundamentally, his treatment by the crown during 1569–73 left him permanently embittered. He corresponded with Fitzmaurice who had gone into exile, and in 1577 proposed marriage to Mary Burke, sister to the infamous Connacht rebel John Burke (qv) of Clanricard. This was despite his already being married to Ellen, daughter of Sir Tadhg MacCarthy, lord of Muskerry. These intrigues led to his arrest in March 1577. Sidney was shocked at John's apparent ingratitude and blamed him for organising the widespread opposition to the quartering of royal troops on Munster in early 1577. Nonetheless, John was free by the start of 1578 and the government never entirely ceased to court him. As late as summer 1579, he was negotiating with royal officials over a proposed government pension.
Initially, both John and Desmond appear to have viewed their submission to the crown in 1574 as a means of gaining time, and encouraged Fitz Maurice in his determination to raise an army in catholic Europe for an invasion of Ireland. However, with Fitz Maurice enjoying little success on the Continent, Desmond became more cooperative towards the crown and formally agreed in autumn 1578 to demilitarise his lordship. This appears to have caused the disintegration of the brothers’ always mercurial relationship by the start of 1579, and John was superseded by Countess Eleanor as Desmond's chief adviser.
In July 1579 Fitz Maurice landed at Dingle with a small force and John immediately went to meet him. To demonstrate his commitment to the rebellion, he killed two government officials at Tralee on 1 August. This act provoked widespread revulsion, particularly as one of the victims, Henry Davells, was widely believed to be a close friend of John's (although the extent of their friendship was probably exaggerated for sensationalist purposes). He declared that he committed the murders on his brother's orders. This is probably untrue; John was trying to push Desmond, who was disappointed at the smallness of Fitz Maurice's army, into rebelling also. Fitz Maurice's death in a skirmish on 18 August left John the undisputed leader of the rebellion. He consciously appropriated Fitz Maurice's mantle as a religious crusader and declared publicly that he rebelled solely due to his religious convictions. Unlike other rebel leaders, he shared the spoils of battle equally with his men in order to win their confidence. His embrace of radical catholicism was somewhat opportunistic, but his anti-Englishness was genuine.
With most of Desmond's followers joining him, he mustered about 3,000 men and in mid September won a significant victory over royal forces at Springfield, Co. Limerick. However, the English got their revenge in a hard-fought battle at Monasteranenagh, Co. Limerick, on 3 October. Thereafter, the rebels never met royal troops in open battle, but used guerilla tactics instead. On 2 November Desmond was proclaimed a traitor. Anxious to preserve the unity of the rebel cause, John acquiesced in his older brother's assumption of the leadership of the rebellion. In practice, Desmond was something of a figurehead and John largely carried the fight to the crown. Nicholas Sander (qv), a papal agent who had come to Ireland with Fitz Maurice, praised John for his resolve. At John's request, the pope recognised him as general of the catholic forces in Ireland in a papal bull of May 1580.
By summer 1580 the rebels had been badly mauled by punitive English expeditions into west Munster, and the expected help from Spain and the pope had failed to arrive. Desmond was desperate to come to terms with the government, but John declared in early August that he would not negotiate. The brothers appear to have quarrelled and separated for a time. John's determination was partly inspired by the Leinster-based uprising in July of James Eustace (qv), Viscount Baltinglass. In August John undertook a dangerous journey with twenty-five followers from Kerry in order to combine with the Leinster rebels. He fought at the rebel victory at Glenmalure in Wicklow on 25 August, after which he launched a series of devastating raids on Ormond's lands in Carlow and Kilkenny, on the English settlements in Leix and Offaly and on the Pale. This campaign forced Ormond, then commander of the royal army in Munster, to withdraw his troops from west Munster in order to defend his own territories.
In October John returned to Munster to assist the papal expedition that had landed at Dingle, but was unable to prevent the English from besieging and massacring these forces. The rebellion in Leinster quickly petered out and John's operations were restricted to Munster in 1581, where he continued to strike against walled settlements, loyalist Irish, and small parties of royal troops before vanishing into the wilderness. In May the queen granted a blanket pardon to the Munster rebels, but specifically exempted John, Desmond, and others from its terms. He had already had a number of narrow escapes but his luck ran out in the early days of January 1582 when he walked into an ambush intended for another rebel near Castlelyons, Co. Cork. Unarmed and with only three men with him, he was quickly mortally wounded. Before bleeding to death, he declared his sorrow that he could no longer wreak havoc against the queen's agents.
He had a son, Thomas, who was killed in the early days of the Desmond rebellion, and a daughter, Ellen.