Joan Desmond, Ormond, and Ossory: The world of a countess in sixteenth-century Ireland

Karen Ann Holland, Providence College


Until very recently, women and their role in the economy and politics of the time have rarely been acknowledged by historians of early modern Ireland. However, the documented activities of noblewomen during the period of Tudor reform do merit a close examination. One woman whose life and world deserves such consideration is Joan Fitzgerald, countess of Ormond and Desmond (c. 1514-1565).^ Joan's significance and influence stemmed in part from the fact that she was the daughter of the 11th earl of Desmond and the wife of three powerful men, James Butler, 9th earl of Ormond, Sir Francis Bryan, Lord Justice of Ireland and Gerald Fitzgerald, 15th earl of Desmond.^ Following the death of her first husband, Joan begins to appear in the manuscript sources with increasing frequency. As a young widow, free for the first time from male authority, Joan could legally act independently, re-establishing control of her dowry lands and appealing to influential individuals at court to protect her children's inheritance. Though Joan recognized the limitations placed upon a married woman in the sixteenth century, she still appears to have preferred marriage to widowhood. However, during her second marriage, Joan does not again become an anonymous individual. Rather, her activities provoked "fear" among "Englishmen" and caused "Irishmen" to appeal to her for aid. Her third marriage necessitated a new role for Joan, that of peacemaker between her husband and eldest son, Thomas Butler. Near contemporaries in age, they represented the next generation in the centuries-old Desmond/Ormond feud over territory and the prisage of wines. Even Queen Elizabeth recognized Joan's skill and called upon her to maintain "the quiet" in Munster while Gerald was sequestered in England.^ Joan Fitzgerald's life illustrates that a noblewoman could play an important role in the economic and political affairs of sixteenth century Ireland. Joan was involved in both the private world of her family and the public realm of the Irish government and English court. Her activities, particularly those of her later life, help to further dispel the oft-held notion that women were powerless individuals in the early modern period. Joan's experiences demonstrate that the amount of authority a woman possessed could change considerably over time, reflecting her own changing circumstances. Even though Joan gained her power through an unusual combination of events, as a landholder, household manager and parent she influenced the lives of her tenants, retainers and children. More importantly, as a countess and royal subject, she participated significantly in the world of politics and the court. ^

Subject Area

Biography|History, European|Women's Studies

Recommended Citation

Holland, Karen Ann, "Joan Desmond, Ormond, and Ossory: The world of a countess in sixteenth-century Ireland" (1996). ETD Collection for Providence College. AAI9839486.