Maurice Fitz Thomas the first Earl of Desmond is one of my favourite characters in medieval Irish history. His life was a litany of violence, mayhem, murder and rebellion. You can hear the full story of Maurice’s life and deeds in my exclusive new podcast. However in this post I look a some locations associated with this infamous warlord.
Born in 1293, Maurice Fitz Thomas came to prominence in the 1320s when he took Ireland by storm (quite literally). His first major foray into politics was in the form of a feud with Arnold Le Poer, the Seneschal of Kilkenny. This resulted in Maurice rampaging through Co. Kilkenny with his private army in 1327. Before he was done he had tracked down and executed 13 of Arnold’s relations and burned the town of Kells. While much of the conflict between Maurice and Arnold le Poer focused on Kilkenny and Tipperary, traces can be found in Dublin’s streets as well.
The feud came to an end when Arnold died, however his passing had an unusual and grisly twist. In 1324 Arnold had crossed the bishop of Ossory Richard Ledrede when he attempted to prosecute an associate of Arnold’s for witchcraft. Le Poer had defended the accused, the Kilkenny merchant and banker Alice Kyteler, to the point of imprisoning the bishop.
This created lasting resentment and four years later in 1328 the bishop, (some have suggested at Maurice’s beckoning) brought charges of heresy against Arnold. He was imprisoned in Dublin castle where he died in 1329. However as a heretic a prolonged dispute ensued as to whether Arnold could be buried in consecrated ground. Meanwhile his body lay unburied and decomposing in the Dominican priory in Dublin which stood on the site of the Four Courts complex.
Inside what remains of the medieval walls of Dublin there are a few buildings that survive which Maurice knew well and are among the best attractions to visit on Culture Night.
The first is Dublin castle. In 1331 Maurice’s lawless ways landed him in the Castle where he was held prisoner for two years. While he ultimately survived his incarceration he came dangerously close to execution during a turbluent period in the fortress’s history in July 1332.
Through 1332 rumours of a treasonous plot aimed to make Maurice king of Ireland were circulating. These accusations resulted in Maurice’s fellow prisoner the Lord of Carbury, William de Birmingham being hanged in Dublin in July. De Bermingham had tried to make a mysterious escape using what were described as ‘devices made by magic’. Tensions in the castle were heightened further when another supposed plotter Walter Burke was starved to death in the remote Northburgh castle in Donegal.
While very little of the castle where Maurice was incarcerated remains are visible above ground, on Culture Night you can access parts of the long buried by modern buildings. Known as the medieval undercroft, this is normally only accessible on fee paying tours but is free on Culture Night. It reveals a large portion of the medieval walls and gives you a good sense of what the castle would have looked like in the 14th century. This is one of the best medieval attractions in Dublin.
Release from prison
In May 1333 Maurice managed to avoid the grisly fate of his fellow captives and successfully secured his released. However this lead to an unusual chapter in the nearby Priory of the Holy Trinity (or Christchurch as we know it today). Before the royal authorities allowed Maurice walk free he was brought here to pledge his loyalty to the crown in the Cathedral.
In this building above he was made to swear on oath to keep the peace. Almost every major noble in Ireland was present to act as surety for his good behavior. Christchurch, one of Dublin’s oldest structures is open to the public for free on culture night.
While this ceremony brought a close to one chapter in the life of this incredible figure from Irish history he would continue to be a major player in Ireland until his death in 1356. In the following years he launched a rebellion and was declared an outlaw before rising to great heights again.