Katherine FitzGerald, Countess of Desmond
(died 1604) was a noblewoman of the Anglo-Norman FitzGerald
dynasty in Ireland and was referred to as "the old Countess of Desmond", owing to her longevity. She lived during the Tudor period
(from the late 15th to the early 17th centuries), and achieved fame through certain well-known English writers (including Sir Walter Raleigh
), who variously estimated her age at death at 140 years, and in excess of 120 years.
Katherine FitzGerald was the daughter of Sir John FitzGerald, second Lord of Decies in Waterford, and Ellen Fitzgibbon, daughter of the White Knight
. She was probably born at Dromana
, in Co. Waterford. In 1529, she married, as his second wife, Thomas FitzGerald, 12th Earl of Desmond
(1454-1534), "her cousin german once removed".
In later life, Lady Desmond became involved in a property dispute that sums up the state of Ireland at the end of the Tudor period (1485-1603). She had been granted by her husband a life tenancy of Inchiquin Castle (a few miles south-west of the town of Youghal in Munster), with the remainder to pass to the line of the Earls of Desmond upon her death. By deed of 1575 she passed title to the castle and lands in trust to the incumbent earl, Gerald FitzGerald, who then passed it in trust to his servants.
Following the earl's attainder in 1582, whereby his estate fell to the Crown after the Desmond Rebellions, Inchiquin Castle and its lands were granted to the New English colonist, Sir Walter Raleigh. In 1588-89, he granted certain leases of the lands, while reserving the life interest of Lady Desmond, on the assumption that she would soon pass away of old age.
The countess survived beyond Raleigh's expectation, only to become subject to eviction proceedings brought by Sir Richard Boyle (later 1st Earl of Cork), who had purchased Raleigh's colonial possessions in Ireland, including the title to the castle. In an effort to protect her interests, the impoverished lady set out from Cork in 1604 in the company of her invalid 90 year-old daughter. After sailing to Bristol, she walked the road to London with her daughter travelling behind in a little cart. At London her petition was presented to King James I and, in the same year, she returned to Inchiquin and died.
Lady Desmond was reported to have been capable, just before her death, of walking every week to her local market town, a distance of 4-5 miles, and it was said that all her teeth had been renewed a few years earlier. Her death was caused when she fell from a tree while picking cherries. Historians of the time disagreed as to the type of tree: Robert Sidney stated it was a nut tree, and that she fell, hurt her thigh, contracted fever and died. She is believed to have been buried with her husband in the Franciscan Friary in Youghal
There are two confirmed portraits of Lady Desmond, with a possible third.
Raleigh, in his History of the World
, maintained that Lady Desmond married in the time of King Edward IV
(1461 - 1483), making her at least 135 years old at the time of her death. She was said to have danced with King Richard III
, and the tradition that she died aged 140 years was stated in Fynes Morison
and Sir Francis Bacon
's History of Life
, writing in 1605, referred to a man who lived above 140 years, and to a woman, "and she a countess
", above 120, which would fit with Katherine FitzGerald if she married in her early twenties.
- Anne Chambers As Wicked a Woman (Dublin, 1986), pp.232-235. ISBN 0-86327-190-1.
- The Venerable Archdeacon A. B. Rowan, The Olde Countess of Desmond: her Identitie; her Portraiture; her Descente in The Dublin Review, vol. LI , p. 51.
- A.B.R., 'The Old Countess of Desmond' in Notes and Queries1851, p. 305
- Henry Pelham, 'The Old Countess of Desmond', in Notes and Queries, 1852, pp. 305-306
- A.E., Bray, 'The Old Countess of Desmond' in Notes and Queries, 1852, pp.564-565