Fitzgerald, Katherine (DNB00)

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FITZGERALD, KATHERINE (d. 1604), the 'old' Countess of Desmond, was daughter of Sir John Fitzgerald, lord of Decies, and became the second wife of Thomas Fitzgerald, twelfth earl of Desmond, some time after 1505. The first wife of the earl was Sheela, daughter of Cormac MacCarthy. To her (under the equivalent name of Gilis ny Cormyk), as 'wife to Sir Thomas of Desmond,' on 9 June 20 Henry VII, i.e. 1505, Gerald (son of Thomas) Fitzgerald, eighth earl of Kildare, granted a lease of lands for five years, a copy of which is preserved in the rental-book of the ninth earl, now in the possession of the Duke of Leinster. On its first discovery it was supposed by some to be dated 20 Henry VIII, i.e. 1528 ; but the earlier date is shown to be correct not only by a facsimile given in the 'Journal of the Kilkenny Archæological Society,' but also by the fact (unnoticed by those who have commented on the document) that the Earl of Kildare who granted it died in 1513. The Earl of Desmond who was the husband of Sheela and Katherine died in 1534, at the age of eighty. As he left a daughter by his second wife, it may safely be assumed that 1524 is the latest date at which his marriage to her could have taken place, while, as we have seen, 1506 is the earliest. The tradition, therefore, preserved by Sir Walter Raleigh, to which Horace Walpole gave its popular currency, that this second wife was married in the time of Edward IV, is at once disposed of; but it may very probably be true of her predecessor. In the same way the further tradition of her having danced with Richard III may be accounted for. Mr. Sainthill, in his 'Inquiry,' referred to at the end of this article, endeavoured to support these traditions by the theory that Thomas of Desmond might have divorced his first wife and married his second long before 1505, but this was a mere suggestion, opposed to such evidence as exists. That the 'old countess' was living in 1589, 'and many years since,' is asserted by Sir W. Raleigh in his 'History of the World' (bk. i. ch. 5, § 5) ; and he had good reason for knowing the truth of this, inasmuch as in that year and in the year preceding he granted leases of lands in Cork at a reduced rent pending the life of 'the ladie Cattelyn, old countess dowager of Desmond,' who had some life-interest in them. It appears from the terms of these leases that her life was not supposed to be likely to last more than five years from their date. That her death occurred in 1604 is stated in a manuscript of Sir George Carew's, preserved in Lambeth Library (No. 626). From these data it follows that, at the lowest computation, she can hardly have been less than 104 years old at the time of her decease ; and it has been thought by some that the traditional 140 may possibly have had its rise in an accidental transposition of these figures. It is in Fynes Morison's 'Itinerary,' published in 1617, that the number 140 is first given. He visited Youghal, near which the Castle of Inchiquin, in which the countess resided, is situated, in 1613, and states that 'in our time' she had lived to the age of 'about' 140 years, and was able in her last years to go on foot three or four miles weekly to the market town, and that only a few years before her death all her teeth were renewed. From him Bacon appears to have derived the notices which he gives in his 'Hist. Vitæ et Mortis' and his 'Sylva ;' and from Bacon and Raleigh, and a Desmond pedigree, Archbishop Ussher makes mention of the countess in his 'Chronologia Sacra,' where he says that 'meo tempore' she was both living and lively. A diary kept by the Earl of Leicester some thirty years later also records the stories which he had heard. One additional and original witness has, however, been recently found, not known to previous writers on the subject, whose evidence corroborates the general account. Sir John Harington, who was twice for some time in Ireland, for the first time soon after 1584, and for the second time in 1599, speaking in 1605 of the wholesomeness of the country, says: 'Where a man hath lived above 140 year, a woman, and she a countess, above 120, the country is like to be helthy.' Of the case of the man whom he mentions nothing is known, but his allusion to the case of the countess evidently implies that her story, as well as that of the former, was then a familiar one. On the whole, it may be concluded that the countess reached at least the age of 104, and that, until some further evidence, such as the date of her marriage, be forthcoming, it may further reasonably be conjectured that the addition of ten years would very probably be a nearer approximation to the truth. The stories of her death being caused by a fall from an apple, a walnut, or a cherry tree, may be dismissed as fictions ; while that of her journey to London to beg relief from Queen Elizabeth or James I has been shown by Mr. Sainthill to belong to the Countess Elinor, widow of Gerald, the fifteenth and attainted earl of Desmond. Nine or ten portraits of the old countess are said to be in existence ; but only two of these, respectively at Muckross Abbey and Dupplin Castle, with possibly a third at Chatsworth, are supposed to represent her, the others being pictures of other persons by Rembrandt and Gerard Douw.

[Article in the Quarterly Review for March 1853, pp. 329-54; Archd. A. B. Rowan's Olde Countesse of Desmonde, 1860; Richard Sainthill's Old Countess of Desmond, an Inquiry, 2 vols. (privately printed), 1861-3; article (by J. Gough Nichols) in the Dublin Review, 1862, li. 51-91 ; Journal of the Kilkenny Archæol. Soc., new ser. iv. Ill, 1864 ; W. J. Thoms's Longevity of Man, 1879 ; Sir J. Harington's Short View of the State of Ireland, 1879, p. 10 ; see also Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vii. 313, 365, 431, 3rd ser. i. 301, 377, 5th ser. xi. 192, 332.]

W. D. M.