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“And would like us much better as old-as, as old
As that Countess of DESMOND, of whom I’ve been told
That she lived to much more than a hundred and ten,
And was killed by a fall from a cherry-tree then!
What a frisky old girl!”

Sir Thomas Moore (1818).

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Katherine, Countess of Desmond, the Dromana Po...

Katherine, Countess of Desmond, the Dromana Portrait (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The portrait on the right is of the Old Countess of Desmond, who lived to the age of 120 years. Or 135. Or 140. Or maybe 162.

The Countess survived through the Tudor period and, although the record is unclear on the years of both her birth and death, she became famous for her longevity. And for that fatal fall from a cherry tree.

Her name was Katherine (Kathrin) FitzGerald, of the Irish house of Desmond, which was established by the 12th century Cambro-Norman conquerors of that country. Over the generations her people fatally entwined themselves with the Gaelic nobility, especially in the province of Munster, and were driven close to destruction during the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland in the 16th century.

Why does the Countess matter? For one, she may have lived in the reigns of ten successive English monarchs (1464 through 1603) – Yorkist, Tudor and Stuart. But more importantly her tale is an entertaining example of historical “slippage”, as the new order naturally developed a nostalgia for the old order – it’s tricky, so please bear with me.

We start with John Harington, who wrote the following in A short view of the state of Ireland (1605), pp.9-10:

As for the wholsomnes of the Cowntry, many impute that to the earth and ayr that springs indeed of theyr own surfet and disorder; but whear a man hath lyvd above 140 yeer, a woman, and she a cowntes, above 120, the Cowntry ys lyke to he helthy, and for myselfe having been thear both in spring, sommer, awtumne, and winter, I thanke God I was never sycke 24 howrs.

The “cowntes” is surely the lady we’re looking for. But note the age of 120 years alongside that of the 140 years attributed to a man who has been lost to the record forever. The slippage begins.

Next: Walter Raleigh, who served as a young captain in Ireland during the second Desmond rebellion (1579-83). Upon the seizure by the Crown of the Desmond lands he reaped a great reward and was appointed Mayor of Youghal. In particular, he became owner of the estate in which the Countess had a life tenancy, which meant he had to wait for her death before he could freely dispose of the property.

This is what he had to say of her in his survey of historical accounts of human longevity – from The History of the World (1613-17) vol.I p.151:

I myself knew the old countess of Desmond, of Inchiquin in Munster, who lived in the year, 1589, and many years since, who was married in Edward the Fourth’s time, and held her jointure from all the earls of Desmond since then; and that this is true, all the noblemen and gentlemen of Munster can witness.

Note that Raleigh didn’t state the age of the Countess, but referred back to Edward IV, who died in 1483: assuming a betrothal age of 12 years, the inference is that she was born no later than 1471. Therefore Raleigh claimed he knew her when she was aged 118 years. And she still had at least 15 years to go. Stranger things have happened, but not many.

The longevity of the late Countess was a matter for celebration by other Jacobean writers, and they did not stint in their estimates of her age:

Fynes Morrison, in his Itinerary (1613) vol.III, p.436:

In our time the Irish Countesse of Desmond, lived to the age of about 140 yeeres, being able to goe on foote foure or five miles to the Market Towne, and using weekly so to doe in her last yeeres, and not many yeeres before shee died, shee had all her teeth renewed.

Moryson was a fine travel writer and served as secretary to the Earl of Mountjoy in 1600-03, during the crown’s successful campaign in the Nine Years War in Ireland. Much of that time was spent in Munster, so he’s as credible a source as Raleigh.

Francis Bacon, in his history of life and death from the Instauratio Magna (1623) p.497, n.14:

The Irish, especially the wild Irish, even at this day live very long; certainly they report, that within these few years, the Countess of Desmond lived to a hundred and forty years of age, and bred teeth three times. Now the Irish have a fashion to chafe, and, as it were, so baste themselves with old salt butter against the fire.

Bacon again, in his Natural History (1627) p.169:

They tell a tale of the old Countess of Desmond, who lived till she was seven score years old, that she did dentire twice or thrice: casting her old teeth, and others coming in their place.

Archbishop Ussher (famed for his chronology of the age of the world) also stated the countess’ age as 140 years on her death, although he clearly cites Raleigh and Bacon as his sources.

What a great story. But with such thin sources one might conclude that the followers of the first published accounts rushed to their studies and … secretly committed the fallacy of ipse dixit.

Lastly we have Robert Sydney, 2nd Earl of Leicester – his table-book of 1640, while confirming the age of 140 years, added some remarkable details (secondary source, p.54):

She had a new sett of teeth not long afore her death, and might have lived much longer had she not mett with a kinde of violent death; for she would needes climbe a nut tree, to gather nutts; so falling down she hurt her thigh, which brought a fever, and that fever brought death. This my cousin Walter FitzWilliam told me.

“This old lady, Mr Harriot told me, came to petition the Queen; and, landing at Bristoll, she came on foot to London, being then so old that her daughter was decrepit, and not able to come with her, but was brought in a little cart, theyr poverty not allowing meanes for better provision; and as I remember, Sir Walter Rawleigh in some part of his story speakes of her, and sayeth that he saw her in England in anno 1589.

More events, therefore more evidence? Not really: just gossip, years after the fact, perhaps with some rueful affection for the vanquished: By Jove, those Irish were a hardy breed … And note the misconstruction of Raleigh’s text – it does not say he saw her in England. Serious slippage.

An interesting aside on Sidney’s account is that the purpose of the Countess’ supposed journey to the queen’s court in England was to petition against her eviction by Richard Boyle, the hugely wealthy land speculator who bought up Raleigh’s estates in Ireland. It seems the Countess died soon after, in the succeeding reign, but at least she’d survived Raleigh’s claim.

Date of death? Probably 1604, although there is confusion over this date in the pedigree compiled by George Carew (secondary source, p.77 – see footnote). Adding to the confusion is an inscription on one of the many supposed portraits of the Countess, in which the year of death is stated as 1614 – a “slippage” of the pen? Nobody knows.

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Irish history likes to play this trick – a charming story that ends in perplexity, with no clear impression of the truth. But this applies more widely.

The legend of Kathrin FitzGerald was picked apart in the Dublin Review 150 years ago. While that article will drag you into the suffocating caverns of Irish family relations, it does infuse some fresh air by ridiculing the influence of nostalgia.

The best part is the criticism of Romantic history, aimed at Horace Walpole, who simply made things up – and this refers us back to the cherry tree in the rhyme at the start of this post: Walpole confused it with the original nut tree of the Countess’ legend, and Moore accepted the confused reference as authority. The most extreme estimate of the Countess’ age  (162 years) has a similar derivation.

A small point, but indicative of how garbled history can become. It’s worth repeating, and I just added links to the original sources.

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For the tourist in you, here’s a wonderful bicycle ramble through the hinterland of the Countess’ life – an exercise in benevolent scepticism from a local historian, with some extra legends mixed in (and some erotic butter).

Really beautiful country, especially the Blackwater Valley around Raleigh’s castle at Lismore. I recommend.

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Nathaniel Grogan's 1806 engraving of Lord Kerr...

Nathaniel Grogan’s 1806 engraving of Lord Kerry’s portrait of Katherine, Countess of Desmond (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally – an 1806 engraving of an earlier portrait of the Countess – more Romantic embellishment …? In all, there are seven portraits of her … give or take.

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