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Katherine, The Old Countess of Desmond – A Formidable Lady

100 Years Old – Still Climbing Trees!

By Youghal Tourism Saturday AT 10:13PM

On International Woman’s Day 2020 we give a shout  out to a distinguished and legendary lady, Katherine, The Old Countess of Desmond.

Where do we start?…….

Katherine was born somewhere in or around 1504, give or take 10 years ….well, it’s rude to speak the truth of any  ladies age!.  In 1520, Katherine married an older gentleman, Thomas “The Bald” Fitzgerald, who was aged 76 at the time.  In 1529 Thomas “The Bald” Fitzgerald became the 11th Earl of Desmond.   He died in 1534.  Shortly before his death Thomas granted Katherine a life tenancy in their home, Inchiquin Castle, approximately 5 miles from Youghal Town.   It was, at that time, established that on Katherine’s death, the Castle together with all associated lands would automatically revert to the Earldom of Desmond.

However,  Ní mar a shíltear a bhítear” – The good woman  Katherine remained in positive rude health and survived many many further earls of Desmond.  She remained ensconced at Inchiquin Castle until her death under unusual circumstances in 1604 – a  lifespan of 100 years +.  Legend has it that the Old Countess of Desmond, in her lifetime, grew not one, not two but THREE sets of teeth.  Incidentally the title “The Old Countess” is not a derogatory title or one of ridicule of Katherine’s great age.  This was a term of endearment bestowed on Katherine by Sir Walter Raleigh during his tenure as Mayor of Youghal.  He was mesmerised by Katherine’s great health and great age, living in Inchiquin Castle, which essentially speaking belonged to him, since the Desmond Rebellion of 1579.

Katherine’s time at Inchiquin Castle was not always sweetness and light.  She became the subject of tangled property leases and the matter of her tenure was always a lively question.  Katherine, having surpassed all age exceptions was now living far too long for the comfort and patience of the new owner of the property.i.e. Sir Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork, he having purchased the property from Sir. Walter.  Boyle instigated eviction proceedings against Katherine.    Not one to be denied what she believed was hers, she set about protecting her interest..  Bear in mind now, at this stage Katherine is 100 years old, plus.  In 1604 she set out for the court of King James 1st . Having sailed to Bristol, Katherine’s reduced means dictated that she WALK to London, accompanied by her invalid daughter, trailing behind her in a small cart.  (The section of this story regarding the trip to Bristol and London is legend and unlikely to have happened, but never the less worthy of being told).  Her petition to King James 1st was however received.

Alas, 1604, was not a good year for The Old Countess of Desmond – perhaps all the stresses of her tenure in the castle and her petition to to King James rattled her ( Yes, stress existed even back then)  and indeed, she was 100 years old and becoming less agile.  In any case, Katherine died as result of an unusual personal accident.    The Old Countess  had climbed her Cherry Tree to gather some fruit – she fell.   She suffered a thigh injury, developed a fever and subsequently died “of a fever”.  She was 100 years old plus some.  This is a warning to all other centenarians – go for the shop bought variety of cherry pie – much safer!   You will, however, agree that Katherine was an extraordinary and formidable lady.

She is buried in South Abbey Youghal, near the grave of her husband who predeceased her by 70 years.
Good on you Katherine, we raise our glasses to your memory!